OK, let’s have a show of hands: Is Fresno City Hall not sufficiently business-friendly?
That was the question posed to four men who want to represent northwest Fresno on the city council. All four raised a hand at a July 31 candidate forum presented by GV Wire and CMAC.
It’s not a surprise that Lawrence Garcia, Jared Gordon, Mike Karbassi, and Oscar Sandoval all say Fresno’s government could work harder to attract new businesses and allow existing businesses to change and expand. Few candidates score points by applauding the status quo.
But the four had different views of what a friendlier approach to business looks like. Here’s a quick rundown. On Tuesday, their names will be on a special election ballot at precincts in the area known at District 2.
Garcia: Streamline the Process
Garcia, who owns a family business and is a former city planning commissioner, said the city’s planning and permitting process needs to be streamlined. Half of the businesses use the city’s electronic filing capabilities and the other half use a “draconian paperwork process,” he said. The two approaches don’t mesh well, which he said leads to requests piling up.
“My point is that we really need to address how the information is received,” Garcia said. “How many hands have to go into it before they can give it a yes or a no.”
Garcia said he also supports reducing development and permit fees to attract new and growing businesses, and not just the mega-companies like Amazon and Ulta. To be attractive to smaller businesses, community aesthetics come into play. “The neighborhoods have to look good,” he said. “They can’t have cars parking on the grass. You can’t have sidewalks pushed up.”
At the forum, all of the candidates were asked about the city’s Money Back Guarantee Act, which began a six-month trial May 1. Under the act, the city would refund money to businesses from the Development and Resource Management department budget when city staff fail to meet deadlines on applications.
Garcia said he supported the act — “I like the outside the box thinking” — but re-emphasized that no refunds would likely occur if the paperwork process was streamlined.
Gordon: Remove the Roadblocks
Gordon, a business attorney who said he deals with the city’s planning department often on behalf of clients, said there are staff who aren’t customer-friendly. But what is more important, he said, is “we have a set of procedures, and especially a development code, that is highly unfriendly to businesses.”
He said the rules devote too much energy telling businesses what they can’t do.
“I read the whole development code,” Gordon said. “I could see what the problems were going to be.”
The Money Back Guarantee Act is fine, Gordon said, though he would prefer that developments that aren’t processed on time be approved automatically. That doesn’t happen under the act’s guidelines, and the city council must approve refunds.
Further, Gordon said supports the “by right” approach to planning, in which a business that meets zoning guidelines can make changes and improvements with simple administrative approval, rather than requiring a board’s approval or a public hearing.
“As long as you have a licensed professional to help you with it, you just get to do it,” Gordon said. “And have to run it by a building inspector to make sure it’s safe. … But we don’t need a rubber stamp from planning on those projects.”
Karbassi: Be More Transparent
As the owner of a longtime family business, Karbassi has dealt many times with City Hall planners, he said. There are good people in the department, he said. The city just needs more of them. “We’re lost so many staff members to Caltrans and Clovis because we’re not very competitive,” he said.
As for how the planning department operates, Karbassi said he supports a more transparent process that allows applicants to follow a process every step of the way. He likened it to ordering a pizza for delivery: “It would be nice if everybody who goes to City Hall who wants to get a permit can actually track their order.”
As for the money-back guarantee, he supports the act, including the requirement of council approval of a refund. But he contended that applicants would rather have their project approved than get their money back. “And that’s what we need to do,” Karbassi said. “But we have to have the city be accountable to them.”
Sandoval: Look at the Bigger Picture
Sandoval, a community activist and former behavioral health therapist, said he supports the Money Back Guarantee Act. As far as business-friendliness goes, he painted a broader picture.
“We’re the fifth-largest city in California, but we don’t act like it,” Sandoval said, adding that cutting-edge businesses such as Bitwise Industries indicate the city might be coming around.
“What we need to do is embrace this different types of jobs,” he said. “When you do that, you get money that stays here, you get people that stay here, and you just get a higher quality of work. And that’s what we all want at the end of the day.”