Back on the table

Chapman/Mulberry annexation gets reconsidered by City Council

Councilman Randall Stone, who voted against annexation of the Chapman and Mulberry neighborhoods in November, apparently has had a change of heart and has called for reconsideration of that decision.

Councilman Randall Stone, who voted against annexation of the Chapman and Mulberry neighborhoods in November, apparently has had a change of heart and has called for reconsideration of that decision.

PHOTO by robert speer

The Chico City Council voted Tuesday (Jan. 20) to put annexation of the Chapman and Mulberry neighborhoods back on the table, but the ticking of a time bomb could be heard as it did so.

That time bomb is in the form of a lawsuit against the city that the Butte County Local Agency Formation Commission has voted to authorize. Contacted by phone Wednesday morning, Steve Lucas, LAFCo’s executive director, said it could be filed at any time, at his and the commission’s discretion.

The lawsuit is in response to the council’s 4-3 vote Nov. 18 not to sign an agreement the city earlier had negotiated with LAFCo. The agreement would have resolved the long-standing issue of annexation of Chapman/Mulberry, the two largest unincorporated islands in Chico. And it would have let the city off the hook for all but $10,000 of up to $100,000 in unpaid LAFCo fees.

This week the council, with its two new members, voted 6-1 (with Ann Schwab dissenting) to reconsider the Nov. 18 decision, but not without first holding a big neighborhood meeting to listen to residents’ concerns. Seeking to forestall the filing of the lawsuit, they want it to take place before the council’s next meeting, on Feb. 3, and before LAFCo’s Feb. 5 meeting. That’s not much time.

Tick, tick, tick.

It was clear that at least two council members—Randall Stone and Tami Ritter—had changed their views on the matter. It was Stone who requested the reconsideration. He said he’d originally voted against signing the agreement because of potential costs and a lack of outreach to the community. Residents of the neighborhoods have many questions—about leaf pickup, for example, or police patrols and the utility tax, about sewer hookups and code enforcement.

Several speakers from the audience agreed with Stone. Forest Harlan said it was “critical to do it right,” and that includes plenty of community participation. Vincent Ornelas, who is vice chairman of the group Love Chapmantown, noted that some residents are strongly in favor of annexation but are concerned about costs, especially for sewer hookups.

Ron Angle, a longtime Chapmantown resident, said he preferred to live in the county because the county, unlike the city, “recognizes the uniqueness of our neighborhood.” If the council forces annexation, he said, he’d like to see a change from at-large to by-district council elections so residents can be truly represented.

Democratic Party operative Bob Mulholland, his voice booming, charged the council had mishandled the process and needed to do a better job in the future. “Treat the people in Chapmantown like you would the country clubbers at Butte Creek Estates,” he thundered.

Mayor Mark Sorensen painted the big picture, noting that the agreement outlined a less-expensive, streamlined process for resolving the annexation and sewer-hookup issues. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose the streamlined process,” he said, at greater cost to the city and residents alike. Either way, smoothly or roughly, annexation will occur. LAFCo, he said, has the law and the state on its side.

City Manager Mark Orme said he could agendize reconsideration of the agreement for either the Feb. 3 or Feb. 17 council meeting.

Lucas said LAFCo was as eager to avoid a lawsuit as the city was. “If there’s a path forward, we will take it,” he said.

Remember Jessica Allen? She’s the environmental activist who in August sent a cease-and-desist letter to the council charging it with several violations of open-meeting laws.

This week the council, hoping again to avoid a lawsuit, officially responded to Allen, voting 5-2, with Ritter and Stone dissenting, to send a letter over the mayor’s signature in which the council refuses to admit wrong-doing but promises to be good in the future. The letter “unconditionally commits” the council to “cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action….”

Allen had accused the council of several violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act, including discussing employee compensation during closed sessions, failing to report actions taken in closed session, discussing or taking action in closed session on items not posted on the agenda, and so forth.

Council members had three choices: send the letter, stonewall Allen or have staff try to come up with an alternative. Choosing to send the letter was “risk avoidance,” Vice Mayor Sean Morgan said following the meeting. “It [the violations] didn’t happen.”

Ritter said she voted nay because “I don’t like taking responsibility for something I don’t think happened.” By the time she voted it was a done deal, she added. Knowing her vote wasn’t going to count, she was able to vote her conscience, she said. Otherwise, she added, the council’s decision was fiscally responsible and expedient.

Allen could not be reached for comment by press time. She still has the option of pursuing the matter in court.