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Council green lights Brand's water fixes, Soria balks

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Turns out corrosion is damaging more than water pipes in Northeast Fresno.

Local politics is turning toxic, as well.

That’s my takeaway from Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Topic A was the discolored water problem in several hundred North Fresno homes. A few of the afflicted homes identified so far are in Northwest Fresno. Most are in northeast.

The council voted to ban the use of galvanized pipe in the construction of new homes or remodeling projects. The council approved tougher rules for the reporting of water contamination complaints. And the council took a look at Council Member Lee Brand’s proposed rebate/low-interest loan programs for qualifying water customers but postponed action on the bill for several months.

As any veteran City Hall reporter will tell you, this was routine stuff on the surface. You’ve got a billion-dollar-a-year municipal government in a city of 520,000 people. Tough operational problems pop up incessantly. Officials either deal with ‘em or get out of the business.

And, yes, politics is part and parcel of the gig. Problems are endless, but resources aren’t. Politics is how this dilemma gets resolved.

But the discolored water problem (to be more accurate, the lead contamination problem) has turned normal City Hall politics into a particularly nasty affair. The reason is simple: A lead contamination problem in the drinking water of a specific neighborhood – call it a lead contamination crisis, if you’re so inclined – is the perfect vehicle for loud charges of environmental racism. The Council Chamber over the years has heard a lot of such accusations on a variety of topics.

Northeast Fresno, however, is largely white. If you don’t believe me you weren’t paying attention during the past year as city officials publicly wrestled with crafting a federally mandated report on Analysis of Impediments to fair housing for protected classes of Fresnans. And you weren’t paying attention during the past year as government officials used the feds’ new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to identify Northeast Fresno as the city’s No. 1 bastion of racist housing policy.

Granted, only 30% of Fresno’s overall population is white, and half of that 30% is female (we’re likely to have our first female president come January 20, so rest assured that females of any background constitute a federally-protected class). A sane person would suggest that Northeast Fresno is home to an immense number of Americans in federally-protected classes, therefore it makes no sense to officially stigmatize Northeast Fresno as prejudiced against these protected classes.

But, like I said, City Hall housing debate during the past year did precisely that.

So, what are Fresno’s social justice warriors – in the general public, on the council dais, among the 2016 mayoral candidates – to do when fate brings such a ripe environmental racism opportunity as this lead contamination issue but deposits it not among the houses near the Darling rendering plant in West Fresno or the huge apartment complexes of Southeast Fresno or some of the JD Home Rentals units of South-Central Fresno but in NORTHEAST FRESNO?

Nooooooooo!

The social justice warriors, of course, had no trouble adjusting. They simply insisted that any energetic and sustained public effort to fix the water problem in Northeast Fresno and provide modest financial help to the afflicted water consumers – without doing the exact same thing in other parts of town, even though other parts of town so far have not been identified as having the same contaminated water/corroded pipe problem – is all the proof needed to justify accusations of City Hall oppression of protected classes living in those other parts of Fresno.

That’s what we saw at Thursday’s council meeting.

Several members of the public told the council as much. A letter from a community activist (and made part of the staff report) said as much. Council Member Esmeralda Soria said as much.

You see, the water problem in Northeast Fresno is a tricky devil. There are tons of variables. But it’s a pretty solid fact that the afflicted homes were built between 1989 and 2000, and have a certain type of galvanized water pipe. Fresno was growing by leaps and bounds from 1989 through 2000, but largely in North Fresno.

If you live in another part of town, and grievance is your political sweet spot, then watching City Hall’s response to the Northeast Fresno water challenge is like watching from afar the birthday party you desperately wanted to attend but got no invitation.

Soria said from the dais that “it can be a little frustrating” to watch Northeast Fresno get all this heartfelt attention while no one is paying attention to her and her District 1. Soria then brought up the fact that some of her constituents are on septic tanks rather than connected to the sewer system.

I’ve covered a lot of City Council meetings. I’ve seen council members and Administration officials tackle a lot of serious policy problems. They always took to heart that old Army saying: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

Are there water challenges elsewhere in the city? Of course. It’s a big, complex city. But the issue at hand Thursday was a specific problem in a specific part of town.

I had never seen a council member tell her council colleagues that they were too focused on fixing a serious public safety problem. Then came Thursday’s meeting.

Esmeralda – there are ways to show a largeness of spirit even when it’s not in your heart, and save your righteousness for more opportune moments. It’s called leadership.

Council Members Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier and City Manager Bruce Rudd took Soria to task. They said City Hall isn’t showing favoritism or bias. They said city officials are doing their job. They said this in a civil tone, but with conviction.

I watched all this unfold and thought of the mayor’s race between Brand and Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea.

There’s a real good chance Perea next January will succeed Ashley Swearengin as Fresno’s chief executive. Perea got nearly 45% of the vote in the June primary. Brand was second with about 31%.

That Soria is on the City Council is in large part due to Perea’s support in the November 2014 election.

Perea in Campaign 2016 is using the contaminated water issue to try to bite off a piece of Brand’s base in Northeast Fresno. That’s smart politics, and Perea is a smart politician.

I live in a county island. I know Brand and Perea personally as well as professionally. Either one will be an excellent mayor.

I sat in the back of the Council Chamber and wondered: Is Perea playing both sides of the fence? On one day is Perea knocking on doors in Northeast Fresno, telling voters that Brand sat on this water contamination problem for years, and therefore Brand’s failure to act swiftly and decisively is proof that hard-charging Henry R. Perea should be the next mayor? And on the next day is Perea (taking a page from Soria’s playbook) knocking on doors in South Fresno and telling voters that Brand’s swift and decisive marshaling of City Hall resources to fix the water contamination problem in rich (and largely white) Northeast Fresno is proof of Brand’s elitist sensibilities, and therefore Henry R. Perea with his identity politics should be the next mayor?

I don’t know.

I do know winners get power and losers go home.

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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