Opinion

by David Taub

In life, the anticipation of an event sometimes far surpasses the actual outcome.

For example, the political sniping that preceded the San Joaquin River Conservancy board meeting Wednesday (Nov. 15) proved much more entertaining than the seven-hour marathon that didn’t yield a definitive decision.

The board was tasked with deciding the access point to the expanded Eaton Trail. The public had their say, divided among two plans: one in a residential area and one through a city park. The board then spent hours acting dazed and confused about what they could and couldn’t vote for.

In the days leading up to the vote, some Fresno politicians felt stung by a columnist’s criticism in an apiary-themed newspaper. A city councilman who also serves on the river conservancy board became the latest localized version of President Donald Trump: He called out The Fresno Bee’s Marek Warszawski for “fake news.”

Steve Brandau’s only problem was that Warszawski was right: The board did not have the opportunity to vote directly on the plan going through a river bluff neighborhood.

Mayor Brand Issues Appropriate Response

I’ve known both for a while, and have good relations with them. Marek and I come from Los Altos in the Bay Area. We’ve been crisscrossing each other at various events around Fresno for years. However, I still don’t know how to pronounce his name correctly.

Brandau has been one of the most accessible politicians I’ve ever met. He’s quick to return a phone call or text and is always willing to explain any vote.

Warszawski has been writing about the river access issue for a while. His column last week infuriated Mayor Lee Brand.

The mayor wrote a well-reasoned rebuttal, using the forum to explain his point of view, devoid of personal attacks. The mayor did complain that Warszawski did not reach out to him. Kind of ironic that Brand and his office always seem to lose my phone calls and e-mails asking for comment when I write a story.

Brandau Goes Nuclear and Whiffs

Brandau was irked that Warszawski (correctly) pointed out that the board ‘s voting options were restricted:

“Instead of getting to vote on the entire range of alternatives, Board members are being presented with two bad choices: the proposed project (with the only car access coming at Perrin Avenue) and Option 5B. Why are the other alternatives (including Alternative 1, which would put access through River View Drive) not up for a vote?” Warszawski questioned.

The councilman and river board member vehemently disagreed, posting a two-minute video on social media. He called the writer a bloviater, a Keith Olberman wannabee, whiner and more.

It’s interesting to note that when Brandau’s video quoted Warszawski’s line, he left out “bad” to describe the two choices. Then Brandau went Full Trump: calling his enemy’s column fake news, bashing The Bee and angrily tossing the paper aside.

Next Time, Do Your Homework Before Using ‘Fake News’ Label

When lobbing grenades, it’s best to aim at the right target. Unfortunately for Brandau, what Warszawski wrote proved to be accurate.

The way river board staff set up the agenda, the vote would be to approve the project as a whole with the Spano Park access plan. The board could also choose another alternative (such as River View Drive, also known as Alternative 1) at a future meeting. In other words, the only plan the board could directly vote up or down was Spano Park (designated as 5B in staff reports). Staff fully vetted the 5B plan and recommended its approval.

Thus, the writer was right and the politician wasn’t.

Brandau and board chairman Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno County supervisor, sought the advice of the conservancy’s legal counsel on what to do. Could the board delay a decision until the next meeting without having to start over again? The answer was no. Then, they asked Fresno city attorney Douglas Sloan a similar question. Sloan told the board a combined 5B/1 plan was not an option. I hope he sends the board an invoice for the advice.

I asked Melinda Marks, the conservancy’s executive director, why they did a full report on 5B to propose to the board, but not Alternative 1.

“5B has less significant impacts, Alternative 1 has significant impacts,” she said. “We had to basically decide which one to recommend.”

Why not present both plans and let the board decide up or down?

“Because of all the documentation required. I only have one consultant contract, and they can’t put all this material together,” she answered.

Thus it was a matter of time and knowing what the board’s preferences are. She knows now.

Brandau’s Reaction

Despite Brand’s and Brandau’s support, the rest of the board did not go along with the 5B (Spano Park) plan, rejecting it by a 9-5 vote. The decision wasn’t necessarily a condemnation of the plan. Members expressed wanting to vote on Alternative 1 as well. That will happen at the Dec. 13 meeting.

After the meeting, an exasperated Brandau lamented upon what had happened.

“People had the option to vote for other alternatives and that is essentially what happened. They weren’t able to vote for it purely, but they were able to vote for it in a pure form next month,” he said.

When I mentioned to him that he couldn’t vote directly for Alternative 1 (the River View Drive plan), he conceded “in technicality, maybe.”

He continued: “The reality is, and you saw it work out today, that this board had the right to vote and look at other options. And, that’s what I was saying in my video earlier. In my opinion, it proved my case.”

No, it didn’t.

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