March 13, 2023 — Clovis City Council

Documented by Rachel Youdelman

Here’s what you need to know:

  • A member of the public criticized Council member Pearce for her objection to the word “equity” at a previous meeting and called her behavior “racist.”
  • Several members of the public were present to advocate for legalizing keeping backyard hens.
  • The council approved an annual update to the Regional Housing Needs (RHN) Overlay District parcel map, but no mention was made of the lawsuit the city lost over the lack of affordable housing.

Council and Staff

Lynne Ashbeck, Mayor ABSENT

Vong Mouanoutoua, Mayor Pro Tem

Drew Bessinger, Council member

Matt Basgall, Council member

Diane Pearce, Council member

John Holt, city manager

Andy Haussler, assistant city manager

Scott Cross, city attorney
Karey Cha, city clerk

The Scene

The Clovis City Council met on March 13 for the second meeting of the month. Mayor Pro Tem Vong Mouanoutoua presided because Mayor Lynne Ashbeck was absent; he called the meeting to order on time. Clerk Karey Cha called the roll, and Council member Drew Bessinger led the flag salute, during which there was no audio for those who attended the meeting remotely. Remote attendees had an adequate view of the council and staff but not of the audience; audio was clear. The meeting lasted just under two hours before adjourning to closed session and was notable for a comment made by a member of the public who criticized Council member Diane Pearce’s recent comments regarding her distaste for “equity”; and, additionally, several members of the public were present to speak for or against the issue of allowing residents to keep backyard chickens. 

Members of the public may attend meetings in person at the Clovis Council Chamber, 1033 Fifth St., Clovis or online via Webex. The next meeting is Monday, March 20 at 6 p.m. and will be a joint meeting with the Planning Commission. Videos of past meetings and agendas are available here.

Public Comments for items not on the agenda. Five members of the public were present to speak on two issues. 

First was Crystal Reed, who described herself as a lifelong Clovis resident and an Old Town businessperson. She said she had a “big issue” with Council member Diane Pearce’s “actions of racism.” Reed said that she remembered the racism of Clovis and that as a businesswoman, she relied on economic development that includes all kinds of people —Pearce was “taking money out of my clients’ pockets,” she said. She continued that “Clovis doesn’t need that kind of negativity.” Pearce was offered training by the California League of Cities but rejected it, because she “didn’t have time,” said Reed.

Reed continued that Pearce was “taking away from people investing” in Clovis, explaining that she was referring to the Feb. 21 meeting during which Pearce said that “equality is racism.” Pearce actually said that the word “equity” was “socialist” and objected to not having had ”sign-off” on a proclamation honoring the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Fresno, despite the fact that no council member enjoys such a privilege. Reed complained that Pearce had lived in Clovis only four years and as a new council member had already missed several meetings. “She has blown up what Clovis has worked for,” said Reed about Pearce, concluding, “Councilwoman, I’m coming for you.”

Though the terms of the Brown Act permit only limited engagement with public commenters, Pearce defended her comment, saying that she didn’t object to the word “equality,” it was “equity” with which she took issue. Reed had left the lectern but her voice was heard to say “same thing,” to which Pearce replied “Nope.”

The next five commenters spoke about the subject of allowing residents to keep backyard chickens (hens only, no roosters), which is not permitted. The subject had arisen after the outset of the pandemic lockdown, when several people came to make the case both for and against. At the July 20, 2020, meeting, the council voted 3-2 to postpone the matter for a year; a year later the subject was dismissed.

The first person to comment gave his name as David Meyer Avakian. He was prepared with documentation and a letter signed by a number of people in support of allowing residents to keep hens. He argued that people would buy products to keep their hens and would thus generate revenue in the form of sales tax, that hens were less noisy than dogs, that chickens consume harmful insects and that people would have access to fresh eggs. He said he took a vote on the “Nextdoor” app, and the tally favored permitting chickens.

Angela Bates of Clovis spoke next, “from her heart,” and said that if families keep chickens, they will learn empathy. She lamented the loss of farmland and other rural customs in Clovis, something that “made Clovis special.”

Chip Wipfler of Clovis reminded the council that he had addressed the council 2 1/2 years ago on the subject. He was emphatic in his opposition to permitting residents to keep chickens, because he “grew up with chickens” and didn’t like them. He was worried that all of his surrounding neighbors would keep them, and his wife, who is disabled, could catch a disease from them. He remarked that animal control calls would increase, burdening the city.

Garan Bates, husband of Angela, spoke next, very passionately about agricultural traditions that he felt should be preserved in Clovis. “You guys are destroying what Clovis is,” he said, covering former farmlands in concrete. His current job was with a concrete company, so he knew firsthand, he said, what was going on. “Give us a little city farmland back,” he said. “Let us have our chickens,” he pleaded, adding, “I don’t understand why it’s so hard.” Farming “started this town,” he said, adding, “Don’t kill it.”

