The Year in News and Review
The 12/26/2013 issue of the Chico News & Review did an excellent job of summarizing the myriad of stories that have been in the headlines over the past year. I have combined the City-related stories into one document and have copied and pasted below, rather than describing each one and adding commentary.
Links to the original articles can be found here.
City Hall cut to the bone
Last week, the Chico City Council voted on a plan that is expected to take certain city funds out of a $15.2 million deficit position—losses that occurred over many years, in part from state take-backs of redevelopment and vehicle-license funding, and largely as a result of the recession, as the city borrowed from the funds to pay for operational costs, rather than eliminating jobs and city services.
The so-called “fund deficit mitigation plan,” which makes repayment the top priority among all other city expenditures, will take a decade to accomplish. Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin unveiled that plan during the council’s last meeting of the year, Dec. 17, and the panel voted 6-1, with Councilman Sean Morgan dissenting, to approve it.
Aside from the city’s ongoing negotiations with employee bargaining units, including the contentious negotiations with the Chico Police Officers’ Association, approval of the plan was the council’s last budget-correcting decision in a year of sweeping cuts at City Hall. Those reductions have come under the recommendation of a whole new management team, following the council’s hiring of City Manager Brian Nakamura, former city manager of Hemet, and the subsequent sudden departures of several managerial staff, including Assistant City Manager John Rucker and Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy.
Shortly after the first of the year, just weeks after Rucker disappeared, Nakamura revealed that the city was operating with a $3.2 million structural deficit (a figure that later ballooned significantly). He also unveiled during a City Council meeting, to the surprise of almost everyone in attendance, including city employees, a wholesale reorganization of city staffing—from 11 departments to five—a move that ultimately led to the demotion of many department heads and the dismissal of others.
Constantin, from San Diego, and Assistant City Manager Mark Orme, who worked under Nakamura in Hemet, were both hired in March. By May, the new management team estimated the city was operating with a $4.8 million structural deficit and Nakamura recommended the implementation of $7 million in cuts.
In early June, calling the financial problems “the darkest time for the city of Chico,” Nakamura released a 333-page draft budget that recommended dozens of layoffs of city personnel. Later that month, the council adopted a 2013-14 fiscal-year budget that eliminated 55 jobs, a figure that included a number of vacancies. Most of the casualties were at City Hall. Included among them were the elimination of the three park workers and the city’s four-person tree crew—a move that led to a temporary four-day-a-week closure of Caper Acres (a public-private partnership reopened the playground, and a new Butte County Sheriff’s Office collaboration, in which convicts clean the facility, looks to keep Caper Acres open indefinitely, or at least until the city’s fiscal state improves).
In September, following news that the capital-projects fund had a greater-than-anticipated deficit, city management announced that additional cuts of $1.2 million were needed to keep the 2013-14 budget on target. The next month, during a second round of layoffs, the city cut loose 11 employees, several of whom had vast institutional knowledge after working there for decades.
The issue of homelessness raised its head locally this year more than ever before, and the city and community members responded with both aggression and compassion. The end result, in November, was the City Council’s passage of a civil-sidewalks ordinance—also known as a sit/lie law—targeting those who recline on sidewalks.
Pressure from some downtown business owners and their supporters led to the ordinance. Some merchants said customers were afraid to come downtown to shop because of the homeless people they found sleeping—and sometimes defecating or doing drugs—in the alcoves and doorways of storefronts.
Prior to the council taking that action, a group called Clean and Safe Chico developed programs like the Downtown Ambassadors, which, according to its website, was formed to address community issues in the downtown area including “business stress, ‘homeless issues,’ and ‘college-town’ alcohol problems that our community experiences…” Clean and Safe Chico also created a program called Redirect Generosity to discourage direct handouts to the homeless and instead steer the generosity toward local service providers such as the Jesus Center, the Torres Community Shelter and local food banks.
