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Meet the City's new Capital Oversight Board, Old Armenian Town's new developer

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Waste-busting, hegemony-busting and sloth-busting kept everyone busy at Fresno City Hall on Monday. Let’s take a look:

City Clerk Yvonne Spence administered the oath of office to eight members of the new Capital Projects Oversight Board.

The eight – seven men and one woman – then took care of several housekeeping details before adjourning. They expect to meet again on Feb. 22.

Most at the end seemed to have that deer-in-the-headlights look. But it just may be my natural skepticism.

This board is the result of two City Council bills passed in 2015: the Enterprise Accountability and Oversight Act (authored by Lee Brand and Clint Olivier) and the Construction Management Act (Brand).

The premise is simple.

City Hall is embarking this year on a handful of multi-million-dollar construction projects, all funded by taxpayers. The city in the near future almost certainly will undertake even more big-dollar projects – that’s the nature of a fast-growing town of 515,000 people.

Nothing kills a political career faster than a big project that is 1.) botched, 2.) way over budget, 3.) botched and way over budget.

City Hall has always had lots of layers of quality-control for big construction projects. Mayor, city manager, city council, department heads, supervisors, consultants, outside project managers – the list goes on and on.

But the City Council last year decided that, given the sensitive nature of the upcoming projects and the delicate sources of funding, it would be best to have yet another failsafe mechanism in place.

That’s the Capital Projects Oversight Board. Each of the seven council members is to appoint someone from the private sector who is an expert in the art-and-science of fulfilling construction promises. Mayor Ashley Swearengin will appoint two.

The board’s charge is making sure all big projects ($10 million or more) are built as promised and within budget. If huge “change orders” – the death knell of government reputations the world over – are requested, the Oversight Board will weigh in on their legitimacy.

In short, the Capital Projects Oversight Board takes some of the heat off City Hall’s elected officials.

District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines has yet to appoint his board member.

The eight who got down to business late Monday afternoon were Mehmet Noyan (appointed by District 1’s Esmeralda Soria); Ann Kloose (District 2’s Steve Brandau); Brian Domingos (District 4’s Paul Caprioglio); Chuck Ferreira (District 5’s Sal Quintero); Joe Garcia (District 6’s Brand); Walt Platcha (District 7’s Olivier); and Brad Hyatt and Tyler Mackey (Swearengin).

Soria is a non-voting board member. Platcha was elected board chairman, with Kloose as vice-chairwoman. Terms are for two years.

City Attorney Doug Sloan and City Manager Bruce Rudd were there. I was the only member of the public to show up.

Sloan reviewed for board members their responsibilities as public officials. He told them they are bound by laws on conflicts of interest, open meetings and the acceptance of gifts.

“This is, in a way, a legislative body,” Sloan said.

Board meetings (first and third Mondays of each month, once things settle into a pattern) are open to the public.

Rudd gave board members a quick rundown on some of the projects heading their way: $20 million for restoration of Fulton Street; $28 million for Bus Rapid Transit stations; $186 million for the Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant; $98 million for water lines to the Northeast and Southeast surface water treatment plants; $200 million-plus for various parts of the city’s “purple pipe” treated wastewater system.

Everyone in the tiny conference room at the back of City Hall seemed intent on doing their best.

But what, exactly, are these eight experts supposed to do? What is their level of authority to act? What city resources can they draw on? How do they communicate their concerns, suggestions, frustrations? What’s their level of responsibility if their oversight proves less than stellar?

I sensed that several board members – Noyan, Domingos, Garcia – were thinking along these lines. I sensed that some of the others weren’t.

The dust may settle a bit in future meetings. I conclude with two brief thoughts.

First, the Capital Projects Oversight Board strikes me as much different than other high-profile volunteer advisory boards such as the Utility Advisory Commission and the Code Enforcement Task Force.

The commission and the task force had specific one-time projects. The former, aided by consultants, came up with five years of recommended rate hikes for the Public Utilities Department. The latter came up with recommended reforms to the enforcement of housing regulations.

Time wasn’t of the essence for either the commission or the task force.

But time will be of the essence for the Capital Projects Oversight Board. Its members will soon find themselves overseeing four or five huge and complex construction projects at the same time. Every week will be pivotal to the success of each project. If something starts to go wrong on one of the projects, catching it two or three months later is catching it two or three months too late.

Take it from someone who reported at length on the troubled Airport Concourse project of 15 years ago – when things go south, reporters and taxpayers look for someone to blame. Being a sweet-faced community volunteer won’t save you.

Now, maybe city officials will say the Capital Projects Oversight Board’s experts don’t need to get into the daily details of all these big projects. We’ll be told the city has in-house experts and consultants and outside project managers to do all that.

If so, then why do we need the Capital Projects Oversight Board in the first place?

Second, Council Member Brand (who happens to also be running for mayor) pushed hard from the council dais for the Capital Projects Oversight Board.

If the board is just window dressing to give politicians more cover in an emergency, expect that issue to come up on the campaign trail.

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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