June Vehn spoke about a letter she sent to the council listing “all the negative impacts” of keeping chickens. She would be “living in a chicken coop” if all her neighbors kept chickens. She said that the council should conduct an “environmental impact study” regarding the potential effects of backyard hens.

Reed, who had spoken earlier about Pearce, said she supported permitting residents to keep backyard hens. She grew up with the FFA (Future Farmers of America), she said, and noted that she “doesn’t see a problem” with chickens. Teaching kids about basic farming ideas has been “lost,” she said. The city could permit chickens but put restrictions on lot size, for example, she said. “I’ll take chickens any day,” she concluded.

Michele Sander, the last person to speak on the topic, said that she had epilepsy and that her doctor told her to find something to do at home that would “make her happy.” So, she would like to keep chickens to keep herself happy. Chickens would keep bugs under control, and she could show her grandchildren where eggs come from. Backyard chickens are a huge hobby now in many places, she noted. If chickens are a nuisance, so are geese, fruit trees, gardens and bird feeders, and if no chickens are allowed, then neither should any of these things.

Mouanoutou asked City Manager John Holt to confirm that Ashbeck would need to request the subject to be added to the agenda for formal consideration. Holt reminded everyone what the previous meetings’ outcome had been, and asked Avakian, one of the commenters, to “reach out” to Ashbeck and ask her to add the subject to the agenda.

Agenda Items #1-4, Consent Calendar These are items considered routine which are decided with a single vote. Mouanoutoua pulled item 3 for discussion, and items 1, 2 and 4 were approved 4-0 (1 absence).

Agenda Item #3 This item was a Measure C update which was approved 4-0 (1 absence). Engineering supervisor Ryan Burnett made the presentation, which had been prepared by staff member Tatiana Partain. Burnett discussed the various road, walking trail, ADA ramps, bike lane, etc., projects funded by Measure C, a half-cent sales tax. He recapped its history and called the funding “very critical” for a variety of city projects. The renewal of the measure failed in the most recent election, but it doesn’t expire until 2027, so a revised version could succeed in the next election.

Bessinger said that “anti-Measure C” people made it “political,” hence the defeat at the polls, but in fact there was opposition because community groups who supported the measure wanted more of the funds allocated for public transportation and sidewalks.

Agenda Item 5 Jay Schengel, finance director, gave a 2023 finance forecast. No vote was needed. Schengel noted that the forecast is revisited every five years, and the March presentation is merely an update.

Schengel explained that the five-year forecast focuses on the general fund and is the basis for budget development. He noted that the forecast is “structurally balanced” and allows for growth, that CalPERS (California’s public employees retirement system) costs continue to increase and that there will be rate increases for water, sewer and sanitation.

Points Schengel made about the forecast overview included the need to hire additional police officers, replacement of fleet vehicles, maintaining an emergency reserve of about 23 percent and the need for funding for capital projects.

Schengel mentioned that transit funding will “look different if Measure C goes away” and showed graphs of general fund expenditures from two years in the past to five years from now. Other charts he showed described emergency reserves as percentages of expenditures, sales tax revenues, property tax revenues, CalPERS costs, expenses and revenues from water and sewer, transit costs and revenue from permits from the Planning and Development Department.

Mouanoutoua asked when the city would begin to see revenue from the recently increased transitory occupancy tax (TOT). Schengel said the city would begin to see about $500,000 from this tax in the next year’s budget. Mouanoutoua asked about the delay between housing sales and the collecting of property tax; Schengel said there was a one- to two- year gap between what is built now and when the city will see tax revenue, which Holt reiterated.

Bessinger asked if the delay was caused by PG&E delays. Holt: “Not at all.” In a “good year,” the lag is about 12 months, but 18-24 months between the construction of houses and the receipt of tax revenue was more typical.

Basgall asked when more police officers could be hired with that $500,000 from the TOT, as was discussed when the council and the Citizens Advisory Committee on police staffing proposed the TOT as a means of funding new police hires. Schengel projected that the city could afford to hire three officers per year to address the staff shortage. Basgall said that the TOT funding was supposed to support five per year.

Basgall, a former police chief, spoke emphatically about the police staffing shortage: “We need to figure out why the Police Department doesn’t grow.” With just one officer per capita, “I worry we will lose parts of this city.” He acknowledged that he was “on his soapbox” and suggested that “we need to look differently at how we make money as a city.” He asked Schengel what could be done to generate revenue.

Schengel said it was not his place to advocate for revenue enhancement. The city has to decide on funding priorities.

Basgall asked questions and seemed to be thinking out loud: is the TOT dedicated to public safety? This question had been thoroughly discussed at previous meetings, including the Citizens Advisory Committee, of which Basgall had been a member. He said he was afraid of going back to “the 2007 recession, or worse.” He suggested creating a new “public safety tax,” and Mouanoutoua said that the idea would be brought to council by staff in April. Holt confirmed that on April 3, staff would make a presentation about new ideas for generating revenue.

