Area’s diverse community lacks agency representation

People walk a trail north of the Fresno homes and south of Valley Childrens Hospital on Oct. 17, 2017.
People walk a trail north of the Fresno homes and south of Valley Childrens Hospital on Oct. 17, 2017. dcasarez@vidaenelvalle.com

You know there’s a problem when the chair of the San Joaquín River Conservancy Board starts a 7-hour hearing – yes, 420 minutes of public resources – by referring to the need to “wash away the white noise” in determining if the fine citizens of Fresno will get immediate access to the river bottom or wait longer than the 10 years it has already waited.

Separate the opinions from the fact, said Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeaus, who was most likely referring to an opinion piece written by Fresno Bee columnist suggesting the board was in the pocket of rich homeowners lining Riverview Drive off Audubon Avenue.

OK, here are some facts:

▪ Fresno Mayor Lee Brand lined up all his ducks in support of an alternative access point near Palm and Nees avenues that would require the extra expense of solving the cleanup of an old dump and cutting through a park. The city was joined by the county and other public agencies in support of what is known as Alternative 5B. The price tag on that, according to conservancy staff, is about $5.2 million.

▪ Alternative 1, which provides access at Riverview Drive, would cost between $2 million and $3 million. The drawback is resident concerns of increased traffic and crime. Also, a mitigating measure would require installation of a traffic signal to help with more traffic. A traffic signal can cost between $250,000 and $500,000 for purchase and installation, plus an annual maintenance cost of about $8,000, according to traffic experts.

▪ Conservancy staff lined up behind Alternative 5B, providing the board with the required documents and information needed to approve that plan. As for Alternative 1, board members objected they didn’t have the necessary documents or information to weigh its viability. In essence, that is why the board voted 9-5 to reject Alternative 5B and instead vote, 12-2, to direct staff to return on Dec. 13 with more specifics about Alternative 1.

▪ Then, there are more loose answers to questions about the actual costs of both alternatives, whether the City of Fresno’s general plan would be violated should Alternative 1 be chosen, or if Riverview Drive was built to provide access to a 1,500-home development on the river bottom. I guess we’ll find out those answers at next month’s meeting.

What happened at the Fresno City Council Chambers last Wednesday (Nov. 15) was that enough conservancy board members felt they were being pressured to vote for Alternative 5B. Some objected to the fact that the other option would open up the river bottom for recreational activities much quicker.

The 12-2 vote (Fresno City Councilmember Steve Brandau and citizen representative Paul Gibson voted no) should not be viewed a vote in support of Alternative 1.

You might not believe it, but a 7-hour meeting (minus 20 minutes for lunch) was riveting.

First, Brandau jumps the gun and makes a motion to approve staff recommendation an hour (actually, 61 minutes) before the the first of 56 speakers voice their opinion on which access point is better.

Then, an elderly woman sitting in the back row of a packed chamber calls a speaker “idiot” for stating his opinion on the matter.

Then, the last of the public speakers stands up and announces that a newly created non-profit that got an option to acquire land planned for Alternative 5B and would work with the conservancy to provide the land. “Our intent isn’t to sell it,” said John Kinsey, a lawyer. “Our intent is not to make money off of it.”

Then, Brandau asks if the meeting can be continued so as not to require additional public testimony. The answer was no, because new material on Alternative 1 would be presented, and the public needs the chance to weigh in again.

Bravo if you’ve kept up with this thus far.

Now for some opinion.

Remember the comment about “white noise?” Great. I’d like to address that comment.

The conservancy’s 14-member board (there is one vacancy) is all white.

The majority of those addressing the conservancy board was white.

The staff providing the board with information and answers to questions is white.

Now, this is not about making this a racist issue. This is not a slap at the qualifications of the board members, just at a system that fails to mirror its community.

This is about how the diversity of two counties isn’t reflected when it comes time to providing access to a public parkland.

Fresno County is 52.8 percent Latino, 30 percent white, 10.8 percent Asian and 5.8 percent black, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Madera County is 57.4 percent Latino, 34.7 percent white, 2.4 percent Asian and 4.2 percent black.

Both counties have a majority of women, yet there are only five women on the conservancy board (hooray, because they made the most intelligent observations).

To be fair, the conservancy board isn’t an exception. Except for rural city councils with heavily Latino populations, public agencies, boards and commissions fail to reflect their community.

Plus, Latino residents share some of the blame if they either don’t get involved by voting or by running for office.

The “white noise” is an apt description.

A former Fresno County department head held to a strong believe “that the only qualified person for the job was a Mexican” is a brand of philosophy we don’t embrace.

We agree with one speaker who complained that a 10 a.m. meeting disqualifies most people whose jobs prohibit them from attending a meeting.

One final point: The public needs the alternative that will provide access at the earliest possible time. More 7-hour meetings are not the answer.

Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle ever since it began publishing in August 1990. Send e-mail to: jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com