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High-speed rail route change unlikely to sway Valadao

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

UPDATE (Monday, Nov. 18, 4 p.m.):
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, was traveling Friday and unavailable to comment for the original blog post, according to his staff. Late Friday, his staff provided this statement in response to The Bee’s query about whether Valadao thought his opposition to high-speed rail may have swayed the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s preliminary selection of a Fresno-Bakersfield route that does not go through property owned by the Valadao family dairy business:

“Congressman Valadao absolutely does not believe his objections influenced the agency’s recent vote. The High-Speed Rail Authority has never concerned themselves with Congressman Valadao or his constituents, why would they begin to now? Their refusal to respect the Central Valley has only added to the widespread opposition to this project.”

ORIGINAL POST (Friday, Nov. 15)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s vote last week to identify a “preferred alignment” for its Fresno-Bakersfield section is unlikely to appease Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, an ardent opponent of the agency’s bullet-train plans through his stomping ground in Kings County.

In April, the authority’s staff was recommending a route that would bypass Hanford on the city’s west side — and which would run directly past three properties owned by Valadao Dairy, the congressman’s family farming business. Those parcels amount to about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million, according to a database on the Kings County Assessor’s Office website.

But the latest route choice, which will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for evaluation, bypasses Hanford on the east. That may still be too close for comfort for Valadao, whose family, parents or uncle own a dozen properties west of Highway 43 between Idaho and Lansing avenues south Hanford — and within a mile of the would-be route for the high-speed tracks.

Valadao was traveling from Washington, D.C. to his district Friday and unavailable to comment on the rail authority’s route vote, his staff said.

Cows at the Valadao Dairy farm south of Hanford pay little attention to freight railroad tracks that run behind the fence in the background.

“However, Congressman Valadao has been both consistent and clear when discussing his opposition to high-speed rail since entering public life, regardless of the proposed track location,” said Anna Vetter, his communications director. “One of Congressman Valadao’s original criticisms of the High-Speed Rail Authority was their refusal to truly identify a route. This has created confusion for hundreds, if not thousands, of families and businesses in the potential wake of this project.”

Valadao came under scrutiny this summer after he offered an amendment to a budget bill that, if it becomes law, could stall or permanently derail construction of the high-speed rail project. Valadao, a member of the potent House Appropriations Committee, proposed the amendment and argued for its adoption in the committee apparently without informing his colleagues that his family holdings included property along or near the rail routes. The issue raised questions about whether or not Valadao faced a conflict of interest because of the potential effects of the rail routes on property values — often cited by project foes as one factor for their opposition.

Valadao’s amendment was approved by the committee. But the ultimate fate of Valadao’s efforts remains in limbo because of the budget stalemate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which is in the hands of Democrats.

Perez announces she won’t seek Senate rematch vs. Vidak

Leticia Perez, the Bakersfield Democrat who unsuccessfully sought the 16th state Senate race earlier this year to Hanford Republican Andy Vidak, said Friday she will not seek a rematch next year.

The seat came open when Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio unexpectedly resigned in February. The election this year was only to fill the remainder of Rubio’s 16th District term.

Leticia Perez

Rubio’s normal term was up next year, so Vidak will have to stand for reelection — this time in the newly created 14th state Senate District.

Several pundits thought Perez — a Kern County supervisor — would run again, but in a release she said next year the board “has the opportunity of ushering in an unprecedented era of economic growth and stability for families in Kern County and throughout California.”

Because of that, the release said, “are of such magnitude that I must focus all of my attention, in collaboration with my colleagues, on the processes that will revitalize our local and state economies. My focus must always be to insure that future generations have the opportunities that have been afforded to me and my family. For these reasons, I cannot divide my time and focus on such pressing local matters with a Senate race in 2014.”

Perez and Vidak finished one-two in the five-person May primary election, but neither finished with more than 50% of the vote, so a July runoff ensued.

The primary election surprised many political watchers, because Vidak finished with 49.8% of the vote — just missing the 50% threshold — to Perez’s 43.9% in a district that is has a majority of both Democrats and Hispanics.
Vidak followed that up in July with another win, 51.9% of the vote to Perez’s 48.1%.

With Perez now out, the focus will be on who steps up to challenge Vidak in a district Democrats feel they can win. Earlier this week, Fresno Unified School District board member Luis Chavez, a Democrat, announced plans to run for the seat.

WSJ takes look at Fresno’s finances

National experts are again casting a skeptical eye on Fresno’s financial health.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that City Hall’s small general fund reserve and precarious cash-flow situation do not bode well for the future.

