Chico’s lack of leadership

How else to explain the 20-year tussle over the Saturday farmers’ market?

Does it seem strange to you that Chicoans have been arguing about the Saturday farmers’ market for 20 years or more? Granted, the two principal parties in the dispute—downtown business owners and the market’s vendors and management—are dug deeply into their opposing positions, but 20 years? That’s pathetic.

The issue is clear enough, though the evidence is mostly anecdotal. The business owners believe the market’s patrons use so many parking spaces and create such congestion around the Second and Wall parking lot that other shoppers—their shoppers—choose not to come downtown on Saturday mornings. The market folks are convinced, however, that many of the people they attract also go shopping or have breakfast or lunch downtown, and that on balance the market is good for downtown businesses.

During last week’s City Council discussion of the issues surrounding the farmers’ market, Mayor Mary Goloff urged the parties to try to put the community’s interests first—a laudable but ultimately hopeless notion, given the intransigence on both sides.

What’s missing here is leadership. Compare this piddling disagreement in Chico to the years-long effort in Sacramento to build a new arena and keep the Kings basketball team there. The key figure was Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player who was determined not to lose the team to Seattle. At a time when the effort looked hopeless, he kept pushing, locating investors, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, working with the NBA, convincing the City Council to get on board, pushing the media to keep the effort front and center—leading, in other words.

Johnson has been able to lead because he’s a smart and charismatic guy, but also because his position enables him to do so. He’s not what’s known as a “strong” mayor—Sacramento city government is run by a city manager, not the mayor, as is Chico’s. But he does have a staff, has been voted in by a majority of city voters, and receives a salary in return for working full time. Most important, he is perceived as the city’s leader, someone who is expected to solve problems.

For more than a decade I’ve been arguing that Chico’s mayor—the position, not the person—is too weak to enable real leadership. Chico mayors are not elected at large, they don’t have an office or staff, they are paid only slightly more than the pittance City Council members receive, and they are not expected to lead. No wonder they can’t solve long-festering problems like the farmers’ market. Pleading with people to be nice, as Mayor Goloff did last week, accomplishes nothing.

What’s needed is the kind of active, concerted leadership that brings stakeholders together to brainstorm ideas and gets the public and media involved. The farmers’ market issue should not be solved by a vote of the City Council, which picks winners and losers, but rather by the very people involved, the downtown business owners, the market vendors and the thousands of customers who shop in both venues. They need to work it out. But that won’t happen without effective leadership.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.