Update on Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Funding

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Danielle Bergstrom (left) and Steve Cancian (right) address the crowd at Westside Church of God. Photo by Peter Maiden.

By Hannah Brandt

Many questions and concerns emerged on July 20 from the first public steering committee meeting of the Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative (FTCCC) at the Californian. In fact, by the end of it there was little understanding of exactly what the meeting had been convened to do, of whom the steering committee was made up or whether there definitely would be any money coming to Fresno at all. This might be because it was hard to hear the presenters, the screen did not work for the PowerPoint presentation and everyone in the room was distracted by the lack of seats and air conditioning.

At the much more comfortable Westside Church of God on Aug. 2, there seemed to be (a bit) more clarity after this second steering committee meeting. It was better organized and the information was much better communicated. Although why these public meetings have taken place only in the last few weeks when the deadline for proposals for funding projects is only a month away is curious. We did learn that the only areas of the city of Fresno that are eligible for this money are southwest Fresno, southeast/downtown Fresno and Chinatown.

According to Danielle Bergstrom, policy director of the Central Valley Foundation, Mayor Lee Brand “invited the public to shape the process” and “to build trust.” She did not say when he made that decision. According to Bergstrom, in the past these decision-making processes always have happened behind closed doors. The question many continue to ask, however, is how much power do the people really have in this process? When it comes time to submit the proposal to Sacramento, is it possible for the City Council and the mayor to override the votes of the people at these public meetings? The short answer we got was yes.

Mayor Brand gave a short statement to the public before leaving the meeting. It was initially unclear why of the several community groups involved in the FTCCC, the Central Valley Foundation—a recently formed nonprofit organization of which former Mayor Ashley Swearingen is CEO—has so far led all the meetings in conjunction with consultant Steve Cancian and representatives from the Strategic Growth Council (SGC), the state’s body that ultimately will allocate the funds.

Upon researching Bergstrom, one will learn that in addition to being policy director of the Central Valley Foundation she is special policy advisor for the City of Fresno. As “Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative is staffed by the City of Fresno as an effort to develop the City’s proposal to the Strategic Growth Council for the $70 million in available implementation funds,” that explains her role as facilitator. It was said that the TCCC was created by Governor Jerry Brown through cap and trade, but it began as AB 2722 in February 2016. It went through the legislative process and was signed into law in September 2016.

No one from Building Healthy Communities or the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability are City of Fresno staff. At least so far at these meetings, the Central Valley Foundation has had more influence than other community organizations. All communications about the process have come from Bergstrom. Although Swearingen never addressed the public, she gave Bergstrom information a few times from her seat in the audience at Westside Church.

Given that the decision is ultimately the City of Fresno’s, this is technically allowed. If the aim is to convince the public that the people of Fresno and not the mayor, the City Council or the former mayor are the decision makers, however, this does not help. On the other hand, the FTCCC has some strict limitations. The official submitter will be the City of Fresno because it must be a public entity. The reasons for this are 1) whoever gets the money will get it on a reimbursement basis, 2) the funding amount has to be matched and 3) the entity that submits the project to the state has to have the capacity to do large-scale projects.

H. Spees was selected by Brand to be the point person for the FTCCC. Spees’ response to a question about whether the public’s vote on the proposals could be overridden caused a negative reaction. He said that “the mayor is the man in charge. So, yes, he can.” You may remember Spees as a 2016 mayoral candidate and a developer. He is now director of housing initiatives for the city, putting him at the heart of the FTCCC. He acknowledged that there has been disinvestment in southwest Fresno. “The West side has been neglected and redlined. We know we won’t earn trust easily but we know it isn’t given. Trust is earned.”

“In the 1960s, a sociologist named John McKnight coined the term redlining to describe the discriminatory practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics.” (Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities by William Norton)

In areas such as West Fresno, there is a history that continues today where developers choose not to build the basic infrastructure needed in communities, like grocery stores and housing developments, as well as avoidance by financial institutions and healthcare services. Even city services such as garbage removal and street paving have been neglected. In addition, public works projects have contributed to redlining. When Highway 99 was built in the 1960s, it completely cut off west Fresno from the rest of the city and destroyed the business district there. This is a pattern that happened to African-American communities in cities all over the country.

Bergstrom said that Council Member Oliver Baines, whose district includes west Fresno, created the FTCCC steering committee and the committee decided to make the process open to the public at the mayor’s suggestion. Steve Cancian has worked all over the state on similar projects and was chosen for the FTCCC because of his work on the Fulton Corridor Plan and the Southwest Specific Plan. Interestingly, before becoming a California landscape architect and city designer, he was a community organizer for 13 years, including as New Hampshire campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s run for president in 1988.

To have a vote on the proposals community members must attend two-thirds of the steering committee meetings, which started in late July and end in late-September. The community recommendations will be taken to the mayor who will approve or disapprove them. Then he will take the community recommendations to the City Council, which will vote to approve or disapprove of this proposal package for Fresno to submit to the Strategic Growth Council in Sacramento. Proposals must be submitted to the steering committee by Sept. 12, the steering committee will review them on Sept. 27 and the city will submit the proposal package to Sacramento by Oct. 18.

An audience member asked who wrote the voting criteria and “why is it not just one person, one vote” from the members of the community that is eligible for the money. The response was that the process was picked up from the Southwest Specific Plan Steering Committee. They felt that people needed to demonstrate investment in the process instead of a large number of people showing up at the last meeting to vote.

Another person asked if the ultimate decision is the mayor’s and if his idea is different from that of the steering committee (the community) is there a process to address that? Spees answered, “It would be foolish for him to not take the recommendations of the community since he has brought the community into this process.” A follow-up question asked whether Brand has “any projects in his back pockets” that he wants to see achieved through this funding. Spees said he does not.

Concerns were expressed about the fact that the meeting dates and locations, as well as the map of the eligible area, keep changing. The zip codes eligible for the money were listed as 93706, 93701 and 93721. The issue there is that these zip codes have blurred in terms of whether they are considered southeast/downtown, southwest or Chinatown. This is especially true because it has been revealed that recent rezoning has modified parts of southwest Fresno (including Edison High School) to be recategorized as downtown Fresno.

Reported by Channel 30 Action News on Aug. 25, the City Council voted on Aug. 24 to approve development on a tract near Gaston Middle School of what Blue Ocean Development President Sylvesta Hall called a “low-density housing residential approach with the focus on single family homes with mixed income multifamily housing. We’d like to end our development with 323,000 square feet of retail development and bring in quality grocers and healthcare, if you will.” Six hundred housing units are planned. This effort was spearheaded by Swearingen and the Central Valley Foundation in the hopes of creating an area to build a community college in the area. Baines also praised the plan.

The essential question is this: Is this development planned on the same area that is eligible for the FTCCC? If so, this proposal was not voted on by the steering committee (the public) before the City Council approved it.

Back at the Aug. 2 steering committee meeting, Spees was asked “what guarantee do you have that southwest Fresno will not be left out?” He replied, “With setting up a very public meeting, woe is us if we don’t.”

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Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @ fresnoalliance.