The Journal, citing data provided to it by Merritt Research Services, reported that Fresno last year ranked almost dead last for cash-on-hand among the nation’s 250 largest cities.

The data showed how much money was left in the till when the cities closed their books on the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. The unit of comparative measurement was how many days each city could operate just on available cash.

The median was 81.1 days. Fresno was at one-tenth of one day. Only Pomona and Charleston, S.C. ranked lower.

“Cash on hand is a key metric analysts use to flag fiscally stressed cities,” The Journal reported.

The Journal also noted that Fresno currently has just $1.5 million in its general fund reserve, far less than what experts in municipal finance recommend for a city of more than 500,000 people.

None of this is earth-shaking news to Wall Street analysts, auditors and Fresnans.

In July 2012, Vikram Rai, strategist with Citigroup Inc., said bond investors were increasingly asking about Fresno’s financial strength. Rai said investors worried Fresno would head to bankruptcy court and force them to take a painful shave on their investments.

In April 2013, the city’s finance department delivered the city’s 2011-2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) to the City Council. The CAFR was written by city staff and audited by Macias Gini & O’Connell LLP. The report contained a “going concern” paragraph. Staff and auditors said they’d found “substantial doubt” about the city’s “ability to continue as a going concern.”

But while The Wall Street Journal report doesn’t break fundamentally new ground, it does shine a bright national spotlight on a huge divide in Fresno and at City Hall.

A lot of people, many with immense power, think all the numbers pointing to financial danger are utter nonsense.

Fresno just went through an unprecedented year-long debate on home trash service that looked into every nook and cranny of the city’s budget — and, in the process, drove home this point.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin repeatedly said outsourcing of the trash service would lower consumer rates and bring to the general fund a net $2.5 million a year in franchise fees from Mid Valley Disposal. Then-City Manager Mark Scott said the city’s cash-flow was so fragile that he might miss payroll in the spring.

Opponents of outsourcing, including several City Council members and city union leaders, said the promised rate-reductions were a lie and city finances were much better than the Swearengin Administration was portraying.

Swearengin’s opponents prevailed in the June 4 Measure G referendum when voters rejected outsourcing and the mayor’s pessimistic budget analysis.

More than 500 days have passed since June 30, 2012. Fresno has not gone the way of Stockton and San Bernardino by declaring bankruptcy.

Scott and his successor, Bruce Rudd, have not missed payroll.

Property tax revenues came in better than expected this year.

It’s clear from recent meetings that some on the City Council want to resume spending. They think the budget crisis — exaggerated in the past year by the Swearengin administration for political purposes — is gone. Lee Brand and Steve Brandau are vocal exceptions to this sentiment.

This year’s budget was balanced with a $14 million loan from the water department and assumed union contract concessions that have yet to materialize.

Maybe tightwads Brand and Brandau are wrong. Maybe the spenders are right. I don’t know.

But I’ll bet a Kit Kat that The Wall Street Journal is planning a follow-up story on Fresno’s finances.

Perea leads lawmakers’ grilling of state officials over jobless check delays

David Siders of The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Bureau reports on Wednesday’s hearing about delayed jobless benefits:

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, chairman of the Assembly Insurance Committee, speaks with reporters after a committee hearing at the Capitol on Nov. 6, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/David Siders

The state Assembly Insurance Committee, led by Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea, blasted state officials for their oversight of a computer problem that delayed jobless benefits for nearly 150,000 Californians, while front-line employees testified Wednesday that problems persist.

The oversight hearing was the first on the troubled project. (Perea told The Los Angeles Times’ David Lazarus ahead of the meeting that the goal was to make sure issues that caused the delay don’t arise again.)

A miscalculation converting old unemployment claims into a new processing system over the Labor Day weekend resulted in a massive backlog of unemployment claims. The problem became so severe it skewed reporting of initial jobless claims by the U.S. Department of Labor, and it provided another example of the state’s information-technology shortcomings.

“I think the fundamental issue for the state is we are the home of Silicon Valley, we are seen as the most technologically adept state in the nation,” said Assembly Member Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova. “To have this sort of thing happening is a colossal problem.”

While EDD administrators said backlog claims have largely been resolved, Irene Livingston, an employment program representative for EDD In San Jose, testified that it remains “nearly impossible” for unemployed Californians to reach front-line employees. She said the system is overwhelmed with telephone calls and an email system that remains backlogged.

“There’s literally hundreds of thousands of messages that have yet to receive a response,” she said.

EDD administrators lamented staffing shortages at the department, but EDD Chief Deputy Director Sharon Hilliard told the committee that staffing levels were not responsible for the computer problem. The department greatly underestimated how many claimants would be affected by a glitch in data conversion done over the Labor Day weekend, as well as how long it would take employees to address the problem.

