As 2 key arts supporters are bounced from the Measure P commission, Fresno arts leaders fight back
BY DOUG HOAGLAND
As a power struggle continues between City Hall and Fresno’s arts community over Measure P, the Mayor’s Office replaced two of the Fresno Arts Council’s strongest allies at a critical time. This could have a big impact on upcoming decisions that will determine whether city officials spend Measure P arts funds as intended and allow the Arts Council the role outlined for it in the initiative.
In the midst of that controversy, a group of Fresno cultural arts leaders has opened a new front in their struggle with City Hall – specifically against the city’s parks department. In a scathing public letter written after the Mayor’s Office replaced the allies, the culture leaders denounced how the parks department is handling preparation of a vital Cultural Arts Plan required by Measure P. The leaders are calling on the Fresno City Council to remove the parks department from the process and authorize the Fresno Arts Council to move forward with the plan.
Related stories: OUTSIDE CONSULTANT RECOMMENDS THAT PARKS DEPARTMENT GET INTO THE ARTS BUSINESS. WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE FRESNO ARTS COUNCIL?
And: A DEEP DIVE ON THE MEASURE P FUNDING PROCESS: IS THE FRESNO CITY COUNCIL MICROMANAGING?
And: 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
As these developments unfold publicly, the public’s trust in Measure P could be in jeopardy. And maintaining that trust is vital, City Council Member Miguel Arias told The Munro Review. “There has to be a level of transparency and trust building with our community.”
The latest controversies started last Monday, May 15, when the office of Mayor Jerry Dyer notified Kimberly McCoy, chair of the Fresno Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission, and Sarah Parkes, a member of the Commission, that they were being replaced because their terms had expired. The Mayor’s Office had the legal authority to make the replacements. But the Office emailed them the news of being replaced only 90 minutes prior to what turned out to be their last meeting on May 15. Neither McCoy nor Parkes said they had warning of their imminent departure from the Commission, an oversight and advisory body created by Measure P.
The fact that the Mayor’s Office is at the same time reappointing two other sitting Commissioners – who have served the same length of time as McCoy and Parkes – could raise questions about the city’s motives. McCoy, in fact, told The Munro Review that she suspects someone in City Hall made a “strategic” decision to make the replacements at this time. City spokesperson Sontaya Rose did not respond when asked to comment.
A just-released first draft of the Cultural Arts Plan appears to be at the center of McCoy and Parkes being replaced – Parkes, in particular, was critical of the document. And the draft plan – with its 32 recommendations for implementing Measure P – is without question what motivated the cultural leaders to write their letter. They said the draft plan “betrays a striking lack of knowledge and understanding of the local arts community and contains many highly questionable and confusing recommendations.”
The letter and the ouster of McCoy and Parkes are the latest controversies to roil the rollout of Measure P’s funding of the arts, and it came at an inopportune time. The Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission held a workshop on the long-awaited draft Cultural Arts Plan at its May 15 meeting. But many of the commissioners didn’t receive the plan soon enough to review it and therefore were not in a position to offer comments. So the meeting was dominated by McCoy and Parkes announcing they were being replaced. The Cultural Arts Plan will guide the implementation of the initiative, and one key stakeholder who had read the draft plan before May 15 – Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council – said some of its recommendations are flawed and don’t reflect the intent of Measure P.
After the May 15 meeting, McCoy told The Munro Review that she and Parkes “asked a lot of questions” while on the nine-member Commission, raising concerns to city staff about policies and procedures being used to implement Measure P. Parkes, for example, said in an email to city staff while still on the Commission: “Without more revision [to the draft plan] before public release, I really think we are setting ourselves up for an outpouring of community pushback.” Such a revision process did not take place even though Parkes and others asked the city’s parks department for that to happen, according to the critical letter from the culture leaders. “Astonishlingly, the [parks department] refused this request,” the letter states. And now the “community pushback” predicted by Parkes has begun in the form of the letter.
Parkes also wrote in comments included in an appendix at the end of the draft plan that some Fresno residents mistrust the city, believing it might spend a portion or all of the Measure P money intended for local nonprofit arts organizations on projects unrelated to the initiative’s intent.
Measure P, a 30-year sales tax increase approved by Fresno voters in 2018, says arts and culture should receive 12% of the money, with most of the remaining 88% going to parks. About $10 million will be available to local nonprofit arts organizations in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to one estimate.
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McCoy also told The Munro Review that in addition to speaking up for the arts community, she challenged the city on issues involving Measure P funding of the parks, and that also might be a factor in her being replaced. She elaborated on that assertion on her Facebook page after leaving the Commission.
The possibility that McCoy and Parkes were penalized for asking questions concerns Fresno City Council Member Arias. The Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission doesn’t need “rubber stamps,” he said in an interview. “We definitely need people who scrutinize, criticize and provide constructive feedback on the execution of Measure P.”
The loss of McCoy and Parkes also concerns Gonzáles Chávez of the Fresno Arts Council. “We had two strong advocates in Sarah and Kimberly. They were both open to listening to the needs of the arts community and made themselves available to being informed. Of course, I’m sure they brought their own frame of reference and their own ideas, but they certainly were always available when I had questions or concerns.”
