Change of heart

Councilman Andy Holcombe switches his vote to end political rancor

Nary a seat could be found in the council chambers as the Chico City Council deliberated on whom to choose to fill its empty post. More than 300 people showed up for the meeting, crowding the aisles of the room and the adjacent lobby. They also spilled into an overflow room next door.

Nary a seat could be found in the council chambers as the Chico City Council deliberated on whom to choose to fill its empty post. More than 300 people showed up for the meeting, crowding the aisles of the room and the adjacent lobby. They also spilled into an overflow room next door.

photo by kyle delmar

The most surprising part of the Chico City Council’s latest meeting was not that the panel chose conservative Bob Evans to fill its empty seat, but rather the circumstances leading up to his appointment during an emotionally charged meeting following weeks of polarizing debate on the issue.

A full half-hour before the start of the council’s regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday evening (Feb. 1), council chambers had already filled to the brim with supporters of the leading candidates, Evans and Sor Lo, the dark-horse applicant who’s been the talk of the town. Most noticeable were the dozens of Hmong residents of Chico, who showed up en masse at a council meeting for the first time.

The meeting was the second go-round in as many weeks to try fill the vacancy. The first effort on Jan. 18 ended in a 3-3 deadlock, and very shortly into the latest discussions on the matter it looked like the panel might come to an impasse yet again.

Vice Mayor Jim Walker was the first to speak about the appointment, and he indicated that he had met with Lo in an attempt to vet the council prospect. He said he thoroughly enjoyed his time getting to know him.

“I came away feeling that Mr. Lo would be a wonderful candidate for City Council, but frankly, it didn’t change my mind,” said Walker, who had previously supported Evans.

One by one, each of the other city leaders voiced support for either Evans or Lo, who were chosen from among a list of 20 applicants two weeks earlier. It appeared each of them was going to stick to his or her original choice.

Mayor Ann Schwab continued to back Lo, saying the local Hmong-American would provide a different background and viewpoint to the council. She addressed some of the criticism of Lo, including the fact that he has no voting record. She asked why it was fine that gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had not voted.

Schwab also said she wanted to save the city from having to shell out money for a special election, which would have been triggered by another stalemate. To that end, Schwab said she was willing to revisit other nominees.

Next up, Councilman Andy Holcombe talked about how polarizing the issue had become. The longtime city leader said in the past two weeks he’d received anonymous disturbing messages with racist overtones. He said the appointment is not a left-versus-right issue, or a Democrat-versus-Republican issue.

“This is a best-for-our-community decision, and to me that’s Sor Lo,” he said.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said she wrestled with the choice. Ultimately, she decided to stick with Evans.

Councilman Scott Gruendl echoed Holcombe’s comments about the polarization.

“I love Chico, but I know from my own personal experience … that Chico does not always have its arms wide open,” he said.

Gruendl said he had been dreading attending the meeting until he made his way into council chambers and saw the gallery overflowing with hundreds of new faces, and a large segment of the local Hmong community in particular. The openly gay longtime city leader then launched into a passionate speech about how Chico could turn a corner by bringing aboard Lo. It was followed by a rousing round of applause from the gallery.

Gruendl was followed by Councilman Mark Sorensen, who pointed out that Evans was vetted extensively last year by going through an election process. He noted that he trailed Flynn by just 128 votes. “I think that has to be respected and weighed very carefully,” he said.

Sorensen added that he thought appointing Evans would honor the voters who put former Councilman Larry Wahl into office twice. Wahl left his post last month after beginning his term as a Butte County supervisor.

With the discussion indicating another stalemate, Schwab put forth the idea of choosing a compromise candidate. Gruendl then nominated Tami Ritter, a former director of the Torres Community Shelter who was in the original group of applicants. Schwab quickly seconded his motion.

In a surprising move, Holcombe said he was prepared to switch his vote to Evans. He noted that he believes in “bringing people into the process” and that Evans is qualified for the post. “I hope by shifting my vote it will set aside some of the political rancor,” he said.

Only Gruendl and Schwab voted in favor of appointing Ritter. Seconds later they were the dissenters during a 4-2 vote in favor of appointing Evans.

Immediately following the vote, a woman started screaming that the council had made the decision without hearing from her and other constituents. Because the issue was a continuation of the last meeting, however, the panel was not required to take public comment. Another shouter, a man, yelled repeatedly that Martin Luther King Jr. was rolling in his grave. Both were shouted back at by supporters of Evans.

So much for ending the rancor.

The open council seat wasn’t the only controversial item on the agenda. The panel spent a considerable amount of time contemplating a recommendation of the Arts Commission to allocate $30,000 for the 2011 Artoberfest marketing campaign to help fund the hugely popular arts celebration. City Manager Dave Burkland did not recommend the allocation because of the city’s financial hardships.

After hearing 18 members of the arts-loving public who spoke on the issue, including the economic benefits to the city from increased sales tax and transient-occupancy taxes, the panel voted 5-1 (Sorensen dissenting) to use money from this year’s general fund to support the event. However, they decided to allocate a lesser amount of $28,500, a token 5 percent reduction mirroring the wage concessions city employees agreed to take to keep the city fiscally solvent.