In October, a local group of business owners formed the R-Town Coalition, whose draft mission statement included the short-term goal of “removing drug offenders, transients, loiterers, vagrants and individuals exhibiting anti-social behavior from private property in the downtown area.”
The coalition is headquartered at 325 Main St., in an office next to the now-closed Towne Lounge. With $60,000 raised through donations of certain downtown business owners, the coalition hired a firm called Armed Guard Private Protection, and in early November, private armed guards began walking the streets and policing the nonpublic property downtown, which amounts to certain parking lots and storefront alcoves that offer shelter to the homeless.
At about the same time, the coalition also teamed up with the Jesus Center to create and fund the Cleanup Brigade for which Jesus Center clients were hired to work two hours a day, six days a week, sweeping and cleaning the downtown sidewalks, trash bins and large concrete planters. The pilot program was scheduled to last until the end of the year, as was the employment of the private guards. The effectiveness of each will be evaluated to determine if either or both programs will continue.
While the number of downtown homeless seems to have dwindled, it’s not clear if that’s because of the efforts made to address the issue, or due to the recent cold weather, or a combination of both.
There was much ado this year surrounding the fate of the popular Saturday-morning Chico Certified Farmers’ Market (CCFM), which has been held for the last 21 years at the parking lot at East Second and Wall streets.
In May, after the city of Chico’s Finance Committee gave the thumbs-up to a two-year franchise agreement (instead of the usual year-to-year contract) for the CCFM, based on its offer to pay $16,000 for power and sewer lines to be extended to the market’s lot, the City Council deadlocked in a surprising 3-to-3 vote (with Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused because she is a downtown business owner) that killed the infrastructure project and threw the future of the market into limbo.
And, despite the results of a 2009 study showing that the farmers’ market brings thousands of shoppers to the downtown area, claims by certain downtown business owners that the CCFM negatively affects their business grew louder. Some of them said they wanted to see the CCFM relocated to the parking lot in front of City Hall, an area that many market vendors believe is too small to accommodate them properly. Some critics suggested the day of the market move to Sundays.
In June, the council extended the CCFM’s franchise agreement to Dec. 31, 2014, and an offer was made by the city to the CCFM to take part in a group put together to address issues surrounding the farmers’ market, but the CCFM declined.
In October, a buzz surfaced indicating that CCFM supporters—including members of Friends of the Farmers’ Market (FFM)—might be considering drafting a ballot initiative so that voters could have their say as to the long-term fate of the market. This followed a July CN&R guest commentary by former Chico Mayor Karl Ory, a member of FFM, in which he noted that the CCFM’s “franchise agreement was terminated effective next year.”
When asked recently for an update, FFM spokeswoman Cheryl King offered these words in regard to the current situation of the CCFM: “The farmers and the people of Chico will make sure we stay at the present site. … The FFM will be making an announcement soon in regards to moving forward to protect this invaluable weekly Chico community event,” she said.
Plight of the urban forest
It was a tumultuous year for trees, specifically those—valley oaks, claro walnut trees, California sycamores and so on—that make up Chico’s “urban forest.”
In June, the Chico City Council passed a budget that eliminated the city’s tree-maintenance crew, and in July, Denice Britton—the city’s urban-forest manager—departed from her job. She still has not been replaced.
Add to that shake-up the fact that the city’s Urban Forest Management Plan has languished in the draft stage for months (go [here] to read the current draft) and a gloomy picture is painted as far as the future of the urban forest goes.
In fact, bits and pieces of the urban forest have already been taken out as a result of what is perceived by a number of local tree advocates as rash moves on the part of a cash-strapped city lacking adequate urban-tree oversight.
In August, in response to the looming removal of a number of 75-foot-tall walnut trees at Third and Chestnut streets, local heritage-tree advocate Charles Withuhn formed the Chico Heritage Tree Committee—later renamed Chico Tree Advocates. He also tied yellow ribbons around four of the trees in an attempt to save them by calling attention to their plight, but the trees were chopped down anyway.
