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Crises pushing public safety front-and-center in Mayoral battle

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Here’s my guess on the relative importance of two issues in Fresno’s mayoral race.

First, the discolored-water controversy in North Fresno will soon blow over. Come Nov. 8, the vast majority of voters won’t give it a second thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I empathize with residents who for months, if not years, have turned on certain faucets in their homes only to have murky water emerge. City officials publicly addressing the issue in February said the stuff in the water includes iron, zinc, copper and lead.

These justifiably outraged residents, and others in North Fresno who fear their taps may be next, have in the last few months held City Hall’s feet to the fire. Good for them.

And good for The Bee’s Tim Sheehan, whose deeply researched and clearly written reporting on the issue has been stunning. A long-time friend emailed me a few months ago suggesting I dig into the story. I procrastinated. Glad I did – no way I could have matched Sheehan’s work.

That being said, I can’t help viewing the discolored water controversy as a routine big-city management challenge and, if editors aren’t careful, a journalistic quagmire.

The problem appears to affect housing units numbering in the dozens. This in an area of town with tens of thousands of housing units. City officials say the water – once the faucet has been allowed to run for a bit – is safe to drink. City officials (and the City Council) say they’re working hard to pinpoint the reason(s) for the discoloration. Solutions will follow.

The city has set aside $750,000 to help residents get new water fixtures and household pipes. Some of the money is for rebates. Some is for low-interest loans. City Manager Bruce Rudd said the two programs will be rolled out soon.

Isn’t all this the fundamental reality of modern life? Fresno City Hall oversees a huge, complex, ever-changing built environment – infrastructure, in other words. Trouble happens. Always has, always will.

The key is having a government, a people and a culture of expertise to respond effectively. I’m betting that’s what we’ve got here. The impacted residents’ thunder, most certainly valued in our democracy, will fade.

We’re down to two candidates to succeed Mayor Ashley Swearengin. There’s Council Member Lee Brand, whose District 6 is home to many of the homes with the discolored water. And there’s Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea.

The city’s has had its water problems under Brand’s watch. The county’s has had its water problems – more than City Hall, if my sources are correct – under Perea’s watch.

All these water problems, serious as they are, can be mind-numbingly complicated.

Do Brand and Perea really want to spend their precious war chests over the next 16 weeks smearing the other guy with ever more nuanced charges of water mismanagement?

I think not.

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Second, Brand and Perea had best be thinking hard about the future of the Police Auditor. The two candidates may think this is a back-burner campaign issue. Powerful forces in the community may be thinking otherwise.

Public safety always is No. 1 in City Hall politics.

Recent officer-involved shootings across the nation have led to historic social tensions. The murder of five peace officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge have had the same effect, but from a different angle.

One of those officer-involved shootings occurred in Fresno, and has been much in the news.

If I may make a quick but serious aside, The Bee’s Sheehan again displayed his considerable talent on Sunday with an excellent piece on the role of police body cameras in the pursuit of justice. My only quibble is this sentence mid-way through the story: “Dyer (Police Chief Jerry Dyer) said he had originally planned to release the videos later that same afternoon, but a sniper’s ambush that killed five police officers and wounded seven more during an otherwise-peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas on July 7 prompted the chief to wait until tensions and emotions eased.”

“…otherwise peaceful….”? Does that qualifier, perhaps necessary for context at some point in the story, really belong immediately in the wake of a listing of the horrific toll on brave public servants in Dallas? And the sentence’s construction makes the reader think Dyer described the Black Lives Matter protest as “otherwise peaceful.” Until The Bee shows me otherwise, I will believe the Chief didn’t say that. Finally, I would love to know the thinking of the editors who gave that sentence their blessing.

Back to the police auditor and Campaign 2016. I won’t go into the long and convoluted history of Fresno’s police auditor. It’s sufficient to note that the position has never quite fulfilled anyone’s expectations.

Rick Rasmussen is the police auditor. I think he does a heck of a job. But he splits his time between Fresno and a job in Salt Lake City.

Rasmussen’s second quarter report for 2016 should be released in the next few days. The report may not refer to the shooting deaths of peace officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. It’ll be interesting to see if Rasmussen in the third-quarter report tackles the issue of officer-civilian relations and the death of Dylan Noble.

You’d think that is the police auditor’s job.

But that’s not my main point for Campaign 2016. I think the police auditor’s relatively low public profile ever since the position was initially funded (Eddie Aubrey in 2009 was the first police auditor) will become a campaign issue. Brand and Perea will be asked: As mayor, what will you do with the police auditor?

I think the intensity of recent national events involving police and civilians will force Fresno-based police critics to find an avenue of public expression and political pressure that doesn’t involve protest marches. I suspect marches, at least in Fresno, have been rendered irrelevant by the past few weeks.

I think the local critics know the landscape has changed. They will seek a policy issue that gives them an effective opportunity to delegitimize both the police and their elected superiors while maintaining the critics’ bona fides as citizens concerned about nothing more than prudent reform.

I think that policy issue is the police auditor. I think the critics will come to view the police auditor as their avenue to seats of power (something they wanted back in 2008-2009). From these seats, the critics can change how the Police Department is regulated and public safety services are delivered.

If I’m right, then Council Member Brand and Supervisor Perea had better know where they stand. Voters will be watching and listening.

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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