Fresno’s municipal government is a system. The Rob Brown incident affects that system. That’s why all eyes will soon turn to City Manager Mark Scott.
The incident is dramatic. Brown, Fresno’s fire chief for barely a year, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies Wednesday night in front of his northwest Fresno home for alleged domestic violence.
Here’s a rough outline of events, according to Sheriff’s Department records and Bee reports:
* Rob Brown comes home after work on Wednesday, June 12. He has spent part of the day seated in City Hall’s council chamber, listening to Mayor Ashley Swearengin announce that a budget gap may force more steep cuts in the fire department.
* Beth Brown, Rob Brown’s wife and the city’s emergency manager, is at home. So are the couple’s four sons. The oldest son is age 18.
* A family dispute erupts at about 9 p.m. Rob Brown is at the center of it. Chaos ensues. Beth Brown calls 911.
* Rob Brown hits and shoves Beth Brown. She is knocked to the ground two times. He tries to choke one of his sons. He threatens to kill one of his sons.
* Rob Brown sees Beth Brown talking to the 911 dispatcher. She fears for her safety.
* Two sons confront Rob Brown. Two sons go to their bedrooms. One of the sons uses pepper spray on his father in an effort to keep him from hitting Beth Brown.
* Rob Brown threatens to kill himself.
* Sheriff’s deputies arrest Rob Brown. He is booked into downtown’s county jail. He is released at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday after posting $50,000 bail.
* A court on Thursday orders Rob Brown to stay away from his wife and sons.
* City Manager Scott puts Rob Brown on paid administrative leave. Scott says he will have no further comment at that time.
* Fresno lawyer Charles Magill on Friday holds two news conferences. The first is attended by Beth Brown and the four sons. Beth Brown says the arrest of her husband was an overreaction by sheriff’s deputies. She says the use of pepper spray on her husband was a misjudgment by the son. She says the incident was a father-son disagreement that is being incorrectly portrayed in the media. She says Rob Brown had had a terrible Wednesday. She says she’s OK.
* The second news conference is attended by Rob Brown. He says sheriff’s deputies were wrong to say he had been drinking Wednesday night. He says “there’s nothing more important to me than my family.”
* The sheriff’s department on Friday night releases the tape of Beth Brown’s 18-minute call to 911. Beth Brown, referring to her husband, tells the dispatcher: “He’s threatening to hurt the 18-year-old. He’s saying he’s going to leave and we’ll never see him again.”
The legal system now takes over. Rob Brown is innocent until proven otherwise. Much of this family crisis will unfold in public and the media.
There also are a number of public-policy questions here, and they fall into City Manager Scott’s lap. I know — the mayor hires and fires the city manager, so the buck stops with Swearengin. But the city charter makes clear that responsibility for daily operations in all administrative departments belongs to the city manager.
Is it only a matter of weeks, if not days, before Scott fires Rob Brown, asks him to resign, or announces publicly that he’ll never again command the Fresno Fire Department?
Most likely. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting a spin on Wednesday night’s events that repairs Rob Brown’s moral authority as the top fire-protection executive in the state’s fifth largest city.
I interviewed Chief Brown last month in his office. The fire department, like everything at City Hall, has seen better days. He explained in clear, concise terms the public-safety effects of 3.0 vs. 4.0 staffing and one-company vs. two-company firehouses. He said the department doesn’t have enough resources. He was deeply worried about the department’s decimated training program.
The training staff is so small that a 65-year-old captain, slated to retire in a few weeks, has vowed to return as a volunteer to help with training, Brown said.
“We train like we fight and fight like we train,” the Chief said.
Chief Brown hoped my story would spotlight the many challenges that firefighters potentially face every day.
For example, the Chief said, fertilizer.
Fertilizer? I said.
You know about that fertilizer-plant fire in Texas, right?
Sure, I said. The one with the explosion. Fourteen people killed, 12 of them first-responders. Debris thrown nearly three miles. A crater 93 feet across and 10 feet deep left behind.
That’s the one, the Chief said. Well, we’ve got fertilizer plants here in Fresno.
That brief exchange and City Manager Scott were the first things I thought of when I heard about Wednesday’s incident at the Brown home.
