Few programs funded by the taxpayers of the City of Fresno are so controversial that they stoke criminal threats against the lawmakers tasked with financing them.
Then again, few are built on such novel – and equally controversial – concepts as to use taxpayer funds to pay stipends to would-be gang members to avoid gun violence.
But none are quite like Fresno’s Advance Peace initiative, which was the intense subject of Monday’s budget hearings at Fresno City Hall.
Last week, Mayor Jerry Dyer’s administration announced it was pulling its support (worth $950,000 in taxpayer funding in 2021) from Advance Peace following the arrest of one of its employees for the conspiracy to commit two murders and criminal threats made against at least one council member from someone in the program.
Monday, Dyer appeared to flip on his administration’s view – backing off from the hard line opposition expressed by City Manager Georgeanne White – on the problematic gang violence prevention program.
Early into the City’s police budget presentation by Police Chief Paco Balderrama, Dyer stepped in to present the appropriation of $950,000 for a violence prevention grant program.
After laying out the rationale for the program, Fresno City Council member Miguel Arias sought to “address the elephant in the room.”
“Do you intend to fund Advance Peace in the upcoming RFP that you just described?” Arias asked Dyer.
Dyer specifically noted that he expects the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC), the organization that operates Advance Peace, to apply for the funds, as well as other anti-gang violence organizations.
“I don’t want to taint that RFP process, which I could do up here – very easily,” Dyer said, deflecting the question.
Arias sought to continue the examination of Dyer, before he was briefly cut off by Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza.
Arias pressed on.
“Do you support Advance Peace?”
“Miguel, don’t – you know – you know I support their work,” Dyer shot back as Esparza tried to tamp down discussion.
“Let me just say publicly, Advance Peace intervention specialists have done some great work out there. I know for a fact they’ve stopped shootings.”
City Council target of threats from Advance Peace leaders revealed
After hours of public comment – largely in support of maintaining taxpayer funding of Advance Peace – Arias revealed that he was the target of the threats from the program.
The criminal threats, however, did not entirely dissuade him from supporting the program’s mission.
Instead, Dyer’s declared support of the program likely opened the door for Arias to support giving the program a second chance to clean up its act.
“Not that I don’t take my safety serious, because I have a responsibility to my family, but we can’t simply settle on the perception of safety,” Arias said. “There has to be actual safety. There has to be an actual reduction in crime, and I find it very hard to dismiss a program that may not be working to my expectations and simply walk away from it.”
Assuming the Fresno EOC applies for the grant funds and receives them, Dyer said the program would have to meet certain standards set by the city, effectively giving the city the needed oversight that is lacking under the current model and led to the funds being pulled last week.
In that vein, Arias made a motion to make Advance Peace eligible for the $950,000, which received a second by Council President Nelson Esparza.
The council will vote on all budget motions during Thursday’s regularly-scheduled meeting.
“There’s no clear winners today. We have a responsibility to do what’s right by everyone,” Arias said. “So we’ll make Advance Peace eligible for those funds, and for other gang prevention programs, and we will request that those funds not be expended until that program comes to this city council for approval. Nobody gets a blank check in this world, whether it’s the community, or whether it’s a department. And I want to request that we come back within 30 days with the proposal.”