A similar story is playing out with the stately valley oak tree that resides in the parking lot at the corner of West Eighth and Salem streets. It (along with the other, smaller trees in the lot) is slated for removal to make way for two duplexes that will serve as transitional housing for Salvation Army clients. A Butte Environmental Council appeal of the tree’s removal was withdrawn; BEC board chairman Mark Stemen explained at an early-December City Council meeting that BEC doesn’t “want to fight tree-by-tree battles with our fellow nonprofits.”
For his part, Withuhn—who was recognized by the CN&R in the 2013 Local Heroes issue (see “Local Heroes 2013,” Nov. 28) for his tree-advocacy work—called for more members of the public to become involved in advocating for the survival of healthy historic trees.
“We need to have more tree advocates show up for these meetings,” he said, referring to the twice-monthly meetings of the city’s Architectural Review & Historic Preservation Board. “We need more citizen involvement.”
Booze battle rages on
In January, Chico State President Paul Zingg released “A Call for Community Action,” signed by 28 officials from the university, the city of Chico and Butte County, which urged the community to address its “serious alcohol problem.” A meeting on Feb. 22 drew 400 Chicoans who provided their input on everything from use of fake IDs to personal responsibility.
That effort stemmed, in part, from the death of Chico State student and fraternity pledge Mason Sumnicht, whose Nov. 4, 2012, binge-drinking episode left him brain-damaged and on a respirator. His death 12 days later—the fourth alcohol-related student death toward the end of 2012—prompted outcry that reverberated throughout 2013.
Zingg acted first, temporarily suspending all Greek activity late in 2012. (At the time, 10 of Chico’s 26 Greek organizations were tied up with the university’s Student Judicial Affairs for violating alcohol and hazing policies.)
Around the same time, the university’s Greek community was given a list of guidelines for reinstatement that spelled out tighter rules for hosting events, and stricter punishment for violations, including permanent disaffiliation from campus. Greek chapters in compliance with the new rules were allowed to resume activity on March 1. (In May, Sigma Chi fraternity was suspended over allegations of brewing beer in its Chico annex and subsequently cut ties with the university.)
With the community hyper-aware of alcohol issues, it became much more difficult for downtown businesses to apply for liquor licenses. In May, Police Chief Kirk Trostle “drew a line in the sand,” publicly stating the city should stop granting licenses. Several businesses—the Mangrove Mini Mart, the Winchester Goose, and the yet-to-be-opened B Street Oyster Co. bar on Broadway—encountered varying degrees of difficulty with applying for licenses.
In July, Trostle released his now-infamous “Chico Conditions,” a set of 32 proposed rules for new alcohol licenses that included such items as prohibiting “happy hours” and other cheap-drink promotions, requiring security for entertainment at some establishments and banning entertainment outright at others.
The last item drew the ire of the music community, which has been mostly absent from the alcohol debate. During a July 30 meeting to discuss the conditions, local musician and record-label owner Josh Indar asked, “What does live music and entertainment have to do with kids dying?”
The police department has since maintained that the conditions—based on a 400-plus-page report of how other communities have dealt with similar alcohol issues—were intended as examples, not recommendations.
As the year draws to a close, the city’s policy on alcohol sales remains in flux; Brendan Vieg, a Chico city planner, recently told the CN&R that the city is “making some changes to the [municipal] code.”
Caper Acres saved by convicts
Early in July, Bidwell Park’s Caper Acres began closing four days a week. The popular children’s playground is a sacred place to many Chicoans. But it got caught up in city efforts to balance the budget, which included the elimination of three park workers. That meant a cut to cleanup efforts and playground inspection.
An online petition was launched and collected 2,578 signatures in about a week. The petition carried no legal weight, but it did send a message. Local maintenance company ServPro stepped in and offered its services in other areas of Bidwell Park, which freed up the remaining park workers to take care of Caper Acres. When that arrangement ended in November, the city brought in Butte County Alternative Custody Supervision inmates, who otherwise sit at home under house arrest. They now work in the park twice a week to help keep Caper Acres open.
