The final weeks of the Ashley Swearengin Era at Fresno City Hall are getting interesting.
There is Greg Barfield’s new job, for example. As of Dec. 5, he will be assistant director at Fresno Area Express, the city’s bus system.
“I wanted a new challenge,” Barfield told me by phone on Sunday. “For some time I’ve wanted to get into administration.”
Barfield is well known to City Hall observers. He was chief of staff for three years to District 3 Council Member Cynthia Sterling. He was instrumental in creating the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, which was adopted by the City Council and Fresno County Board of Supervisors in 2008.
Swearengin took office in January 2009, and Barfield became the city’s first Homeless Prevention and Policy Manager (he was often referred to as Fresno’s Homeless Czar).
Most recently, Barfield had been chief of staff to District 3 Council Member Oliver Baines.
Now Barfield is on his way to FAX headquarters, located in a corner of the City Yard where G and Divisadero streets meet. His immediate superior will be Transportation Director Brian Marshall.
Barfield said he’s just about finished with work on his master’s degree in business/leadership at Fresno Pacific University.
There’s something intriguing about Barfield’s move to FAX.
For starters, there’s the nature of FAX’s mission. From my limited observation, it’s rather technical. Delivering an efficient bus system throughout most of Fresno’s 112 square miles involves a lot more than fueling the vehicles and hiring the drivers. When you add the emerging Bus Rapid Transit system and the mysteries of federal transportation policy – well, things get complicated. Top FAX executives typically have years of public transportation experience under their belts. I gather from his biographical sketch on the city’s website that Barfield doesn’t have this particular kind of experience.
Then there’s the starting point of Barfield’s move. The Administration usually doesn’t get its top executives from the ranks of a council member’s staff. Claudia Ruiz-Alvarez was District 7 Council Member Clint Olivier’s chief of staff. Swearengin hired her away to head the Administration’s revitalization efforts along Blackstone Avenue. I can see why a council staffer would want to jump to the executive side of City Hall – the money’s got to be better. But Ruiz-Alvarez is the exception that proves my point. It was news when she switched jobs. Barfield’s switch is news, as well.
Now, I count myself as one of the many admirers of Barfield’s considerable talents. When it comes to grasping the intricacies of government policy (the variety is endless) and the complexities of Fresno politics (the dangers are limitless), Barfield has few equals at City Hall. Why would he take this valuable skillset to a tiny office hidden in a corner of West Fresno?
Finally, there’s the matter of Jan. 5, 2017. That’s when District 6 Council Member Lee Brand is sworn in as Fresno’s next mayor. As Brand pointed out to me, technically it’s the city manager who is directly responsible for hiring someone such as Barfield for FAX. But, as we all know, the city manager is hired/fired by the mayor. Why would Swearengin (through Rudd) take the trouble to hire Barfield away from Baines and place him near the top of FAX’s organizational chart when she’s got only a few weeks left in office? Why would Barfield agree to go when the switch appears to hold little job security? And what does Brand think about events?
“I’ve always had very good experiences working with Greg,” Brand told me on Saturday.
That’s pretty much all Brand would say. I suggested that maybe Barfield’s move to FAX is a feint. That come early 2017, Barfield would move again, this time to a key position on the Brand team – deputy chief of staff, for example, or even the chief. After all, Barfield knows the City Hall ropes as well as anyone, and he’s got solid ties to many neighborhoods south of Shaw Avenue (not exactly Brand’s strong suit, at least at this point).
Brand said only that he would soon announce his staff picks.
“I will get the best and the brightest,” Brand said.
Barfield in our chat said now is a good time to leave his District 3 duties. Baines has two more years in his second term, but several big policy challenges in West Fresno are on the verge of being settled. Among them is completion of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan.
Barfield said he hasn’t talked to Brand about the move, but is confident that he’ll keep his new job as long as he produces. Barfield said he did meet personally with the chiefs of staff of the other six council members to inform them about his move.
Barfield said his FAX responsibilities will give him plenty of opportunity to use his political talents. FAX service is always a hot-button topic among residents. Riders want bus routes that go where they want to go. They want low fares. They want short wait times. The want safe and clean buses. They want safe and clean bus stops with protection from the elements. Politicians want to give all this to riders. But there’s only so much money to go around.
Expect Barfield to attend a lot of FAX-sponsored community meetings.
That means Barfield, if he’s made of stern stuff (and I have no doubt he is), will get an intense lesson in public transportation while further honing his people skills.
Someone else high in City Hall’s pecking order built a memorable career on that kind of experience.
The council on Thursday is slated to debate whether to name the FAX administration building after the current city manager – the Bruce Rudd Fresno Area Express building.
Rudd started his 40-year city career as a mechanic at the city yard. He rose steadily through the ranks, becoming director of transportation before moving to City Hall as an assistant city manager. He replaced Mark Scott as city manager in mid-2013.
“Bruce faces difficult challenges with intellect, collaboration and often grit,” states the enabling resolution. “He is tireless in his efforts to resolve issues that arise. His thoughtfulness, foresight, good nature, and excellent communication skills have been a reassuring force in Fresno City government over the last four decades.”
Hmmm, maybe Barfield’s move to FAX headquarters means he is destined in the near future to become an assistant city manager/city manager at Fresno City Hall.
Fort Rudd, springboard to success.
Photo by: Eric Paul Zamora, The Fresno Bee