Twelve council candidates take their best shots to garner votes
Hosted by the League of Women Voters, a candidates’ forum Oct. 18 showcased the ambitions, personalities and political knowledge of the herd of Chico City Council candidates trying to convince Chico voters to check their respective boxes on the ballot come Election Day.
It was just like the recent presidential debates—except that there were 12 candidates instead of two and two incumbents instead of one—and for two hours the candidates gave opinions, made promises and remembered the forgotten members of the community.
Former Councilman Shelton Enochs served as moderator, asking the questions and allowing 30 seconds to two minutes for each answer, depending on the question.
Participants included incumbents Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna facing off against challengers Jolene Francis, Fred Davis, Ann Schwab, DNA, Rodney Willis, Andy Holcombe, Barbi Boeger, John Merz, Sharon Nichols and Shawn Hughes. The only missing candidate was Phil Brock.
After each was allowed a two-minute opening statement, Enochs posed the first of six questions, appropriately dealing with the most controversial subject on the current council’s plate—what to do with the 750 acres of city-owned land known as Bidwell Ranch. The property, purchased by the city in 1996 after 12 years of debate over its potential residential development, was finally slated to be rezoned as open space based on a 4-3 vote last January. But before the process was complete, Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis died in office, derailing the rezone and creating a controversy. The city made the purchase for an estimated $7.6 million and still owes just over $1 million.
This answer commanded the full two minutes allotted for most. Bertagna, Wahl, Davis and Francis all said they’d put the matter to a public vote. Bertagna claimed, without further explanation, that rezoning the property to open space would cost the city $2.5 million. Hughes, surprised by Bertagna’s claim, said he now didn’t know what to do with the land, though he was sure that, if homes were built there, they would not be entry-level.
Holcombe, Merz, Schwab, Nichols, DNA, Boeger and Willis all said they’d rezone to open space. “I can’t believe I went into the Navy, came back and we’re still talking about this,” Willis said, shaking his head.
Next came the question of extended library hours. It was first tossed, like a big fat softball, to Wahl, the councilman who’s turned longer library hours into a crusade. His answer on whether to keep the library doors unlocked longer—"Absolutely"—surprised no one; nor did any of the other candidates’ answers, which were all affirmative. Some had suggestions for funding the library operation, which is technically a county responsibility. Nichols suggested a library assessment district, Boeger the proceeds from her proposed Nut Festival.
Francis, sounding fiscally pragmatic, noted that while everybody supports the library, “We have to recognize we have some significant fiscal restraints,” including public safety, that have to come first.
Each candidate got one minute to respond on whether building variances from General Plan requirements should be granted to accommodate infill-development projects. Most agreed infill development was essential if Chico was to avoid or at least delay sprawl, but what was most important was that the infill project be compatible with existing neighborhoods. Merz said it was difficult to make a blanket statement about infill projects, and while too many variances have been granted to the developers in the past, each case was different.
At this point, DNA fired off the best response of the night; holding a sheath of papers in his hand, he said, “When I bought these answers from [Councilman] Dan Nguyen-Tan, this one wasn’t on there.”
The audience laughed, as did the other council candidates, with the exception of Bertagna, who made a disgusted, George Bush-like scowl in response to DNA’s joke.
The next question brought up strained city-university relations, prompting Nichols to suggest the university make teaching proper respect for students’ new environs part of their orientation.
As f0r planning city infrastructure improvement to accommodate growth, Davis said, “We need a long-range plan for each item that is part of the infrastructure.” Holcombe said developer fees have been held artificially low for the past eight years, creating a gap in funding for improved infrastructure.
Next came the question of affordable housing, and just as with Wahl with his library hours, this subject came first to Holcombe, an attorney who has long been an advocate of low-income housing.
“This is one of the reasons I’m running now,” he said, adding that some on the council had, over the years, rejected city staff recommendations on affordable housing. He advocates inclusionary zoning, which means a certain percentage of homes in a new development must be reserved for low-income residents and sold at a lower price than the rest of the houses.
Bertagna disagreed and said that only guarantees savings for the first buyer. And Francis, a banker, said “inclusionary taxes a very small portion to subsidize an even smaller portion” of residents.
Concerns for the future include paying for public safety (Bertagna, Wahl and Schwab), allowing developers too much power (Boeger), funding basic needs as the state continues to raid local coffers (Francis and Nichols) and balancing "fear against trust" (Merz).