An officer and a gentlewoman
Nickell and Flynn show what they’re made of during their first year on the Chico City Council
Nov. 7, 2006: Election Day. Of all the races on the ballot—congressional, gubernatorial, bond measures, propositions—few drew as much local attention as the contest for three seats on the Chico City Council. Two incumbents and four rookies, evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, had waged a spirited campaign. Stakes were high: If the ticket of three businessmen captured at least two of the three seats, the balance of power would shift to the right.
Among the newcomers were Mary Flynn and Tom Nickell. Flynn, a high school math teacher, and Nickell, a ready-to-retire highway patrolman, hadn’t thrown their fates together. Election politics being what they are, the newbies found themselves grouped with then-Mayor Scott Gruendl as the so-called “progressive field” against the “pro-business slate.”
Flynn didn’t have to wait long for good news. She had a strong showing in early returns and wound up the top vote-getter with a fifth of the total, besting the mayor by nearly 1.2 percent. They’d join first-termers Ann Schwab and Andy Holcombe—one of Flynn’s closest friends—in the council majority.
“I was thrilled,” Flynn said. “It was a great feeling to wake up in the morning and know the community I’ve called home for 32 years rallied behind me and said, ‘Yes, we believe in you; we’d like you to represent us for the next four years.’ “
Nickell wasn’t so lucky. By the time the Butte County registrar completed the election-night tally, he trailed Mark Sorensen by 40 votes. Thousands of mail-in ballots remained uncounted, and partway through that process the margin shrank to 28.
“Mark and I were talking when the final votes were being counted, and I told him, ‘I’d rather be in a high-speed pursuit and a shootout than this,’ “ Nickell recalled, “and he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like a root canal with no novocaine.’ It was three weeks of stress.”
In the end, Nickell prevailed by 78 votes, thanks to a surge from the Chico State University campus, where he’d spent hours walking around and shaking hands.
Flynn and Nickell have sat side-by-side on the City Council dais for almost a year now. They regularly vote along progressive lines, but not always—and not always alike. Indeed, they’re as different as their paths to office.
“Mary is a teacher, so she takes a lot of time to explain things and models that behavior,” Schwab observed. “Tom’s profession demanded that he made quick decisions in the field.”
Those old traits define their new public service.
Nickell is a fixture in the daily newspaper because of all the ideas and initiatives he propagates. Flynn has had a more contemplative first year. She chairs the Economic Development Committee and is a member of the Finance Committee—both critically important as the city addresses its staggering deficit, but neither able to capture citizens’ attention the way cops, crime and downtown safety do.
Flynn speaks off the cuff and from the heart at council meetings. Nickell is a copious note-taker who prefers to write everything down before speaking, though he’s practicing to become more glib like Gruendl.
The public doesn’t see what goes on behind the scenes, so the CN&R asked every councilmember, plus members of city staff and community stakeholders, the same key question:
How effective have the rookies been?
Opinions vary slightly, but the prevailing sentiment is they’re holding their own.
“I would say promising starts for both,” Holcombe assessed. “I think both thought they could make more of a difference quickly, so there might be some frustration there, and that may be more challenging for them. Not that they’re ineffective, but the whole nature of the process is you have to be in there for the long haul and realize that for the most part it’s slow, incremental gains.
“Particularly for Tom—he saw something and wanted it to go from black to white quickly, and we’re in the gray more often than not on most issues. Different type of job, law enforcement versus legislating. I think he’s learning to live in the gray.
“I think they’ve both been effective, as they learn—as I have had to learn—that a lot of these things are long term, and immediate results are often difficult to obtain.”
It’s hard not to like Tom Nickell. He has friends across the length and breadth of the city and in public-safety agencies statewide. He’s downtown most every day, and most of those days you’ll find him neatly groomed, dressed in Mountain Sports casual wear and sporting a wide, infectious grin.
He walks with the trace of a limp, the result of being struck by speeding cars while on duty with the California Highway Patrol. He has a serious side—when an officer commits suicide, Nickell races wherever he’s needed to provide peer counseling. Since his retirement in July, though, he’s dedicated hour upon hour to the city.
“Tom’s role that he’s defined for himself is he’s going to be a full-time councilperson, out on the street, walking his councilperson beat,” Holcombe said. “He’s definitely kept faith with how he said he’d approach the job. I think he’s busy, and he’s really putting all his heart and soul into the job, and he’s out there talking to people—that’s a good thing.”
Clipboard in hand, he strolls the sidewalks of downtown looking for things that need fixing. He walks into businesses and asks the owners how they’re doing. He stops by City Hall to check his mail and asks the staff how they’re doing. Oh, and he’ll slide the paper off that clipboard and give it to Dennis Beardsley, interim assistant city manager and the point person for parks and public works.
