Chico needs a change

The city ought to do away with its current weak and polarizing form of government

The author, a longtime Chico resident, is a former CN&R editor.

Does Chico have a flawed form of government? That was one of the questions raised in the 2013-14 Butte County Grand Jury report, which found that a “council-manager form of government [such as Chico’s] lends itself to potential problems.”

The council has disagreed, arguing that the council-manager model “combines the strong political leadership of elected officials … with the professional managerial experience of an appointed … manager.”

Every form of government has potential weaknesses, the council notes, adding that it “does not believe the council-manager form of government, the most popular in the country, is more prone to these weaknesses than others.”

But which form of the council-manager model are we talking about?

Boise, Idaho, where I lived in the late 1990s, has a council-manager form of government much different from Chico’s. There the mayor is elected at large to a full-time, four-year term and is expected to be the policy-making leader in the community. The other six City Council members also are elected to four-year terms, although part-time and from districts, not at large. As in Chico, the professional city manager must be approved by the council.

Chico’s model has served it well over the years, but the city has outgrown it. It now costs $15,000 or more to run an effective city-wide council campaign, too much for many otherwise qualified candidates. If they were running in districts only one-sixth the size of the city, however, they could go door to door and meet the voters personally without spending much money. Not only that, voters would know who their representative was. That’s not the case now.

The current model also leads to polarization. Instead of running to represent a district, candidates—those who hope to win, anyway—run as members of one of two groups: liberals and conservatives. Both camps have veteran campaign managers and access to funding. Their only real goal is to control four or more seats on the council.

Finally, I question the council’s claim that it comprises “strong political leadership.” On the contrary, it’s what I call “leadership by committee,” which is weak, not strong. Why do you think it took 20 years—20 years!—to resolve the farmers’ market conflict? There was no leadership. Having a four-year, full-time elected mayor would be a big help.

Several council members have told me privately they agree with me, but none has been willing to go public. Where do the current candidates stand?