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Divided council approves polarizing posters of military personnel

Steve Lange told the council that he and his wife, Suzanne, didn’t think supporting serviceman Thomas Vosburg, her son and his stepson, was akin to supporting war.

Steve Lange told the council that he and his wife, Suzanne, didn’t think supporting serviceman Thomas Vosburg, her son and his stepson, was akin to supporting war.

Photo by Robert Speer

Anyone who doubts the power of symbols should have attended the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday (Oct. 20).

At issue was a proposal by the group Chico Military Heroes to install banners on utility poles along East Avenue honoring Chico residents now serving in the military. The 5-foot-high banners would include photos of individual active-duty servicemen, along with their names, ranks and military branches. Up to 500 of them would be placed along the length of East Avenue, from Wildwood Park to Highway 32, with financing coming from donations.

About 18 citizens spoke to the issue, about half in support and half opposed, all passionately. Indeed, the proposal is as if designed to expose a wide divide in the community between those who support military service as the bulwark protecting Americans’ freedoms and those who are pained by what they see as our country’s wars and their cost in destroyed lives.

A similar proposal last year sought to put the banners along several city streets, but in October the group turned down a compromise that would have allowed them along a limited stretch of East Avenue for 30 days.

Chris Nicodemus, a co-founder of the group, said at the time that such a short display period wouldn’t justify the cost of installing and removing the banners. “Thirty days is not going to work for this program,” he said.

That was then, and this is now, as the saying goes. Following the November 2014 election a four-person conservative majority took control of the council, and subsequently Chico Military Heroes re-submitted its proposal.

This time it sought to have the banners up year-round for two years along East Avenue, and for the city fee of $2,100 to be waived.

Three of the banners were present in council chambers, and the parents of the servicemen whose photos appeared on them all spoke about what the banners meant to them and their sons.

Laura Page, whose son Grant is serving in the U.S. Navy, wanted the council to know how lonely it is for him while on nightwatch duty in the middle of the ocean. He sometimes wonders whether anyone is thinking of him, she said. The banner shows him that he hasn’t been forgotten.

That drew an emotional response from Chris Nelson, a retired nurse and longtime peace activist whose husband, Michael Pike, a former Green Beret captain and Vietnam veteran, died from cancer a year ago. “It’s real lonely when your husband dies of Agent Orange,” she said.

Like several others, she thought it preferable to honor people the community can agree deserve it, such as nurses and peace makers.

Others questioned whether one becomes a hero simply by joining the military. “There are real heroes,” Dan Everhart said, “but simply joining the military is not enough to become one.”

Opponents of the proposal also argued that the money going into putting up the banners could be better used to help returning veterans, many of whom are mentally or physically damaged and end up homeless. “There are 50 homeless veterans in the Chico area,” said Charles Withuhn. “It would be a crying shame to glamorize the service when we’re not providing them housing.”

Nobody likes war, proponents of the proposal responded. “In a perfect world we would not need a military,” Nicodemus said. “But this is not a perfect world.”

“We are in a war whether we like it or not,” said Sue Hubbard. “Radical Islam is at war with us.” It’s appropriate to honor those who volunteer to protect us, she insisted.

Some council members pointed out that approval of the banners year-round would create an exception to city policy that others might try to exploit. “What happens when other groups make [similar] requests?” asked Councilwoman Tami Ritter.

She got no answer. Instead the council voted 4-3, on a motion by Councilman Andrew Coolidge, to allow the banners to be up year-round for two years, but not to waive the fee. Ritter, Randall Stone and Ann Schwab dissented.

In other council news: At Mayor Mark Sorensen’s request, the council unanimously approved some amendments to the city’s noise ordinance that Chico police believe will make it easier to control unruly parties.

The changes resulted in part from a recent field trip Sorensen and others, including Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katie Simmons, took to San Luis Obispo to see how that college town was dealing with problems resulting from large numbers of youth living in a small area.

The revised ordinance eliminates the requirement that police receive a written complaint before issuing a citation to the hosts of an overly noisy party. And it allows a misdemeanor charge to be brought if it happens again within a 30-day period. In that case, though, police will need a written complaint before they can act.

The ordinance gives them the authority to issue citations to property owners who allow a second violation within 180 days of the first one.

The council also voted unanimously to eliminate a regulation that limits parking downtown to no more than 30 minutes between the hours of 2 and 7 a.m. The threat of getting a parking ticket encourages late-hour and often intoxicated bar patrons to drive home, rather than take a cab, said Councilman Randall Stone, who brought the issue to the council.

Deputy Police Chief Dave Britt agreed that the possibility that some people might choose to sleep in their cars is of concern, but not as much as people driving while intoxicated.

Finally, the council approved a structure for the city Arts Commission that minimizes the amount of staff time required to monitor it. Under the new terms, the commission will meet quarterly for no more than two hours and one minute at a time at an off-site location. (That extra minute crept in when Councilman Andrew Coolidge resubmitted a motion that had been nixed earlier; adding the minute to the meeting length made it a new motion.)

The commissioners will still be accountable to Brown Act laws, said City Attorney Vince Ewing. They’ll need special training to avoid making mistakes, inasmuch as their meetings will be only lightly supervised.