Measure P will generate $7 million this year for non-profit arts groups in Fresno. With that kind of money, we should worry about politicians treating it like a slush fund.
A special report for The Munro Review by Doug Hoagland / Oct. 27, 2022
It’s well known that Fresno City Council members don’t play well with one another.
Now their dysfunction, or political theater — or, how would you put it, an instinctual desire to command the Fresno universe? — could threaten Measure P, the voter-approved godsend for the city’s arts scene.
I did a three-month deep dive into the world of Measure P. I read – and re-read – the measure’s fine print. I sat through meetings of Measure P’s citizens advisory commission. I did – or tried to do – a dozen interviews, running into a mostly wall of silence from City Council members.
Their decision in April to buy the Tower Theatre using Measure P funds rescued the historic landmark – a neon symbol of the city’s most progressive neighborhood – from ownership by a fundamentalist church. But it also demonstrated total disregard for the spirit of Measure P, and it exposed something of a rift between the City Council and the Fresno Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission.
Measure P established the Commission to ostensibly give the public a voice in how to spend the Measure P millions. Shortchange the Commission and you shortchange the public footing the bill for Measure P. Pity the city bureaucrats stuck between a powerless Commission and a domineering City Council with final say on money for the arts.
And it could get worse. The City Council could turn Measure P funding into a battlefield for local culture wars. The best theater, art and music can provoke strong and thought-provoking reactions but also ignite controversies in the best of times. In our polarized culture, these are not those times.
A more optimistic view comes from former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who helped write Measure P. Her take: Yes, the measure has growing pains, but the City Council and the Commission will work through them. In the meantime, everyone should focus on delivering better parks and a robust cultural scene to the citizens of Fresno. Her one caveat: people are right to closely watch what’s going on now and ask questions. “It’s early, but it’s definitely time to be paying attention, offering support, and expecting us and our government officials to figure this out,” Swearengin says.
A less rosy view is offered by an individual involved with an arts organization who didn’t want to be named in this article for fear of jeopardizing chances of securing Measure P money. This person has warily watched Measure P’s roll-out and worries that City Council members could turn it into a slush fund for their pet projects or the projects of constituents who make the most noise. That’s what might have happened with the city using Measure P funds to buy the Tower, according to this person.
In case anyone needs reminding: Residents of the Tower District and others staged weekly protests for months in opposition to Adventure Church buying the Tower. Council Members Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias – who represent the Tower area – supported the protesters when they were harassed and were part of the four-vote majority to buy the theater.
Imagine how Council Member Garry Bredefeld – the conservative crusader from Fresno’s suburbs – would react to Measure P paying for a theater troupe showcasing Fresno’s transgender community. Or think how Arias – a pugnacious liberal – would receive a Measure P funding recommendation for a photo exhibit exploring the Proud Boys of the San Joaquin Valley. These two have gone ballistic over hot-button issues before.
City Hall could sell tickets for the fireworks shows that would light up the Council chambers during such Measure P debates.
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Measure P went before Fresno voters in November 2018 to add a 3/8th-cent increase to the sales tax for 30 years to benefit parks and arts.
Most of the money (nearly 88%) was earmarked for building new parks and improving existing ones. Twelve percent was intended for the arts.
The bigwigs of Fresno’s establishment – notably Mayor Jerry Dyer, at the time the police chief – opposed the measure. The “Yes on P” side featured community groups bucked up by some big names with their own juice in the city, including Swearengin. Full disclosure: I’m one of the 52% of voters who supported the measure. After a legal battle that dragged on for several years, the courts gave the OK to Measure P, and a whole lot of money became available to make Fresno a better place to live.
Measure P is expected to generate millions of dollars every year for grants to nonprofit arts organizations. It appears the measure will generate $7 million in this fiscal year, and combined with a carryover from the previous year, the actual pot is $10.5 million. Most of that is expected to roll over to fiscal year 2024, when the granting process gets into full swing. With all that money in the mix, it was inevitable that putting legs on Measure P would get political.
Of course, one way to cut down on the backroom maneuvering is to follow the language of Measure P that gives the citizens advisory Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission a significant role.
Dyer appointed the nine Commission members, and they meet publicly twice a month to get updates on Measure P projects and hear from interested citizens. Going to their meetings can be like watching a Picasso dry. But things got interesting in April after the Council’s split vote to buy the Tower for $6.8 million. Bredefeld, Luis Chavez and Mike Karbassi voted against the purchase. The city tapped $4.4 million from Measure P for the purchase and added $2.4 million from the general fund.
