Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld is calling for an audit into how each Fresno lawmaker utilizes their respective budgets.
Bredefeld held a press conference Thursday morning at City Hall to detail the spending patterns of four of his fellow council members – Esmeralda Soria, Miguel Arias, Tyler Maxwell and Nelson Esparza, who he refers to as the Gang of Four – accusing them of using their $700,000 district budgets as “slush funds” for personal use.
“They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on restaurants, meals, consultants, gifting of public funds, creating campaign brochures, campaign materials, direct mailers and have tens of thousands of dollars in unexplained charges from major retail companies like Amazon, like Wal-Mart, like Costco,” Bredefeld said.
Each councilmember has a $700,000 budget to spend for various district expenses, they also receive a $5,000 stipend for meals and gas mileage to go along with their $80,000 salary.
Bredefeld said the Gang of Four can afford to pay for lunch on their own dime, not from taxpayer money, and called them “dishonest and unethical incumbents” who use the slush funds for political gain and accused them of attempting to buy votes.
“These folks have forgotten who they work for,” Bredefeld said. “They think they were elected kings and queens and that this is their personal slush funds. It is not. This is the taxpayer money. We ought to respect it. We ought to respect them, and that’s not happening. I’m not going to sit silently as this continues to go on.”
Councilmembers Mike Karbassi and Luis Chavez were not a target of Bredefeld’s press conference because their expenditures were “not as egregious as the other four.”
Most of Bredefeld’s focus Thursday was on the city credit cards that are given to each councilmember and the lack of oversight over how they are used.
Bredefeld said he declined to take a city credit card and was the lone council member to do so.
In an effort to fix the problem of what he considers wasteful spending, Bredefeld is placing two items on the agenda for the council meeting next week.
First, Bredefeld will seek to have the council authorize an outside forensic audit of all council budgets and expenditures over the last three years.
If the council removes the proposal from the agenda, which Bredefeld expects, he can pay for an audit out of his district’s budget. If the audit costs more than $50,000, he would need the approval from the rest of the council.
His second agenda item would direct the city controller and city manager to rescind all council credit cards.
Bredefeld said he would also like to see each councilmember limited to having two staff members and to have the district budgets cut to $250,000, which would save $3.1 million annually.
In a statement, Mayor Jerry Dyer said he will discuss the potential for an external audit with City Manager Georgeanne White.
“Anytime these types of allegations are brought forth they create an enormous amount of concern and if not addressed appropriately can create a tremendous amount of distrust by the community of its government,” Dyer said. “We have detailed administrative orders in place that establish uniform standards and procedures related to the issuance and use of credit cards as well as reimbursement of expenditures related to City business. These standards apply to all who are issued a City credit card.
“The City Manager and I will be discussing the appropriate level of review to include an independent external audit. This is to ensure that expenditures by all City of Fresno credit cardholders comply with current policies and to identify best practices.”
A breakdown of the “egregious” spending
Many of the charges the councilmembers submitted to the city were food-related.
Arias and Soria combined for over $14,000 in restaurant and meal bills. That includes charges by Soria for $991.04 at Max’s Bistro, $110 at Ampersand Ice Cream Shop, $260.63 at Doug-Out Cookies and $1,212.85 total at Nothing Bundt Cakes. Arias’ food expenses include a $434.84 charge at El Patio Mexican Food and $107.16 spent at Edible Arrangements.
Soria’s expenses also include $1,775 for flowers, $1,113 for catering at a Fresno Grizzlies suite, $200 for movie tickets for her interns and $500 to pay for photography for a December gift giveaway event.
“She attends the Grizzlies suite and caters it on the taxpayer dime for over $1,100,” Bredefeld said. “Now I’ve gone to the Grizzlies suite and taken my staff out, and you know what? I’ve paid for it myself, never thought to put it on the taxpayer dime.”
Arias paid $66,334 to Dr-Graphix for various items such as magnets, stickers, lapel pins and tote bags, as well as $1,551 for toilet rentals for an event and $2,094 for catering at a Grizzlies game.
Bredefeld also took a jab at the pair for taking a trip together to visit New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We of course know that several years ago she took a trip for $2,400 to visit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Miguel Arias to do their pilgrimage to their socialist hero,” Bredefeld said. “That was on the taxpayer dime.”
Bredefeld called out Maxwell for creating a 16-page year-in-review booklet that his staff initially handed out door-to-door.
“That violates the mass mailing laws,” Bredefeld said. “I asked our city attorney. He said, ‘Yes, they can’t do that.’ And then he went and told Mr. Maxwell he can’t do that, and Mr. Maxwell apparently said, ‘Well we’ll hand them out at corners.’ But that’s how emboldened these folks are. That’s the level of arrogance and stupidity that goes on down here – taxpayer funded brochures.”
Maxwell also spent thousands of dollars in community events and gifts, such as Fall Fest, Beat the Heat, Welcome to the Circus, Make a Splash Extravaganza, Island Party and Live Music and Operation Gobble, and he used funds to pay for gifts such as food, candy, toys and bicycles.
“He holds these events, he looks like he’s Santa Claus on steroids giving out all kinds of gifts on the taxpayer dime, and all he’s doing is promoting himself,” Bredefeld said.
Maxwell also spent $60.94 of taxpayer funds on an ugly Christmas sweater.
Esparza racked up expenses related to his election as the Fresno City Council President in January – a position that rotates between the council members every year.
Esparza spent $4,000 to develop a council president logo and $2,300 for a catered reception celebrating his ascension to the presidency.
The council prescient also spent $3,675 on candy apples for Halloween events and $600 for a 50-inch Samsung television for his office.
“These four will justify this,” Bredefeld said. “They will come up with all kinds of rationalizations, how they’re doing such great work in the community. And as Tyler Maxwell said to me once, ‘I’m just giving people back their money.’
“Well I think they’d rather have a check than a bag of candy corn. I just think so.”
While Bredefeld went after the Gang of Four for their spending, his office had expenses including $180 at Westwoods BBQ and $56.05 at Deli Delicious and $75.82.
Karbassi and Chavez had restaurant and food-related charges as well. Karbassi’s included $77.84 at Dog House Grill, close to $1,000 in several trips to the Elbow Room and around $150 in two trips to Max’s Bistro.
Some of Chavez’s restaurant expenses include over $600 in two trips to DiCicco’s, three trips to Dog House Grill for over $200 and seven visits to Knocky’s Bar and Grill for over $700.
Esparza, Maxwell respond
After Bredefeld’s press conference wrapped up, Esparza and Maxwell sent out a joint statement condemning Bredefeld for his “baseless attacks” on the four councilmembers.
“Fresno City Council operational budgets are approved every year through our City’s formal budget process and approved by a majority of the Council to be utilized for staffing and district needs,” the statement reads.
“Additionally, our City Attorney’s office routinely reviews council expenditures and has not found any misuse of Council funds. It is up to each Council member to determine the needs of their district and budget accordingly. Ultimately, each Council member will be held accountable by their constituencies, not an irrelevant Council member.”