On Nov. 9, a Saturday, Chico City Councilman Randall Stone fired off an email to Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle, informing him that Officer Todd Boothe had posted racist pictures on his Facebook page.
“[I]t is my concern that this perspective has transcended free speech and become a procedural issue (job performance),” Stone wrote to Trostle. “I originally stumbled across Officer Boothe’s Facebook page early Tuesday morning after he posted a profane comment to my public Facebook page (nonthreatening, but very public).”
Boothe called Stone incompetent and an asshole, and most of the racist postings Stone “stumbled across” on Boothe’s page were posted in 2009. Stone said in his email to Trostle that he was concerned Boothe’s posts could jeopardize the safety of his fellow officers. On Nov. 10, Stone sent the email to the local media, and the next day, TV’s Action News Now broadcasted the story.
The Police Department is conducting in internal investigation, and Peter Durfee, president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association, has called for Stone to step down from the Police Community Advisory Board. This is all taking place while the city negotiates a new labor contract with the CPOA.
No free meal?
At an Oct. 15 Chico City Council meeting, Councilman Sean Morgan objected to the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission’s issuance of a permit allowing a church to feed the needy at City Plaza. Orchard Church, headed up by Pastor Jim Culp, had been conducting that outreach each Sunday evening at that location for more than five years without any complaints from the public. However, a park ranger, who spotted the group last summer, informed the congregation its gatherings required a permit.
Morgan said a “disturbing chain of events” had led to the permit being granted and felt the council’s power had been usurped by the commission. He wanted to appeal the decision himself. However, doing so would preclude him from discussing or voting on the matter as a council member. Hotel Diamond owner Wayne Cook, whose business is less than a block away from the plaza, ended up filing an appeal.
On Nov. 19, the day the appeal was to be heard by the council, Culp and city management came to a compromise: The handouts could continue but had to take place outside of the Chico Municipal Center. That move, which remains controversial, removed the need for the church to obtain a permit.
A booze-debate casualty
When Charanjiv Singh purchased Mangrove Mini Mart back in January 2012, he was under the impression that he would have little trouble obtaining a license to sell beer and wine at his convenience store.
But in May, the Chico City Council voted 6-1 to deny Singh’s application for an offsale beer-and-wine license. The council was under pressure from Police Chief Kirk Trostle, who—following the string of alcohol-related student deaths and Chico State’s Call for Community Action released in January—publicly stated the city should stop granting new liquor licenses entirely.
For weeks, it looked like Singh would be an innocent casualty of the booze debate—he estimated the loss to business would force him to close the store within six months—but the council eventually reconsidered its initial decision and ended up approving Singh’s application.
They’re in the money
The city made some new hires at the top of the pecking order this year after bringing on City Manager Brian Nakamura, former city manager of Hemet, as the city manager last August. Nakamura was offered a salary of $217,000 a year by unanimous vote of the Chico City Council. That’s about $40,000 more than his predecessor, Dave Burkland, was paid.
In March, the City Council approved the hiring of Mark Orme as assistant city manager at a salary of $185,000 a year, about $27,000 more than that of his predecessor, John Rucker, who mysteriously stepped down in January. Orme and Nakamura had worked together previously, filling the same managerial roles in the Riverside County city of Hemet.
The City Council then hired Chris Constantin out of San Diego as the new finance director in the wake of Jennifer Hennessy’s decision to move to Temecula. Constantin came in at $130,000 and was bumped up to $160,000 two months later, when his title changed from finance director to administrative-services director. His salary is now about $30,000 more than what Hennessy pulled in.
Altogether, taxpayers are paying $97,000 more a year for the three new hires, whose initial message to the council was that the city is broke.
OPINION: Take caution on franchising
Last week, the Chico City Council approved a supplemental budget appropriation of nearly $100,000 to hire a consultant with expertise in waste-hauling franchising—something the panel is considering establishing. During the meeting, several council members were very clearly in support of the idea, which—if estimates from the dais and city management are accurate—could bring in $1.5 million to $2 million annually.