A slight digression: Measure P money goes into six different expenditure categories – informally called “buckets” – and the measure’s fine print spells out what each bucket is for. The $4.4 million for the Tower came from the “New Neighborhood Parks; Senior and Youth Recreation Facilities” bucket, the Mayor’s office confirms. Parks money for a theater makes about as much sense as thinking the Pac-12 will ever want to include Fresno State. But the City Council couldn’t touch the bucket dedicated to the arts for the Tower purchase because that money can’t be spent until a Cultural Arts Plan required by Measure P is completed. People are working on the plan now.
So how could the City Council justify tapping the “New Neighborhood Parks” for a theater? Well, the fine print provides a loophole by stating the funds are “not limited” to building new neighborhood parks, new public restrooms in parks, new playgrounds and more. (Need an example of another project that 2018’s voters weren’t thinking of when they considered Measure P? Look no further than the site of a former grocery store near the corner of Blackstone and Ashlan that the City Council in 2022 bought with help from Measure P. A senior center will be built there.)
Now back to the Tower. The Commission had no say in its purchase even though Measure P lays out the Commission’s creation and role under the heading: “Fiscal Oversight and Budget Accountability.” Apparently, the City Council wanted no oversight or accountability.
Good for Commissioner Mona Cummings. She spoke up about the disconnect at a Commission meeting in May where Commissioners attended by Zoom from their homes or offices.
• She didn’t know how to answer when asked at a public event about the city using Measure P funds to buy the Tower. My take: Whoever asked Cummings the question certainly wasn’t the only person wondering about that.
• She would like “credible and organized information” about the City Council’s decision-making process so the Commission can respond to the public’s questions about Measure P. Entirely reasonable.
• She was disturbed by the City Council’s maneuvering on the Tower. “I find it very uncomfortable that the process was done completely separate from the Commission.” Clear and concise.
Looking to the future, Cummings said the Commission “could be continually confronted” with situations where the City Council makes decisions about Measure P and the Commissioners are left wondering: “Is that really the appropriate way to utilize those funds?”
Cummings’ most memorable statement of the night was this zinger to city staff: “Can we expect this as a standard operating procedure that we will be the last to know?”
Commission Chair Kimberly McCoy also didn’t appreciate getting blindsided. Not having anything to tell the public “is not a good look for us,” she said at the same meeting.
The City Council’s swagger on the Tower matters because Measure P states that the Commission “shall have primary authority on behalf of the City to conduct hearings and receive public input on allocations related to this ordinance.” But there were no hearings. No input. No consultation. City staff tried to make an excuse for the Council by telling Commissioners that buying the Tower was a fluid situation and they were in the dark, too. Nice try. But we all know the No. 1 rule of bureaucrats: always, always, cover for the politicians who control your budget.
A final footnote about the Tower: Jon Dohlin, vice chair of the Commission, asked at a meeting in September if the theater was purchased as a “cultural center.”
Straightforward question. But it left Aldi Ramirez of the PARCS (Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services) Department in a tight spot. “I don’t know it was purchased as a cultural center,” she said at the meeting. “But I know it was purchased to be a city asset as a community center.”
Is that a distinction without a difference? Is the Tower destined to become a cooling/heating community center for the homeless or an after-school hangout for kids? Dohlin didn’t pursue the matter. Too bad.
I talked with Ramirez for this report. She’s earnest, sincere and seems to genuinely want to serve the Commission well. She and her colleagues in the PARCS Department– along with the Fresno Arts Council and an outside consulting group – are waist deep in developing the all-important Cultural Arts Plan. It will identify needs in the community, prioritize investments in the arts, and make sure “visions and goals” reflect Fresno’s diversity. Also on the to-do list for the Fresno Arts Council and the Commission: figure out how to evaluate grant applications and select which ones get recommended to the City Council for funding. Measure P’s fine print spells out that role for the Fresno Arts Council, and its Executive Director Lilia Gonzáles Chávez says: “I am excited for the amazing opportunity Measure P brings. We are on the verge of a renaissance of the arts in Fresno.”
As I see it: that renaissance has a chance – and a train wreck can be avoided – if all the players commit to respecting the process. But will they?
About the author:
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.
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The Council is expected to get the completed Cultural Arts Plan in May 2023, with the first big batch of grants dropping in the new fiscal year beginning July 1. We’ll see then if the growing pains mentioned by Swearengin are easing up or getting worse. It’s early in the history of Measure P, and the outlook may improve. But millions of dollars are on the table – along with the credibility of the City Council, the Commission and the PARCS staff – and all the parties need to keep the public’s business public and transparent.
Hiccups will occur. One happened at a June meeting of the Commission over a recommendation to allocate $680,000 from Measure P in the city’s 2022-23 budget for the arts. A kerfuffle ensued. It’s a long story, and I spent several frustrating weeks trying to understand it myself. It turns out the $680,000 was budgeted for two things:
• $540,000 for grants to nonprofit arts organizations in this fiscal year (ending June 30, 2023) if the Cultural Arts Plan required by Measure P is completed in time and the grant process is ready to go.