Bessinger, also a former police officer, said that he was also on Basgall’s soapbox. He recognized that TOT funds would be prioritized for public safety but raised the idea of using reserve funds for hiring police as well.

Mouanoutoua asked a question about American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and Schengel said that all funds received have been reported as spent.

During public comment on the subject, Des Haus, who was a losing candidate in the last council election, said that “public safety is huge” but that “the pie is only so big.” She looked forward to hearing new ideas for generating revenue.

Agenda Item #6 The council approved 4-0 (one absence) a resolution to approve the annual update to the Regional Housing Needs (RHN) Overlay District parcel map. City Planner Dave Merchen gave a presentation during which he pointed out that housing elements of the general plan are required for every city and county (regulations that are overseen by the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).) The housing element must be updated every eight years; each update is referred to as a “cycle.”

Clovis adopted its “5th Cycle Housing Element” in 2016. Each cycle needs to demonstrate that the city has enough land inventory to accommodate its housing needs as determined by the HCD and the Fresno County Council of Governments (known as the “Regional Housing Needs Allocation,” or RHNA).

Merchen explained that land inventory must be available for low-income, moderate-income, and above-moderate income housing. The state agency determines each of these housing categories by the number of units per acre (density) that must be permitted on each housing site. Low-income housing sites must allow at least 20 units per acre.

He said an analysis of the 5th cycle showed that some of the 4th cycle was still outstanding in the “high-density” category, resulting in “carry-over.” As a result, the state required Clovis to designate land inventory for 4,425 units at a rate of at least 20 units per acre or more. 

Merchen didn’t mention Clovis’s failure to build affordable housing, per state law, and the fact that the city was sued and lost in 2021. Clovis had a backlog in 2018 of over 4,000 low-income housing units to build, and the HCD found the city out of compliance with the law. The city is now appealing the court’s decision. Merchen said that “the RHN Overlay District was established in November 2018 as a tool to help meet RHNA carry-over burden.”

Merchen noted that a public hearing had been held on the matter but that no members of the public attended. He did not say how the meeting had been publicized.

Merchen showed a map of the land parcels in question.

Basgall asked if the lots were already zoned. Merchen said each lot has a “base zone” and an “overlay”—both zoning options are in play. Bessinger asked if, as Heritage Grove grows, would additional RHNA sites compensate. Merchen suggested that the council members’ questions be discussed at next week’s meeting with the Planning Commission. He mentioned that the 6th cycle inventory will “kick in” at the end of 2023.

Mouanoutoua said “we’re keeping a watchful eye on the inventory.” Basgall thanked Merchen for patiently explaining everything. Pearce asked Merchen if sites were removed from inventory because they were developed, to which Merchen replied yes.

City Manager Comments

Holt said that he attended the 2023 Clovis Unified School District Latino Student Success High School Conference and showed some photos of the event. He said that Cha organized it, and she spoke briefly, mentioning that several city staff members attended to tell high school students about jobs in city government.

Council Comments

Pearce said she had a question for Cha, but when she asked it, it was clear that the question was not appropriate for the city clerk. City Attorney Scott Cross answered the question, which concerned “opportunities to reach out” to public commenters after a meeting. She continued to defend her remarks about “equity” having “socialist” implications and said, laughing, that “a lady” (Crystal Reed) “made comments inconsistent with what I said”; was she not supposed to “reach out” and respond? 

Cross pointed out that often the mayor will direct commenters to a particular staff member during a meeting for resolution of certain issues. It was also appropriate for a council member to ask for a commenter’s name and contact information. He said that per the Brown Act, a council member can’t “shut down” speakers because they are critical of a public official. The speaker at this meeting “engaged properly,” he said, referring to Crystal Reed. Pearce then changed the subject and said that “as instructed,” she brought souvenirs for everyone from her recent vacation, which caused her to miss the last meeting. She defended being away because the vacation had been “planned and booked” before the campaign and before the election. She said she was sorry to have missed the last meeting, she heard it was a “humdinger,” and that on her vacation, she attended a “Beach Boys Good Vibrations” cruise.

Bessinger said he was going to dress up the “Festus” statue in Old Town for St. Patrick’s Day. “Festus” was a character played by television actor Ken Curtis in the show “Gunsmoke,” who was a resident of Clovis.

Mouanoutoua said that he also attended the high school event, and praised Cha’s work on it. He said that all council members should attend and that they serve all students, regardless of their backgrounds.

Agenda Item #7 One item on the closed-session agenda concerned claims received for the Sunnyside Avenue water main break and flooding of Jan. 3, 2022.

The public portion of the meeting was adjourned at 7:45 p.m.

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