Chico’s leadership gap

Why hasn’t the city of Chico moved more aggressively to implement its downtown parking plan? And why does it always seem to have to do a study before making a decision on an issue?

Is it because “city government has a habit of making things a lot more complicated than they need to be,” as the local daily newspaper has editorialized? Or is there a more substantial and credible reason?

It’s always convenient to personalize a complex bureaucracy and ascribe to it human failings such as bad habits. If well-staffed organizations such as Chico city government have failings, however, it’s usually because systemic problems—not anthropomorphic character flaws—keep them from functioning well.

In the city’s case, the problem is a lack of the kind of leadership that gets things done. What it has instead, in the City Council, is leadership by committee. Committees often have a hard time making and implementing decisions.

Take the downtown parking issue. It’s a complicated matter, so the city appropriately hired a consultant, held a five-day charrette in 2006, and from that developed and approved a plan that included converting a number of downtown streets to diagonal parking. But when a few people later objected, city planning staffers started backing down, and before long most of the recommendations had been tossed out.

That’s when a real leader could have stepped in and said, “Look, we approved a plan. Let’s implement it.” Unfortunately, Chico has no such leader. The mayor has no more authority than any other councilmember, and the city manager does only what the council tells him to do.

In most cases—vetting development proposals, hiring city managers, approving a budget—leadership by committee works reasonably well. But in situations where real authority is needed—such as moving a downtown parking plan forward—a committee is the slowest, least effective way to go.

As we’ve argued before, if Chico wants to get things done, it needs to create a position of real leadership. The best way to do that, we believe, is to give the mayor greater authority. We have some ideas on how to do that, such as an elected-mayor structure—but the discussion really needs to begin with the City Council and Chico’s citizens.

Blaming the people who serve on the City Council or work in city government does no good and is unfair. If we want our government to be more responsive, we need to change the way it’s configured.