Archive · Fresno

Patience Milrod's City Hall stint is over (for now)

Byline1

The Patience Milrod-Fresno City Hall marriage lasted all of one week.

The question isn’t whether the two will try again, but when.

Milrod, of course, is a well-known Fresno lawyer long active in social justice issues. Her focus lately is housing.

Housing is a huge subject. Milrod’s niche is rentals. How does Fresno ensure that an apartment or a house is fit for a new tenant? How does the city use its policing power to ensure that the rental, once occupied, remains livable?

The topic in all its complexity has been much in the media. The Bee’s Andrea Castillo and Barbara Anderson have written many fine stories.

This public policy tale took an interesting turn on July 15 when Milrod and City Attorney Doug Sloan signed a legal services agreement. Milrod would in essence become the city’s egregious landlord (read: slumlord) litigator on a contract basis.

Her fee: $225 an hour.

A mere seven days later – July 22 – Milrod and the city went their separate ways.

Her total pay for services rendered: $5,906.25.

Was Milrod fired? Maybe that’s too strong a word. Based on my off-the-record chats with various players in the drama, it is safe to say Milrod ruffled a few city feathers. When those feathers belong to big shots, well, a divorce is inevitable.

Milrod has been ruffling such feathers for a long time. No one at City Hall remembered?

Milrod was the only person I could get on the record, and those comments were cautious.

“I never had any conflict with Doug,” Milrod told me by phone late Wednesday afternoon.

Milrod said she took the job expecting it to be challenging and rewarding, but in the end things didn’t work out.

Why?

“I just don’t know,” she said.

A look at Milrod’s contract and a review of local housing politics might shed some light on the mystery.

Milrod’s contract stated she would work on an “as-needed” basis, as determined by Sloan or his designee. She would deliver three things:

1.) “Legal services related to litigating egregious housing code violators… including investigation, advisory services, written legal opinions, and representation before administrative and judicial bodies.

2.) “Policy development, including meetings, research, and drafting.

3.) “Monthly reports jointly authored with the City Manager’s Office to City Attorney, City Council, and Community.”

The code enforcement litigation project clearly is to be a big deal in the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Milrod would have office space, a legal secretary and a full-time legal assistant.

City Hall and Milrod also “shall agree on the selection of a qualified attorney to serve as second chair in the code enforcement litigation project,” the contract stated.

The contract allowed Milrod to seek input from community housing advocates. Milrod also was encouraged to work with outside lawyers representing tenants in legal actions against property owners deemed to be “egregious violators” of the law.

The contract guaranteed that other city departments – police, fire, information services, utility billings among them – would work with Milrod. She also was directed to study the city’s current code-inspection processes and come up with ideas to reform them.

Add it all up and Milrod had a signed deal to make her City Hall’s single most powerful housing official other than the Mayor and City Manager Bruce Rudd. To borrow a descriptive term popular early in Swearengin’s first term, Milrod was to become Fresno’s housing “czar.” (OK – “czarina.”)

Now, to an outsider like me, there’s absolutely no way Milrod could fulfill the terms of this contract without moving fast and aggressively. “Ruffle a few feathers.” “Break some eggs to make an omelette.” “Let the chips fall where they may.” Pick a cliché to describe a take-charge attitude. That’s the mission Sloan gave Milrod once he signed a contract like this one.

And therein lies the mystery.

Why weren’t there two more names on this contract? I’m talking about Rudd and Council President Paul Caprioglio.

The housing issue at City Hall is a minefield. No need here to review all the details. It’s sufficient to note that a lot of powerful people think Fresno’s future is being crushed by unaccountable slumlords. And a lot of powerful people think property owners are being demonized to further a collectivist agenda.

Phase Two of the Mayor-City Council Code Enforcement Task Force is expected to hold its final scheduled meeting on Friday. The group’s recommendations are sure to embolden one side and anger the other.

Some of the powerful folks who think property owners in general are getting a raw deal in this charged atmosphere happen to be City Council members. And, as we all know from our daily reading of the City Charter, the city attorney is hired/fired by the council.

The mayor and the city manager oversee typical city services such as code enforcement, public safety, sewer, water, streets. But the city attorney and, by extension the entire City Attorney’s Office? That’s the council’s turf.

What we have here is a big mess of conflicting agendas and lines of authority.

Swearengin creates this “code enforcement litigation project.” The Mayor puts funding for the project in the 2016-17 budget passed by the council in June. The project needs an “egregious landlord litigator” to give the project teeth. A litigator means the world of law. That means the egregious landlord litigator must become part of City Attorney’s Office if the litigator is to be effectively supervised by someone answerable in some capacity to the voters (can’t have the planning director supervising a veteran lawyer; can’t let the litigator be a lone wolf). That means the egregious landlord litigator’s boss is the same city attorney who is hired/fired by the City Council. That means the position of egregious landlord litigator owes its birth to the executive side of the City Charter, but the litigator’s survival depends on the legislative branch. And it’s safe to say a majority of the legislative branch as currently constituted is rather skeptical of an egregious landlord litigator suddenly dropping into City Hall and assuming broad policy-making powers across all departments when none of those policy-making powers is authorized (or prohibited) in the City Charter.

This is especially true when the policy-making in question deals with housing.

The only way the Milrod-Sloan contract could have worked is if Rudd has signed it (visible proof that the executive branch had studied all the ramifications and publicly endorsed them) and if Caprioglio had signed it (same thing for the council).

Without those two signatures, the Milrod-City Hall marriage was dead on arrival.

Why did City Hall go through with this structural and political disaster? Why did Milrod say yes? I don’t know. My guess is we’ll never know.

But, like I said in the beginning, I think Milrod will be back. It mostly likely won’t be as an “egregious landlord litigator.” But anyone who has watched City Hall over the years knows that Milrod is part of an alliance that takes housing issues very seriously.

There’s a mayor’s race going on – Council Member Lee Brand vs. County Supervisor Henry R. Perea.

Like it or not, gentlemen, housing will define the winner’s first term.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.