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Beyond BRT, Brandau finding recipe to cook lame duck

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Fresno City Council Member Steve Brandau of late sure has been a thorn in the side of the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

There seems to be no unifying theme to his contrariness. Unless you recall Brandau’s interest in dirt – I mean farmland.

First things first. Congratulations are in order for Brandau, who won a second term as the representative in Northwest Fresno’s District 2. He ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary election.

Congratulations as well to Council President Paul Caprioglio on earning another four-year hitch as representative for East-Central Fresno’s District 4. “Cap” also was blessed with no opponent other than “write-in.”

And congratulations to District 5’s Sal Quintero. Now that he’s won a seat on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, Quintero will be leaving City Hall at the end of 2016. What’s it been, Sal – some 30 years at City Hall in various capacities? Well done.

Now, no one ever accused Brandau of being a shrinking violet. For example, he really hates Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

That means the month of June got off to a bad start for Brandau. It was on June 1 that Swearengin decided to officially launch the construction of the $54 million, 15.7-mile BRT system.

“This project has been a long time in the making, dating back to 2006 when the city first pursued grants to fund the project,” Swearengin said at the late-morning ceremony in the parking lot of Manchester Center. “Improving public transit in our community has been a high priority during my Administration. When completed, the Bus Rapid Transit system will not only provide greater service reliability and increased customer convenience, it will also help promote revitalization and development opportunities throughout Fresno.”

Swearengin put on quite a show. Congressman Jim Costa, a couple of federal transportation officials and top city officials (including Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fire Chief Kerri Donis) were there.

So, too, was City Manager Bruce Rudd, a 40-year veteran of City Hall wars who recalled that talk of something like BRT – i.e. systematic improvement of bus service along major transit corridors – began decades ago.

“While our Bus Rapid Transit system will offer a fast and reliable service along the busiest transit corridors in Fresno, BRT is not just about transit service,” Rudd said. “We’ve also changed the land use regulations along the BRT routes so property owners have a lot more flexibility on how they can develop their property. By combining land use and transportation plans, we’ve got the right tools in place to spur infill development and revitalization.”

Brandau wasn’t there in body. But his anti-BRT spirit was certainly a factor in how things proceeded. The Mayor came up to me before the speeches to ask when I’d first heard of something like BRT coming to Fresno. I said I remember hearing chatter about speedier bus service back in the mid-1990s when I was a business reporter at The Bee. That was when I’d written a couple of stories about a local cookie baron who wanted to build an elevated train system along Blackstone and Shaw avenues. The guy’s big concern (besides finding a billion dollars) was that city officials were leaning more toward better bus service.

The Mayor on June 1 said she was asking about BRT history because Brandau that very morning had gone on a local radio station to claim that BRT, rather than being an idea spanning several administrations, was actually a vanity project to build the historical legacy of one Ashley Swearengin.

It was so hot I thought: Who gives a hoot about what Brandau is saying on the radio? Let’s finish this shindig.

But, like I said, the man has a knack for getting under the Mayor’s skin.

Then came the June 2 City Council meeting. Brandau had an item on the agenda: “Request update on Transit Plan.”

The plan in question is the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area Public Transportation Strategic Service Evaluation Project: Final Transportation Implementation Plan.

The plan (dated June 4, 2015) was done by a Sacramento-based consulting firm for Caltrans and the Fresno Council of Governments. The cost – $350,000 – was covered by a Caltrans grant.

Have you heard much about this year-old report? Neither have I.

“Why have we disowned this report?” Brandau asked the administration and his fellow council members.

As stated in the executive summary, the report focuses on “reducing transit travel times, improving linkages to major trip generators, and improving overall productivity, cost effectiveness and sustainability of transit.”

In other words, the report seeks the same perfection that every other Fresno Area Express-type strategic plan has pursued over the decades.

Brandau’s primary beef on June 2: City officials are full of lofty talk about BRT, but the fact that this report about the rest of the old, creaky FAX system sits on a shelf collecting dust is a strong indication that City Hall really isn’t serious about improving the overall mass transit system.

“It sure seems to me that FAX is languishing right now,” Brandau said.

The debate took a familiar course: Denials that the report is being ignored; hand-wringing over past land-use decisions, assurances that a council transit subcommittee is on the verge of policy breakthroughs; renewed commitments to the good residents of Fresno who use FAX.

SIDE NOTE: This council debate ran through my mind on Monday (June 6) as I made a couple of FAX trips. First, I caught southbound Bus 26 on Palm Avenue, two blocks south of Dakota Avenue. I was headed to City Hall. I got to the bus stop at 2:46 p.m. A middle-aged man was there. He said the bus should be coming soon because he’d already been there for 10 minutes.

