Craig Scharton, City of Fresno’s business development director, may be on his way out.
If so, City Hall will say good-bye to one of the local political scene’s most colorful and (at times) controversial players.
No one in the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin is talking (on the record) about Scharton’s job security. Officials say speculation and personnel matters aren’t topics fit for public consumption.
But it’s a good guess that Scharton is being encouraged to find other employment as soon as possible.
Kate Borders, chief executive of Downtown Fresno Partnership (the property-based improvement district that replaced the Downtown Association), said Monday afternoon that she’s talked to Scharton about doing work on a contractual basis for her organization should he leave city employment. But it’s merely talk at this point, Borders said.
Scharton on Monday afternoon said he’ll keep doing his job at City Hall until someone tells him otherwise.
At the same time, Scharton said, “I’ve tried to keep my options open.”
One thing is certain, he added: “I’m not going to leave downtown revitalization.”
Scharton turns 52 on Aug. 11. He’s been part of the Swearengin administration since the Mayor was sworn in for her first term in early January 2009. With the exception of Police Chief Jerry Dyer, he has probably been in the news more than any of Swearengin’s other top executives.
Scharton is one of those pols from the old school. He’s been around forever. He loves Fresno. He’s barely skirted serious trouble. He’s smart enough and experienced enough to hold his own in public debate with ambitious council members. He’s brave enough (or foolish enough) to relish such arguments.
Scharton has done it all in Fresno — or developed a gift of gab capable of leaving that impression.
In a way, Scharton’s public image has come full circle. He got his start in local politics by being the fresh, new face who would sweep away the deadwood at City Hall.
Scharton in the mid-1980s was a Bullard High graduate working on a political science degree at Fresno State. He had served as a part-time intern to several council members. Then, in early 1987, the 25-year-old Scharton ran for the District 1 council seat.
Then, as now, District 1 was the Tower District-Fresno High-Fresno City College area. This was when Fresno had a council-city manager government.
The District 1 incumbent in early 1987 was 75-year-old Ted C. Wills, who got his start at City Hall in 1954 when he was appointed to the old City Commission following the death of Commissioner Chester H. Cary. Wills was elected to the post in 1955. During that term, the current city manager form of government was established.
Scharton in the three-candidate race in 1987 promised to bring a “new vigor” to the District 1 seat.
Scharton in the March 3, 1987 election forced Wills into a runoff. Wills got 47% of the vote, Scharton nearly 44%.
Scharton won the May 5, 1987 runoff, getting a bit more than 52% of the vote compared to 47.6% for Wills. Scharton’s victory, The Bee reported, “marked the end of an era in Fresno politics.”
Scharton along with Les Kimber and Chris Petersen were sworn in the following week. Kimber praised the lord and joked that, at 52, he was the council’s oldest member. Scharton with a twinkle in his eyes reminded Kimber that “it was said a child shall lead them.”
There was nothing simple about Scharton’s four years on the council.
He voted to make Fresno a nuclear-free zone, where the design, production and installation of nuclear weapons would be prohibited within the city limits.
He voted against funding a study to see if Fresno should build a new baseball stadium, saying he didn’t sense much commitment from the private sector.
He announced his plans to run for mayor just 15 months after taking office.
He withdrew his mayoral candidacy three months later, saying he couldn’t take a stance on an issue without critics claiming it was just a campaign ploy.
He tried without success to get the council to pick a site on Fulton Mall — the Hilton Hotel was one possibility — for the new City Hall.
He opposed efforts in 1988 to rip up Fulton Mall and bring back cars, saying: “Obviously, things aren’t working downtown. We have to find solutions. I’m not convinced yet that ripping up the mall is a solution. It could end up being one of the solutions, but nobody has made a case yet.”
He blasted a top city Parks Department official who wanted to give away San Joaquin River bottom land if the Ladies Professional Golf Association would build its Hall of Fame there.
He proposed a reform of the Redevelopment Agency that would eliminate any input from the city manager after the city blew $2.8 million on the failed Roxford Foods turkey plant.
He supported construction of a 15,000-seat amphitheater (which never happened) as part of downtown revitalization efforts.
He voted with the 4-3 majority to give council members a 15% raise, a boost that would apply to sitting council members only after they were re-elected.
He finished second to Brian Setencich in the March 5, 1991 District 1 election, 48.6% to 45.6%, forcing a runoff election two months later.
He lost the May 7, 1991 runoff to Setencich, 51.4% to 48.5%.
The Bee in the next day’s paper wrote of the campaign: “Scharton criticized Setencich’s inexperience and his failure to take a stand on providing more police protection. Setencich countered that Scharton was too cozy with building interests ….”
Scharton’s career in election politics was over. But he would stay involved with Fresno issues for much of the next 17 years. Downtown would be a key theme in his life.
In August 1992, The Bee did yet another in-depth look at the struggles of Fulton Mall. The Bee noted that the mall is ringed by a confusing network of one-way streets.
“I see this as a fundamental problem,” Scharton, then a planning consultant, told The Bee. “Look at Fashion Fair. You would never have a street like Shaw or First Street one-way, so people can’t get into the mall. This forces people two or three blocks away from where they want to shop.”
