Councilmember Miguel Arias speaks at a Fresno City Council Meeting on Aug. 24, 2023. In an interview with Fresnoland, he said he supports making the council's budget subcommittee open to the public. Omar Rashad | Fresnoland

What's at stake:

Two city councilmembers have said they support making the Fresno City Council's budget subcommittee open to the public following a Fresnoland investigation.

Councilmember Miguel Arias supports making the Fresno City Council’s budget subcommittee open to the public moving forward, he said in a Wednesday interview.

Arias joins Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, previously the lone city official in support of making the city’s budget process more transparent following a Fresnoland investigation about Fresno’s budget process potentially violating California’s Brown Act since at least 2019.

“There is an opportunity now to re-evaluate,” Arias told Fresnoland. “I’ve always been a proponent of standing committees.”

Arias said the city council’s June budget hearings are not enough to gain an in-depth understanding of Fresno’s budget, as city departments seek record-high funding every year.

“I think there are enough important discussions for us to have publicly on each of these departments that we’re giving record amounts of dollars to,” Arias said. “So from that perspective, I think it [the budget subcommittee] should be a standing committee.”

He said his stance was not informed by a Tuesday legal demand in a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, First Amendment Coalition, and Fresnoland. Arias said he disagreed with the legal reasoning in the letter, which demanded the city council — within 30 days — make a public commitment to opening the budget committee to the public moving forward.

Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz did not respond to a request for comment in response to the cease and desist letter. The last time Janz responded to a phone call or email from Fresnoland about the budget subcommittee was Aug. 1.

“My position is that legal counsel has advised us that an ad hoc committee is allowable under the Brown Act if it has a short term purpose, if it doesn’t meet continuously with the administration and if decisions are not made at the committee level with the administration,” Arias said.

However, regardless of whether the city claims the budget subcommittee is a temporary or “ad hoc” committee, the Brown Act deals with what is being done in practice, legal experts have said.

“Regardless of whether the budget committee is formally an advisory body, its detailed deliberations are effectively the final word on the complex policy and financial decisions embodied in the City’s budget,” the Tuesday letter stated.

Additionally, Fresnoland’s reporting has corroborated that the Fresno City Council’s temporary budget subcommittee has met consistently with the city’s administration every year since 2019 for the same purpose: to reconcile the next fiscal year’s budget and create a final budget recommendation for city council approval.

A Fresnoland review of California’s 10 largest cities also found that only Fresno claims a Brown Act exemption for its budget committee. This year’s budget subcommittee made at least 75 changes to Mayor’s Jerry Dyer’s proposed budget, totaling almost $30 million. 

Dyer told Fresnoland that there may be challenges to making the budget committee public “but at the end of the day we want to do what’s lawful and we want to do what is the right thing to do publicly.”

Arias added that Fresno has “more public input and more public engagement in the budgeting process in any jurisdiction in the Central Valley.”

However, major Central Valley cities Bakersfield and Stockton keep their budget committees open to the public.

Arias added that the budget subcommittee dissolves every year after the budget is passed by the city council and reforms the following year. However, Fresnoland confirmed that the city is not in possession of paperwork to prove that.

Additionally, City Council President Maxwell told Fresnoland something different in June: that the budget subcommittee meets with the city’s administration twice a year and that the intention was to begin meeting with the mayor’s office quarterly.

Councilmember Mike Karbassi also made a request in June for the subcommittee to meet quarterly with the mayor’s office. That’s all besides the 2023 City Council committee roster identifying a recommendation to make the budget committee a standing committee, instead of a temporary one. 

Arias added that he is supportive of turning other subcommittees into standing committees open to the public.

The Fresno City Council has at least a dozen of its council committees closed to the public. Their meeting dates, agendas, minutes and attendance are not released to the public, either.

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.

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