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Brand, brain trust ready for first 365 days at City Hall

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Fresno’s new mayor and his “Brain Trust” are only a few days away from taking office at City Hall.

My suggestion for their final hours of free time: Study the political lessons of SC2. They’ll come in handy throughout your tour of duty.

The new mayor, of course, is Lee Brand. He’ll leave his job as District 6 council member and take the oath of office as Ashley Swearengin’s successor at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3 in the City Clerk’s Office.

I met with Brand and Mark Standriff, the city’s communications director, at City Hall shortly before Christmas. My goal: Get a sense of how the new mayor’s personal staff will function from Day One.

Brand had already publicly announced most of his picks. Tim Orman, Brand’s campaign manager throughout the mayoral race, is chief of staff. Ginger Barrett, Brand’s chief staff during the City Council years, is deputy chief of staff.

H. Spees, who finished third in June’s mayoral primary to Henry R. Perea and Brand, is director of strategic initiatives. John Ellis, my old buddy from The Fresno Bee newsroom, is governmental affairs manager.

Standriff continues as communications director. Larry Westerlund, a former two-term council member, stays as economic development director. City Manager Bruce Rudd plans to stick around for another six months, giving Brand time to find a replacement.

“Brain Trust,” of course, is a tried-and-true political term dating from the 1932 presidential campaign to describe a powerful and brilliant group of policy advisers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust made quite a name for itself during FDR’s famous “first one hundred days” in office. It’s a rare government chief executive ever since then who didn’t have (at least in the eyes of reporters) a similar team of eggheads.

So, I asked Brand, how is your brain trust going to work?

Brand began his answer by reeling off the names of the top four officials on his campaign team: Orman, Mark Scozzari, Terra Brusseau, and Alex Tavlian (publisher of CVObserver).

“That’s the best campaign team ever assembled in the city of Fresno for a local race,” Brand said. “It was a textbook campaign. We had to do everything right to win that election. There was all that teamwork – the right hand knew what the left hand was doing. And Tim was perfect. So far (in the transition), Tim has shown that same laser-type focus – totally committed, totally organized. He was a super consultant. He’ll be a super chief of staff. I’m real pleased so far.”

The full range of Orman’s duties is still to be defined, Brand said.

“The chief of staff essentially helps me implement my initiatives and my vision for Fresno,” Brand said. “Tim and I are a great team. He knows me. He knows what my vision is. It’s now a matter of learning how to do that. There’s been a steep learning curve in the last two or three weeks.”

Brand represented District 6 for eight years. That experience has come in handy during the transition.

“I know all the players” at City Hall, Brand said. “I know how the process works. I’ve been through eight budgets. We had a meeting here last week, and Tim was concerned about being ready on Jan. 3. I said, ‘Tim, we’re way ahead of the game.’ We’re a very good team.”

One of Spees’ duties is working with the Public Policy Initiative at Fresno Pacific University. Brand calls it his “think tank” – an array of policy experts who will hammer out position papers and policy options for challenges such as public safety, economic development, housing and education.

“H. is perfect in that role,” Brand said. “And he connects to a section of the community (in essence the southern half of the city) that I otherwise would not be as well connected to.”

Brand said Spees was part of his inner circle during the general election campaign.

“He’s one of the reasons I won in November,” Brand said. “We developed a close working relationship, with common values and common goals. That will carry through in this administration. He’ll be the leading edge on all of the major policies.”

Ellis, The Bee’s political reporter/columnist for nearly 20 years, will be Brand’s connection to events in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Brand also sees Ellis playing an important ambassadorial role to local government powers such as the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and Fresno Unified School District.

Don’t judge his administration by what’s done in the first one hundred days, Brand said.

“I’m not going to do this hundred-day deal, because there are so many things I’m doing,” Brand said. “I’m going to call it the 365-day deal. I don’t throw something out there and hope it works. If I bring something forward, it’s well thought out. It has to be something timely and implemented in a timely fashion. And I’m a collaborator. When I start at Point A and go to Point B, I engage all of the stakeholders along the way. For the most part, I’ve been successful.”