Scharton at the time was working with Los Angeles developer Wayne Ratkovich on a downtown revitalization plan that never bore fruit.
In November 1995, The Bee identified four former council members who were registered as City Hall lobbyists: Scharton, Esther Padilla, Kimber and Rod Anaforian.
In December 1995, The Bee reported that efforts to open Casino Fresno on half of the bottom floor of the former Security Pacific Bank building on Fulton Mall had hit a snag. The building owners were waiting on a $3.1 million federal loan to do remodeling work. The building owners: Scharton and San Luis Obispo developer John E. King. (Scharton later sold his stake in the building.)
Scharton would become senior economic development director for One by One Leadership in Fresno. He would become president of the California Main Street Alliance, a network of downtown revitalization organizations. He would become chief executive of the Central Valley Business Incubator.
Scharton would sue the Fresno Diamond Group in the mid-1990s, saying the Grizzlies owner didn’t pay him for consulting work. He would be sentenced to four months under house arrest and three years’ probation for a felony drunken-driving charge in the mid-1990s. And in the mid-1990s, according to a Bee article, development lobbyist Jeff Roberts, a key witness in the federal Operation Rezone corruption cases, told investigators that Scharton received the most favors of any Fresno council member implicated.
Scharton was never charged with a crime. Setencich in 2000 was convicted by a jury of one count of understating his income. Setencich was sentenced to two years’ probation, ending the six-year Operation Rezone investigation.
Scharton declined to discuss specifics about Operation Rezone with The Bee in late 2008, shortly before Swearengin was sworn in as mayor.
“I learned some good lessons about keeping clear lines between my friends and people I regulate as an official,” Scharton said.
Then came January 2009 and Scharton found himself back in City Hall. Swearengin had promised in the 2008 mayoral campaign to revitalize downtown. City leaders had been making such promises for 50 years. Swearengin said she had the secrets. One of those secrets was hiring Scharton as head of the administration’s new Downtown and Community Revitalization Department.
It wasn’t long before Scharton was known as the Downtown Revitalization “czar.” He didn’t describe himself by that title. The term was more of a friendly nickname.
Scharton said there was no silver bullet to revitalization. “It’s going to be about doing the right things consistently over a long period of time, instead of making one big splash,” Scharton said in January 2009.
Three months later, Scharton said: “Revitalization is a process, not a project. That’s a different mindset we’re going to have to have as we move forward.”
But now, more than four years after Swearengin took office and Scharton returned to the local seat of power, it’s amazing to see how events have unfolded.
In that span:
* The council committed more than $2 million of federal funds over several years to, among other things, hire a high-profile Pasadena firm to design revitalization plans. For reasons still not clear, the Swearengin administration fired the firm.
* The Fulton Corridor Specific Plan and the Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan are still moving through the pipeline.
* City Hall has presented three options for Fulton Mall, two of them involving the return of vehicular traffic. Some on the City Council show dwindling interest in supporting Swearengin in these efforts. Some community members are strongly opposed to the return of cars on Fulton between Tuolumne and Inyo streets.
* Efforts to invest federal and Redevelopment Agency money in a Southern California developer’s dream of remodeling the Hotel Fresno have seemingly died.
* The downtown homeless problem shows no signs of getting better.
* The Redevelopment Agency was dissolved, eliminating a key revitalization tool.
* Four years of recession forced massive staffing and service cutbacks at City Hall. The Downtown and Community Revitalization Department was downsized and merged into a reformed Planning Department.
* Scharton saw his responsibilities expand. He was handed the housing division. That division got in big trouble with the federal Housing and Urban Development Department for wasting money. Everyone said housing is a tough gig. That didn’t stop everyone from pointing fingers at Scharton.
* Swearengin tried to outsource the city’s home trash service. Three council members — Blong Xiong, Sal Quintero, Oliver Baines — opposed her. The three council members helped take the issue to the voters. The voters rejected Swearengin’s plan. Xiong and Quintero, in particular, view Swearengin’s ideas for downtown with a skeptical eye. They are emboldened after their trash victory.
* Council Members Lee Brand, Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau also think Swearengin focuses too much time and money on downtown, to the detriment of the rest of the city.
* Scharton has seen a change in his downtown revitalization duties. He was recently moved to the job of business development director. More of the planning on revitalization/Fulton Mall was left to Elliott Balch and Wilma Quan. Scharton was also moved inside the City Manager’s Office.
* City Manager Mark Scott leaves Fresno on Friday, July 19 to become city manager in Burbank. Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd will move up to City Manager.
* The economy is improving. Commercial and residential developers are moving aggressively on proposed projects in north Fresno, the west-of-Highway 99 area, rural Madera County on the north side of the San Joaquin River and in the Millerton Lake area. There appears to be scant developer interest in downtown.
* The 2035 general plan update calls for at least 45% of all future commercial and residential development to be of the “infill” variety. Two groups of government officials — one from the City Council, the other sponsored by the administration — are trying to figure out how to make this happen in the wake of four-and-a-half years’ work by the Community and Downtown Revitalization Department/Division.
* Swearengin has just 180 weeks remaining as mayor.
Maybe Craig Scharton will stay all 180 weeks. Maybe he won’t. But he’s been around enough to know that City Hall is a tough place.