Gray doors lead into Fresno's council chambers, where city council meetings are held. It's also where budget hearings are held every June. Omar Rashad / Fresnoland

What's at stake:

Most city officials remain silent on whether Fresno's budget process should be changed, despite legal experts questioning possible Brown Act violations.

One week after a Fresnoland investigation questioned whether Fresno’s budget process may have violated California’s open meeting laws, only one of the city’s elected leaders is calling for more transparency.

Six Fresno City Councilmembers, along with Mayor Jerry Dyer and City Attorney Andrew Janz remained silent on whether the city’s budget process should be more transparent with the public going forward.

Councilmember Garry Bredefeld told Fresnoland the city attorney should review whether the Fresno City Council is operating within California’s Brown Act but said the council should open the subcommittee to the public on principle.

“I think anything that deals with public money should always be accessible and open to the public,” Bredefeld said. “If you’re meeting and discussing how a budget is going to be spent, the public has every right to know.”

In a story published Aug. 16, four legal experts told Fresnoland the city’s budget subcommittee likely violates state law. Janz pushed back saying the subcommittee is exempt from the law since it is a temporary body that dissolves and reforms every year.

A Fresnoland review of California’s 10 largest cities found that only Fresno, the state’s fifth largest city, claims a Brown Act exemption for its budget subcommittee. San Jose doesn’t have a budget subcommittee, but all other large cities keep their committees open to the public.

Bredefeld said he has been comfortable with how the budget subcommittee has operated over the last few years, but said if it violates the Brown Act, the city council must change course.

“Certainly, whenever there’s an issue, it should always fall on transparency and openness to the public,” Bredefeld said. “Everything we do is the direct result of having their dollars and they should certainly see how that process is taking place and how their money is being spent.”

Council President Tyler Maxwell, Vice President Annalisa Perea and councilmember Mike Karbassi, the three budget subcommittee members this year, did not respond or refused to comment on the issue this week. Councilmembers Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza and Luis Chavez also did not respond or refused to comment.

The City Council’s next meeting is set for Thursday, but it’s unclear whether the council will address potential Brown Act violations. The city attorney and city clerk — both key figures in the city’s budget and administrative processes — are up for performance evaluations during Thursday’s closed session. It will be the third evaluation of the year for each.

A Fresnoland review also found that the budget subcommittee is just one of at least a dozen council committees with meetings not open to the public. That includes the council’s Housing and Homelessness Sub-Committee, Measure P and PRAC Sub-Committee, Lobbyist Sub-Committee and Public Safety Sub-Committee.

How is California’s Brown Act enforced?

While the Brown Act requires legislative bodies to meet in public, there is no dedicated statewide enforcement mechanism for the law.

Prosecutors can pursue criminal charges over suspected Brown Act violations.

In 2022, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp closed a nine-month investigation into whether the Fresno City Council violated the Brown Act in connection with Granite Park, ultimately concluding there was insufficient evidence of a violation.

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for Smittcamp’s office would neither confirm nor deny whether they were investigating the Fresno City Council’s budget subcommittee in connection with the Brown Act.

Aside from prosecutors, any member of the public can file a formal letter to the agency in breach of the state law. If local governments push back and deny violating the Brown Act, members of the public can then file a formal lawsuit, but only within a specific timeframe. 

Then, it comes down to a judge deciding whether the law has been broken.

“If the city doubles down — says, ‘Yep, we’re going to keep doing this,’ then yes, they can be sued,” said David Loy, the legal director at the First Amendment Coalition.

There are two main methods of rectifying a Brown Act violation, according to the First Amendment Coalition. The first is known as a cure and correct remedy, in which past actions by a legislative body are declared null and void. The second is known as a cease and desist, which is meant to stop a Brown Act violation from continuing to happen or from happening in the future.

Advocates, residents call for transparency in Fresno budget process

In the wake of Fresnoland’s investigation, several residents and advocates have criticized the city’s public transparency.

What’s been happening in the City of Fresno is a big deal, said Angélica Salceda, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Northern California. She is also the director of the organization’s democracy and engagement team.

“It’s surprising in the sense that the City of Fresno knows how to conduct open meetings under the Brown Act and they’re just not doing it here,” Salceda told Fresnoland. “When things are done in secrecy behind closed doors, that really erodes the trust of the public.”

Salceda said the ACLU has several options at its fingertips to advocate for open government and transparency. The organization has sent letters and at times “engaged in litigation when there has been a Brown Act violation,” she said.

“When you’re dealing with something as important as the budget, it is incredibly important for the public to be involved in that process and be able to view that process as it’s happening,” Salceda said.

‘The public was robbed’

For the last five years, Pedro Navarro Cruz, a local community organizer, has followed along during Fresno’s annual city budget process. He considers himself a civically engaged resident and pays attention to several public meetings including the city council, the Parks, Recreation and Arts Commission, the Disability Advisory Commission and the Planning Commission. 

Cruz said he didn’t know about the city council’s annual budget subcommittee until he read Fresnoland’s story last week. Learning about it was upsetting, he said, because it reinforces a shared sentiment among him and other residents.

“Unfortunately, it goes back to the same feeling that we’re somewhat accustomed to here in Fresno — decisions being made backdoor instead of having healthy dialogue,” Cruz told Fresnoland.

Cruz was one of a handful of Fresno residents who spoke up during June budget hearings this year, calling for an authentic participatory process. 

There are a few things he and other residents and advocates want to see going forward. That includes the city council opening the budget subcommittee to the public and the city engaging in a participatory budget process that includes Fresno residents, per models piloted in several other cities.

When Cruz attended the Fresno City Council meeting on June 22 and watched as councilmembers applauded all those involved in the budget process, he said he remembers feeling like the conversation on the dais contained little detail on why or how decisions were made.

“It felt as if there was already a discussion that was had and that the decision was already made,” Cruz said. “I feel like the public was robbed of that discourse that is supposed to take place amongst the councilmembers.”

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.

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