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Ellis joins Team Brand amid haze on rental housing fixes

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Fresno City Council Member–Elect Garry Bredefeld and I wrestled with an important policy question on Monday.

We came to no resolution. We didn’t realize it, but our answer is John Ellis.

Bredefeld, of course, will be the new District 6 council member come Dec. 3. He will succeed Lee Brand, who is moving across the hall to become mayor.

Brand’s first headache: Code enforcement, more specifically an inspection program for rental housing.

I view this whole code-enforcement issue as overblown. No one disputes the importance of City Hall oversight of rental housing. But, despite overripe reports in the media, the regulatory problem isn’t that serious. I see the Summerset apartments crisis as proof that the city’s code enforcement/emergency response process is impressively responsive. (Someone from PG&E or FIRM couldn’t have made a prompt phone call to City Hall to casually mention the cut-off of gas service?)

To borrow a military phrase, code enforcement is a secondary theater of operations in municipal government. Demagoguery in the public square took control of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s final months in office. Brand on Jan. 3 will find himself in the odd position of having to put code enforcement in its proper place so he regain the strategic initiative lost by Swearengin.

This is what spurred me to call Bredefeld on Monday.

My thinking, as I explained to Bredefeld, went like this: The City Council on Dec. 8 postponed a decision on Swearengin’s rental-inspection program until early February. The big challenge is coming up with something coherent. City Hall already has a beefed-up code enforcement division. Council Members Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier last month got legislation through the council (despite Swearengin’s opposition) that adds two unique and potentially powerful components to code enforcement. Next came Swearengin’s long and complex inspection proposal that includes a private-sector service provider who would essentially be a parallel code enforcement division. Then, on the eve of the Dec. 8 council meeting, housing activists with strong ties to certain City Hall powerbrokers threw an almost complete rewrite of Swearengin’s plan into the mix. Finally, the Dec. 8 hearing itself turned into one long public wailing session as overacting social justice warriors and outside politicians insisted that the council immediately approve something that had obviously turned into policy hash (why The Bee would unhinge itself by continuing the sobs in print escapes me).

In other words, this panic-filled, emotion-driven Keystone Kops affair is just like the Downtown stadium debate of the late 20th century.

Bredefeld was a council member back then. He ultimately saved the day. Whether you like the stadium deal that came to pass or not, the reality is that Bredefeld (with Council Member Henry R. Perea) filled a leadership vacuum at City Hall and got the issue settled. He took a lot criticism in certain conservative circles at the time. He took even more criticism during this year’s District 6 campaign. He didn’t waver way back when. He didn’t waver this fall. And the stadium got built.

So, I made a guess on Monday: Is Bredefeld, recognizing another leadership vacuum at City Hall (and in the media), going to propose from the dais in January the creation of a council-mayor reconciliation committee to hammer out a single workable code enforcement program from all the conflicting versions currently in the hopper?

This committee would contain no activists, no preachers, no developers. It would have no more than three council members to conform to the Brown Act. It would include the legislative side because Brand as mayor would have no business unilaterally imposing his will on the precedent set by the Brandau-Olivier resolution. And it would include Bredefeld because he knows how to fight.

“Well, Garry,” I said by phone on Monday, “are you going to do it?”

“No,” Bredefeld said.

It’s time to let Brand as mayor digest all the ideas and return to the council with a unified plan to fix code enforcement, Bredefeld said.

“We don’t need another committee,” Bredefeld said. “We’re past that.”

Bredefeld said City Hall should focus its mighty policing powers on those who abuse renters.

“We shouldn’t be going after the property owners and landlords who maintain their property,” Bredefeld said. “We must go after the slumlords and hold them accountable.”

At the same time, Bredefeld does have strong opinions on a pivotal part of the Swearengin proposal – the registry.

Section 10-1605 of Swearengin’s proposal begins: “All Residential Rental Properties are required to be registered annually.”

This chore includes an annual registration fee, the amount still to be determined.

“The City will establish a program to credit some portion or all of the Registration Fee towards payment of the Owner’s business license tax associated with operation of the registered Residential Rental Property,” Swearengin’s proposal states. (The proposal fails to add that business license taxes go to the general fund.)

Bredefeld made a point to tell me that “ I have a problem with the registry.” He said no law-abiding property-owner/landlord “need be or should be on any type of registry.”

I didn’t say mention this to Bredefeld, but it strikes me that the Swearengin proposal doesn’t work if the registration mandate is removed. How would City Hall pay for the business license tax rebate if there’s not a huge increase in the number of rental properties on the tax rolls (by some estimates, 15,000 rental units currently fail to generate any business license tax for the city)? How would City Hall know which place to periodically inspect without a registry covering the entire universe of rental units?

Perhaps, I thought, Bredefeld has already thought of this and is saving his answer for January.

Then, later on Monday, I realized there’s no need for outsiders or council members to worry about a reconciliation of competing code-enforcement reforms. John Ellis, my old buddy from The Bee newsroom, joins the Brand Administration next month to take on an important policy-making job.

His title is governmental affairs manager. I gather from my chats at City Hall that Ellis actually will have an Averell Harriman-type role – a trusted and experienced hand in all things relating to the crafting, selling and implementing of complex public policy.

Ellis will be paid $85,000 a year, Brand told me on Monday.

What better way for Ellis to immediately make his mark than to help fix code enforcement behind the scenes and ensure that his boss gets all the credit with voters?

I worked with Ellis for many years. He was an extremely talented reporter. He has always had the public’s interest in his heart. My only regret is that there’s not a John Ellis clone at The Bee. Let’s just say that the spectacle of John Ellis, the renowned political expert with decided philosophical leanings, voluntarily transferring his considerable talents to the administration of a mayor as conservative as Lee Brand would have provided the old John Ellis with irresistible fodder for years of biting commentary.

Tim Sheehan, duty calls.


Photo: iHeartMedia

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

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