The Bee Looks Back on Fresno Mayor Swearengin’s 8 Years

Swearengin (Chris Carlson : Associated Press)
Chris Carlson : Associated Press

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin is one of the few prominent Republican officials in California. Her mission, when she took office, was to keep her city from bankruptcy. She sought help everywhere, including California Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama. And she leaves office with hopes for Fresno’s resurgence, thanks to city planning and — more doubtful — the state’s plan for a high-speed rail line through her city.

Swearengin, who may be eyeing a shot at the governor’s seat in 2018, has fans and foes alike after two terms running the city, which is the fifth biggest in California and the unofficial capital of the Central Valley.

As she took office in January 2009, Swearengin walked into a heap of city debt, plus $30 million a year in debt service costs and $25 million in illegal “negative fund balances,” according to the Fresno Bee.

Swearengin has been credited with steering the city away from the bankruptcy that befell Stockton and San Bernardino. The Los Angeles Times boiled that effort down to her success in cutting the city’s payroll and persuading “unionized city employees to contribute more for their pensions.” The Bee reported that under Swearengin, the effort to save the city meant $100 million in budget cuts and nearly 1,000 job reductions.

In a recent interview with the Bee, Swearengin emphasized her efforts to restore Fresno’s Fulton Street; a beefed-up bus system; a $429 million dollar water system upgrade; and an updated general plan and development code. That last item included initiating mixed-use zoning districts in certain city areas.

Swearengin told the Bee that she believes Fresno is 20 years into a 40-year fix. In the comments she predicted it would become a “dramatically different city” within the next 5 to 10 years. Among her predictions were completion of some current construction projects, a “functional” Fulton Street, and a “development footprint” that’s “totally different” along transit corridors.

The Republican mayor also secured state and federal grants to pay for the city’s projects — approximately $200 million in total, according to the Bee. And unlike most California Republicans (and some Democrats), Swearengin has been a strong supporter of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, though it has been plagued by delays and sky scraping costs.

(Anaheim, for example, built its $184.2 million dollar “ARTIC” transit station in anticipation of the high-speed rail that, even if the troubled rail project remains on schedule, won’t reach that station until 2029. Promises from Anaheim city officials that the station would see daily ridership of even 10,000 fell far short, with only 2,000 users a day on regional bus and rail lines in the first year of operation.)

The rail system’s delay brings more questions as to the true future effect of the project on the city of Fresno.

The city has faced troubles concerning its police department as well. Former Fresno Deputy Police Chief Keith Foster was arrested in March 2015 on charges of involvement in a drug trafficking ring. Foster has maintained his innocence. The Bee previously reported that his trial is set to begin in 2017. One man involved implicated Foster as he accepted a plea deal. In addition, two lawsuits alleging excessive force by Fresno police have left the city paying out $3.5 million, according to the Bee.

Then there’s the city’s water system. Red water, and even lead in a few houses, were found in pipes in northeast Fresno before Swearengin took office. She has admitted that the city missed the issue, according to the Bee. The problem was linked to surface water coming through pipes that previously transported groundwater. The two have different chemical makeups.

The Fresno mayor has also taken heat over slumlords and substandard housing in central Fresno’s Summerset Village apartment complex. Another contentious issue, the Bee notes, is that of bonuses for top city officials. Swearengin has also faced criticism over city attempts to privatize residential trash pickups.

The region has also faced problems in the area of human trafficking. ABC reported last April that Fresno Police busted a Fresno gang whose leaders each made more than $1.5 million each year from sex trafficking, according to Chief Dyer.

Despite the troubles, the city has certainly made a comeback from the brink of bankruptcy, but has a long way to go. And Swearengin’s only attempt thus far at statewide office — a run for state controller in 2014 — ended in defeat.

She may also be too liberal to become a conservative leader in the state. Last August, Swearengin became the only Republican among prominent Democrats to advocate legislation to empower to the oppressive California Air Resources Board to institute and enforce massive greenhouse gas emissions.

As she vacates the office of mayor Swearengin will take a position as president/CEO of the Central Valley Communications Foundation. Her 2014 loss may not stop Swearengin from seeking to replace Gov. Jerry Brown in the governor’s office. However, she told the Bee that she was looking more at “an eight-to-10-year horizon” for her further political ambitions.

Follow Michelle Moons on Twitter @MichelleDiana