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Need a guide to the 11th hour slumlord turf war? Look to Lee Brand

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Council Members Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier on Tuesday unveiled their plan to reform Fresno’s code enforcement division.

The plan has two parts – the Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team and the Landlord-Tenant Ombudsman program.

I attended the Brandau-Olivier news conference next to the Summerset Village apartment complex in Central Fresno. The council members did a fine job. They delivered a brief but comprehensive summary of a complex proposal. They deftly answered tough questions from reporters.

I give you statements from the council members’ news release:

“These measures will provide a transparent and accountable system where both tenants and landlords will be able to address situations of substandard housing,” Olivier said. “Through these measures, the city of Fresno is demonstrating that it is committed to crafting effective policy that will have a positive impact for all of Fresno.”

Stated Brandau: “For tenants, this means an accountable representative with an open door at City Hall. These measures will address unscrupulous landlords with chronic violations of substandard housing. The goal of these measures is simple – to ensure that residents of our city have the highest quality standards in rental housing at an affordable market price.”

Both parts of the proposal go to the City Council on Thursday in the form of a resolution. I explored the details in a Sunday blog for CVObserver.

In a nutshell, the Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team consists of key city officials focused on eliminating code violations in rental housing that pose a danger to tenants’ health and safety. The Ombudsman program creates a tenant advocate – a “champion,” to use a more contemporary term – within City Hall to help victimized renters resolve serious code problems.

But something more is going on here than simply a piece of legislation. No one is telling me exactly what, so I can only guess.

My guess: Ashley Swearengin and Lee Brand are engaged in a delicate and not entirely amicable transfer of power.

Swearengin, of course, is Fresno’s mayor. Brand, of course, is Fresno’s mayor-elect. Swearengin’s last day in office comes in early January. I’m guessing Brand takes the mayor’s oath at a special council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 3.

That’s a mere seven weeks away. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day are within that span. Bottom line: Swearengin’s time to act is fast disappearing.

One major piece of Swearengin’s agenda remains in limbo. That is the fate of Round 2 of the Mayor-Council Code Enforcement Task Force.

A fair number of Task Force members would love to see City Hall enact a strict, government-sanctioned inspection program for rental properties. Landlords would foot the bill.

Housing activists love this idea.

A fair number of Task Force members want City Hall to create a code-enforcement system that shows no mercy to slumlords, but does not harm or harass law-abiding property owners.

Housing activists hate this idea.

According to City Hall scuttlebutt, Swearengin likes the landlord-funded inspection idea. If so, the public has yet to learn any details. The Task Force has been meeting for months, but has produced nothing so far.

Two things are certain. First, the landlord-funded inspection idea will generate a lot of controversy if it’s ever pitched to the council. Second, successfully implementing the landlord-funded inspection idea will take years. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at Round 1 of the Task Force, which tackled blighted vacant buildings about two years ago. City officials are still trying to make all facets of that admirable campaign work smoothly.)

Now keep in mind that Swearengin is Fresno’s chief executive in a strong-mayor form of government. The person elected to that office is supposed to be an energetic, take-charge leader of a billion-dollar-a-year municipal corporation

Sure, the City Council is a co-equal branch. The council is a policy-setting body. But when it comes to executing policy, the charter lays that responsibility on the mayor and the mayor-appointed city manager.

And keep in mind that every Fresno mayor dating back to 1997 (when Jim Patterson was sworn in as the city’s first strong mayor) has been obsessively territorial. Mayors don’t like being told by the council how to govern within the executive branch’s domain.

That includes Swearengin. I remember well the seven-hour council-administration debate in 2009 over “materiality.” The issue was budget cuts as the Great Recession hit. City Manager Andy Souza and Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd told the council that Swearengin had authority to unilaterally make the necessary cuts to keep the city afloat financially. City Attorney Jim Sanchez and the council (which included Brand) said the Mayor had to get council approval if the cuts “materially” affected the official budget.

I repeat my essential point – Souza and Rudd, representing Swearengin, fought hard and tirelessly to protect what they viewed as the mayor’s rightful authority in the chief executive’s sphere.

