With at least $10 million in Measure P funding at stake, Fresno Arts Council worries it’s being frozen out of the grant process by City Hall
By Doug Hoagland
Fresno City Hall appears to be attempting a behind-the-scenes power grab over how Measure P spends millions of tax dollars to benefit the arts.
The public face of the brewing controversy is city parks director Aaron Aguirre, who critics say is diminishing the lawful role of the Fresno Arts Council in awarding the money. Those critics say Aguirre and the city are ignoring specific language in the ballot measure approved by voters in 2018.
The Munro Review asked Aguirre for comment two days ago, but he did not respond before presstime.
Related story: A DEEP DIVE ON THE MEASURE P FUNDING PROCESS: IS THE FRESNO CITY COUNCIL MICROMANAGING?
City Hall’s move comes as more than $10 million in grants could be available to artists and nonprofit arts organizations in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Former Fresno City Council Member Tom Bohigian – who was involved in discussions, negotiations and deliberations in drafting Measure P – says the Fresno Arts Council was deliberately included in its fine print. “We wanted to make sure [Measure P] is driven by the people who are the most knowledgeable, and in this case, it’s the Fresno Arts Council. If [Aguirre] is now saying, ‘Never mind, the city is going to handle it,’ that’s not how Measure P was written.” Bohigian adds: “We have to deliver on the promise of Measure P. It’s a law – not advisory. It’s a clear direction of the voters of Fresno.”
This controversy is the latest sign that Fresno officials are struggling to roll out Measure P, a 3/8-cent increase in the sales tax for 30 years to boost parks and the arts. Last October, The Munro Review detailed a rift between the Fresno City Council and the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission, a citizens oversight body created by Measure P. Aguirre and his department’s employees act as staff to the Commission, which explains his involvement with Measure P arts funding. In April 2022, the City Council used Measure P funds to help buy the embattled Tower Theatre without consulting or communicating with the Commission, an apparent breach of the spirit of Measure P. Two commissioners said they felt blindsided by the Council’s action, leaving them unable to answer credible questions from the public. The Commission has nine members appointed by Mayor Jerry Dyer.
In this latest dispute, it’s not clear whether the central issue is money or control, or both. It’s also unclear where in City Hall the power grab is originating.
The dispute came into focus in a Feb. 4 email from Aguirre to Lilia González Chávez, executive director of the nonprofit Fresno Arts Council. Aguirre told her the city will manage and administer Measure P arts funding. But, Measure P states that arts grants “shall be implemented” by the Fresno Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission “in partnership” with the Fresno Arts Council. The Arts Council is a state-local partner to the California Arts Council and is designated by the county board of supervisors to serve Fresno County’s residents.
Aguirre’s Feb. 4 email leaves room for ambiguity. He appears to offer the Arts Council a role – offering to “continue to partner” through a subcommittee of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. But at the same time, he rejects entering into an agreement that would pay the nonprofit for managing the granting process and performing other administrative duties. That would seem to go against the intent of Measure P, which allows the city to use up to 2% of funds for administrative costs associated with delivery of programs and projects.
Supporters of the Arts Council are critical of Aguirre and the city. “He’s hijacking the grants process, and he’s blindsided the Fresno Arts Council,” former Arts Council president Bruce Kalkowski says. “Is it a power deal? Power is important to a lot of people.” Kalkowski remains on the Arts Council board.
González Chávez says the city’s stance – as communicated by Aguirre – is “inconsistent” with the language of Measure P. “We understood we would be directly involved,” she adds.
Furthermore, González Chávez wonders what would be expected of Aguirre’s staff in managing and administering the grants. “We would be asking a parks department and a parks staff to make decisions that are specific to the arts community. That’s not what they do. That’s what we do.”
González Chávez received warning signs before Aguirre’s Feb. 4 email. She says, for example, the Arts Council could be helpful to the out-of-town consultants who are receiving $150,000 to prepare the Measure P-required Cultural Master Plan. “But we’ve not had any of that kind of engagement,” González Chávez says.
She raised her concern to a member of Aguirre’s staff at a community forum last fall and was rebuffed. She says she was told: “This is how we’re doing it.”
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The Fresno City Council is scheduled to consider the plan in May, and once it’s approved, the grants process can begin. The City Council ultimately decides which artists and organizations receive grants, though the writers of Measure P seemed intent on keeping those kinds of artistic decisions insulated from the political process.
On Nov. 21, 2022, González Chávez emailed Aguirre about finalizing a service agreement between the city and the Arts Council to pay the Arts Council for managing the grants process. That same day, Aguirre responded to González Chávez: “We are reviewing our next steps with our legal team.”
She emailed Aguirre on Feb. 3 about the status of that review. “It would be wonderful if we could begin to work on the development of the grant process so that we would be ready to go as soon as the cultural plan is in place,” she wrote.
The next day, Aguirre sent the email stating that the city would administer and manage the Measure P funds for the arts and therefore an agreement “is not required.” He added that his department’s staff had begun developing “the framework for the grant program,” which the Arts Subcommittee of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission would discuss at a Feb. 10 meeting.
The Munro Review requested to attend that meeting in emails to Aguirre, parks department staffer Jennifer Soliz, and Sontaya Rose, director of communications for the city. The reporter wrote: “Should there be any hesitancy to my request, I would respectfully ask 1) A citation from the Brown [opening meeting] Act which is used as a basis for denial. 2) An explanation of why a member of the public (myself or anyone else) could not attend a meeting where a process involving public money is discussed.”
Neither Aguirre, Soliz nor Rose responded.
Commissioner Sarah Parkes – who attended the Feb. 10 meeting – says she’s limited in talking about that meeting because of Commission by-laws. The by-laws state only the director of the parks department or the Commission Chairperson (or the Vice Chairperson in the Chairperson’s absence) can make “official representations” to the media. Neither the Chairperson nor Vice Chairperson attended the Feb. 10 meeting.
But Parkes did say: “I encourage community members to attend the Feb. 27 Commission meeting to make public comments about the Cultural Arts Plan and the city’s proposal.” The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in City Council Chambers at Fresno City Hall.
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He spent 40 years working at Valley papers, including 30 years at The Fresno Bee. The first play he saw was a 1968 production of “Show Boat” at McLane High School.
“Fund the arts?? We’re not interested. Too busy.”
“Ten million dollars!! I’ll do it! No, I’LL do it! No worries, I got this!”
Let’s see…”$10 mil minus $150 grand for some “cultural study(??). Well, okay, that still leaves a bundle of—wait, you spent HOW MUCH on the Tower Theatre?!? Without asking anyone else? A theatre that hasn’t shown any substantial profit in 15-20 years? Well. Well. I guess we can’t stop you. Can we at least get a million for the small arts groups in town?”
“Fund the actual arts? We’re not interested. We’re too busy.”
Kay Tolladay Pitts
Looks like “business as usual” at City Hall.
Wow, SO disappointed in how this is going…