In addition to buoying the city’s general fund, the establishment of a franchise agreement would have a number of other beneficial outcomes. Currently, two waste-hauling companies—which pay a so-called “fee agreement”—traverse the same residential streets, creating extra wear and tear on the roadways. A franchise agreement would eliminate that inefficiency by, say, creating zones that would keep the two companies within particular regions of the city, or franchising with only a single company. In addition, either of these changes would mitigate smog production.
From several standpoints, franchising seems like a no-brainer. So, what’s the rub? Well, there’s a big one.
A franchise agreement may translate into a multimillion-dollar windfall for the city, but it won’t come without a price tag. And that price tag will be paid for by every resident who has trash collection. That’s why we want to urge the council to proceed with caution and to help ensure that it will not place an undue burden on the community, especially those who live on commercial properties and may be on a fixed income.
Trash collection at commercial properties is already efficiently run, so the companies conducting that work likely won’t see any savings like they would in residential areas. In other words, the haulers will have no choice but to pass on the franchise fees to their customers, and the ones of lowest income are likely to take the brunt of it. It’s the council’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
There were also two letters to the editor related to City goings on that were published in this edition, one from Quené, and the other from a current City employee.
Council comedy: Re “Ship-righting continues” (Newslines, by Melissa Daugherty, Dec. 5):
I got a kick out of a recently published article [about a recent City Council meeting]. The statement that made me giggle like a school girl was provided by the subject of the article, Chris Constantin, the city of Chico’s administrative-services director.
The article stated that Mr. Constantin had given a preview of the upcoming budget for fiscal-year 2014-15, and implied that his department is well ahead of where it was last year in the budget process. Ha! As shown on the city of Chico’s website, Mr. Constantin’s department never even completed a final budget for fiscal-year 2013-14! Rather, they have stuck with the proposed budget, allowing any supplementals or modifications to be completed in a manner that makes it more difficult to analyze actual impacts to the budget.
Sticking with the proposed budget apparently also means they don’t have to complete quarterly reports, as I have yet to see one of those presented this fiscal year. Maybe I have ingested too many holiday cookies, but you can’t really be ahead in a process if you never completed the same prior process.
Note to the City Council
Lemon juice or chicken soup? I have given this matter less than considerable thought, yet as I hiccupped the ideas, lemon juice made the most sense. When one seeks to find an explanation regarding the City Council’s continued toga-esque behavior protocol (olive-branch excluded), or a critical accounting of the discretionary use of city funds (as noted in the grand jury investigation and massive city-wide layoffs), it has to be lemon juice!
The liquid exhibits an unclear lucidity that blurs the ability to be transparent. The very color of the peel itself has often been associated with debilitating courageousness. Invisible messages were written in lemon juice to keep secrets hidden until enough heat was applied to reveal a codified message. A distinction should be made here between invisible ink and disappearing ink—as in continuity of council minutes or the ongoing fund-’scapade debacle.
A popular adage suggests that when one is given too many lemons, a concoction should be prepared that allows the bitterness to be made less sour, more palatable. Why then did the City Council, in its infinite wisdom, purchase an orchard?
Again, excellent job Chico News & Review! Thank you for your consistently fair and thorough reporting.
Readers, we thank you for your continued support and welcome your questions and comments. Please continue to share our posts with your family, neighbors, and friends.
Remember: Truth Matters, Chico!
Posted on December 27, 2013, in Media and tagged Caper Acres, Chico Alcohol Ordinance, Chico Brian Nakamura, Chico Budget, Chico City Council, Chico Farmers Market, Chico Garbage Franchise, Chico Homeless, Chico Layoffs, Chico Officer Todd Boothe, Chico Orchard Church, Chico Sit-Lie Ordinance, Chico Urban Forest, Councilmember Randall Stone, Councilmember Sean Morgan, R-Town Coalition. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.