The Fresno City Council is under fire from the local Black community for firing longtime City Clerk Yvonne Spence last month.
The Fresno Black Leadership Collective, a coalition of leaders within Fresno’s Black community, held a press conference in front of City Hall on Tuesday to call for accountability for the alleged mistreatment of high-ranking Black city employees, which it says is discriminatory.
Spence was ousted by a 4-3 vote during closed session on June 10 following nine years as clerk. She received six months of severance pay, totaling $70,000.
BT Lewis – the pastor at southwest Fresno’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church – said the firing was a “grave injustice” against Spence, who was the city’s first Black city clerk, and it “points to a broader issue of anti-Black racism that is pervasive” throughout both the city and Fresno County.
“No other city clerk in the history of the City of Fresno has been so unceremoniously terminated without clear documented cause, and [the] majority of our city council voted to dismiss Ms. Spence,” Lewis said.
“This was a misappropriation of their power that employed a methodology that was cruel, unprofessional and further affirms concerns of Fresno’s Black citizens that Black people are being deliberately and strategically eliminated from the few positions of power and influence we once held in this city and in this county.”
Council members Miguel Arias, Garry Bredefeld, Nelson Esparza and Esmeralda Soria voted to axe Spence.
When City Attorney Doug Sloan announced the council’s decision to remove Spence, he did not provide any reason behind the move.
Lewis said that while the coalition of Black leaders does not know the reasoning behind the council’s decision, he said it is clear that there was insufficient evidence to support a vote of no confidence.
“Fresno City Council’s actions are deliberately antithetical to building a community of unity and oneness in our city, a thing our mayor promotes and supports,” Lewis said.
While Spence is not seeking to regain her position with the city, Lewis said the collective hopes that the city council “will choose to do everything possible to make this tremendous injustice right with her and with her family.”
Despite heavy criticism thrown at Fresno’s City Council, the assembled Black leaders called on Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer to establish an anti-racism task force to address concerns of mistreatment and discrimination of Black officials within City Hall.
In addition to the request for a new taskforce, the collective also had four demands:
- That the city council accept responsibility for the “ridiculous action of dismissal” of Spence.
- A third-party audit of city hiring and dismissal practices over the last 20 years, which will “highlight demographical injustice and trends with truth and equity for everyone.”
- The formation of a task-force that will receive and review hiring and dismissal policies and procedures of the city to “ensure that people are treated fairly and humanely, in spite of personality and cultural differences.”
- That the city create a strategy for employee evaluation, discipline and credential consideration that will “encourage the hiring of qualified candidates and negate practices of favoritism that are too common in the City of Fresno’s hiring practices.”
Notably, City Hall has four high-ranking Black officials, split under the executive and legislative branch: Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy and Assistant City Manager Greg Barfield work in the executive branch, while Senior Deputy City Clerk Raven Dunlap and Chief Assistant City Attorney Tina Griffin report under the legislative branch.
Since both Grundy and Barfield work in the Dyer administration, Lewis was not concerned that they were facing discrimination or mistreatment for their skin color.
“There’s a difference in the mayor’s office and the council, and if you notice Fresno politics, the mayor’s office and the city council are also on different pages. We have developed a good working relationship with Mayor Dyer,” Lewis told The Sun.
“Some of the decisions the council is making – it inclines us to believe that they are not as supportive of Black leadership in our community. Mayor Dyer has done some things to show his support of Black leadership. We don’t want to be erased in this community and left out because we’re such a small percentage of the community. We want to still be at the table and be counted, and I think there’s a difference in [the] mayor’s office and City Council.”
Two councilmembers who voted to dismiss Spence – Arias and Esparza – are up for reelection next year.
Collective leaders said they are monitoring the redistricting process and look forward to working with council members to address their concerns.
In a statement, Dyer focused his efforts at the newly-authorized Office of Community Affairs to gin up diversity initiatives.
“As you can see within my administration, I have been very focused on hiring a team that reflects the diversity of Fresno — to include an African American deputy mayor and assistant city manager, as well as a Latino city manager and police chief,” he said.
“The Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs will also reflect Fresno’s rich diversity and work with our personnel department and community groups to ensure our hiring and promotional process is inclusive.”