Fresno’s Hospitality Put to Test

Times Staff Writer

Not content to let Katrina evacuees trickle into Fresno on their own, the city’s mayor plans to extend a personal invitation when he touches down at shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi on a visit this week.

The mission is a matter of morality, said a spokesman for Mayor Alan Autry, who is best known outside Fresno as the actor who portrayed good-ol'-boy lawman Bubba Skinner on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night.”

“In the mayor’s opinion, it’s as simple as one American reaching out to help another,” said Ken Shockley, the city’s public affairs director.

Autry’s open-arms odyssey, however, has been criticized by Fresno County officials, who must bear much of the cost for helping homeless, jobless newcomers in a county where one in four residents lives below poverty levels.


“It’s great to be compassionate with someone else’s checkbook,” Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea said. “That’s where the mayor’s at.”

Critics also have warned that the mayor’s good intentions could end up embarrassing Fresno, an agricultural center that has long struggled to overcome its cow-town image. They point to a well-intended but fruitless effort by Washington, D.C., which sent 10 buses to the Gulf Coast with supplies and brought back just one tired evacuee willing to live in the nation’s capital.

Such tales have not deterred the folksy Autry, 53, a former Green Bay Packer quarterback who played under the name Carlos Brown during the mid-1970s. Autry, who has been Fresno’s mayor since 2000, grew up partly in farm labor camps around the San Joaquin Valley but was born in Shreveport, La., and still has strong ties to the region, friends say.

He spent a lot of time in Mississippi and Louisiana when he was shooting episodes of “In the Heat of the Night,” Shockley said. “And he still has a huge fan base there.”


Autry, who is making the trip at his own expense, plans to leave Wednesday and spend a few days on the Gulf Coast. An evangelical Christian, he will travel with Fresno clergy leaders and city officials, visiting Baton Rouge, La., and possibly Biloxi, Miss., Shockley said.

Since the hurricane, the mayor’s heartfelt enthusiasm has spelled nothing but heartburn for county officials. Initially, Autry wanted to accept as many as 1,500 evacuees handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency but cut the number to 400 at the county’s urging.

As it turned out, FEMA has not transferred large numbers of evacuees to California, though more than 100 have made it to Fresno on their own or with the help of local nonprofit agencies.

Even so, Supervisor Perea said, Autry wanted to send buses to fetch folks from the shelters -- a move that prompted an emergency county resolution urging restraint.

“We’re ready to act if we’re called upon by FEMA, but we haven’t been called,” Perea said.

“Every call we’re getting is from people who say, ‘Yes, we want to help, but let’s not stretch our resources if we don’t have to.’ ”

That doesn’t mean the county is hardhearted, said Bart Bohn, its chief administrative officer. In the last eight months, local officials have helped bring about 2,000 Hmong refugees to Fresno from a camp in Thailand, and 1,000 more are expected, he said.

So far, the cost of providing them county services has topped $1 million, and Bohn worries that helping a big influx of hurricane evacuees will require cuts somewhere else.


“We recommend to the mayor that he shy away from any recruiting effort,” Bohn said. “We can handle families coming individually without any problem, but we have a lot of poor people here already.”

Such fears miss the point, the mayor’s supporters say.

“We made a commitment to the people of the region, not to FEMA,” Shockley said. “The mayor just wants to follow through with that commitment.”

Besides, he added, the mayor won’t be making a polished sales pitch designed to draw big numbers to the San Joaquin Valley.

“He just wants to let folks know about their options,” Shockley said. “I’m sure a lot of them don’t even know” where Fresno is.