Fresno voters have a lot of studying to do if they hope to make sense of the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
The same can be said of their elected officials at City Hall.
I refer you to the Aug. 9 City Council meeting. As expected, the council voted to send the Fresno for Parks sales tax initiative to the voters. Green space advocates will now try to convince at least two-thirds of the electorate to approve a three-eighths cent hike to the sales tax to fund expanded parks and arts programs.
But that’s not the only policy-themed decision to be kicked to the top of the democratic chain of command. The council also wants the electorate to consider revising the city’s governing document, the City Charter.
In separate actions last week, the council voted to place two Charter amendments on the November ballot.
The first is a grab bag of what might be termed housekeeping chores. The Charter contains several provisions that have come to be superseded by state or federal law. City Hall’s thinking: It’s time to sweep these outdated and unenforceable rules into the dustbin of history.
The second is a vow to always produce a balanced budget.
Even as he voted in favor of it, Council Member Clint Olivier said of the first proposed Charter amendment, “It just seems silly.” His judgment might apply to the second, as well.
Let’s begin with the omnibus amendment, authored by Council President Esmeralda Soria.
It deals with four specific but unconnected Charter sections. There’s a provision prohibiting off-year campaign contributions. There’s a provision requiring the city manager to live in Fresno. There’s a provision banning residential water meters. And there’s a provision requiring the council to raise taxes in mid-fiscal year should it be discovered that the budget is unbalanced.
City Attorney Doug Sloan gave the background on Soria’s idea.
“The Charter has been around for a long time,” Sloan said. “And over time we’ve become aware that there are a few provisions in the Charter that are no longer enforceable – they have been preempted by state or federal law or court decisions.”
A federal appellate court ruled in a Texas case that restrictions on off-year campaign contributions are a violation of free-speech rights. The California Constitution limits residency requirements to elected officials. Federal laws concerning river water allocations long ago made the residential water meter issue irrelevant in Fresno. And Proposition 218 stops the City Council from raising taxes without a vote of the people.
“All of these things don’t really change policy,” Sloan said. “They’re currently not enforceable the way they are. But, in our opinion, we’re better off having a Charter that reflects current law.”
The four Charter changes would come to voters as a single question: “yes” or “no.”
Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim was the only audience member to speak on the issue. (Permit me to note with great admiration that Vagim prefaced his comments with a reminder to the council that Aug. 9 was the 73rd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Vagim did not voice an opinion on President Truman’s decision to use the weapon. Vagim simply said, “I just want everybody to remember the monumental events that should never be forgotten by this nation.” Nor should we ever forget “the people to who serve this nation and take those awful wars on,” Vagim said.)
Vagim’s basic point was that all four Charter sections “are still valid.” He said the council should “be brave enough” to send each of the four sections to a separate vote by the people.
In the end, the council voted 6-1 to bundle the four into a single ballot measure and put it on the November ballot. Council Member Steve Brandau, who opposed the bundling idea, voted no.
But it was Olivier who best captured the nature of the debate. He pointed out that the voters might very well reject the bundled Charter amendments. He asked Sloan where that would put City Hall. Sloan replied that City Hall would be right back where it started: A city with a governing document with several sections that must be ignored because they’re unenforceable.
“It just seems silly,” Olivier said.
Before we leave Soria’s Omnibus Charter Amendment, keep in mind the current Charter’s specific language regarding balanced budgets. It’s Section 1207: “On or before the last Tuesday in August each year, the Council, shall, by ordinance, levy such tax as may be necessary to meet the appropriations made….”
That’s context to the next Charter amendment considered by the Council on Aug. 9 – the Balanced Budget Charter Amendment authored by Brandau and Mayor Lee Brand.
Brandau said his inspiration was the revelation during June budget hearings that City Hall, although routinely producing a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, is not mandated by law to do so.
“I think that legislative bodies all across our nation, from city councils to the federal legislative bodies, should strive to produce a balanced budget – to live within their means,” Brandau said.
This Charter amendment would prohibit the approval of an unbalanced budget.
Assistant City Manager Jane Sumpter, a former finance director for the city, went to the public microphone and briefly explained the concept of balance: If you match expenditure and income, you’re balanced; if you have more income than expenditure, you’re balanced; if you spend more than you take in, you’re unbalanced.
(Or, as Dickens wrote: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”)
In her years at City Hall, Sumpter said, she’s never seen the City Council/Administration deliver an unbalanced budget to the people who elected them.
The debate then went in an unusual direction. Soria said it’s been her experience on the dais that the council at budget hearings will vote to spend money on things not proposed by the mayor. The mayor then figures out where to cut so that the council’s demands can be met without unbalancing budget.
Soria said the Brand-Brandau amendment might put an end to such council privilege. She said a future Administration might refuse to make cuts to accommodate council demands.
“Now the burden is on the council to figure out what other appropriations we’re going to have to reduce in order to present a balanced budget,” Soria said.
Soria didn’t like the prospect of that responsibility.
City Attorney Sloan and Council Member Luis Chavez tactfully explained that that’s the way representative self-government works at Fresno City Hall. It all boils down to the Dan Ronquillo Rule: We get five votes (veto-proof), we can do what we want – and live or die by our decisions. If we don’t like it, we’re in the wrong job.
The Mayor spoke briefly in favor of the amendment.
“It sends a message to our credit agencies and really anybody here who runs for office to fundamentally say: ‘I support a balanced budget,’” Brand said. “To vote against that would not be anything I would want on my record. But I leave it to you.”
The council on a 4-3 vote sent the proposed amendment to the November ballot. Soria, Oliver Baines and Paul Caprioglio voted no.
I thought as I watched the council video: Is it even possible to produce an unbalanced budget? If so, who in their right mind would do so?
As city officials make clear every June, a budget is just a prediction. A calculated prediction based on long experience, to be sure, but a guess nonetheless.
It’s my limited experience at budget hearings that the true nonsense comes when revenues are estimated. As the Soria statements suggest, there’s always immense political pressure to spend money. The easiest solution is to maximize predicted revenues in June, get the budget signed, sealed and delivered by July 1, then worry six months down the road when the money tree doesn’t blossom as planned.
That’s why the wording of Charter Section 1207 seems so strange. How could city leaders, a mere eight weeks (“on or before the last Tuesday in August”) into a new fiscal year, know for sure that predicted revenues were going to fall short of predicted expenditures and by how much? Were the city leaders who crafted Section 1207 so cynical as to figure they could routinely manufacture a hidden funding crisis during budget hearings, then collect on that crisis two months later by unilaterally raising taxes and justifying their action on a City Charter mandate?
I don’t see how a Charter amendment is going to fix the very human tendency to create unreasonable or unscrupulous revenue estimates. I’m not pointing fingers at any particular administration. I am saying I’ve seen plenty of past budgets that counted on the city selling the Blosser and Palm Lakes properties.
I don’t recall hearing much from Council Member Garry Bredefeld on the video. Too bad he didn’t speak up.
First, Bredefeld could have given Soria a lesson in how a council unafraid to take a stand can grab control of City Hall policy from a strong mayor. Bredefeld was one of five council members in 2000 who voted to build the nearly $50 million Chukchansi Park despite the intense opposition of Mayor Jim Patterson.
Second, Bredefeld could have given everyone in the Council Chamber a lesson on the fleeting nature of budget predictions, especially from the revenue side. The public in 2000 was won over to the more expensive of two stadium proposals by an elaborate formula for funding the $3.5 million in annual debt on the construction bonds.
The formula was heavy on tenant rent and light on general fund expenditures. The reality has been just the reverse.
To paraphrase Council Member Olivier, all this posturing seems very silly.