“I saw two gentlemen trip over a grate,” Nickell recalled about one such day. “One guy looked at the other and said, ‘If you cut yourself, we can sue the city.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ so I just started making a list and gave it to Dennis and Ruben [Martinez, operations and maintenance director]. They said, ‘Thanks for being our other set of eyes out there.'”
Really? “Absolutely,” Beardsley said. “In terms of providing services to the community, it’s impossible to get around to everyone. It’s great to have a councilmember who’s so involved.”
Just not too involved, as Gruendl feared might happen when he heard Nickell campaign with the pledge I’m going to be a full-time councilman. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, that’s not the kind of council we are.'”
Continued Gruendl: “Councilmembers who take the job so seriously that they make it a full-time job usually end up spending too much time at City Hall and take a role where they think they can supervise city staff, and that’s inappropriate. They were elected to represent citizens in legislative matters; they were not elected to be city managers.
“I’m grateful Tom has dedicated a lot of time, but it’s been devoted to research…. It’s turned out really well.”
Time is a commodity in short supply for Flynn. Along with teaching, she oversees the mentorship program at Chico High. Flynn instituted office hours at City Hall to make sure concerned citizens had the opportunity to meet with her.
“I think I had a pretty good understanding of what this role entailed, maybe 270 degrees of a full circle, but I was really surprised by the other 90 degrees,” she said. “That hasn’t been off-putting to me, just a surprise.
“For example, I haven’t read anything for pleasure in a year. I’m an avid reader, and it just seems like I don’t have any time to read [a book]. I read staff reports, environmental-impact reports, information that citizens send me. That surprised me, the amount of time I’d have to invest to be versed in the issues.”
Like Nickell, Flynn came onto the council without serving on a board or commission, which in hindsight she says made her learning curve steeper. Still, she has an array of experience that colleagues say has served her well. She spent time in the private sector running a book-publishing company. She also has been a civic leader, joining up with Holcombe and others to found the Torres Community Shelter for Chico’s homeless.
“If I had to characterize the most intriguing councilmember for me right now, it would have to be Mary,” said Steve Bertagna, who’s seen his share in 11 years on the council.
“She seems to be very kind-hearted, but also pragmatic and analytical. I think the combination sometimes conflicts, because there’s so much of this business where you’d like to do what everyone in the audience wants you to do, but the pragmatic or more practical side of all of us says, ‘Wait, you can’t do that.’ So I’m intrigued watching her with some of those dichotomies that go on.”
Flynn acknowledges that tug, as does her good friend the mayor as re-election time grows closer (see sidebar, this page). She received a host of endorsements during her campaign and was the top fundraiser in terms of dollars and donors, as well as the top vote-getter.
That means a lot of people have a lot of expectations of her.
“That definitely has come up, and I’ve already angered people several times,” Flynn said. “For me, I feel like my approach is to operate like I’m only going to run once. I certainly don’t have any aspirations for the Assembly or anything else; I want to serve my community to the best of my ability.
“So as I’m going along, there may be decisions I make that might alienate my base, people who worked hard to get me elected, but I try to push that aside. I’m not running as though at the end of four years I have to have a record, be electable and my base will be there to support me, because I feel like it would be too hard to be true to myself and too hard to be true to the community if I did that.
“So if I end up disappointing people, I just have to accept that. I’m willing to accept that.”
Nickell doesn’t dwell on such matters. He’s too busy being a kid in the candy store to worry about an upset stomach.
“I would submit that Tom is nearly as childish as I am,” Bertagna quipped. “There’s really only room for one smart aleck, but I really appreciate his sense of humor.”
He’s the subject of teasing and pranks, such as when a colleague who shall go nameless said he had to wear a tuxedo to an event that was hardly black tie.
He’s learned council procedures, and he puts them to use frequently. He brings so many ideas before the council that it’s hard to keep track of them all. They include:
• Hiring retired officers by the hour to help patrol downtown and parks.
• Training park rangers in law-enforcement techniques.
• Making people who require rescuing in Upper Bidwell Park reimburse the city if they’re drunk.
• Getting non-Chicoans who are cited for soiling sidewalks or businesses to do community service by cleaning those places.
• He’s working behind the scenes to broker downtown revitalization, leading Katrina Davis-Woodcox, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, to declare, “He’s been a godsend for downtown.”
• He’s been collaborating with a Chico State class on a historical walking tour, taken day trips to learn about new urbanism, raised money for Big Brothers Big Sisters (becoming the group’s Big Citizen), etc., etc., etc.
“Tom suffers from ADD a bit—I mean that in a positive way, I think,” Bertagna said. “He’s got a shotgun approach, and with that is going to come some criticism, feedback, chaos, what have you.”
“Attention deficit disorder—yeah, people do tell me to slow down,” Nickell said. “[Former Mayor] Mike McGinnis is a good friend, and I respect him a lot; he goes, ‘I’m worried about you. I think you’re going to burn out.’ No, that’s just me. I move forward. I can multi-task. I spent 25 years multi-tasking. You have to multi-task in the California Highway Patrol.
