Inside the crisis enveloping Fresno's workforce development agencies

Trying to train skilled workers for high-speed rail has provoked an all-out political war between Oliver Baines and Miguel Arias.

A “cascading crisis” is shaking things up among top officials at some of Fresno’s most powerful public institutions.

On the surface, workforce development and taxpayer money are the common threads. Beneath the surface, you have ambitious people who hate each other and aren’t shy (at least on background) about claiming evil motives in the other side.


For starters, we’re talking about City Hall, the local Economic Development Corporation, the local Economic Opportunities Commission and the bullet train. In the end, we’ll be talking about political supremacy.

Let’s get to the particulars of our cascading crisis:

High-Speed Rail delivers a workforce development headache

Fresno and our part of the Valley have had major challenges with the overall quality of the workforce for what seems like forever. For the past half-century we’ve heard our region described incessantly as “Appalachia West.” The poor and the disadvantaged – many of them people of color, many of them living in segregated neighborhoods – are doomed to permanent despair because they don’t have the training to land (and keep) good-paying jobs.

Government over the decades has invested billions in workforce training for our region. Nothing ever worked as promised. Local leaders are always looking for something new and better when it comes to workforce training.

California voters in November 2008 approved Proposition 1A. That was the bullet train vote. The construction project would begin in Fresno and vicinity.

Former Fresno police officer Oliver Baines in 2010 defeated Mike Briggs for the Fresno City Council District 3 seat. Jobs and workforce development were pivotal themes in Baines’ campaign.

On Jan. 6, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown and then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin joined other dignitaries in an empty lot on G Street for the official groundbreaking for the bullet train, the first transportation project of its kind in the United States. The first part of the project is supposed to cost about $10 billion. Lots of good-paying jobs are to be funded with taxpayer money. These jobs require skilled labor.

When you talk about good paying, high-skill jobs on government construction projects in California, you’re talking about union jobs. Unions decide who gets in the unions and who doesn’t.

Bringing Baines and ‘Mandela’ to the table

At about the time of the bullet train ceremony, perhaps a bit earlier, Lee Ann Eager had a series of conversations with key figures. Eager is chief executive of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. People call it the EDC. The EDC is one of the most important players locally in job creation, job retention and workforce training. Eager spoke with officials from the company in charge of building a big piece of the bullet train infrastructure in and near Fresno. Eager spoke with Baines – which only makes sense since the bullet train will run through a portion of District 3.

Eager, the contractor, and Baines came to a meeting of the minds: Everyone’s got to do all they can to deliver top-notch job-training to the disadvantaged of Fresno and the county so they have a legitimate shot at getting some of those high-paying construction jobs on the bullet train project.

At about the same time that the bullet train project moved from theory to action, Baines played a key role in the creation of a job-training program called Valley Apprenticeship Connections. VAC became affiliated with Fresno Career Development Institute.

In the wake of the January 2015 bullet train ceremony, Eager was told about a successful job-training program based in Oakland called the Mandela Center. The Mandela Center was founded soon after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The idea was to provide intense, high-quality job training to local disadvantaged men and women so they could get jobs rebuilding the Bay Area. Folks tell me the Mandela Center succeeded. The earthquake work is gone. The Mandela Center, however, continues to pursue its workforce-training mission in other sectors. The Mandela Center is said to have close contacts with the unions. That’s another way of saying the Mandela Center is reputed to be good at placing its graduates with hard-to-please unions.

Eager and local officials made several trips to Oakland to check out the Mandela Center. Baines also visited the center. All came home with one thought: Fresno needs a Mandela Center.

Enter the EOC

The Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, generally known simply as the EOC, has been deeply involved in workforce training since its birth during the heyday of LBJ’s Great Society. The EOC in 2017 is an immense organization, spending about $125 million a year on a variety of social-service programs. The EOC is so big it can afford to be expansion-minded. Like a private-sector conglomerate, it drops under-performing programs while adding new and promising programs.

The EOC is governed by a board. Board members come from a variety of backgrounds. By and large, the EOC board is made up of minorities. EOC headquarters is located a stone’s throw from site of the January 2015 bullet train ceremony. Much of the EOC’s work is done in West Fresno. It’s not a stretch to say EOC’s top management since the 1960s has had a decided African-American influence. During my days at The Bee, I occasionally came across old stories about the EOC’s birth pains.