I understand the stresses of job and family. My wife and I have full-time jobs and three children (now adults). Things at home weren’t always like an episode from “Ozzie and Harriet.” But we muddled through tense times with a bit of judgment and luck. Most families are like that.
Regardless of what emerges in a courtroom, Chief Brown on Wednesday night clearly let his good judgment slip away. The responsibility for the Fresno Fire Department’s handling of a fertilizer-plant fire in a corner of Fresno rests with the city manager who hires the chief who commands the firefighters putting their lives on the line. I find it hard to believe the Fresno metropolitan area’s other fire-fighting departments and Fresno’s other first-responder agencies would confidently send their forces into a complex multi-jurisdictional attack on a fertilizer-plant fire if the fire chief in overall command is the same Rob Brown who so badly misjudged the appropriate way to handle a family problem. I’m guessing something like these thoughts now weighs on the mind of City Manager Scott. If so, I’m guessing the city manager also is grateful the opportunity for this assessment didn’t come after a fertilizer-plant explosion.
The city manager also faces public-policy questions concerning the position of emergency manager.
As the job title suggests, the emergency manager comes up with civic-response plans when a disaster hits. We don’t get many hurricanes. But an explosion from a fertilizer-plant fire is a possibility.
The emergency manager position used to be staffed with a firefighter. The spot came open when the firefighter was promoted. Beth Brown was hired soon after Rob Brown was named fire chief. Her job was moved to the city manager’s office.
Scott has said for months that Beth Brown is among the nation’s top 10 emergency managers. No one has presented any evidence to suggest otherwise. Beth Brown is among the victims of Wednesday night’s incident. No one has suggested she’s done anything other than a good job for Fresno.
But how does Beth Brown remain as emergency manager in the aftermath of Wednesday night’s incident? One reason the emergency manager had been a firefighter was because no planning for a disaster is possible without input from the fire chief who commands the troops first on the scene of a disaster. Scott already has proof that things can get tense in a hurry between Rob Brown and Beth Brown. Is Scott doing best for Fresno by keeping both in their current jobs? If Rob Brown is replaced, will the new fire chief feel comfortable working closely with Beth Brown? If the new fire chief and Beth Brown have conflicts that lead to botched responses during a widespread emergency, would not Scott shoulder the responsibility?
These two questions — Does Rob Brown stay? Does Beth Brown stay in her current job? — are questions that affect all of Fresno.
Scott has more than 40 years decision-making experience in the private and public sectors. I’m guessing he’ll speak publicly in short order.
Finally, there is the question of why. Everyone — Rob Brown, Beth Brown, Charles Magill — admits there was considerable stress at the Brown house on Wednesday. Why?
Beth Brown and Magill suggest it was connected to city finances. Fresno learned Wednesday afternoon that Measure G, the outsourcing ordinance that was to bring millions into city coffers, was rejected by voters. Rob Brown had stated in the weeks leading up to the special election that the failure of Measure G would have dire consequences on his department.
Some council members have also asked questions about the duties and pay of Beth Brown’s position.
To see Rob Brown in the council chamber audience as Mayor Swearengin on Wednesday described proposed fire department cuts was to see a most unhappy man.
Yet, Police Chief Jerry Dyer was in the same audience (sitting directly in front of Chief Brown) and his expression was far more composed even though one of the mayor’s budget-fixing options was the loss (through attrition) of 25 police officers.
Dyer has been a Fresno cop for nearly 35 years. He’s been police chief for 12 years. He knows something that, I suspect, Chief Brown doesn’t. Jerry Dyer knows Fresno politics when it comes to the budget.
What are those politics? Let me give you an example.
There was a grass fire on Saturday at the former site of the Palm Lakes golf course on Dakota Avenue, next to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Fresno firefighters rushed over and got things under control despite the wind.
Palm Lakes is a classic example government slight-of-hand. The golf course more than 30 years ago was privately owned. The course got smaller as development grew around it. Golfers drifted away. The city bought the course for $1 but couldn’t make a go of it.
One thing led to another, and the course as a business died. City Hall and a parade of District 4 council members (who represented the area) tried to turn the property into something productive. Most ideas centered on a business or industrial park of some sort. The airport runway just across the street and the patchwork nature of the property made development all but impossible. Aging golfers would occasionally roam the weed-covered former fairways and dream of a bygone era.
