Fresno

With few meetings, was a quiet summer what the Fresno City Council needed?

3-for-11. No, that isn’t the hitting record for some good but not great baseball player over a three-game home stand (a batting average of .273, by the way).

That’s how many times the Fresno City Council will have met during a two-and-a-half month stretch this summer.

We’re talking three Thursday meetings in a stretch of 11 Thursdays that began July 4 and ends Sept. 12. The three meetings were on July 25, Aug. 15 and Aug. 22.

The July 25 meeting lasted 5 hours 28 minutes in open session. The Aug. 15 meeting was 3 hours 52 minutes in open session. The Aug. 22 meeting was an even 2 hours in open session.

Yes, the Fourth of July is our grandest secular national holiday. Can’t expect a council meeting on that day. The three-day Labor Day Weekend was in that stretch. Labor Day is a time for relaxation for council members, too. And everyone deserves an extended summer break from work.

Still, 3-for-11 strikes me as an unusually generous period for council members to recharge their spirits. Based on my reading of their respective websites, the Kingsburg City Council met four times in that period. The Fowler City Council met five times in the same period (one of them a special meeting).

More importantly, the Council last year voted to raise the yearly salaries of council members from $65,000 to $80,000. The council president makes an extra $5,000. The raises didn’t apply to all seven council members now sitting the dais. Only council members who started new terms after Jan. 1, 2019 got bumps in pay. The raises will apply to all seven council districts after another election cycle.

But the essential point of the council’s action last year on pay was unmistakable: Fresno is a big city; Fresno’s legislators work hard year ‘round; the legislators deserve to be compensated appropriately.

I also understand that council member salaries have been a source of political heartburn since Fresno went live with its strong mayor government in January 1997. Council members for more than 20 years have said they’re busy 24/7/365 with constituent concerns. They’ve said the meeting schedule doesn’t tell the whole story of what they do for their paycheck.

I’ll take them at their word (although City Manager Wilma Quan earlier this year told the Council that when she walked through the Council office area it often resembled a “ghost town”).

But one other factor adds weight to my suggestion the Council workload may not be what it once was. That is City Hall’s relatively new FresnoGO mobile app. This enables Fresnans to make a routine service request directly to City Hall. The request is directed to the proper department. The citizen gets digital feedback, tracking the status of the request and receives notification when the issue is resolved.

It’s my understanding that a lot of constituent concerns involving things like potholes, graffiti and broken streetlights are now effectively handled by FresnoGO. The app almost certainly has lightened the workload of council members.

Maybe the council’s 3-for-11 batting average has less to do with work habits and more to do with a division within the council.

It’s no secret that the Brand Administration and a council majority have been at loggerheads of late. A division is also settling in on the dais. You might say it pits a progressive wing against a conservative/moderate wing.

I called a member of the progressive wing on Tuesday and asked about the 3-for-11 statistic.

“Don’t throw me under the bus,” the council member said. “But I have a very simple answer for what you want to know. Call the Council President.”

That would be District 4’s Paul Caprioglio.

Caprioglio told me on Tuesday that counting the number of meetings is no way to judge how hard council members are working. He said the first half of the year is heavy with meetings, especially during June when budget hearings are held. He said the pace of meetings picks up in the second half of the year after summer vacations are out of the way.

Using himself as an example of a council member’s busy schedule, Caprioglio said he’s working constantly on important issues such as enhancing District 4’s parks, building the rapport between residents and police officers and improving pedestrian safety (especially around Fresno State). He said a new community/senior center for District 4 is among his highest priorities. That doesn’t happen if the council member is passive behind the scenes, he said.

Caprioglio said he’s constantly trying to “get into the field,” referring to getting out of his City Hall office and meeting in person with constituents.

As to the way council meetings are run, Caprioglio acknowledged that there’s a sharp division of personalities on the dais. (Permit me, and not anyone else, to suggest that Miguel Arias and Garry Bredefeld are at the center of that division.)

Caprioglio said he tries to keep meetings “on task. I think I’ve got it pretty well under control.”

The Council approves a meeting schedule at the start of each calendar year. Special meetings are always an option if there’s a heavy workload. The Council President and the City Manager meet to settle on a meeting agenda. Determining whether the work flow merits a council meeting is as much art as science.

I called the Brand Administration, seeking comment on the Council meeting schedule. After all, the Administration can’t do its work if the Council seldom meets. My phone message was not returned.

The council member I spoke to said he and his council allies are frustrated by the meeting schedule.

“There’s so much work to do,” he said. “But, ultimately, (the schedule) is at the discretion of the Council President.”

I thought to myself: If the council seldom meets, and then not for long, the progressive wing has less opportunity to do its “work.” Maybe that’s the point.

I give the last word to the council president. When it comes to City Hall politics from the dais, Caprioglio said, “I’m stuck in the middle.”

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