Fresno CA councilman speaks out against the city’s use of credit cards

Flowers for birthdays, AirPods, candy apples for Halloween, movie tickets for interns, candy and bikes for the kids are just a few of the expenses Fresno City Council members have made over the past few years. last two years.

These items were paid for with municipal credit cards from the operating budgets of council members Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, Tyler Maxwell and Esmeralda Soria.

Their council colleague, Garry Bredefeld, lambasted the spending during a Thursday press conference at City Hall. Bredefeld accused the four council members of using taxpayers’ money as a “slush fund” and questioned whether they had broken the law and other city policies.

“These are just some of the outrageous expenses these council members have made for their own personal and political gain,” Bredefeld said. “These people have forgotten who they work for.”

Bredefeld distributed hundreds of pages of bills detailing expenses, but many of the charges listed on credit card bills lacked backing documents such as receipts, he said.

Bredefeld, the council’s only Republican, said he criticized what he calls the council’s “gang of four” (which includes Arias, Esparza, Maxwell and Soria) because their spending was the most egregious. Council members Luis Chavez and Mike Karbassi also used their district operating budget and city credit cards for meals, turkey gifts, charitable donations, travel and publicity. Bredefeld does not use a municipal credit card.

Bredefeld also criticized the number of staff the four board members employ, saying two staff should be enough.

Response from Board Members

The council members in question pushed back against Bredefeld’s claims.

Esparza, the chairman of the board, called it a “political witch hunt.” He said items he purchased with his council’s budget, such as a television that hung in his office, would remain at City Hall after he left or be reinvested in the community.

“I don’t think any member of council is prepared to apologize for the dollars he has put back into these underserved neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m not going to apologize for the candy apples for underserved kids in my district that we give out during Halloween and in conjunction with our Fresno Police Department. Really, we create a lot of social capital when we organize these events. … I would venture to say that each member of the council would have no problem in answering to his constituents for the various expenditures which they have decided upon for their respective districts.

When campaigning for city council, Esparza said the No. 1 complaint he heard from voters was that they only see their representatives during election season. The current council is focusing — and spending money — on community outreach and engagement, he said, with the aim of not repeating the pattern. It’s also why, Esparza said, many council districts employ more than two staff members.

“For council members who represent downtown Fresno, south Fresno, this is a resource-intensive operation to represent and deliver these residents to these parts of the city,” he said.

Maxwell said it was “ironic and dishonest” for Bredefeld to criticize him for communicating with the 80,000 residents he serves, as Bredefeld often holds press conferences that cost the city resources and staff time .

“Are we an active municipal district? Absoutely. This is what we were elected to do,” Maxwell said. “The truth is that we have on average less than $10 for every voter we represent in our budget.”

Bredefeld specifically criticized Maxwell’s spending on a 16-page glossy brochure that Maxwell called a newsletter and said his staff were hand-delivering to residents. Bredefeld alleged that the newsletter violated mass mailing laws because it contained Maxwell’s campaign photo and logo.

FRS_JRWSLUSHFUNDS1
Fresno City Council member Garry Bredefeld speaks to the media as he outlines what he calls the “slush fund” expenses of four other council members, March 17, 2022. JOHN WALKER [email protected]

Maxwell said he met with the city attorney several times about the newsletter, which he distributed at community events.

City Attorney Doug Sloan clarified Thursday that he and his office do not personally review credit card charges on a routine basis after Esparza and Maxwell sent out a press release Thursday saying his office routinely reviews expenses.

In the press release, Esparza and Maxwell called on Bredefeld to come up with political solutions to the city’s many problems, such as housing, jobs, public safety and cleaner streets.

Later Thursday, Soria also brushed off Bredefeld’s accusations, calling them “a political stunt and a 15-second soundbite.”

“It’s sad that a board member has to create drama to feel relevant in their position by making news when there’s no news,” she said.

She also defended her community events and thanked Bredefeld for highlighting them.

“Community events highlight the good in our neighborhoods and provide an opportunity for families to come together and learn about city resources, something Mr. Bredefeld knows nothing about, as evidenced by his latest charade “said Soria. “These family events also provide some support for small businesses that are contracted to make things like cookies, candy apples and photography.”

Council member Luis Chavez declined to comment for this story.

Council member Miguel Arias did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, he alluded to Bredefeld’s allegations in a tweet, saying, “I wasted no time listening to my irrelevant peer’s latest sideshow. We are elected to solve problems and not to (throw) spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks.

Bredefeld requests an audit

Bredefeld said he plans to seek an independent audit of the budgets of each council district. He also demanded that all city council district credit cards be canceled and that each council member have only two staff members.

Council member Mike Karbassi welcomed the audit. Karbassi said he would return his municipal credit card, and if he spent money inappropriately, he wants to know so he can fix it.

“Everyone has a different style. I think while there’s a lot of sensationalism, what Gary said is true. There’s definitely been a misuse of funds,” Karbassi said. “Now we have the right as council members to determine how we spend that money, but we don’t have the right to determine what the public thinks about it. I really think we should be more transparent.

Karbassi said he thinks some of his colleagues have exercised poor judgment about how they use their council’s budgets.

He called for more policies and guidelines on how council members should spend their operating budgets, including earmarking funds for certain things.

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer said in a statement that the city’s administrative ordinances establish uniform standards and procedures for credit card use and city refunds.

“Whenever these types of allegations are made, they create enormous concern and if not dealt with appropriately, they can create enormous distrust on the part of the community of his government,” Dyer said in a statement. communicated. “The City Manager and I will discuss the appropriate level of review to include an independent external audit. This is to ensure that all City of Fresno credit cardholders’ spending is in compliance with established policies to identify practices.

The city one administrative order 1-9 describes who receives a municipal credit card and how it should be used. It says city credit cards “may only be used by authorized persons and only for the purchase of goods or services on official City of Fresno business.” It also requires that all credit card purchases be accompanied by proper documentation, including the date of purchase and the nature of the item or service.

“Misuse of the card will subject the cardholder to disciplinary action in accordance with the City’s policies and procedures relating to disciplinary action and termination for cause,” the administrative order reads.

This story was originally published March 17, 2022 2:29 p.m.

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Brianna Calix covers Fresno City Hall for The Bee, where she strives to hold officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister newspaper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.