Comments from community organizations scrutinizing the contract between the Fresno Housing Authority and the Fresno Police Department could be deleted from official written records of the authority’s June 23 board meeting because they are “less than flattering” and “personal in nature,” according to Commissioner Cary Catalano, who’s spearheading the move.
The comments that Catalano wants stricken from the minutes were made by representatives of the Central Valley Urban Institute, Fresno Barrios Unidos, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center, Black Women for Wellness and Faith in the Valley in response to the prospects of renewing the housing agency’s 30-year contract to provide security services for the authority’s buildings. The contract expired on June 30. Under the housing authority’s purchasing agreement, board approval is not required to reauthorize the contract, but authority staff wanted to have a public discussion about a possible renewal.
Catalano said he had “some concerns about the narrative and the tone of the minutes” and requested, during the board meeting on July 28, that board members delay approval of the minutes until the next meeting, “so staff and general counsel could review them again.”
Top among Catalano’s concerns is that “some of the comments [in the minutes] . . can be misconstrued.” Catalano said that his primary concern was that the minutes seemed more detailed than usual, and he wanted the agency’s staff to review them for consistency and accuracy.
Kelli Furtado, assistant director for strategic initiatives for the housing authority, explained that members of the commission were concerned that the “portion of minutes reflecting public and commissioner comments might not be in conformance with past practice, and this time [was] overly descriptive, inflammatory and not necessarily reflective of what transpired during the Commission’s June board meeting,” resulting in the directive that staff and legal counsel review the minutes “for consideration in a format consistent with previous minutes.”
Criticism of agency’s contract with PD
According to the draft of the minutes in contention, Stacy Williams, a community advocate, had said that the “intergovernmental agreement with the Fresno Housing Authority and the Fresno Police Department is nothing more than a ‘money grab’ from the City of Fresno to the Fresno Housing Authority” and is “an effort of a pay to play for development projects” that have “overly saturated communities of low-income housing and are plagued by the racist policies of redlining.”
Also, Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, accused the board of “lethal outcomes and disproportionate arrest in communities of color” rather than “investing in alternative forms of care, safety and emergency response” for public housing residents and of supporting “a flawed process and a flawed contract“ instead of developing “a security plan with stakeholders.”
Nourbese Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness Action, had reminded the board that “Black families are constantly living under systemic and institutionalized racism that affects every aspect of their lives.” Kimberly McCoy, project director at Fresno Building Healthy Communities, urged the board to “invest in our communities and our residents — not police.”
Catalano said he objected to the descriptive nature of the minutes. “I just don’t think we need to be word-for-word on comments that I consider to be less than flattering that are personal in nature,” he said. “I think we need to go out and take out the personal punches and stick to the facts.” He further said he was not comfortable with the minutes as presented “because, I don’t necessarily believe that people that serve on this board are racist.”
Out of the 12 board members present at the July meeting, only commissioner Sharon Williams voted against Catalano’s request. She said she was opposed to “tamper[ing] with what somebody actually said.”
Furtado said that the minutes “are not intended to be a verbatim transcript of public or commissioner comment; they are intended to be a concise summary of the comments,” and that while the housing agency is committed to transparency, “its commissioners will not adopt minutes that, in their judgment, do not reflect what was said at the meeting.”
Payne, who also participated in the proceedings on July 28, told the commissioners that he was “deeply concerned that the agency was manipulating any public transcript from the public statements.”
Catalano responded that what he was proposing is not censorship. “It will still portray the conversations to be accurate. It’s going to be no different than any other governing body that’s elected or appointed in the state of California.”
Stacy Williams, community activist, said after the meeting that taking things out of minutes becomes a “slippery slope of silencing public voice and comments” and a move to “circumvent ethics and morality and public voice by striking someone’s comment a month after the fact.” She threatened to take the matter to the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU.
Does board action violate the Brown Act?
“The Brown Act does not specify how meeting minutes are to be adopted,” Furtado explained, adding that the agency is committed to transparency, a “free flow of ideas” and adopting minutes that are accurate and reflective of what transpires in a meeting.
“The [Brown] Act does preclude an agency from prohibiting public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency,” she stated. “It does not, however, allow for the public to engage in the slander of staff or Commissioners.”
In Fresno County, it is not common for public agencies to record minutes as a transcription of what exactly was said during the meeting — rather, many agencies record a summary of the meeting, attributing specific feedback, motions, or comments to the official who made them. Video recordings are available for some agencies’ meetings for those seeking a direct transcript.
Brittney Barsotti, staff attorney for California Newspaper Publishers Association, said that the point of the Brown Act is to guarantee transparency and accuracy of meetings with local governments. She concedes that it is difficult to fully assess what transpired at the previous meeting, and that there may be certain circumstances, such as use of profanity, which may be edited.
“The truth does not change simply because it isn’t what we want to hear or local officials are being criticized,” she said. “When dissent is articulated, preserving it accurately is that much more important.”
The postponement of approving the previous meeting’s minutes is rare and usually happens in relation to technical issues, “not the content,” Barsotti said. “As long as the content reflects what actually transpired, they should be made available and approved, regardless of whether they are ‘less than flattering’.”
Survey gauges public housing residents’ opinions
Also during the July 28 meeting, the commissioners heard the results of a survey of public housing residents on their attitudes regarding extending the 30-year-old contract with the Fresno Police Department.
Angie Nguyen, chief of staff and director of strategic initiatives and housing programs, presented the survey results that were collected between July 16 and July 24. Two hundred and twenty five survey responses were received, from 18 of the 22 properties patrolled by Fresno PD.
The survey was sent to 860 households, representing 2,150 residents of the 22 housing authority properties. Two hundred and twenty five surveys or 26% the total mailed out were returned. The questions measured the residents’ level of satisfaction with the performance of the two officers who patrol the properties.
While more residents agreed that the officers were respectful, participated in community activities, treated people fairly and showed concern for the residents, a majority of respondents did not have any opinion. On what the housing authority should do about the contract with the Fresno PD, 33% said to keep it; 22 said to keep but modify it; 8% want it ended, and 36% stated they did not know.
Likewise, 36% of respondents wanted the duties and functions of police officers the same; 22% would change the duties while 42% had no opinions.
Meanwhile, Fresno PD agreed to be paid monthly for continuing to provide services through the end of the year. The agency will consider “feedback from community members, the Reform Commission as well the residents’ survey “before a contract is either negotiated or reconstituted,” Preston Prince, executive director of the housing authority, reported to the board.
“The recently completed resident survey was only the first step within a long-term engagement effort,” Furtado stated. “Fresno Housing will continue to engage our residents and the community in a variety of ways throughout the coming months.”