The EOC quite naturally looked at the bullet train project as a way to further its workforce-training mission and better serve its clients.

In the wake of the January 2015 bullet train ceremony, officials at the High-Speed Rail Authority acknowledged that they had a responsibility to “mitigate” local workforce-training challenges. In a nutshell, Authority officials wanted to give money to help train the disadvantaged for those good paying construction jobs.

The Authority set aside $832,000 for this training in Fresno and the county. This would be “seed” money. The cost of training big numbers of high-risk individuals for bullet train construction jobs obviously would run into the millions. The question: Who gets the Authority’s seed money, and how does the recipient spend it?

We’re dealing with 2015 and 2016 at this point. There’s a lot happening. Baines was reelected to a second term in 2014. He took the oath of office in 2015. Termed-out Council Member Lee Brand in 2016 was elected mayor, succeeding the termed-out Swearengin. Brand, like Baines six years earlier, made jobs and workforce training key planks in his campaign platform. And Eager at EDC was making great progress in 2015-2016 in wooing Amazon to build a fulfillment center in Fresno – an effort that would, in tandem with the bullet train project, reconfigure local workforce training strategy.

Baines enters EOC’s orbit

Pretty soon, Baines’ Valley Apprenticeship Connections made a dramatic move. VAC came under the umbrella of the EOC. It’s not clear to me when this happened, or the economic consequences of the move. I do know several EOC board members say they were kept in the dark about the merger until after it was a done deal. They told me the merger was the work of EOC Chief Executive Brian Angus. The result: Bad blood between Angus and some board members. Since VAC is Baines’ baby, he’s involved in the bad blood. Baines has his supporters on the EOC board. These supporters become part of the bad blood. LaShawn Baines, Oliver Baines’ wife, was a board member until the end of 2016.

Daniel Parra was elected chairman of the EOC board for 2017. His election in some circles was considered an upset.

Angus on Jan. 3, 2017 hired Baines as a consultant for EOC. The initial contract (a sole source contract, I should add) was for six months. Angus and Baines signed a six-month extension in July. The extension expires on Dec. 29, 2017. I have a copy of the contract. Baines is to be paid $60 an hour; the maximum payout is $60,000 (the amount didn’t change when the extension was signed, Angus told me on Tuesday).

The job of Fresno City Council member is supposed to be a fulltime gig. The annual salary is $65,000 (a bit more for the council president). However, it’s the norm for council members to have second jobs. Nor is it unusual for elected public officials to have job/policy-making connections to the EOC. Para is mayor pro-tem in Fowler. EOC board member Miguel Arias is a member of the State Center Community College board.

The contract calls for Baines to be a “special assistant” to Angus. It also calls for Baines to “lead the Central Valley Mandela Center program development effort, assuring the prudent expansion and integration of education, workforce development and job creation activities associated with, but not limited to, High Speed Rail within Fresno EOC. The Special Assistant shall provide overall guidance and support for the Central Valley Mandela Center program development, including site selection, union partnerships, curriculum adoption, interviewing and recommending key personnel for the administration and operation of the Center, negotiating local partner agreements, and securing the necessary resources to sustain, grow, and meet the demands for its services…. The Special Assistant shall represent Fresno EOC in meetings and negotiations with local, state, national, and international partners, consultants, officials and interested private parties to promote the Fresno EOC Central Valley Mandela Center.” Several EOC board members told me they were blindsided by the Angus-Baines partnership.

Obviously, Angus very much wanted the Mandela Center and the High-Speed Rail Authority’s $832,000 under the EOC’s umbrella. But the contract calls for Baines to do much more than lobby for the Mandela Center. The contract’s second page lists nine specific tasks for Baines that appear to have little to do with the Mandela Center and everything to do with EOC core operations. For example: “The Special Assistant shall be accountable for the high quality submission of all donor-related and funder requirements, meeting internal and externally-imposed deadlines.” Another example: The Special Assistant “Holds debriefings with proposal teams to identify and document lessons learned and best practices for program development efforts.” A final example: “Working closely with the Agency’s Administration, workforce and education providers (the Special Assistant shall) explore and solicit potential funding to determine feasibility for strategic initiatives prioritized by Fresno EOC including those that will support key city, county, and regional development opportunities.”

