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Could Fresno’s private budget subcommittee pose legal problems?

A stone sign outside Fresno City Hall identifies the building.
Alex Burke
At Fresno City Hall's council chambers, a new budget for the 2024 fiscal year was passed by the city council on June 20, 2023.

The Fresno City Council recently passed its largest budget in city history: $1.87 billion. To do that, a special committee met with Mayor Jerry Dyer to decide where they can move or shave dollars to deliver a balanced budget to the city council.

For at least the last several years, that budget subcommittee has met privately. Unlike regular council meetings — which residents can attend or stream — the budget subcommittee has no agendas, no meeting minutes and reveals no details about the decision making process.

In a new report from local nonprofit newsroom Fresnoland, reporter Omar Shaikh Rashad discussed this process with legal experts. Several experts say the confidential meetings could be problematic, even a violation of the Brown Act, which requires the public’s right to attend certain legislative meetings.

KVPR's Elizabeth Arakelian spoke with Rashad about his reporting. Listen to the interview in the audio player on this page, or read the transcript below.

ARAKELIAN: First off, why don't you explain how this budget subcommittee works and why it matters to the overall budget process.

RASHAD: So, the Fresno City Council has a budget subcommittee and every year it's tasked with creating a final budget recommendation for city council approval. You know, I think first things first here, it's not like Fresno’s city budget is a black box that no one can access. The city council holds budget hearings in June where heads of all city departments provide presentations on their individual budgets. But the subcommittee is where the bargaining for money happens. It's where three council members essentially, barter with the mayor's administration, to essentially wiggle different things into the budget. And at the end of the day, they need his approval. Because Fresno’s city charter gives the mayor veto power over the city budget.

ARAKELIAN: Okay, I noticed in your reporting that you quoted Mayor Jerry Dyer as saying that the committee is really sort of “where the sausage is made.” So, were you able to find out any details, such as who was on that subcommittee this year?

RASHAD: Yeah, yeah, we were. So this year council members, Tyler, Maxwell, Annalisa Perea and Mike Karbassi were on the budget subcommittee. And so, the three of them were responsible for creating a final budget recommendation for city council approval. Once again, their meetings with the city administration were closed to the public. I ended up speaking with council member Luis Chavez, and spoke with several members including him. Chavez has six years of experience on the Fresno city council and before that spent a number of years as a staffer at city hall. He told me that the subcommittee is “where the rubber meets the road” in the budget process.

ARAKELIAN: So is this normal for a city to make these sorts of budget negotiations private?

RASHAD: That's a great question. What I found was budget committees are typically open to the public. I ended up looking at the ten biggest California cities by population and Fresno's number five on that list. It turns out, Fresno is the only city out of them all with a budget committee closed to the public.

ARAKELIAN: Did you bring that point to anyone at the City? Have they responded to your reporting in any way?

RASHAD: I reached out to City Attorney Andrew Janz over email. He refused to speak with me on the record over the phone when I asked more questions but all he said to me over email was that the budget subcommittee meets exemptions in California state law meant for temporary committees. He argued that the budget subcommittee actually dissolves every year and reforms the next year, but I also found the city does not have paperwork to prove that and that's apparently been the recurring cycle over the last five years. He pushed back on any criticism of Fresno’s budget process. And he said that the subcommittee is a temporary committee, regardless of its meeting every year. Legal experts I spoke to said that reasoning is plain nonsense. And I think from my reporting, I've been able to corroborate that this budget subcommittee actually plays an integral role in our annual budget process. And the fact that it meets every year over the same subject — it's been doing so for the last five years — that may make it subject to the Brown Act regardless of what the city claims.

ARAKELIAN: All right. That was Fresnoland reporter Omar Shaikh Rashad. Thanks for joining me. Omar.

RASHAD: Thank you so much for having me.

A Valley native, Elizabeth earned her bachelor's degree in English Language Literatures from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her master's degree in journalism from New York University. She has covered a range of beats. Her agriculture reporting for the Turlock Journal earned her a first place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. While in graduate school she covered the New Hampshire Primary for NBC Owned Television Stations and subsequently worked as a television ratings analyst for the company's business news network, CNBC. Upon returning to California, her role as a higher education public relations professional reconnected her to the Valley's media scene. She is happy to be back to her journalism roots as a local host at KVPR.