Four of the six Fresno City Council candidates met at GV Wire’s forum Tuesday (Oct. 16) night, answering questions about the future of Fresno.
While they appeared in lockstep on some issues, such as support for Measure P, things at times got heated on stage in the Fresno City College Old Administration Building auditorium.
District 3 candidates Miguel Arias and Tate Hill appeared alongside District 7 hopefuls Nelson Esparza and Brian Whelan.
Both District 5 candidates, incumbent Luis Chavez and challenger Paula Yang, confirmed their attendance at the forum, but backed out Tuesday.
The forum was co-sponsored by CMAC Fresno/Clovis, which broadcast it live, and the Office of the President of Fresno City College.
Whelan, Esparza Spar Over Redevelopment
Cordiality came to an end when Esparza and Whelan debated over now-defunct redevelopment agencies. Esparza argued in favor of employing a similar concept, called enhanced infrastructure finance districts, to pay for large government projects at the local level.
Whelan warned that Gov. Jerry Brown shut down local RDAs because of corruption in the way their funding was utilized. Esparza disagreed.
“Brian is a smooth talking lawyer. He can make anything sound bad,” Esparza said. “I bet he probably couldn’t point out one example of corruption or fraud with RDA in the city of Fresno. If he could, whoever it was, is probably tied to financing (his) campaign.”
“Do I get 10 minutes to respond to that baloney?” Whelan asked. He reiterated his view of corruption within redevelopment agencies and urged the audience to search the subject online.
The two also traded barbs when asked to describe their differences.
“I’m a long time resident of District 7. I’ve lived here for over 10 years. I didn’t relocate to run for this office,” Whelan said.
Esparza reminded Whelan about their respective track records of running for public office.
“One big difference is the folks in District 7 have agreed with my values and elected me and they rejected his values when he ran for Congress,” said Esparza, who was elected to the Fresno County Office of Education school board in 2016. Whelan fell to incumbent Jim Costa for a House seat in 2012.
Whelan pointed out how quickly Esparza was to seek a new post.
“I know you’ve run for one office. You were successful and within five months you decided you didn’t want that office so you decided to run for this one,” Whelan said.
Esparza got off the last zinger: “I’m not going to be beholden to special interests and the mayor at City Hall, as Brian demonstrated he will be.”
Is Arias a Bully?
Twice during the 90-minute forum, candidates painted Arias as a bully.
When asked to describe their biggest differences, Hill said Arias has a reputation.
“My opponent is sometimes known as a bit of a bully,” Hill said.
In another debate question regarding whether the city should spend funds on immigration services, Arias brought Whelan into the debate, even though they are not running against each other.
Arias, along with Esparza, supported city-funded services for immigrants, including a legal defense fund. Whelan and Hill said that it wouldn’t be a good use of city funds.
“We know a legal defense fund is not to serve every undocumented in the city. It’s about the message you send,” Arias said. “That this city is a welcoming city to this generation of immigrants, as it has been to the previous generation.”
Arias then invited Hill and Whelan to come with him to meet undocumented students at local high schools “who are scared to show up at school.”
Whelan responded, “Miguel, unfortunately, I have a set of skills you just don’t have. I can help people in that setting. …”
“Spanish skills, right?” Arias interrupted, mocking the bilingual Whelan whose first language is Spanish.
“No, I’m an attorney and you’re not. And, that helps me help those people,” Whelan said.
The two continued to go back in forth over Whelan’s volunteer efforts on behalf of immigrants.
“I don’t know why you are trying to cast aspersions at me. I’m not running against you,” Whelan said. “You try to bully people, Miguel. You’re not going to bully me.”
Moderator Bill McEwen stepped in to move the conversation forward.
Arias, Hill Differ on Amazon Incentives
During prior debates, Arias criticized the city’s incentive package to Amazon to build its facility in south Fresno.
Answering a question about growing Fresno’s economy, Arias said, “You also do that by investing local versus giving away your tax revenue to corporations who don’t live here, don’t invest here.”
Hill said the jobs Amazon provides is worth the trade-off for lost city fees.
“That creates jobs. Those individuals spend their money locally. A number of individuals on social services programs are getting those jobs (and) reducing people’s dependency,” he said.
Arias pointed out a perceived inconsistency in policy.
“On Monday, you give corporations $70 million in future revenue you’re waiving. On Tuesday, you’re asking taxpayers to tax themselves for 15 years to pay for police and fire that those revenues would have paid for,” Arias said. “You can’t be hypocritical in your policymaking. If it’s great to do that, let’s do that for everyone.”
Later, Arias accused Hill of not standing up for residents of District 3.
Hill defended himself, saying he prevented the Darling International plant in the district from expanding.
Universal Support for Measure P
The candidates all supported Measure P, the sales tax benefiting parks, trails and the arts on the November ballot.
“We need to make the investment within our city, our community,” Hill said. “We deserve those kind of investments.”
Arias blamed City Hall for letting parks deteriorate.
“The folks elected to deal with it failed to do so,” he said. He noted that crime stats are actually going down and residents shouldn’t have to choose between parks and public safety. He vowed to bring a public safety tax measure as “council president in 2020.”
All four candidates supported a future public safety tax.
“We need to look at our broken public safety system and find a comprehensive approach to solve crime,” Esparza said. He said he was disappointed in Mayor Lee Brand for not being able to push through a combined park/public safety tax.
Whelan said he initially opposed Measure P but serving on the Storyland/Playland board turned him around. He also mentioned that the tax could bring 42 new police officers, an idea floated last week by Measure P supporter David McDonald.
Voters will decide the three council races November 6. The last day to register online is Oct. 22.
Candidate Profiles on GV Wire
You can view the entire candidate forum at this link.
Read “Arias and Hill Share District 3’s Values. Who Will Voters Pick?” at this link.
Read “Chavez Runs on His Record. Yang Says City Needs New Voice.” at this link.
Read “Whelan, Esparza Compete to Represent the Heart of Fresno” at this link.