This is the second installment of a four-part series on Mayor Lee Brand’s first year in office, entitled Year One. Read the first installment here and the second installment here.
Lee Brand had been mayor of Fresno for all of three weeks when, in late January 2017, he drove to The Fresno Bee on E Street for a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board.
I sat in on my share of such meetings during my years at The Bee as a reporter. The public figure in the hot seat is usually forewarned about likely topics to be discussed. Everything is on the record.
Brand was no rookie in this arena. He’d been to The Bee as a council member for policy discussions. But being the mayor is a whole new ballgame.
Brand had come to talk about his Rental Housing Improvement Act, slated to go to the City Council the following week.
I’ll let Brand take it from there.
“It’s a minute, 59 seconds to go in a 60-minute interview,” Brand told me in a recent interview. “They say, ‘Oh, one final question: Is Fresno a sanctuary city?’ There’s a microphone and (video) camera. That was the start of the culture wars that dominated the entire political scene for the entire year.”
Brand answered the question – he had no plans to make Fresno a sanctuary city because such an action might jeopardize federal funding from the administration of President Trump – but it satisfied no one. Twenty-four hours later, protestors were chanting in front of City Hall. A week later, Brand was making a long public statement about how America is a “beacon of hope and freedom to the rest of the world.”
The man who was elected mayor on a platform of jobs, cops and fiscal prudence had suddenly and inexplicably found himself in the middle of a geopolitical firestorm.
“For me, the challenge in my first year as mayor was: Keep the city focused on city business,’” Brand told me. “It is so easy to get engaged ideologically on either side. But that does not advance the city agenda.”
There was plenty of excitement for the new mayor in 2017. After beating Henry R. Perea in the tough 2016 general election, Brand was understandably all smiles as he took the oath of office on Jan. 5. In the course of 12 months, he enjoyed major victories like the Rental Housing Act, the Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board, a major upgrade in the city’s credit rating and the arrival of the huge Ulta Beauty and Amazon distribution centers.
But advancing the overall city agenda generally meant an incessant slog in the political and administrative trenches. Brand knew that would be the case going in. That’s why he began the year with his handpicked support team already in place: Chief of Staff Tim Orman (Brand’s campaign manager and a long-time local political consultant), Director of Strategic Initiatives H. Spees (the third-place finisher in the June mayoral primary), Governmental Affairs Manager John Ellis (The Bee’s veteran political reporter) and Communications Director Mark Standriff (a holdover from the Ashley Swearengin era with long experience in state politics).
Brand as a council member did just about all of his own work: research, writing, arm-twisting, placating.
As mayor, Brand said, “it’s all about delegating. I’m not an encyclopedia when someone calls me on an issue. I don’t have time to spend a hundred hours reviewing one subject because I’m literally balancing a whole array of topics. So, I have Mark or H. or Tim or somebody else go out there and get all the details. That’s been a major transition for me – to a team concept and getting a good solid staff to execute a good year.”
Brand spoke to individual council members early in the year, asking each to concentrate on core city affairs.
“The council as a whole really cooperated,” Brand said. “I think they saw what I saw: We have to keep the city focused.”
Brand means what he says. I tried mighty hard to get the Administration to weigh in on the dustup generated by Council Member Garry Bredefeld’s impassioned comments from the dais concerning kneeling NFL players and the national anthem. No dice.
“I’ve got to steer and govern from the middle,” Brand said. “I got hammered sometimes from both sides of an issue. But I think we successfully navigated the icebergs that were out there and moved the city forward on a lot of big issues.”
The same could be said for the important but routine issues faced by every mayor.
Brand met with top officials of the city’s most powerful unions. His theme: “Cooperation and teamwork. No vendettas.” Of course, it’s easier to set aside vendettas when the city isn’t on the brink of bankruptcy.
Brand met with Brian Pacheco, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. He met with Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro. He met with Fresno City College President Dr. Carole Goldsmith. He met with Clovis Community College President Lori Bennett.
Their talking points included road maintenance, tax-sharing agreements, public safety in spheres of influence and workforce development.
“Relationships with every major player, in my opinion, have been improved,” Brand said.
No one has ever suggested that Brand and the Fresno Grizzlies are best buddies. But, the Mayor said, that’s about to change. The long-expected sale of the Grizzlies by current owner Fresno Baseball Club, LLC (a thorn in the side of Brand and City Hall for years) to a group based in Colorado is almost finished.
“Everything is passed. We just waiting for Major League Baseball to put in the final dot, then we’re all done,” Brand said.
The new owners will have a new lease at city-owned Chukchansi Park. The council approved deal in mid-year, contingent on the sale going through.
“This is a city that fully supports the new owners,” Brand said.
A rookie mayor’s initiation isn’t complete until he delivers his first budget. Brand cleared that hurdle in May when he pitched to the council a $1.14 billion spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The promises included: More cops, a new Southeast Fresno police station, a bigger general fund reserve, $26 million for street maintenance, $5 million for parks renovation projects and (my favorite) a vow to clean every alley in Fresno twice a year.
And we haven’t even touched Fulton Corridor, the bullet train, the new Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, access to the river trail, a new community college in West Fresno and the Recharge Fresno mega-project.
With all that on the city’s plate, who would have time to ponder the mysteries of international borders and Colin Kaepernick?
“You’ve got a hundred things to do as mayor,” Brand said. “You’re not going to get them all. You’ve got to prioritize them and get them one by one.”