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Swearengin top lieutenants take on fresh set of tall tasks with new gigs

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Georgeanne White and Kelli Furtado have new job titles at Fresno City Hall.

The changes do all of us a big favor. We get to take a fresh look at how top management is structured in the Executive Branch.

The White-Furtado promotions are old news to anyone who read Tim Sheehan’s fine report in The Bee last week.

I can’t do better than Sheehan’s first three paragraphs:

“In recent months, two of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s top staffers have quietly transitioned into new jobs at City Hall as she approaches the end of her second term.

“Swearengin and City Manager Bruce Rudd say that the promotions of Georgeanne White to assistant director of the public utilities department and Kelli Furtado to assistant director of the development and resource management department are based on their skills and department needs – and not a ‘soft landing’ for the mayor’s staff as Swearengin approaches the end of her time in office.

“White was Swearengin’s chief of staff before starting her new job in July and previously served as chief of staff to Mayor Alan Autry. Furtado was the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and moved to the development department in April.”

Sheehan then reviewed White’s expertise in all things water and Furtado’s skills with all things housing.

Finally, Sheehan cut to the chase: money. Citing several sources, he reported that White’s annual salary went from $122,000 to $125,000, Furtado’s from about $101,000 to $120,000.

I met Monday afternoon with Rudd and Communications Director Mark Standriff to chew a bit on the changes.

White and Furtado over the years have been talented and dedicated public servants in Fresno’s municipal government, Rudd said.

Both have a worthy record of “rolling up their sleeves” and digging into tough issues, he said.

The promotions serve Fresnans well, he said.

Then I turned off the tape recorder. That’s when Rudd and I had a real talk.

What is a mayoral chief of staff? What is a mayoral deputy chief of staff?

Take a look at the City Charter to get a hint of the answer.

Section 400 states, “The Mayor shall be responsible to the People of Fresno for the proper and efficient administration of all affairs of the City.”

Section 400 also states: “The Mayor shall not directly supervise any City department.”

Those two thoughts look real good on paper. In the real world, they’re a contradiction guaranteed to destroy political careers if taken to heart by a chief executive.

It’s been my experience covering City Hall that a mayor squares this circle by having control of a special ops team. Members of this team have direct access to the King or Queen. They have the sovereign’s ear and trust. They have policy skills. They have political skills.

Sometimes the team consists of just one member. I’m thinking of Severo Esquivel, nicknamed “Mr. Fix-it” when he was an assistant city manager during Autry’s first term. In theory, Esquivel answered to then-City Manager Dan Hobbs. In practice, Esquivel parachuted into budding disasters at Autry’s insistence.

Esquivel oversaw construction of the Downtown Stadium. He got the concourse finished at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

If the stadium had come in $5 million over budget or the concourse project had continued to be a public relations nightmare, Autry would have a hard time convincing voters in 2004 that he deserved a second term because of his “proper and efficient administration of all affairs of the City.”

Esquivel played a big role in avoiding both pitfalls. Autry winked at the charter admonition against direct mayoral supervision of Public Works and Airports. He easily won a second term.

And if Esquivel couldn’t handle the special ops role, then Autry could turn to Deputy Mayor Roger Montero.

Deputy mayor? Where does the charter mention a deputy mayor? The charter doesn’t. Autry simply created the position and made sure each year’s budget provided the necessary funding. And as veteran City Hall reporters remember all too well, Montero was a rough-and-tumble guy when delivering the Mayor’s wishes to various departments supposedly under the sole direction of the city manager.

Swearengin had the same challenge when she took office in January 2009. The city is full of departments providing vital public services day in and day out. Police, fire, public works, public utilities and parks, just to name a few.

These departments have bosses (chiefs or directors) and bureaucracies trained in the special language of their mission.

And, going back to the City Charter, these department heads are supposed to report to the city manager, who then reports to the mayor. That’s way too passive to work in the real world.

It was my suggestion to Rudd on Monday that White and Furtado fulfilled the “special ops” role for Swearengin, and did so with considerable success. When a slice of the vast City Hall bureaucracy went haywire, Swearengin made sure White or Furtado parachuted in.

Do you think the mayor’s chief of staff makes sure Swearengin isn’t booked for two luncheon speeches on the same day? Do you think the mayor’s deputy chief of staff makes sure Swearengin isn’t alone when she attends a meet-and-greet at a local church?

Nonsense. White and Furtado had jobs that demanded they be fast learners and firm leaders. Most important, their jobs required them to understand the political implications of bureaucratic actions on Swearengin’s agenda.

That skill is greatly undervalued by Fresno pundits. It shouldn’t be. Smart politics tied to wise policy is how a diverse democracy works.

I pitched to Rudd the notion that we wouldn’t be going through this mess about discolored water in Northeast Fresno if the folks in Public Utilities in years past had been more attuned to the political effects of their operational decisions.

Perhaps the lesson from the White and Furtado promotions isn’t that they’re a “soft landing” as noted in The Bee story, but that they should have been done two or three years ago.

Perhaps the lesson from the White and Furtado promotions is that the next mayor – Lee Brand or Henry R. Perea – should rethink how the mayor’s staff is structured and employed. Then the new mayor should explain all this in detail to the pubic.

Wait a second. The campaign is still hot. Lee and Henry: Tell us now what you’ll do with your staff if you’re Fresno’s next mayor.

My chat with Rudd ended with me endorsing the new jobs (and pay raises) for White and Furtado. They’ve done $125,000/$120,000 work for years and weren’t paid at that level.

Rudd didn’t say anything. But he gave me a hearty handshake as we parted.

I know agreement when I feel it.

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

2 Comments

  1. Someone is being paid off because she knows TOO MUCH about the water issue. The cover up is 100 times worse than the lie. Good job on the radio today, George. (SARC!) You did City Hall proud. Next time, try talking to someone who has actual evidence and has lived this nightmare since 2004! Your buddies in City Hall are singing your praises. Sad journalism.

  2. When did political reporters become cheerleaders for city hall? We could use some impartiality. These two just got a 20k bonus from Swearingen on her way out the door. Now a promotion and an equally fat pay raise. Who is worth $40k in bonuses and increase in city goverment. All the while the press, city council and mayoral candidates are silent. Corruption begets corruption. Keep fiddling while Fresno burns.

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