Danielle Bergstrom (left) and Steve Cancian (right) address the crowd at Westside Church of God. Photo by Peter Maiden.
By Hannah Brandt
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2017 in Community Alliance newspaper at https://fresnoalliance.com/update-fresno-transformative-climate-communities-funding/. Over the last two and a half years, Fresno Free Press has been attending Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) meetings in Fresno and will be publishing a series of articles related to the full process.
Many questions and concerns emerged on July 20, 2017, at the first public steering committee meeting of the Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative (TCC) at the Californian in Downtown Fresno. In fact, by the end of it, there was little understanding of exactly what the meeting had been convened to do, of whom the steering committee was made up, or whether there definitely would be any money coming to Fresno at all. This might be because it was hard to hear the presenters, the screen did not work for the PowerPoint presentation and everyone in the room was distracted by the lack of seats and air conditioning.
After the second steering committee meeting on Aug. 2 at the much more comfortable Westside Church of God in Southwest Fresno, there seemed to be (a bit) more clarity. It was better organized and the information was much more clearly communicated. Although why these public meetings have taken place only in the last few weeks when the deadline for proposals for funding projects is only a month away is curious. We did learn that the only areas of the City of Fresno which are eligible for this money based on having very high carbon emissions are Southwest Fresno, Southeast/Downtown Fresno and Chinatown.
According to Danielle Bergstrom, policy director of the Central Valley Community Foundation, Mayor Lee Brand, “invited the public to shape the process” and “to build trust.” She did not say when he made that decision. According to Bergstrom, in the past, these decision-making processes always have happened behind closed doors. The question many continue to ask, however, is how much power do the people really have in this process? When it comes time to submit the proposal to Sacramento, is it possible for the City Council and the mayor to override the votes of the people at these public meetings? The short answer was yes, he can.
Mayor Brand gave a short statement to the public before leaving the meeting. It was initially unclear why of the several community groups involved in the TCC, the Central Valley Community Foundation — the recently renamed nonprofit organization formerly known as the Fresno Regional Foundation, of which former Mayor Ashley Swearingen is currently CEO — has led all the recent meetings, in conjunction with consultant Steve Cancian and representatives from the Strategic Growth Council (SGC), the state’s body that ultimately will allocate the funds.
Researching Bergstrom, one learns that, in addition to being policy director of the Central Valley Community Foundation, she is a special policy advisor for the City of Fresno. As “Fresno Transformative Climate Communities Collaborative is staffed by the City of Fresno as an effort to develop the City’s proposal to the Strategic Growth Council for the $70 million in available implementation funds,” that explains her role as facilitator. It was stated that the TCC was created by Governor Jerry Brown, funded through California’s Cap-and-Trade Program, and began as AB 2722 in February 2016. It went through the legislative process and was signed into law in September 2016.
No one from the local community organizations mentioned as involved with the Fresno TCC program, Fresno Building Healthy Communities and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, is part of the City of Fresno staff. At least so far at these meetings, the Central Valley Community Foundation has had more a visible influence than these community organizations. All public communications about the process have come from Bergstrom. Although Swearingen never addressed the public at this meeting, she gave Bergstrom information verbally a few times from her seat in the audience at Westside Church.
Given that the decision is ultimately the City of Fresno’s, this is technically allowed. If the aim is to convince the public that the people of Fresno and not the mayor, the City Council or the former mayor are the decision-makers, however, this does not help. On the other hand, TCC has some strict limitations. The official submitter will be the City of Fresno because it must be a public entity. The reasons for this are 1) whoever gets the money will get it on a reimbursement basis, 2) the funding amount has to be matched and 3) the entity that submits the project to the state has to have the capacity to do large-scale projects.
H. Spees was selected by Brand to be the point person for the TCC. Spees’ response to a question about whether the public’s vote on the proposals could be overridden caused a negative reaction. He said, “The mayor is the man in charge. So, yes, he can.” You may remember Spees as a 2016 mayoral candidate and a real estate developer. He is now director of housing initiatives for the city, putting him at the heart of the TCC. He acknowledged that there has been disinvestment in Southwest Fresno. “The Westside has been neglected and redlined. We know we won’t earn trust easily but we know it isn’t given. Trust is earned.”
