Attack and counterattack

Conservative PAC’s direct-mail hit pieces draw city attorney reprimand, sharp response from Holcombe and Schwab

FAIR USE OR PILFERING?<br>Chico’s city attorney has slapped the hand of the group Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow for the unauthorized use of the police shoulder patch and fire chiefs photo show here. Members of the group insist the images are in the public domain. They appear on the back page of the four-page direct-mail hit piece shown below.

Chico’s city attorney has slapped the hand of the group Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow for the unauthorized use of the police shoulder patch and fire chiefs photo show here. Members of the group insist the images are in the public domain. They appear on the back page of the four-page direct-mail hit piece shown below.

Déjà vu
The well-heeled political-action committee that has emerged in this year’s City Council election, Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow, includes many of the same building-industry bigwigs as previous groups that have poured money into City Council races, including the Hooker Oak Alliance in 2006.

Cut it out!

That was the message—though not the actual words—of an unprecedented cease-and-desist letter sent out last Thursday (Oct. 23) by Chico’s city attorney, Lori Barker, to a newly formed, highly bankrolled political-action committee led by, among others, Assemblyman Rick Keene and former City Manager Fred Davis.

The group’s alleged misdeed? It had sent out a direct-mail flier on which it had included a replica of the Police Department’s official shoulder patch and a photo of a fire truck and three chiefs, including recently retired Fire Chief Steve Brown. Both images were lifted, from city Web pages.

The unauthorized use of the images “may constitute copyright and/or trademark infringement, pursuant to federal law,” Barker’s letter reads.

The group, called Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow, has emerged in recent weeks as the biggest financial player in the City Council elections, having raised more than $60,000 through Oct. 18 and spent nearly $41,000, almost all of it on negative campaign fliers attacking Mayor Andy Holcombe and Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, who are both running for re-election, and backing candidates Mark Sorensen, Joe Valente and two-term incumbent Larry Wahl.

Several of the eight council candidates, including Holcombe and Schwab, have raised significant sums, more than $20,000, but nothing close to the ACT money, almost all of which came from local builders and others in the construction industry.

So far ACT has sent out, by CN&R count, at least four full-color fliers, each with a different theme—traffic (there’s too much) and road repair (too little); the city’s budget deficit; businesses closing; and cutbacks in public safety. In a phone interview, Davis said he believed the group had sent out six fliers.

With the exception of a tag line referring to Sorensen, Valente and Wahl as “responsible leaders,” the fliers are completely negative attacks on Holcombe, Schwab “and the current council majority,” putting the entire blame for the city’s problems on them.

“In just six short years, the current majority took the city of Chico from a budget surplus to millions of dollars in deficit,” reads one flier, “causing a public safety emergency.”

“Under the leadership of Mayor Andy Holcombe and Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, businesses are closing—good jobs are leaving Chico,” reads another.

“Millions down the drain. Squandered on: lawsuits, charrettes, consultants … and surveys,” reads a third. The culprits? Yep, Holcombe and Schwab.

The most controversial of the fliers—and the one that provoked Barker’s cease-and-desist demand—is a four-page, magazine-size brochure blaming cutbacks in police and fire personnel on Holcombe and Schwab “and their leadership team.” It uses images of the police patch and the three fire chiefs to illustrate its call to elect ACT’s chosen candidates, implying that both departments and the fire chiefs in particular support them, too.

That’s not necessarily the case, however. Chief Brown, for example, lives outside the city limits and isn’t endorsing anyone. And he said he was “pretty certain” the other two chiefs in the photo—Steve Simpson and Keith Carter, both division chiefs—are “not supporting any particular candidate.”

Nor is the Chico Police Officers Association, which decided not to endorse this year. And, while the firefighters’ association is endorsing Valente, it’s also endorsing candidates Jim Walker, Ali Sarsour … and Schwab.

“We didn’t like the fact that the ad implies that Chico firefighters are supporting those candidates,” Chuck Fry, president of the Chico Firefighters Legislative Action Group, said.

Holcombe responded harshly. In a Tuesday (Oct. 28) press release announcing a press conference he and Schwab held Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. (after CN&R press time), he lambasted ACT for wasting Barker’s time.

The group “should have known better, and undoubtedly did,” he said, “but it had the arrogance to think they could just get away with it. They were apparently intent on misleading, no matter what the cost.”

In a phone interview, Davis pleaded ignorance about the images. “I have no idea whether the picture was used with permission. My understanding was that it was part of the public record.” Otherwise, he said, he wasn’t involved “in that level of detail” in putting together the fliers.

Similarly, Assemblyman Keene said he thought the images fell under the “fair use” doctrine as public documents.

Then there’s the matter of the content of the fliers. Are they accurate? Are Holcombe and Schwab responsible for the city’s budget deficit, as charged?

As they are quick to point out, the problems really began back in 2000, when the city passed the first of several generous pay-and-benefits packages for employees. Keene was on the council then, and Wahl began his first term in December of that year.

Holcombe and Schwab were elected in 2004.

Keene acknowledged that Wahl has been on the council longer than the others, “but Larry recognized the problems,” he insisted. “He doesn’t think the answer is laying off 14.5 police officers and six firefighters.

“The council has to take responsibility for its actions,” he continued. “Council members have to keep their eyes on the ball and realize that public safety is primarily what the city is about.”

Davis is personally upset about the budget. “I worked so damned hard to get the city in a good position when I retired [in 1992, after 33 years],” he said. “It bothers me that they’re having such problems.” He is convinced that the council’s revenue projections for the years ahead are overly optimistic.

Holcombe and Schwab’s response is that Davis and Keene fail to recognize that the current council majority largely inherited the budget problems and is the first group that is actually doing something about them.

“This City Council has taken proactive steps to address budget challenges created by past City Councils,” Holcombe said. Those steps include renegotiating labor contracts, implementing a “more business-like approach to our long-range financial planning,” and creating an economic-development strategy for the city.

In addition, he said, the city is set to release a quarterly financial report today (Oct. 30) showing that current city revenues, combined with budget cuts, are in line with the council’s deficit-reduction strategy.

“We’re actually ahead of the game as far as the budget is concerned, even in these difficult economic times,” he said.

The city’s finance director, Jennifer Hennessey, confirmed that, while sales tax revenues have been flat, 2008-09 property tax revenues have increased by 8.7 percent over 2007-08, thanks mostly to new residential construction, resale reappraisals and remodels.

Noticeably absent from ACT’s fliers is any mention of the city’s general-plan update, or of council discussion of potential land-use options—matters, it’s safe to assume, that greatly interest the development community.

The council is in the midst of deciding how much land to designate for future growth in the city’s new general plan. The winners in next week’s election will make the final decisions.

Like Sorensen, Wahl is a strong supporter of the business community, including developers, and Valente owns a contracting business and has spoken out in favor of opening significant acreage to future growth. Sorensen told the CN&R that he first learned of the flier when it arrived in his mail box.

Along with Keene and Davis, ACT backers include developer Tony Symmes, AAA Properties owner Wayne Cook, Conroy Construction, Webb Homes, Epick Homes, and Thomas Dauterman of Thomas Welding & Machine.

Holcombe said that, for the builders at least, the budget debate is a smokescreen. “Where were they during the budget process?” he asked. “I think their interest is to try to get a result that favors them in terms of land use.”

Not so, Davis responded. He acknowledged that the builders have a personal interest in land-use issue, but said the subject never came up in the group’s discussion.

“I think [the builders] are sincerely concerned about what can happen to the city if it’s not economically viable,” he said. “It’s of great interest to them that the city have good infrastructure.”