Candidates disagree on big issues

If conservatives are successful in claiming a majority on the City Council in the Nov. 7 election, you can expect them to approve a downtown parking structure, put development of part of Bidwell Ranch to a vote of the people and trim the city’s budget to deal with an anticipated shortfall, rather than put a sales tax hike on the ballot.

On the other hand, if liberals retain their current majority, you can expect other parking solutions to be tried downtown before a parking structure is approved, Bidwell Ranch to be left as open space and considerable hemming and hawing on the sales tax issue.

Those were the clear—and not-so-clear—distinctions among the council candidates at their first forum of the election season, held Friday morning (Aug. 25) at the CARD Community Center as part of the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s “AM Issues” series. (Note: The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are used here for convenience and undoubtedly will not apply in all situations and on all issues, people being the unpredictable creatures they are.)

Fielding questions from the audience and, in one instance, a call-in from a listener to KPAY radio’s live broadcast, the candidates largely agreed on some matters—protecting the Greenline, supporting the arts, and the need for a new police facility—while carving out substantive differences on others. Despite their differences, the tone of the forum was cordial and respectful: This is a group whose members seem to recognize that all are worthy of the job.

Here’s an issue-by-issue breakdown:

Downtown parking structure—Incumbent Dan Herbert and the other members of his self-defined slate, business owner Mark Sorensen and Bank of America loan officer Michael Dailey, believe that downtown needs a new parking structure. All three were firm on the issue—"Downtown business owners will tell you that parking is absolutely the problem,” as Sorensen put it—though Dailey suggested that the structure didn’t need to be sited at the municipal lot at the corner of Second and Wall streets, as proposed. Perhaps a joint project with the university on the surface lots on Second between Salem and Chestnut would work, he said.

Candidates Mary Flynn, a high school math teacher, and Tom Nickell, who will retire as a Highway Patrol officer in May 2007, join Mayor Scott Gruendl in the “liberal” field of candidates. Both said their personal observation was that the Second and Wall lot ordinarily had many open spaces. Given that, they said, there’s no immediate need for a multimillion-dollar parking structure. For the time being, as the recent charrette report stated, there are many creative and less expensive ways to increase parking downtown.

Gruendl, somewhat surprisingly, said that as he’d “matured,” he’d gone from opposing to supporting a parking structure. The existing parking structure at Third and Salem has added to the downtown, he said. Then, smiling at Dailey, he suggested the best thing to do might be to tear down the BofA building at Fourth and Broadway and rebuild it so as “to make it worthy of facing the plaza” and erect a parking structure on the lot behind it.

Budget and sales tax—Members of the Herbert slate were adamant that a sales tax increase was the wrong way to go to meet the budget shortfalls City Manager Greg Jones is predicting. They want instead to “sharpen our pencils,” as Herbert put it, and set firm spending priorities. None was specific about what programs he’d cut, however.

The liberals were almost as hesitant. Gruendl noted raising the sales tax “was easier said than done.” Flynn said she wanted to see Jones’ 10-year budget plan before taking a position but in the meantime agreed with Herbert. And Nickell suggested that a sales tax hike might be the best way to fund a parking structure.

Greenline—All of the candidates supported the Greenline, but some of them offered nuanced support. Gruendl said the line needed stronger boundaries between agricultural and urban uses in the form of what he called “ag easements.” Flynn said she hoped to increase communication with the county as a way to solidify the line’s boundaries, and Herbert suggested obliquely that the Greenline may have to be adjusted to create room for growth.

Bidwell Ranch—To Gruendl, Flynn and Nickell, the city-owned 750-acre parcel just north of Wildwood Avenue is a settled issue. The council had decided to keep it as open space and for use as a mitigation bank, they said. Gruendl said it was part of a “green band stretching from Bidwell Park to the airport” that serves as a conservation area. “We need to move on to more important things,” Flynn said.

But Herbert, Sorensen and Dailey weren’t about to let it go. Given the city’s need for revenue, they suggested selling one-third of the property for development, adding the rest to Bidwell Park and using the money to fund community parks. At the least, they argued, it should be placed before the voters for them to decide.