Who does the lobbying with the City Council? Depends on the issue, Brand said.

That’s a tactful way of saying Rudd, Orman, Spees, Ellis, Standriff, Westerlund and the mayor himself will be spending many hours courting the legislative branch.

When the executive branch gets behind closed doors, Brand said, “I want people on my staff to speak frankly. I want a free flow of information. But we all work as a team. If there are mistakes, we accept the blame as a team. When there are successes, we accept the credit as a team.”

If there’s a No. 1 rule on the executive side, it’s probably this: Don’t blindside Orman.

“Tim is the gate keeper; he has to be in the center,” Brand said. “He makes sure everything is channeled in the right direction. He makes sure I can function as I need to as mayor. That’s why we have to have the chief of staff knowing at all times what’s going on.”

There’s a lot happening elsewhere. Brand said he plans to keep his transition advisory team – a group of about 15 community leaders – intact after he enters office. Policy ideas/proposals will be vetted at regularly-scheduled meetings, Brand said.

My thought: I hope the state Open Meeting law applies.

Don’t expect much leisure time if you work for Mayor Brand.

“This isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job,” Brand said. “This is a 50-hour-a-week job, sometimes probably a 60-hour-a-week job. And you’ll be in the public spotlight when you work at City Hall. When we hire someone, we tell them, ‘Come in with both eyes open.’”

As to changes throughout the city’s operational departments, Brand said: “I have confidence in our city manager, I have confidence in our chief of police, I have confidence in our fire chief.” He declined to go into greater detail.

At this point in our interview, I went out on limb and suggested that the nature of Brand’s staff sends the message that the never-ending political campaign, long a feature at the national level, has finally come to Fresno. Orman, Spees, Ellis and Standriff all have extensive political resumes of one kind or another. In essence, I said to Brand, after he takes the oath of office on Jan. 3 the good citizens of Fresno can assume Campaign 2020 has begun.

“Everything we do here is what? It’s all political,” Brand said. “For me to be successful, I’ve got to be a good politician.”

What does that mean on a practical level? I give you two examples.

The first occurred on Dec. 15 at the City Council meeting. One of the issues involved a proposed project labor agreement (PLA). There were a lot of moving pieces, but things boiled down to this: City Hall could get $70 million in state cap-and-trade money if it renounced its long allegiance to open competition on the labor market and, instead, agreed to a deal that all but guaranteed union contracts for certain revitalization projects near the site of the proposed high-speed rail station in Downtown.

The deal came from Sacramento. It came with a gun pointed to the head of Fresno.

“I’m a free market guy. I don’t think I’m shocking anybody with where I’m going here,” Council Member Steve Brandau said. “I think project labor agreements discourage or eliminate competition in the free market for work. Sometimes – not all the time but sometimes – archaic and inefficient union rules and regulations increase project costs. In effect the taxpayer gets less bang for the buck.”

But $70 million is a lot of money for a single grant, especially when it could come to a city that seems to always get overlooked by the big spenders in Sacramento. That $70 million, in turn, could produce two or three times that amount of private investment in Downtown projects (whose construction contracts might not have restrictive labor clauses).

The mayor-elect spoke after Brandau. He’s a free market guy, too. But the mantle of leadership (come Jan. 3) made him see the things differently.

“I believe future developments will come out of this that will have a lot of opportunities,” Brand said. “If we reject this PLA today, it would eliminate, I believe, millions of dollars out there for developers and contractors for future jobs. I understand the philosophy of my colleagues and I understand the arguments. But I’m always going to take a look at the big picture and do what I believe is best for the city of Fresno. I will support this PLA today.”

The project labor agreement was approved 5-2, with Council Member Clint Olivier and Brandau voting no.

Sometimes in politics it’s best to stand up for principle, regardless of the cost to others. Sometimes it’s just grandstanding that hurts a majority of a politician’s constituents.

I think we’re seeing an example of the latter in the final days of the Swearengin Era.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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