The bus arrived at 3:23. That was one late bus! Then I boarded. The bus was packed. A lot of the riders were youngsters. Aha – school had gotten out. The bus continued south on Palm. We stopped at just about every stop. Kids got off, more kids got on. Somebody in a wheelchair got off. That took time. An older man with a walker got off. The wheels on the walker caught on something. That took time. A woman with a walker got on. That took time. A homeless man carrying his belongings got on. That took time. Two stops later, he got off. That took time.

I got to City Hall. I caught the northbound Bus 26 at about 5:30 at Palm and Belmont. I had less than a five-minute wait. There were only four other customers on the bus. It turned out all of us were heading to Fig Garden Village. We picked up two other passengers along the way. They were heading to distant parts of North Fresno, as well. We cruised north on Palm as speedily as any Lexus or BMW.

My point: I’m not sure angry politicians and high-priced consultants can really do much more to improve public transit in Fresno. Serving tens of thousands of passengers in the course of a busy day is subject to whims of humanity.

Back to the June 2 council meeting. Things ended with Brandau asking his council colleagues on the transit subcommittee to please take a serious look at recommendations in the $350,000 report. (By the way, Brandau is a member of the Fresno County Transit Authority board.)

Then came Tuesday’s budget hearings. The Development and Resource Management department (DARM) was one of the first departments in the spotlight. DARM in the old days was called the Planning Department.

The DARM budget all by itself is worthy of a story. But two areas were of particular interest to Brandau. First was code enforcement. The Mayor in her proposed budget is adding six new positions to code enforcement. The city will have 48 inspectors out in the field, each authorized to write citations.

Brandau had to wait his turn to ask questions of DARM Director Jennifer Clark. At one point Brandau turned to City Attorney Doug Sloan and wondered if it’s possible to transfer some of DARM’s code enforcement inspectors to the City Attorney’s Office.

Sloan said it would be possible in theory. Sloan said the argument could be made that the inspectors would be “augmenting a function of the City Attorney’s Office.”

The City Attorney’s Office is taking a more aggressive approach in high-profile code cases. City officials are gearing up to take recalcitrant slumlords to court.

The city attorney is hired and fired by the City Council (as outlined in the City Charter). The City Attorney’s Office in essence is an arm of the City Council.

DARM (per the City Charter) is under the direction of the city manager – who, in turn, is hired and fired by the mayor.

Brandau wants to take some of the power of DARM and the executive branch, and move it to the City Attorney’s Office and the legislative branch. Brandau, to his credit, frankly stated that this would be the effect of his suggestion.

Brandau and Sloan said they would get together later to talk about this issue.

City Manager Rudd paid close attention to it all.

“If I could, I would be interested in being part of that conversation,” Rudd said.

Replied Brandau: “We’ll definitely include you, Bruce – at the right time.”

I’ve seen the council and the administration battle on the dais for hours over City Charter turf. Brandau had to know his idea would set off alarm bells in the Mayor’s office.

The second piece of the DARM budget that caught Brandau’s attention on Tuesday was the status of the specific plan for the area west of Highway 99 – the so-called River West Specific Plan. Clark in essence said DARM is still gearing up to begin gearing up to begin work on that plan.

The area west of 99 is both a hodge-podge of growth and perhaps the next frontier of development in Fresno. The area resides in the council districts of Brandau, Esmeralda Soria and Oliver Baines. Bottom line: Developers longing to do something grand in the River West area need that specific plan.

Looking back on everything, I asked myself: Why is Brandau sticking it to the Swearengin Administration on all these issues?

The answer could be that he’s simply doing his job as the people’s elected representative. I’ll buy that.

But I’m also betting that Brandau (and his council colleagues) is setting the stage for the last half-year of the Swearengin Era.

Once the FY 2016-17 budget is out of the way, the council will be more assertive on big issues.

And when that happens, Brandau will introduce a proposed amendment to the 2035 general plan.

General Plan Policy RC-9-c now states: “In coordination with regional partners, or independently, (the city will) establish a Farmland Preservation Program. When Prime Farmland, Unique Farmland, or Farmland of Statewide Importance is converted to urban uses outside City limits, this program would require that the developer of such a project permanently protect an equal amount of similar farmland elsewhere through easement.”

Brandau on March 31 came close to asking the council to remove this section from the general plan and replacing it with this paragraph: “The City of Fresno shall work with the County of Fresno and the Fresno Local Agency Formation Commission to establish a Regional Farmland Conservation Program.”

Brandau at the last minute decided to wait until summer to do this.

Getting rid of the general plan’s current farmland preservation program is a high priority for Brandau. Certain developers, too.

To get there, Brandau first needs to send a message to the Administration and build allies on the council.

Odd as it sounds, FAX Bus No. 26 apparently fits into this plan.

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

1 Comment

  1. You have a unique way of seeing through the smoke. I, for one, enjoy the view through your eyes.

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