What do we have in late 2016? We have Brandau and Olivier saying they’re sick and tired of waiting for Swearengin and the Task Force to do something concrete about slumlords. If the Mayor won’t act, Brandau and Olivier say, we will.

Hence the Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team/Landlord-Tenant Ombudsman resolution. If ever a piece of mid-fiscal year legislation tells the mayor/city manager how to do their jobs, this is it.

Yes, the City Charter allows the council to pass such resolutions. But the City Charter also gives the mayor/city manager plenty of opportunities to formally and effectively veto such legislation.

Rudd is now the city manager. I asked him on Monday for his thoughts on the Brandau-Olivier resolution.

In many ways, Rudd said, “it’s a compliment to what the administrative has developed over the last 11 months. In a large part, a lot of what they have in their resolution reflects exactly what we’ve been doing under STOPP (Strike Team On Problem Properties).”

And what about protecting the mayoral/city manager turf come Thursday?

The council sets policy, Rudd said, but it doesn’t “dictate to my staff what the priorities are. I set the priorities.”

The way I see things, it doesn’t matter how many council votes the Brandau-Olivier resolution gets on Thursday. Swearengin isn’t going to act on it. (I predict she would veto any official appropriation of money.)

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Legislative proposals can come from the Mayor, as well. In fact, going back to the scuttlebutt, the council expects Swearengin to soon pitch her landlord-funded inspection program.

What kind of reception would it receive? I don’t know. The Mayor’s proposal would need at least four votes. Brandau and Olivier would probably be no votes.

So, are Brandau and Olivier pitching their proposal to head off Swearengin’s inspection proposal? If so, they would need at least five votes to overcome the likely veto. And if they didn’t get five votes, Swearengin could turn around and pitch her inspection program. If it gets a simple majority (four votes), then she leaves office with a signature piece of law-making added to her legacy.

In other words, the Brandau-Olivier resolution can’t stop Swearengin from pitching her inspection program if she is determined to do so.

I ask again: Why are Brandau and Olivier doing this?

This is where Mayor-elect Brand comes into play.

Brandau and Olivier endorsed Brand for mayor. So did Swearengin. Therefore, all three of them want Brand to succeed as the strong mayor.

Why in heaven’s name would Brand want to take office with a complex code-enforcement policy challenge on his plate and be stuck with a “solution” crafted not by him and his staff but by Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier? I’m guessing Brand doesn’t want that.

Why in heaven’s name would Brand want to take office with a complex code-enforcement policy challenge on his plate and be stuck with a “solution” crafted not by him and his staff but by Ashley Swearengin? I’m guessing Brand doesn’t want that.

Why in heaven’s name would Brandau/Olivier and Swearengin want to saddle Brand with their respective “solution” to the code-enforcement challenge when they know full well that to do so is to weaken the mayor’s office at the precise moment when the man they supported over Henry R. Perea takes on that immense responsibility?

I don’t know.

At one point over the past 48 hours, I thought Brandau/Olivier might be trying to paint Swearengin into a corner. I thought they are pitching their resolution fully expecting the Mayor and Rudd to defeat it by claiming some type of mayoral territoriality. Then, when Swearengin pitches her inspection program to the council, a Brandau/Olivier-led council majority could throw essentially the same argument back at her: Mayor, you’re too late – just as this turf doesn’t belong to us, it no longer belongs to you – in every practical sense, it’s already Mayor Lee Brand’s turf – therefore we’re postponing everything until 2017 when Lee gets to his new office (and, by the way, when new Council Members Luis Chavez and Garry Bredefeld get to theirs).

I’m told by someone in the know that my thinking is wrong. I’m told that Brandau-Olivier truly believe in their resolution and have no qualms about insisting that Brand execute their vision. And I’m told that Swearengin would have no qualms about getting a controversial inspection program passed in her final days and leaving it to Brand to make it work or own the humanitarian/public relations disaster.

There’s only one way to get answers.

On Thursday, keep your eye on Mayor-elect Brand.

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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