Tough realities ahead

The challenge for Angus is that hiring Baines (who is said to have considerable influence with Mandela Center officials in Oakland) isn’t, by itself, enough to guarantee that the Mandela Center and the High-Speed Rail Authority’s $832,000 actually come to the EOC. The Economic Development Corporation’s Eager told me that the Authority’s $832,000 won’t be released to the EDC until the EDC board decides where the Mandela Center should go (as I understand it, the Mandela Center folks in Oakland would provide a template for a workforce training facility, but on-the-ground operations would be provided by a local institution capable of handling such a big job). In addition to the EOC, Eager told me, the local Workforce Investment Board and Fresno City College could be in the mix. And who knows? Perhaps the EDC itself will create a new entity capable of operating the Mandela Center and spending the bullet train’s $832,000 in seed money.

Then, again, there’s no guarantee the bullet train as envisioned by Proposition 1A will ever get built. Much more likely is continued conflict on the EOC board. More than one person familiar with the situation said it’s turning into a “brown-black” fight – Hispanics vs. African-Americans. It’s indicative of the bitterness that each side charges the other side with inciting such inflammatory strife. Eager said she and her board are holding off on picking a Mandela Center/$832,000 winner until they can ensure that the selection has stability at the top. (Eager is on the EOC board.)

The Fresno City Council is scheduled to conduct a workshop at 10:15 a.m. Thursday on high-speed rail/workforce development. I don’t see how the council members can hold such a workshop and ignore all of the above. (The workshop is sponsored by Council Member Steve Brandau, who is an EDC board member.)

Finally, there’s politics

Baines is termed out in January 2019. Angus told me that he might retire in 2019. I asked Baines if he’d like to be EOC’s next chief executive. Baines said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do after leaving the council.

Baines is African-American. The District 3 seat has traditionally (but not always) been held by an African-American; West Fresno is the historic heart of Fresno’s African-American community. But District 3 is much bigger than West Fresno. District 3 in the south almost touches Fowler. It stretches in the northwest to the relatively new suburbs west of Highway 99. District 3’s demographics, like the demographics of Fresno in general, are changing.

For those who like identity politics, District 3 is becoming a Hispanic district (Mike Krikorian, a former colleague of mine at The Bee, wrote about this trend nearly 20 years ago). There’s considerable chatter at City Hall that EOC board member Arias will throw his hat into the District 3 race. If Arias were to win, I wouldn’t be surprised (based on my research) if Baines ran against him in the 2022 race. The relationship between the two is that toxic. The relationship between the supporters of those two at EOC is that toxic, as well. But the District 3 seat is just a minor prize in this fight.

The real political power in Fresno resides in the mayor’s office. The Brand vs. Perea fight, and what it represents for the future of Fresno’s governance, will never end.

  1. This is a complete embarrassment to the city of Fresno, the District 3 community and The Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC) agency. An opportunity that would provide training to people for sustainable jobs, positive development in a community and revenue growth being torn down and ripped a part by those who have taken their personal agendas and their personal fighting and airing it out to the public and inside the organizations to which they serve.

    This is by far not what the people in District 3 are wanting now nor in the future representing us. The political arena for some has proven to bring nothing more than poison into where they serve. It is things like this that will continue to bring us down and having those wanting to invest in our city and/or community to pass us up.

    Thank you,

  2. Just one more example of misspent tax payer dollars by bloated mismanaged governmental agencies. Gives new meaning to ‘just follow the money’….always. If the Federal or State Govenment has anything to do with any kind of project you can better believe there will chicanery and obfuscation going on. Nothing different here.

  3. I do not see Oliver Baines working hard enough for his district. Why aren’t more of his constituents being trained for these high-paying, high-demand jobs? All of us should be up in arms over this type of malfeasance of taxpayer money. I want to see more being done for the people in southwest Fresno.

  4. I don’t see anything but shadiness with the EOC trying to get that money, as if they didn’t receive enough already. I smell corruption, also that amount of money from the high speed rail is crums compared to what they received. As if theyll High Speed Rail want to make up for the fact that they’re not providing enough local jobs.

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