Across the great divide
Opponents accuse council of passing wasteful ‘feel-good’ measures
The philosophical divide among members of the Chico City Council became an abyss at their regular meeting Tuesday, May 6, as thrice they split 5-2, approving measures that the dissenting members—Councilman Sean Morgan and Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen—and some audience members characterized as unnecessary “feel-good time wasters.”
The three measures include a resolution declaring the city’s support for passing federal or state regulations requiring that foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be labeled as such; yet another iteration of the ordinance requiring retailers to cease using certain plastic bags; and one asking staff to amend the municipal code to add a policy of nondiscrimination.
All three items provoked lively debate.
Among those speaking in support of the GMO resolution was Pamm Larry, the Chico woman who initiated the effort that led to Proposition 37 on the November 2012 ballot. The measure, which would have required GMO labeling, narrowly lost, but in Chico it passed with 55 percent of the vote.
Larry pointed out that several state legislatures have passed similar measures, that more than 60 countries also have done so (and some have even banned GMO foods altogether), and that organizations such as the American Medical Association have questioned the safety of eating GMOs.
“Democracy starts at the bottom,” she said, urging the council to send a message to state and federal officials that Chico supports consumers’ right to know what is in their food.
Opponents of the resolution accused council members of wasting staff resources. “Don’t we have better issues to worry about?” asked John Salyer, charging that the council majority was “pandering to their liberal base.”
Local dentist Michael Jones argued that genetically modified foods were part of the solution to world hunger. “Without GMOs millions of people will starve,” he said, adding that foods containing GMOs were just as healthful as non-GMO foods.
Not so, countered local activist Emily Alma. The yields of genetically modified corn and soybeans are no greater, she argued, and there is mounting evidence of their harmful effects. Worst of all, though, is that one company, Monsanto, is taking control of farmers’ seed supplies. The anti-GMO effort, she said, is the “beginning of a movement to reclaim agriculture for the people of the world.”
Morgan noted that anyone who wanted to avoid GMOs needed only to buy organic, adding that the resolution was a waste of staff resources.
The plastic-bag matter came before the council because at its April 1 meeting, when it set the dates for the implementation of the plastic-bag ban, it failed to change the dates when reusable plastic bags could be given away free.
As Morgan pointed out, however, it’s absurd to pass an ordinance telling business owners when they can give away items at no cost.
Still, this particular “T” needed to be crossed, and after considerable discussion that echoed that of numerous previous discussions of the bag ban, the council approved the changes. The ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, for large retailers and a year later for convenience stores and such. It adds, absurdly, that they will have from July 1 to Dec. 31 in both cases to give away reusable bags.
“It’s borderline criminal that we’ve spent so much time on this,” Morgan charged.
Finally, responding to a request from the Hate Crimes Task Force of the LBGT advocacy group Stonewall Alliance, the council voted to upgrade the municipal code to correct perceived weaknesses in its nondiscrimination policies.
Specifically, the measure directs staff to add a general statement of nondiscrimination in city services and to amend the municipal code so it conforms to state law with regard to protected classes. The changes would apply to city services, employment and personnel actions, and city contractors, franchisees and grantees.
Again, Morgan objected, saying the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment already prohibits discrimination. “Why are we over-stressing an already overburdened staff?” he asked rhetorically.
But proponents of the measure, including several from the Stonewall Alliance, said the changes would make people feel protected and able to be themselves. And the Rev. Jim Peck pointed out that the high-tech firms the city hopes to attract to Chico have diverse workforces and appreciate nondiscrimination codes.