“In the 1960s, a sociologist named John McKnight coined the term redlining to describe the discriminatory practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics.” (Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities by William Norton and Mary Walton-Roberts)
In areas like Southwest Fresno, a history continues whereby developers choose not to build the basic infrastructure needed in communities, like grocery stores and housing developments, as well as financial institutions and healthcare services. Even city services such as garbage removal and street paving have been neglected. In addition, public works projects have contributed to redlining. When Highway 99 was built in the 1960s and Highway 41 in the 1970s, they completely cut off Southwest Fresno from the rest of the city and destroyed the business district there. This is a pattern that happened to African American communities in cities all over the country.
Bergstrom said that Council Member Oliver Baines (D), whose district includes Southwest Fresno, created the TCC steering committee and the committee decided to make the process open to the public at the mayor’s suggestion. Steve Cancian has worked all over the state on similar projects and was chosen for the TCC because of his work on the Fulton Corridor Specific Plan and the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan. Interestingly, before becoming a California landscape architect and city designer, he was a community organizer for 13 years, including as New Hampshire campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s run for president in 1988.
To have a vote on the proposals community members must attend two-thirds of the steering committee meetings, which started in late July and end in late-September. The community recommendations will be taken to the mayor who will approve or disapprove them. Then he will take the community recommendations to the City Council, which will vote to approve or disapprove of this proposal package for Fresno to submit to the Strategic Growth Council in Sacramento. Proposals must be submitted to the steering committee by Sept. 12, the steering committee will review them on Sept. 27 and the city will submit the proposal package to Sacramento by Oct. 18.
An audience member asked who wrote the voting criteria and, “Why is it not just one person, one vote?” of community members from the neighborhoods that are eligible for the money. The response was that the process was picked up from the Southwest Specific Plan Steering Committee. They felt that people needed to demonstrate investment in the process instead of a large number of people showing up at the last meeting to vote.
Another person asked if the ultimate decision is the mayor’s and if his idea is different from that of the steering committee (which is made up of members from the eligible neighborhoods) is there a process to address that? Spees answered, “It would be foolish for him to not take the recommendations of the community since he has brought the community into this process.” A follow-up question asked whether Brand has “any projects in his back pockets” that he wants to see achieved through this funding. Spees said he does not.
Concerns were expressed about the fact that the meeting dates and locations, as well as the map of the eligible area, keep changing. The zip codes eligible for the money based on high carbon emissions were listed as 93706 (Southwest Fresno), 93701 (primarily Downtown Fresno), and 93721 (primarily Chinatown). Some argued that only 93706 had qualified based on this criteria, however. It can also be unclear whether all parts of these zip codes are truly in Southeast/Downtown Fresno, Southwest Fresno or Chinatown. This is especially true because it has been revealed that recent rezoning has modified parts of Southwest Fresno (including Edison High School, the only Fresno Unified School District high school in Southwest Fresno) to be recategorized as part of Downtown Fresno.
As reported by Channel 30 Action News on Aug. 25, the City Council voted on Aug. 24 to approve development on a tract near Gaston Middle School of what Blue Ocean Development President Sylvesta Hall called a “low-density housing residential approach with the focus on single-family homes with mixed-income multifamily housing. We’d like to end our development with 323,000 square feet of retail development and bring in quality grocers and healthcare if you will.” Six hundred housing units are proposed. A Fresno Community College campus is also planned in the same area. This effort was spearheaded by Swearingen and the Central Valley Foundation. Councilmember Baines also praised the plan.
The essential question is this: Is this development planned in the same area that is eligible for the TCC money? If so, this proposal was not voted on by the steering committee (members of the public) before the City Council approved it.
Back at the Aug. 2 steering committee meeting, Spees was asked: “What guarantee do you have that Southwest Fresno will not be left out [of the TCC]?” He replied, “With setting up a very public meeting, woe is us if we don’t.”