“For this, we are very sorry,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard and a representative of Deloitte Consulting, the contractor on the project, both said the department should have done a more thorough test on the amount of time required to address “stop pay” flags associated with a portion of claims being converted.

(Perea summarized the hearing on his webpage — including some audiofiles.)  

Read more from Capitol Alert

Friday update

Perea’s office released a letter that he sent to Hilliard, the EDD chief, outlining five specific things that the Assembly committee asked the EDD to do:

1. Update the criteria for determining eligibility on an untimely claim.

2. Update the criteria for determining whether an applicant’s ongoing training is a valid reason for not looking for a job.

3. Improve communication with claimants.

4. Look into having more multi-language documents and web pages.

5. Improve the EDD call center.

– The Fresno Bee

 

At age 85, former Fresno Co. Supervisor Stan Oken pens parenting book

Clovis resident Stan Oken has accomplished quite a bit in his 85 years of life.

A nine-year Fresno County supervisor. Co-founder of Domus Mitis, a foundation set up to assist in the care of abused and dependent women and children. Longtime chair of the Oken family-owned Wonder Valley Ranch Resort and Conference Center. Past chair of the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau. Teacher. Coach.

Stan Oken

Now, add author to that sterling résumé.

Oken has penned a book titled “Raising the Whole Child: Gardens of Destiny,” which talks about raising children and urges adults — be their children natural or adopted, or if they are foster parents — to step up and start parenting.

Using gardening as a metaphor, Oken writes that good gardeners raise whole children, while the seeds of the bad gardeners never bloom.

He even offers up a checklist that any couple should meeting before deciding to have a baby: be at least 21 years old, married, have at least a high school diploma, be free of drugs and alcohol, be prepared both socially and financially, have positive self-esteem, be educated about pre-natal care for the mother and health care for the child, and have both mother and father take parenting classes.

For anyone who knows Oken, the book may be a surprise, but certainly not the subject matter.

During his time as a county supervisor, children’s and juvenile justice issues were top priorities. And Oken has been a foster parent himself and founded the River Way Ranch Camp, a summer camp for youth.

Valadao is third House Republican to support immigration bill

Recently, Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock became the first Republican to formally endorse a comprehensive immigration bill introduced by House Democrats.

In the meantime, Denham’s Republican colleague, David Valadao, was doing just about everything he could to show support for immigration reform — short of signing on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Rep. David Valadao

On Wednesday, Valadao changed that when he joined Denham and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the third Republican to sign on as a bill co-sponsor.

The 1,137-page House bill includes a pathway to legal status and, potentially, eventual U.S. citizenship for immigrants currently in this country without authorization. It also includes myriad other provisions, including border security measures, an agricultural worker program, employment verification and more.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform say at least 28 Republicans have publicly expressed support for a path to citizenship — but only Denham, Ros-Lehtinen and now Valadao have put their name on a bill that would make that a reality.

In a Wednesday news release, Valadao said he has been “working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find common ground on the issue of immigration reform.”

By supporting the legislation, he said, “I am strengthening my message: addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait. I am serious about making real progress and will remain committed to doing whatever it takes to repair our broken immigration system.”

Merced mayor caught in political flap

The Merced Sun-Star reports on a tough spot Merced Mayor Stan Thurston found himself in this week:

Stan Thurston

Thurston cut ties with a member of his re-election committee Monday after condemning an email message the campaign volunteer sent that attempts to use opponent Noah Lor’s ethnicity to drum up voter support for the incumbent.

The email, obtained by the Sun-Star, was written by Denis Kenshalo, a volunteer for Thurston’s committee. It was dated Oct. 21 and sent by Kenshalo to at least 10 people and was forwarded to dozens more. Kenshalo has admitted writing and sending the email. He issued an apology on Monday.

In the message, Kenshalo asks his “good friends” to vote for Thurston, saying that he’s done a “great job” for Merced. As the email continues, however, Kenshalo states that Thurston needs “all the support he can get” because Lor will have “all of his own kind” voting for him.

Lor, who is Hmong, was born in the southeast Asian country of Laos and came to the United States at age 15. Kenshalo incorrectly refers to him as being from Vietnam.

Read more here.

Valadao still on immigration reform fence

David Valadao

Rep. David Valadao of Hanford said Tuesday he hasn’t ruled out a break with his Republican party’s leadership over comprehensive immigration reform.