• $140,000 for administrative costs associated with the Cultural Arts Plan.
Nothing was amiss, but not all the communication at the meeting was clear, and it muddied the situation. Key players should know that such misunderstandings can distract from making Measure P work.
One way to succeed in that work is for the people involved to sell the public on Measure P’s effectiveness in transforming the city. In a scenario that defies logic, the Commission members find themselves in a situation where they have muzzled themselves. The Commission’s by-laws state only the PARCS Director or the Commission Chairperson (or the Vice Chairperson in the Chairperson’s absence) can make “official representations” to the City Council or the media. Can you imagine only the chair of a Congressional committee being allowed to talk to reporters?
Commission Chair McCoy did speak with me, spending some valuable time on her lunch break answering questions. She candidly addressed the relationship between the Commission and the City Council. “It’s pretty hard when you’re just a recommendation body, and you’re solely dependent on the Council to do the right thing …”
Commissioner Sarah Parkes spoke to me, too, and provided clarity on the $680,000 and her attempts to unravel the confusion at the June meeting. She represented the Commission well in our conversation, even if it technically violated by-laws that are contrary to the public interest. I also got Commission member Scott Miller on the phone, but he emphasized he was speaking as the president/chief executive officer of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and not as a member of the Commission. “There’s a lot we can do with Measure P, and I believe it’s headed in the right direction,” he said. But if Miller – or some other commissioner – believes otherwise, they should use whatever forum they deem best to have their say. That’s democracy – messy, but God love it. I reached out to two other Commission members but heard nothing back.
As for the always vocal, sometimes yammering, members of the City Council: It was crickets from a majority of them when I emailed and followed up with phone calls to six of the seven.
My ask: Can we talk about the Tower and the Commission? (I skipped Council Member Tyler Maxwell because of my conflict of interest: I supported his election and his office has ably assisted me with several neighborhood issues.) Bredefeld’s office said he was declining an interview due to his busy schedule. A staffer for Council President Nelson Esparza says Esparza supports the arts and Measure P and is currently focusing on affordable housing in Fresno. He was not available for an interview. Arias, Chavez, Karbassi and Soria didn’t respond. This was disappointing. Why wouldn’t they want to address issues around Measure P with The Munro Review, the only media platform that provides in-depth coverage of the arts and culture in Fresno? All City Council members have taxpayer-supported staff to help them keep informed so they can address critical issues.
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Iwant to circle back to Swearengin, the former mayor who has definite ideas on making Measure P funding for the arts work.
She says the City Council and the Commission need to give one another time to adjust to their new relationship created by Measure P. Furthermore, she anticipates that the Cultural Arts Plan will outline the mix of programs and venues eligible for Measure P funding and that the process for awarding grants to nonprofits will be “high quality” so City Council members can trust it. “Many grant recommendations will sail through review by the Council, while Council members will inevitably arm wrestle over a few. But those instances should be few and far between if we’re taking a systematic approach,” Swearengin says.
My recommendation: each Council member gets to veto two proposed grants each year and then they’re through until the next budget cycle. Otherwise, the nonprofit arts organizations seeking Measure P money will be forced to spend precious time lobbying the City Council to cobble together four votes for funding.
There’s an irony to the City Council having ultimate power over arts funding, according to the unnamed individual I quoted earlier. “Few people in city government through the years have shown an interest in the arts as demonstrated by their actions,” that person says. “The city could have focused on the arts as the key to the development of downtown Fresno or the revitalization of its neighborhoods, but it hasn’t. Hopefully, Measure P will change that.”
A few final points filed under “O” for oversight. In the Nov. 8 election, area voters will consider two new measures to bump up the sales tax. One measure is for veterans services and facilities, and the other is for academic programs and sports facilities at Fresno State. Both call for citizens committees with procedural connections to politicians – Fresno City Council members on the veterans measure, and Fresno County supervisors on the Fresno State measure. Such citizens committees – like Measure P’s Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission – sound good on paper. How do they actually work out? I don’t know, but figure it comes down to how much power they have, or better yet, how much power the politicians give them.
A member of the public made that point as the Measure P Commission wrapped up a very long meeting in August. Sylvesta Hall thanked city staff for its work, and then he thanked himself for waiting two hours to speak his piece. “Commissioners are very long-winded,” he said. Then Hall offered both praise and a wish for the Commission. “ … You’re fighting the good fight. Hopefully you can get some more authority.”
Now, there’s a concept. And just what Measure P intended.
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