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Controller 2014: Ashley Swearengin’s trouble with taxpayers

By on September 14, 2014

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin routinely touts the importance of electing a state controller that supports taxpayers.

“The state controller can have a direct impact on behalf of the taxpayer,” the Republican controller candidate said in a recent interview with Fox News host Stuart Varney.

She added, “The state controller is the swing vote on that (state tax) board, and it’s there where those vague policies are interpreted. They’re either going to be interpreted in favor of the taxpayer or against the taxpayer.”

While Swearengin’s right about the important role that the state controller plays in setting tax policy, the state’s leading taxpayer group doesn’t have confidence that Swearengin is right for the job.

First time in 16 years, taxpayer group won’t back Republican for controller

For the first time in at least sixteen years, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association won’t be backing the Republican candidate for state controller.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association confirmed to that Swearengin has not been endorsed by the organization — a telling non-endorsement by an organization that routinely backs Republican statewide candidates.

“We have not endorsed Ashley,” Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, wrote in an email to The group also left Swearengin off its endorsement list for the June 2014 primary.

That’s a noticeable departure from recent controller campaigns. In 2006 and 2010, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association endorsed Tony Strickland, the GOP controller nominee. The group backed anti-tax icon Tom McClintock in his 2002 controller bid.

Coupal declined to comment on the reason for the non-endorsement in the state controller’s race. However, time and again, on local and statewide issues, Swearengin has found herself on the opposite side of taxpayers.

Earlier this month, HJTA petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the state’s costly and mismanaged high-speed rail plan, a plan that Swearengin supports.

There’s also Swearengin’s role in a nasty fight between taxpayers and the City of Fresno.

Swearengin’s administration spent $386k in lawsuit against taxpayers

In August 2013, the Fresno City Council approved a controversial increase to the city’s water rates. As mayor, Swearengin had the power to veto the plan to double water rates. Instead, she allowed the rate hikes to take effect and publicly voiced her support for the plan.

“I recognize the short-term pain of raising water rates in the city of Fresno,” Swearengin said at a December 2013 press conference. “However, I believe this short-term pain will result in long-term gain for the people of Fresno.”

The rate hikes didn’t sit well with a group of taxpayers, who attempted to circulate a referendum to stop the rate increase from taking effect. But, when the group led by former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim attempted to get a title for their initiative, the city denied their petition request. Then, the city sued taxpayers.

Even the Fresno Bee editorial board, which supported the rate increases, objected to the hardball tactics, specifically taking issue with the Fresno mayor.

“We support the water-rate increases; they are vital to the city’s future,” the Fresno Bee wrote in a November 2013 editorial. “But with these stalling and blocking tactics, Swearengin sends a message that she doesn’t trust Fresno voters to do what’s best for the city.”

Taxpayers ultimately prevailed in a series of lawsuits, but not before the city spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in legal bills. According to a public records request, the City of Fresno had spent $235,867.69 in legal fees, as of July 25. According to the terms of the city’s settlement with taxpayers, Fresno is also on the hook for $150,000 in legal bills of the taxpayer group.

That brings the total cost of the ill-conceived water rate lawsuit to nearly $400,000.

Democrats seize on “Swearengin’s bad judgment”

Unsurprisingly, the California Democratic Party has made Swearengin’s “bad judgment” an issue in the state controller’s race.

“During her tenure as Mayor of Fresno, Swearengin’s solution to her city’s water troubles was to ask city residents to bear the brunt, by doubling water rates,” John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said in a statement released on Friday. “The city then sued to keep residents from bringing a referendum on the rate increase to the ballot.”

He added, “Swearengin’s bad judgment would damage our economy and hurt California families.”

Swearengin’s opponent for state controller, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, appears to be capitalizing on Swearengin’s foibles. The Democratic candidate for state controller  is outraising her Republican opponent by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.



About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for,, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.


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