“So, yeah, I can say I have ADD. The fact is there’s a lot of things I want to see get done, and there are a lot of things out there, so I move from one to another, one to another.
“You can pick the one big project, but if I can do a lot of little things, those little things make the one big thing equal.”
Flynn doesn’t see things quite that way.
“My response to that would be, as a professional person who does volunteer work, I’ve found it’s more efficient to develop a big picture and then generate a list of things you want to accomplish and how those fit together so you can work on the flow, rather than generating a list and picking them off one by one.
“We just approach it differently. I don’t think Tom feels he needs a big-picture perspective in order to move on something like an initiative against people who violate decency laws in the downtown area before he’s requiring those people to go out with buckets of water and scrub brushes and scrub the sidewalk.
“I think we have to look at how an initiative like that fits in with our existing initiatives to keep downtown clean. Who’s going to supervise people? I just think that idea is part of something larger.
“We’re a municipality; we have many, many initiatives and many, many tasks going on at the same time, and part of being efficient is managing those tasks.”
Flynn paused a moment, concerned she’d come across as negative about her colleague, who makes contributions she appreciates.
“I think he raises people’s consciousness, gets people talking,” Flynn said. “Though I’d like to know when I’m investing my energy in city issues that I’m not only going to get people talking. I want a thing that I initiate [to be] thought out enough that we can move on it, we can bring people together to talk about it and take action.”
(Or, as community activist Alan Chamberlain put it: “Maybe [Nickell] needs to get his noses counted before coming to the table.")
“I don’t want to criticize Tom,” Flynn continued. “We’re just very, very, very different. I don’t think we’re fundamentally different in what we want for the community; we just have such different approaches in how we’d bring out those changes.”
Flynn thinks in macros, not micros. She’s passionate about facilitating a vision for downtown, so she proposed an ad-hoc committee to dovetail with the community-input component of the general plan update. On the General Plan Advisory Committee, she lobbied for average citizens not affiliated with special-interest groups, because those stakeholders will have ample opportunities to be heard.
But those are minor compared with the big question that’s become her mantra: What do we want Chico to look like in 20 years?
Twenty years is a long way off. And even though patience is one of the virtues Flynn has displayed, she’s had moments where she’s been tempted to accelerate her pace.
“Two months post swearing-in, I went home from a meeting thinking, ‘Goodness, I need to identify some projects right away, get those onto the agenda and start talking,’ “ Flynn said. “But my approach is to watch, learn and wait for those tasks to come to me, rather than inventing them [just] because I felt like I needed to compete with Tom. I’m a very competitive person, but it’s not the path to efficient government to be competing with your fellow elected official.”
At least for the next few years, she won’t be. Flynn, Nickell and Gruendl don’t come up for re-election until 2010. Though she’s tackling the job as if she’ll only be a one-term councilwoman, Flynn is not ready to rule out a second term. She’d also love to be mayor if her day-job duties permit.
In any event, she expects to be more conspicuous, as both the Economic Development and Finance committees are nearing action time. The long-range budget and general plan are the panoramic projects she’s serving for.
As for Nickell’s forecast …
“Same role, same thing,” he said. “I’m Tom. It’s still the same job, and I’m going to do it the best I can and do the best for the city. If the people believe in me and think I’m doing a good job, I’ll think about going for a second term.”
He’s setting himself up nicely.
“There are a lot of people who are receptive to what he’s doing, which is good politically, perhaps,” Holcombe said. “All those little things add up. Certainly it made a difference with the downtown plaza—the police presence and people feeling safe…. It wasn’t some big policy issue; it was ‘just get rid of bicycles and scuff marks and be prompt in our response to complaints.’ That stuff definitely makes a difference.”
How they’ve voted
|Sustainability Task Force||Yes||Yes||Yes (5-2)|
|Wildwood Estates||Yes||Yes||Yes (6-1)|
|Bidwell Park sphere of influence policy||Yes||No||Yes (5-2)|
|Costco expansion||Yes||Yes||Yes (7-0)|
|Meriam Park||Absent||Yes||Yes (5-1)|
|Johnson/Chico Auto Dismantling rezone*||Absent||No||No (3-3)|
|Tuscan Village||No||No||Yes (4-3)|
|Disorderly events ordinance (Sept. 4)||No||Yes||Yes (4-3)|
|Disorderly events ordinance (Oct. 15)||Yes||Yes||Yes (6-1)|
|Disorderly events ordinance (Nov. 6)**||Yes||Yes||Yes (6-1)|
|Elks Lodge cell tower*||No||DQ||No (4-1)|
|Mountain Vista/Sycamore Glen||Yes||Yes||Yes (7-0)|
*Appeal of Planning Commission denial; majority vote by City Council needed to reverse the decision.
**Ratification of the Oct. 15 vote.