‘Good money after bad’
“It strikes me as odd,” Steve Bertagna said, “to be asked to pay for something to protect us from something that’s going to be put in front of us.”
Such was the “difficult position” Bertagna and his fellow Chico city councilmembers found themselves in Tuesday night (Sept. 18) while considering whether to appropriate $100,000 to complete the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan.
The city already has spent a half-million dollars—$499,179, to be exact—on the document, which is not legally mandated but could prompt legal action if approved with contested findings.
Councilmembers from the left and right expressed reservations about allocating additional funds for a consultant to incorporate public comments into the final environmental-impact report. If they didn’t, City Attorney Dave Frank advised, the process would halt and the 1999 plan—considered outdated (thus the expensive update)—would persist as the management document for Bidwell Park.
“I’m going to hold my nose while doing it,” Bertagna said before the 6-1 vote authorizing the $100,000.
“Throwing good money after bad” was the assessment from fellow conservative Larry Wahl, the lone dissenter, who during the discussion declared, “I’m awed at the incomprehensibility of all this. A lot of good could have been done in the park with $600,000.”
“I hold the consultant responsible,” Scott Gruendl declared. The progressive councilman noted he’d made the plan an issue in both his 2002 and 2006 campaigns, and he’s dismayed at the quality of other EIRs drafted by EDAW Inc., leaving him to think “we’re not getting what we pay for.”
Indeed, Councilwoman Mary Flynn asked, “Isn’t the consultant responsible to provide an EIR that’s defensible and complete? How did we get an EIR that’s 90 percent complete and has a balloon payment at the end?”
Mayor Andy Holcombe, backed up by interim Assistant City Manager Dennis Beardsley, explained that the update always had been planned as a two-part project.
Because the number of comments could not be projected, the budget included a $20,000 reserve, which represented the estimate (in 2002) of how much it would cost to complete the document. The city received 180 pages of comments on the draft EIR, including a letter from a lawyer retained by Josephine Guardino and around 120 pages from Friends of Bidwell Park.
Guardino, an FoBP founder, toldthe council that “the proposed $100,000 will be poorly spent if the consultant and [city] staff continue to present the draft EIR as a project-level document,” because her attorney had found “too many defects” that simply addressing comments wouldn’t fix.
Along with volunteering to save the city money by compiling comments herself, Guardino suggested splitting the master plan in two—completing the big-picture portion and setting aside the assessment of specific projects: disc golf, trails, Horseshoe Lake and Cedar Grove.
This unearthed some skepticism. Bertagna was irked to find out that the majority of the comments came from just a handful of individuals, while Flynn sought to find a hidden subtext.
“Is your problem with the EIR,” Flynn asked, “or that disc golf shouldn’t be in Upper Park?” The EIR is inadequate, Guardino replied. Pressing further, Flynn proposed, “What if Dennis and staff came back with a [legally] defensible EIR—would there still be objections to disc golf up there?” If the EIR didn’t address all the impacts.
Wahl asked if Guardino intended to make a legal challenge to the draft EIR. “If adopted as-is,” she replied, “it should be challenged.”
The two subsequent speakers, Gregg Payne and Lon Glazner, told the council in no uncertain terms that her true intent is to stop disc golf, which the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission has allowed to continue until the master plan gets updated. And the specter of litigation had played a part in Beardsley’s request for $100,000, on top of the $27,000 remaining from previous allocations.
In the end, what the council seemed most concerned about was getting the plan completed and not getting ripped off in the process. Bertagna echoed an observation made by Payne: “The cost of building what we want is so small compared to planning what we want.”
The vote for completing the park plan followed a detailed presentation on the public-input component of the General Plan update process.
The council voted unanimously for a nine-member advisory committee composed of one member of the Planning Commission, one member of the Architectural Review Board and seven “average citizens.”
Bertagna questioned whether the city could find so many people willing to make a two-year commitment without a personal agenda to push but deferred to Flynn’s assessment that “it’s totally possible … to draw a cross-section of people who are bright and engaged” for the group charged with bringing forth a broad range of perspectives. Besides, the process includes meetings, surveys, online feedback and other ways for citizens and interest groups to make their opinions known.
Even with discussion of the “disorderly events ordinance” pushed back (see Downstroke, page 10) and a Redevelopment Agency item on the proposed Bidwell Park Apartments postponed, the meeting went past 11.
The council voted to wait until the next meeting, Oct. 2, to hear two proposals: one from Flynn regarding the formation of a downtown study group and one from Tom Nickell on the Police Department’s action plan in response to the recent rash of shootings. Police Chief Bruce Hagerty and his two captains were ready to make a report, but Bertagna moved to wait because it “deserves more time and attention” than it would get at the late hour.
After the adjournment, Nickell expressed some disappointment. “People don’t feel safe coming downtown at night, and students are afraid to go out on the west side,” he said. “I would love to have heard the report tonight, but there were a lot of critical things we needed to move on.”