Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama presented information about the city's park ranger program Monday night, which was met with some criticism from commissioners.

Documented by Matthew Carnero-Macias

What happened: The Fresno Parks, Recreation, and Arts Commission met Monday night to discuss the city’s park ranger program, which was rolled out earlier this year using Measure P sales tax funds.

During the workshop, Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said that although park rangers are assigned to police districts and overseen by the police department, they are not sworn law enforcement officers.

“They are basically our eyes and our ears at the park and they provide information to police officers,” Balderrama said.

Six park rangers have started working in the community, with 10 more starting later this month. The program is slated to be fully staffed with 20 rangers in January. Balderrama said he believes they will need “at least twice as many” to adequately cover all the parks in the city.

Following Balderrama’s presentation, the commissioners offered suggestions and criticisms of the program, including the rangers’ presence in the community as an authority figure rather than a resource, a need for training on the diverse cultures of the city and about the proposed uniforms resembling those worn by National Park Service Rangers.

Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama shared these park ranger uniform suggestions modeled after the National Park Service.

Commissioner Kimberly McCoy said that in her work on the Measure P campaign, they envisioned park rangers wearing plain clothes specifically so they would not be seen as authority figures that could deter community members.

“Even though we want to keep our parks safe, we also know that we need to feel welcome in our parks for us to keep going back there,” she said.

Commissioner Mona Cummings echoed concerns about the uniform and asked if it could be “softened” up to work better for an active park ranger.

But Balderrama said that he believes establishing the rangers’ presence as an authority figure and wearing a uniform is necessary for their safety and effectiveness.

“I’m trying really hard to balance, you know, the fact that we want them to be engaging, we want them to to look like park rangers, but at the same time understand that they are a part of the police department and they work for parks and they’re there to give an aura of safety,” he said.

Balderrama said that engaging with diverse cultures is included in the program’s 400-hour training course.

Park rangers are paid $20 to $25 per hour, and Balderrama said the jobs serve as a career pathway for individuals wanting to become sworn police officers.

Commissioner Kelly Kucharski suggested that alternative career pathways also be developed, such as with the National Parks Service. Commissioner Jon Dohlin also suggested the program focus less on law enforcement and public safety and more on being a resource for the community.

“I would hope too, that we’re also looking into the qualifications, and (the) job description is written for people who are interested in that more community-oriented or perhaps urban naturalist-oriented approach to some of this because I think that can also be really valuable,” Dohlin said.

Before wrapping up the workshop, Commissioner Jose Leon-Barraza asked what the park rangers will do if they come across a homeless encampment. Balderrama said that they will be tasked with identifying “illegal encampments” and may ask individuals to leave if they identify a city ordinance or law that has been violated.

“One of the extensions of this program is also going to be the trails along the canals,” he said. “So we are going to have some park rangers along the trails and, you know, part of their job is to identify if a new encampment has started that wasn’t there the day before and they are to report that to the HART team.”

And also: The commissioners also held a workshop on the Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services Programs (PARCS) 2024 fiscal year budget, and held a public hearing on its 2025 budget.

No public comments were made during the public hearing. Future opportunities to comment on the budget are scheduled for the commission’s Nov. 6 and Nov. 20 meetings.

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The Fresno Documenters are a group of local residents who are trained and paid to attend and take notes at local public meetings where officials decide how to spend public money and make important decisions...