And the mayor is…

New Chico City Council off to a rocky start

SWEAR TO GOD Chico City Councilmembers, left to right, Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna, Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab are sworn into office by Butte County Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens. The new council wasted no time in getting down and dirty over the appointment of a new mayor.

SWEAR TO GOD Chico City Councilmembers, left to right, Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna, Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab are sworn into office by Butte County Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens. The new council wasted no time in getting down and dirty over the appointment of a new mayor.

Photo By Tom Angel

What does the mayor do?
Chico has a weak-mayor system, which means the mayor’s power is limited to chairing the council meetings, reading proclamations, attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies and representing the council when state and federal government officials come to visit. The mayor also has some ability to determine the council’s meeting agenda.

The Chico City Council went through its every-two-year ceremony of swearing in the newly elected and re-elected members Tuesday evening with all the necessary pomp and pageantry but ran into controversy on its very first vote—naming a new mayor.

After Mayor Maureen Kirk recognized retiring Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan for his four years of dedication to the job, and a barbershop quartet in white tuxedoes and red bowties harmonized the National Anthem, Butte County Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens swore in new members Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab and returning members Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna.

“This is like a marriage,” Stevens joked as he instructed the members to repeat after him that they would, among other things, “defend the Constitution against enemies both foreign and domestic.”

The newly sworn members assumed their seats, with the conservatives sitting together again on the right side of the podium and the newest members—generally perceived to be liberal—filling in the seats to the left vacated by Nguyen-Tan and the late Coleen Jarvis, who died in office last May.

City Clerk Deborah Presson then asked for nominations for a new mayor, and Councilmember Dan Herbert, who once served as mayor, “respectfully requested” that Kirk keep the position she’d held for the past two years. Wahl seconded the motion, but Kirk “respectfully” declined, saying her need to tend to her ailing parents in Seattle would not afford her the time needed to be mayor.

Kirk then nominated Councilmember Scott Gruendl, elected to the council two years ago. Holcombe seconded Kirk’s motion. Herbert then voiced concerns that Gruendl’s job in Glenn County and his 45-minute commute each way would make it difficult for him to carry out the mayor’s duties.

More to the point, perhaps, Wahl said Gruendl was “much further to the other end of the political spectrum than I can live with.”

Councilmember Steve Bertagna, also a former mayor, realized Gruendl had the necessary four votes and said he hoped the nominee would prove him wrong but feared Gruendl did not have the “moderating presence” needed by the mayor.

“I haven’t seen that exercised in years past,” Bertagna said. “I hope and pray you prove me wrong.”

Gruendl assured the council he had talked with his employer in Glenn County and been told his boss would work around the demands of a Chico mayor’s schedule.

“My employer is on board, and I accept your challenge, Steve,” he said. “I will do my best to prove you wrong.”

With that the vote was taken, and Gruendl was appointed mayor on a 4-3 vote. Most in the packed council chambers broke into applause.

Wahl was then nominated for the position of vice-mayor by Bertagna and seconded by Herbert but lost by the same 4-3 vote. Kirk said she would have voted for Wahl had he supported Gruendl for mayor.

“I feel like you blew it,” she told him.

Herbert then nominated Kirk, and she was elected by unanimous vote.

Hanging heavy in the air at that meeting was the memory of last June, when the same three members voted not to appoint Jarvis’ husband to take her seat after she died, even though it was relayed as one of her dying wishes.

After the mayor and vice-mayor were appointed, the council took a break to enjoy refreshments with city staff and members of the audience. The mood was less than festive.

“It’s unfortunate that some of the councilmembers started the new council on the wrong foot by opposing Scott Gruendl to be mayor,” said Nguyen-Tan. “I know several people fully expected Larry Wahl to be named vice mayor, but I know that his vote [against Gruendl] discouraged them from extending that support.

“The argument that Scott was too busy to be mayor because he works in Willows is absolutely ridiculous,” Nguyen-Tan said. “We all have demands on our time for different reasons, including work or family. Ultimately the judge of who has time to be mayor should be left to each individual, not someone else.”

Herbert said as mayor he had to put in an extra 30 hours a week and questioned whether Gruendl could afford to do so with his 45-minute commute.

“There is short-notice stuff, and if you get a call from the city manager, in this case Maureen will have to sit in [as vice-mayor],” Herbert said.

“I’m not playing politics here, but when the Federal Transportation Administration people popped into town [when Herbert was mayor], they were only here for a short time.”

He again insisted the vote was pragmatic and not politics. “I’m not a political person,” he emphasized.

Herbert said Gruendl’s work schedule was a legitimate concern that he and Kirk shared until she was assured by Gruendl that it would work out.

“We’ll just have a mayor that is a notch less effective,” Herbert said.

And if turns out not to work, will the matter be revisited? “It might,” Hebert said. “I hope not. I hope not.”

Nguyen-Tan said he was surprised by the split vote even after the Jarvis controversy last spring.

"[Selecting the mayor] is an important symbolic message to send to the community,” he said. “This should have resulted in a unanimous support for both the mayor and the vice-mayor.

“Ultimately [the mayors] are the ones who have to know how to balance their lives. I’m confident Scott Gruendl can balance his professional and personal life with his mayor duties."