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Council goes soft on substance, tough on ceremonies

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It was an odd Fresno City Council meeting on Thursday.

The seven members dispatched the important with near-indifference, and tackled the inconsequential with intensity.

First, the important.

The council with three separate votes took key steps toward changing the way Fresno deals with water.

The council accepted a $2.93 million low-interest state loan to build a water delivery system to the Orange Center School District south of town. The district is not within the city limits but is in Fresno’s sphere of influence.

Orange Center’s normal water supply is contaminated. The elementary school’s 410 students and staff are using bottled water.

The loan is structured in such a way that, at the end, the principal will be forgiven. In short, the loan is a grant.

“The kids will have safe water,” Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda told me late Thursday afternoon. “A good deed was done by all.”

Orange Center is an example of what we can expect to see more often – Fresno’s excellent water system extended to outlying areas with the state’s financial help.

The council also authorized Esqueda to accept a low-interest state loan for the installation of various pipelines connected to Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s $429 million upgrade to the water system.

These pipes can be divided into three groups.

First, there’s going to be 13 miles of pipe (72 inches in diameter) connecting Kings River water to the new Southeast Fresno surface water treatment plant (yet to be built).

Second, there’s going to be five miles of pipe (60 inches in diameter) connecting Friant-Kern Canal water to the Northeast Fresno surface water treatment plant (built some 10 years ago).

Third, new pipes must be laid to transfer water from these two plants to various spots throughout the metropolitan area.

Work on the Friant-Kern pipeline should begin in February. Work on the Kings River pipeline should begin this summer. Work on both should be done in 2018.

Getting the ball rolling on these pipelines is “a very historic moment,” Esqueda said.

When things are in place and operating at full speed, Fresno’s reliance on groundwater will drop significantly. That’s good news for a fragile aquifer.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Esqueda said of the work of laying the pipes.

What’s also amazing is how Fresno ended up financing the entire $429 million upgrade. A year ago, city officials figured the vast majority of the money would come from the private sector. That would have meant rather high interest rates. It now turns out that everything will be funded with low-interest (1.663%) state loans.

Esqueda said this blessing is due in large part to a team effort at City Hall. But he is especially grateful for the work of DPU professional engineer Glenn Knapp, who worked diligently with Sacramento officials.

“Glenn was the shepherd,” Esqueda said.

And the City Council authorized DPU to submit an application for a $700,000 grant to upgrade and enhance the water efficiency of indoor plumbing systems and outdoor irrigation systems at local public schools.

The idea is that Fresno Unified, Central Unified and Clovis Unified school districts will join forces on a similar grant application. If both applications win, then everyone will get together and spend $1.4 million on the same kind of water-saving ideas that growing numbers of local homeowners have embraced for several years.

The three districts used about 1.7 billion gallons of DPU water in calendar year 2014 and about two billion gallons in 2015. The latter figure is about 6,000 acre feet. All of Fresno in 2015 used somewhere between 110,000 to 120,000 acre feet.

Schools need to keep playground grass healthy because that’s where the students play.

“One of the things we’ve recognized is that the school systems are a little bit different than parks,” Esqueda said. “Every kid has to go to school. Every kid doesn’t have to go to the park.

“Some of the landscaped areas at a school – that’s part of the educational experience. We did not want to get into a situation where we were limiting the schools from giving the kids the full educational experience.”

At the same time, Esqueda said, officials at the three districts are convinced they can find reasonable ways to conserve water – if they get the money to modernize.

El Nino or not, Esqueda said, “conservation is here to stay.”

Council members on Thursday thanked Esqueda and his team for their work, but showed hardly any enthusiasm.

Not so when it came to council operational rules.

The council voted 7-0 to ban absentee (sometimes called “ghost”) voting. This is when a council member registers a vote before an item comes up, then leaves the dais.

Near as anyone can tell, it’s happened just three times, one each by Clint Olivier, Steve Brandau and Sal Quintero. All three absentee votes came in the past couple of months.

The council on Thursday all but claimed to have saved democracy with its decision to stop ghost voting. The issue before the council was so important that the only Fresnan who showed up to voice an opinion was Barbara Hunt – a regular at council meetings.

But that council performance was nothing compared to what Paul Caprioglio did.

The District 4 representative at the start of Thursday’s meeting was selected as council president for a one-year term. He succeeds District 3’s Oliver Baines.

Caprioglio soon found himself overseeing a debate on the updating of meeting procedures. These changes (such as absentee voting) were to be codified – in essence, written in stone.

There was a pause in the chatter. That was Capriolio’s opening – he wanted to announce some procedural changes, authorized by the new president’s fiat.

“I’m not suggesting that these be codified,” Caprioglio said of his commands. “But here are some additions, or perhaps leadership points, from the president.”

Caprioglio said copies of Power Point presentations that accompany some council agenda items must be turned into the City Clerk’s Office no later than the Monday before the meeting. If not, the presentation will not be allowed on Thursday.

This applies to everyone – staff, public, council members.

Caprioglio said consent calendar items that are pulled for further discussion will be heard at 1:30 p.m. This confirmed time means staff members won’t be wasting time sitting in the council chamber, waiting for their items to be discussed.

Then Caprioglio hit the council’s exposed nerve.

“Ceremonial items – instead of 8:30 we will handle those at 1:30 in the afternoon,” Caprioglio said. “The ceremonial item, the title, is due to the Clerk’s office two weeks before the meeting. Two weeks, please.

“We’re going to limit the number of ceremonial items to two per district. That also would encompass no more than five ceremonials per council meeting. We will not have ceremonials when we’re doing staff recognitions (done every three months).

“(These are) just some items and ideas from me as president. They’re not to be codified – (the intent is) just to put it on the record and give everybody a heads up on how we’re going to try to do a couple of changes to move the calendar along.”

Every council loves special ceremonies. This council, though, takes the opportunity to a whole new level.

At the Dec. 10 meeting, for example, there was a resolution honoring Grace’s Place, an appearance by residents of the Golden Living Center to share in their Christmas Caroloke Tour and a presentation to the sponsors of Make a Difference Day. There were two more ceremonies after that.

It seems just about anything can inspire a Fresno City Council ceremonial presentation.

Council members and the Administration love these ceremonies in the Council Chamber because The People like them. And it’s The People who vote.

“I appreciate your efforts to move the council meetings along,” Olivier said. But, he added, “I would ask for your flexibility and leniency when using your discretion on the two per district (restriction) on ceremonial presentations”

Replied Caprioglio: “I think we can accommodate some stiff flexibility.”

Council Member Steve Brandau sided with Olivier.

“It seems that you have the shortest honeymoon in president(ial) history,” Brandau said. “We are already questioning” you.

Esmeralda Soria, who acknowledged she had become quite fond of ceremonial presentations in her first year on the council, said she wants more time to “digest” Caprioglio’s orders.

Ceremonial presentations, Soria said, are a great way for “recognizing the great work that is occurring in the city of Fresno.”

Caprioglio said the council must value the time of others who aren’t connected to the ceremonies.

A “balancing” is necessary, Caprioglio said. “I have to take into consideration the proverbial silent majority.”

Caprioglio has a sense of humor.

“That was a great honeymoon,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

He’s also got an iron will.

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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