In her farewell remarks as a commissioner, Parkes showed her support for the Arts Council at her last meeting on May 15. She urged other commissioners to fully partner with the Arts Council in implementing Measure P because it’s “the expert at this, and we really should rely on them so the city ends up with a [Cultural Arts] Plan that’s meaningful and reflects what the measure was intended to do.”
In an interview, McCoy said she also tried to support the Arts Council in behind-the-scenes dealings with city staff. She said she tried for several months this year to give Gonzáles Chávez a speaking slot during a Commission meeting, but at one point, a city staff member said the timing wasn’t right and that Gonzáles Chávez’s comments about Measure P would confuse the public.
Meanwhile, city spokesperson Rose said it was courteous to inform McCoy and Parkes on May 15 of them being replaced. Otherwise, they might have learned of the action when an agenda for the May 25 meeting of the Fresno City Council began circulating. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the replacements on May 25. When The Munro Review asked if the 90-minute notice to McCoy and Parkes about their last meeting was a best practice, Rose said, “They were sent an email thanking them for their service and commitment to the City, as is standard with all Mayoral appointments.”
McCoy and Parkes – along with the seven members of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission – began four-year terms in 2021. But to avoid all the commissioners rotating off at the same time, they held a lottery for one-, two-, three- and four-year terms, with McCoy and Parkes drawing one year. Their terms ended on July 1, 2022, but the Commission’s bylaws allowed them to continue serving until replacements were named. Commissioners Jon Dohlin and Jose Leon-Barraza drew two-year terms ending July 1, 2023, but the Mayor’s Office plans to renominate them so they can continue serving, according to a document obtained by The Munro Review. Asked why they are being reappointed but McCoy and Parkes are not, Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy said in a statement: “There are a number of factors that go into the selection process – a candidate’s expertise, willingness to serve, and district in which they reside. We also want to ensure they are reflective of the community. In order to be inclusive, there are times it is important that we give others the opportunity to serve as well. Prior to the appointment, we also solicit input from the Council member whose district the candidate resides in.”
Parkes, assistant director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, resides in Fresno’s northeast District 6. The Mayor’s Office is nominating Kelly Kucharski, who lives in east-central District 4, as Parkes’ replacement. Kucharski serves as co-executive director of the Sierra Resource Conservation District. McCoy, who works for the Central California Asthma Collaborative, lives in south-central District 7. Nominated to take McCoy’s place is Christina Soto, who lives in downtown-southwest District 3 and is a clerkship coordinator for the UCSF Fresno medical training program.
Both Kucharski and Soto wrote about an interest in outdoor spaces in their applications for the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission. But they didn’t say anything about the arts on their applications, and Kucharski did not respond to a query from The Munro Review about her interest in the arts. Soto said in response to the query: “I look forward to doing my part to expand access to arts programming, including dance, and music programs I grew up with but have watched be defunded over the years. It is something I consider vital for our young people.”
Replacing McCoy and Parkes comes at a crucial time for the arts community in Fresno. Before any Measure P money can go to nonprofit arts organizations, the initiative requires the city to adopt the Cultural Arts Plan. And, that process took a step forward on May 15 when the first draft of the 86-page plan was presented to the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission and to the public. The Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the plan at 5:30 p.m. on May 30 at City Hall.
The draft plan – written by a consulting firm being paid $150,000 – is partly based on public feedback collected through an online survey, community meetings, in-depth interviews with artists, and other means.
If the early critical reaction of Gonzáles Chávez from the Arts Council is any indication, the draft plan could undergo many changes before the Fresno City Council votes on it in August. Gonzáles Chávez , who got an early look at the document, submitted more than 70 comments – some critical, others straightforward. In an interview, she said she’s concerned, for example, that the draft plan calls for implementing “improvements consistent with the Parks Master Plan” by “investing in the maintenance and restoration of city- and non-city-owned assets.” Gonzáles Chávez wrote: “That’s related to the parks and their funding. That’s not the arts and cultural funding.” She also noted: “If the 12% [dedicated to arts funding by Measure P] is whittled away, less money will go to the arts community.”
Gonzáles Chávez’s comments also touched on the draft plan’s recommendation for the city parks department to create an arts division. She wrote that proposal would exclude the Arts Council when it has the capacity to do the work. The letter from the cultural leaders is more blunt. “The [parks department] obviously sees itself as supplanting the Fresno Arts Council in connection with Measure P,” which would be a violation of the initiative’s language as well as a violation of the people who wrote it and the voters who supported it, the letter states.
In fact, Measure P states that grants to local nonprofit arts organizations “shall be implemented” by the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission “in partnership” with the Arts Council.
For months, the Arts Commission has been trying to reach an agreement with the city so it can oversee the granting process, but the matter remains unresolved.
Council Member Arias also has criticized the idea of creating an arts division in the parks department, calling it “an extremely bad idea.”
To maintain the public’s trust in Measure P, the first members of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission intentionally included people who helped write Measure P and worked for its passage, he added. “They were going to ensure the oversight necessary to make sure that Measure P dollars were spent appropriately.”
McCoy and Parkes were both involved in the Measure P campaign, as was new Commissioner Soto, according to her application. Said Arias: “I would hope at a bare minimum that [new Commission members] would provide as much scrutiny – if not more – than the outgoing members. There has to be a level of transparency and trust building with our community.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from Christina Soto.