Then, in 2010, Jerry Brown came to City Hall’s rescue. The governor had big money problems. He decided he’d kill all of the state’s Redevelopment Agencies.
These agencies were funded by something called “tax increment.” In essence, RDAs got a huge slice of property taxes in blighted areas for use in commercial and low-income housing projects.
Brown wanted a bigger portion of this tax increment. He said it would go to schools. In reality, the money would backfill a part of the state’s funding obligation to schools. This would enable Brown to keep more money in Sacramento while keeping his funding promises to education.
Most RDAs were city creatures. This was true of the Fresno Redevelopment Agency. Fresno and other cities fought Brown’s plan in court. They liked getting most of the tax increment for their pet inner-city projects. But the cities lost.
The Fresno RDA, though not precisely a city department, was for all intents and purposes an arm of City Hall. It was governed by the City Council.
The council by early 2011 was hustling to meet the state’s complex rules for dissolving the RDA. The RDA had a lot of deals at various points in the development pipeline. The RDA had a lot of pieces of property awaiting development at unknown points in the future. The RDA had a lot of cash on hand.
And all during this time the city of Fresno had serious cash-flow problems.
So, in early March 2011, the City Council met as the RDA board and reviewed the political and economic landscape. Part of that landscape looked like this: The city owned 40-acres of worthless Palm Lakes property; the city was broke; the RDA had cash; everyone hated Jerry Brown; the dissolution deadline was still a ways off; the City Council that was in charge of the Palm Lakes property and the RDA board that was in charge of RDA cash just happened to be the same seven people.
Just in the nick of time, the RDA board and the City Council struck a deal — the RDA just before it walked the plank would buy Palm Lakes for $1.76 million in cold, hard cash.
But the amazing story of City Hall budget politics doesn’t end there.
Dissolving a redevelopment agency is not easy. State law required the authorizing agency for each RDA to name a successor agency to oversee the dissolution of all those assets and obligations. To no one’s surprise, the Fresno City Council named itself as the Fresno RDA’s successor agency.
The Fresno Successor Agency (that’s the official name) doesn’t have unlimited power. Some of its decisions are overseen by an oversight board (I’m not trying to be redundant). All of its decisions are overseen by the state Department of Finance. And anything could end up in court.
Bottom line — the Fresno Successor Agency at some point will succeed in selling Palm Lakes’ 40 acres. When it does, about 25% of the proceeds will go to Sacramento so the state can backfill its obligation to schools. About 25% will go to Fresno County. About 25% will go to other local quasi-government agencies (such as the flood control district).
And where will the final 25% go? To Fresno City Hall.
The big point to make here is that government finances are complex, mysterious, ever-changing and almost never as bad as the politicians would make you believe. That pathetic chunk of dirt called Palm Lakes has already been a money-maker for City Hall, will be a money-maker when sold, and will be a tax-generator for years to come when developed.
Now we come to Monday, June 17, 2013. The Fresno City Council, City Manager Mark Scott and the city’s budget staff will met at 8:30 a.m. in the council chamber. The big item on the agenda is filling a $1.7 million gap in next year’s general fund budget. It is this hole that had Mayor Swearengin last Wednesday suggesting a major cut to the fire department’s training program.
But the council isn’t in much of a mood to do more cutting. There are several reasons for this. Council members have been cutting for four years. City services are bare-bones as it is. The economy is picking up. And, as Palm Lakes shows, there are creative ways to find more money.
For example, there’s high expectation at City Hall that Fresno County will agree to an early lawsuit settlement that adds $3 million or so to city coffers. And the city expects to get about $2 million more than projected from property taxes now that the Redevelopment Agency is history.
Fresnans should not be surprised to see Mayor Ashley Swearengin sign a 2013-2014 budget that balances, makes a dent in the negative-fund debt, keeps five senior hot meal sites open and maintains at least the status quo in the police and fire budgets.
If so, it would be one of those crazy, bewildering, maddening budget journeys so typical of Fresno.
Jerry Dyer’s seen it all before.
Rob Brown hasn’t.