“A bunch of us are getting nervous,” said during a Tuesday telephone news conference, The Bakersfield Californian‘s Steven Mayer reported, echoing comments he and fellow Valley Republican Jeff Denham made to Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle for a story published in Sunday’s Bee.

While Valadao said he favors a path to citizenship, he remained cautious Tuesday about whether to take the kind of risk Denham has taken and throw his support behind the bipartisan effort.

“I haven’t ruled that out yet,” Valadao said.

Several high-profile supporters of immigration reform joined Valadao at the news conference, including Fresno Chamber of Commerce CEO Al Smith, California Chamber President Marti Fisher, Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who shared the stage for a round-table discussion (more coverage of Tuesday’s event, including video, here).

Amanda Renteria, who announced last month that she’ll run against Valadao next year, said in a statement Tuesday that Valadao is one of many in Washington who talk about problems rather than do something about them.

“Valadao could have taken part in bipartisan talks that have been going on all year, but he hasn’t,” she said. “He could have joined other Republicans and worked on a popular Democratic proposal, but he won’t do that, either. Congressman Valadao just isn’t getting the job done, and that’s unacceptable for the valley.”

Fresno supes continue stumbling in effort to make First 5 opposition official

Fresno County Supervisors Judy Case and Debbie Poochigian again this week made it clear that they are opposed to First 5 Fresno County’s plan to build a new $15 million downtown headquarters.

The issue was so pressing, they said, that an emergency addition was needed to Tuesday’s board agenda so they could discuss the matter further and make absolutely certain that County Administrative Officer John Navarrette sent a letter to the agency expressive the concerns of the board’s majority.

Supervisor Judy Case

But the request required four votes on the five-member board — and it only got three. Besides Case and Poochigian, Supervisor Phil Larson also backed adding the item to the agenda.

Supervisors Andreas Borgeas and Henry R. Perea, however, didn’t feel Case and Poochgian made their case for the last-second addition.

“What’s the emergency?” Perea repeatedly asked.

County Counsel Kevin Briggs backed that position, saying an emergency was like a fire or a flood. This, he said, was more like an urgency than an emergency.

But Case continued to press the matter, saying it was, indeed, an emergency because First 5 commissioners were moving ahead with the project, even after the supervisors expressed its dissatisfaction with the building.

Poochigian and Case have written to the commission with their concerns, but they both wanted an official letter on behalf of the Board of Supervisors.

The problem is that during an exhaustive discussion of the matter at its Oct. 8 meeting, Case offered up multiple motions opposing the First 5 building, but none of them specifically directed staff to draft and send a letter.

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian

Navarrette pointed out as much on Tuesday.

In fact, its unclear what the board approved because two similar but different motions were offered up ahead of the vote, which passed 3-1, with Perea in opposition and Borgeas abstaining.

The First 5 project will be built on agency-owned property along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library. It is currently a parking lot. The building will include a child care center, classroom space and a community conference room in addition to First 5’s administrative offices.

Case, Poochigian and Larson think the building isn’t a wise use of funds for the agency.

The issue certainly isn’t over. The matter is already an official agenda item for the board’s Tuesday meeting, and the supervisors are likely to resume their criticism of the project — and, this time, maybe officially direct Navarrette to draft a letter saying as much to the agency.

Appointed Fresno Co. clerk Orth says she’ll seek election to post

Brandi Orth has been around elected officials for a long time. Now, she’s going to try and become one herself.

Orth, 57, announced Wednesday that she will seek the post next year of Fresno County Clerk, a job best known for voter registration and overseeing county elections, but one that comes with other tasks as well, including conducting civil marriage ceremonies.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth

And, yes, it’s true: Orth already holds the job.

But she was appointed — and not elected — by a unanimous vote of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in January 2012. Her selection came a week after former Clerk Victor Salazar unexpectedly resigned.

At the time, Orth was a policy analyst who worked for the county administrative officer — a position that worked closely with the five elected supervisors. Before that, Orth worked for a decade in the clerk’s office.

“I realized all the work experience and career path had prepared me for this job,” she said Wednesday at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Fresno after being introduced by Supervisor Phil Larson.

So this will be Orth’s first run for elected office.

Still, she had to hit the ground running after her appointment, as 2012 was a presidential election year. This year — normally a quiet off year in the election cycle — has proved to be equally busy, with three unscheduled elections.

The big question in whether Orth will get face any challengers for the post, which currently pays $121,442 annually.

Like Orth, Salazar was appointed to the post to replace Susan Anderson, who left the office after winning a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

That was in January 2001.

The next year, Salazar had an opponent — and beat him. But in 2006 and 2010 re-election bids, Salazar was unopposed.