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In Fresno, car break-ins spread to Mayor, City Council, too

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A man with alleged ties to the world of methamphetamine was arrested Tuesday afternoon in the City Hall parking lot after trying to get into the cars of Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and several council members.

The man was taken into custody by police on a felony arrest warrant. Communications Director Mark Standriff said the warrant was “for meth.”

The Police Department identified the man as Juan Luis Barragan, 35. The charge is second-degree robbery.

The incident and its aftermath make for a remarkable tale.

I was walking mid-Tuesday afternoon on Mariposa Mall. I was in front of the Hugh Burns State Building, heading to City Hall, when two uniformed officers on bicycles passed me. They crossed P Street and went into City Hall’s south parking lot.

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Barragan, 35

While waiting in the Mayor/Council lobby on the second floor, another uniformed officer was escorted by a city official into the Administration’s offices.

I soon learned that a man had just been arrested for what one person described as “trying to break into the Mayor’s car.”

The Mayor, top Administration officials and the seven council members have designated parking stalls along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks, on the east side of City Hall (it’s all part of the large parking lot on the south side). For the sake of this story, let’s call it “Elected Officials Row.”

The Mayor’s parking stall, in particular, is in a rather secluded spot, next to the curved sidewalk that leads to first-level doors into City Hall. The area is hard to see clearly if you’re walking by on Tulare Street.

I asked city officials what was going on. They said nothing of note.

I tried again on Wednesday. Finally, City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff gave me a few details.

He said Council Member Sal Quintero looked out his office window on Tuesday and saw the man checking cars along Elected Officials Row to see if any were unlocked. Quintero contacted City Hall security, which held the man until police took him away.

No one was hurt.

Standriff said the man didn’t try to forcibly try to break into any of the cars. He said the man is well known to City Hall security. It turns out the man had been casing the joint for some time, even to the point of taking photographs.

As anyone who has seen Fresno’s “space ship” of a city hall knows, the place’s exterior is just about 100% windows. If everything told me is true, then this denizen of the drug world was 1.) smart enough to do some elaborate pre-planning, and 2.) dumb enough not to realize city officials are prone to looking out their windows during working hours.

Standriff on Tuesday had told me the incident was no big deal, which is why he didn’t plan on releasing an official statement. He told me the same thing on Wednesday.

Of course, the incident does shine a light on the favorite issue of any political campaign season – public safety. City Hall during daylight hours isn’t immune to the same threats of criminal activity that plague almost all Fresno neighborhoods.

The incident also renews something that has bothered me for some time. That is the state of security in the corner of City Hall where this incident occurred.

I don’t understand why the first-level City Hall doors next to Elected Officials Row are left unlocked during working hours.

The first-level and second-level doors in the front of the building are unlocked during working hours, as they should be in a public building as important to local democracy as City Hall.

No uniformed security guards stand at the doorway. This, too, is appropriate in a public building built on mutual trust among The People.

At the same time, there almost always are lots of people coming and going at the first-level and second-level public entrances. Security personnel are never far way. Watchful eyes are ever-present.

But the City Hall entrance next to Elected Officials Row is a different ballgame. It’s essentially a side entrance. The sidewalk descends to unlocked doors, making the entrance somewhat below ground level. It can get rather dark over there even during working hours – I know because I use it occasionally.

And when you enter City Hall from that side entrance, you find yourself in a dark hallway. The hallway leads to a door that takes you to first-level offices. The hallway also takes you to the fire stairs, giving you access to the other three levels.

This hallway is very popular with city employees moving between the south parking lot and offices. Several generations of Bee reporters know this only too well – City Hall’s media room is located along this hallway.

In other words, this out-of-the-way and unlocked City Hall entrance might strike a security expert as an unnecessary risk to the smooth and safe functioning of the public’s business.

I asked Standriff if Tuesday’s incident is a wakeup call for city officials. Maybe, I said, it’s time to lock the entrance near Elected Officials Row, making it accessible only to those who know a special code or have a wallet-sized pass card.

I said The Bee for many years has had such safety measures at its back entrance, next to the employee parking area. I know from my own experience that it takes about 10 seconds to get used to the new way of doing things.

Standriff said pooh-poohed the idea.

I told him to expect a call from Admiral Kimmel and General Short.

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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