by David Taub
Upon first glance, awarding a contract to a consultant is a mundane item on the Fresno city council agenda. But Thursday’s vote for $172,000 to get people excited about a parks plan turned into a contentious 90 minute battle. A traditionally liberal councilwoman joined the conservative bloc. A traditionally conservative councilman running for mayor joined the liberal bloc. And Mayor Ashley Swearengin herself entered council chambers to defend the plan.
Council eventually approved, 4-3, to award the contract for a parks plan engagement to the firm of Betz-Rosa Strategy & Creative. Suzanne Bertz-Rosa, the namesake of her company, will work with Cary Catalano (and his namesake Catalano Fenske & Associates) and Fresno Building Healthy Communities (BHC) to engage 1,000 new residents on the city’s proposed parks master plan.
Bertz-Rosa and Catalano both have links to the mayor. Swearengin appointed Bertz-Rosa to the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan Community Advisory Committee, which she has served since 2009. Catalano is Swearengin’s appointment to the planning commission, a post he held since 2014. When Catalano unsuccessfully ran for council in 2014 (a seat won by Esmeralda Soria), Swearengin endorsed him and her mayoral election committee donated to his campaign.
The publicity campaign contract is on top of contracts already awarded for the Parks Master Plan itself and an Active Transportation Plan. Both contracts ($60,500 and $20,000 respectively) had money set aside for community engagement. The city felt that wasn’t enough, citing the need for specialists to come in. City officials also scoffed at Councilman Clint Olivier’s suggestion that current city parks staff can handle the job.
Steve Brandau, a fiscal and Tea Party conservative, objected to the involvement of BHC. He called a billboard campaign they engaged in last year to cite the differences between parks in the north and south Fresno as divisive. He didn’t want to spend money for an activist group.
Sandra Celedon-Castro, manager of BHC, defended her group when grilled by Brandau. “We are not an activist organization. We are a community coalition that works with residents from vast backgrounds and demographics,” she answered. “We want to have a Fresno that is unified and all Fresnans have access to every single opportunity.”
Olivier, also a member of the council’s conservative bloc, brought up his concerns about the deplorable conditions of parks in district seven. That sparked the ire of City Manager Bruce Rudd, the one time parks director, who defended the city’s commitment to parks. Olivier proposed an amendment to spend the $172,000 on a park ranger plan, which was voted down, 4-3.
Soria, part of the liberal side of the council, echoed Brandau and Olivier’s sentiments. She felt the contract for the Bertz-Rosa group was a duplication of services and not a wise use of taxpayer money. She also broke down the Bertz-Rosa proposal, pointing out social media posting spending amounts to $171 an hour. That is more than what any city attorney contractor makes per hour, she said.
Bertz-Rosa defended the rate, saying that people on her staff earn different rates, which are discounted for this project.
The remaining council members had their say. Oliver Baines, Sal Quintero, Lee Brand and Paul Caprioglio voiced similar sentiments that this was a worthwhile investment in the future of Fresno parks. Brand’s alignment with the liberal bloc raised some eyebrows. The councilman represents traditionally conservative northeast Fresno. He is also is running for mayor and has the endorsement of Swearengin and Catalano.
After an hour of debate, Swearengin strolled into council chambers, sitting next to Catalano, Celedon-Castro and Danielle Bergstrom, the mayor’s policy advisor. Brandau called her to testify to talk about BHC’s involvement.
“Do you think BHC is the right agency to put in charge of public outreach?” he asked.
“It definitely stung,” she responded, reacting to the BHC billboards. “I can get past my personal offense. What is this community group trying to say? In doing so, they raise really good points.”
“We are government people, we don’t communicate well.”
-Mayor Ashley Swearengin
The mayor also responded to assertions made earlier by Soria that the city was not forthright in its plan for additional outreach services.
“I take responsibility for this and stand by this decision…I know what it takes to move things through to implementation arguably better than probably many people who have held this office…It takes a level of communication and outreach and connecting with the public that doesn’t usually get done well by engineering consultants…We don’t communicate well as a building. We are government people, we don’t communicate well.”
Baines challenged Brandau over his calling the controversial BHC billboard racist.
“What was racist about it?” Baines asked.
“There was a component of the message suggesting that people of color were supposedly underserved in the city of Fresno.”
“Let me speak as a person of color….” Baines retorted. “I have experienced racism. There is nothing racist about that.”
Council president Caprioglio brought a levity to the moment, saying the pair should take it off line, over a beer.
The final vote saw Caprioglio, Quintero, Baines and Brand voting for the contract. Brandau, Olivier and Soria voted against.