City Council

Hot topics, cool head

Scott Gruendl has a cute quirk when it comes to roll call at Chico City Council meetings. While the other six councilmembers typically respond, “Here,” after the city clerk reads their names, Gruendl likes to say, “Happy to be here.”

How happy he really was Tuesday night is hard to say. Gruendl had to sit through a tough meeting earlier in the day (March 4), as Glenn County supervisors discussed budget cuts that surely will make his day job as public health director more challenging. Plus, he had a class to attend.

But clearly, peers and citizens were happy for his presence in City Council chambers, as he proved a voice of reason and pragmatism in several contentious matters. He pushed for a compromise in the Bidwell Park Apartments plan to safeguard neighbors’ privacy; he found an inexpensive middle ground between regulating and ignoring pedicabs; and he vocally supported Larry Wahl’s motion to delay formulation of a municipal flag policy, lest a traditional display of patriotism be threatened.

The project, proposal and postponement all passed.

As Chico’s mayor in 2005-06, seated between three progressives and three conservatives, Gruendl made modest proposals while focused on running meetings and keeping the peace. Now, from his position on the left (physically and politically), he freely pipes up with bolder notions.

“I feel like, as one of the novices, I’m always learning from Scott,” Councilwoman Mary Flynn said Wednesday morning, having shaken off the fatigue of a four-hour, 20-minute meeting. “I’m watching him and thinking, ‘That’s a wonderful idea—why didn’t I think of that?’ I appreciate how he suggests things.”

“You’ve always got to listen to reason,” Councilman Tom Nickell added. “You don’t know everything. I like the fact that Scott is there on the council as a senior member who’s got experience.”

The council took just 11 minutes to unanimously approve the Sierra Gardens Senior Homes subdivision. The Bidwell Park Apartments deliberation took an hour longer, with nine speakers and hearty discussion before the 5-1 vote. (Mayor Andy Holcombe, a tenant-rights lawyer, sat this one out.)

The project comprises 38 units of affordable housing to replace the A&A Pear Grove Mobile Home Park, situated west of Highway 99 between Eighth and Ninth streets. Stone Building Corp. received funding support from the city Redevelopment Agency—a.k.a. the City Council—but needed sign-offs on general-plan exemptions, including rezoning, in order to meet its density target.

Such “concessions” to the developer worry neighbors. Some expressed concern about the increased number of residents and that the size of the parking lot (59 spaces) would lead to overflow on their streets. The biggest issue: the buildings’ height—three stories, taller than any other building in the area.

“The scale of the proposed project is completely out of whack with the nature of the neighborhood,” said Malama MacNeil, who lives on Eighth Street and initially supported the project. Now that it’s grown, with 75 bedrooms across the way, she fears “people on the third floor looking into my living room and my daughter’s bedroom.”

Gruendl understood, and suggested high, horizontal windows on the upper floors to provide light and aesthetic benefit. The developer and city staff pledged to consider that and other options (such as opaque or translucent windows) as a condition of approval.

The pedicab hearing went on for nearly an hour. It was like … well, a pedicab, circling the block a few times as people figured out where they wanted to go, then accepted a reasonable suggestion.

Wahl asked a question midway through that probably should have been addressed at the start: “Why are we here tonight? What precipitated it?” While considering regulations for taxis, the Internal Affairs Committee heard a few complaints from cabbies wondering why pedicabs weren’t held to the same standard. Police Chief Bruce Hagerty sees the parallel—law enforcement would be “interested to know who’s carting people around.”

The problem: insurance. Regulating pedicabs could trigger a requirement for coverage, and premiums ($1,500 to $2,400 a year) would consume the bulk of what the drivers earn. Councilmember Steve Bertagna marveled that anyone would assume the liability of transporting people without getting insured; at least they have business licenses.

That’s where Gruendl’s proposal came in. Holcombe favored background checks and bike inspections, as did Nickell; City Manager Dave Burkland chimed in that he didn’t think pedicabs were a big enough problem to justify devoting city resources (i.e. staff time) to regulating them. So Gruendl suggested the city hand out an information sheet along with business licenses.

“What opportunity do we have to educate?” he posed. “[A flier] would create the opportunity to communicate key safety information and protect the public from noise"—another complaint the council heard, regarding pedicabs’ stereo systems.

Amid quips about Nickell, a retired CHP officer, drafting the sheet and Holcombe hoping a cycling group would volunteer, Burkland said he’d find a way to make it happen.

The flag debate took on a life of its own—that is, it became a debate. As resident Edward Regan put it, “Flying the [U.S.] flag should be a given—not an ‘if’ or a ‘maybe.'” But that wasn’t the whole issue.

For seven years, marking patriotic holidays, city crews have put American flags owned by the City of Flags Committee up on light poles. The fact that the city doesn’t own the flags puts it in the position of Caltrans, which lost a recent court case involving flags on overpasses. Both entities have created “limited public forums” in which they cannot discriminate based on content. If city workers put up one group’s flags free of charge, the city must give other groups the same treatment.

“The first time I voted on whether to fly the flags, I questioned the cost: $3,700 a pop, multiple times a year, adds up,” Gruendl explained Wednesday.

The alternative, of course, is for the flag committee to pay set-up crews—but as with pedicab owners, the expense would effectively put it out of business, as Gruendl learned during an intermission talk with Regan. That firmed up his support for postponing the matter until June so the council can consider it in greater depth. (In the interim, Earth Day flags will fly under last year’s provisions.)

It was that sort of night for the ex-mayor: “Everything I proposed last night happened on the spot.” It wasn’t always easy—some of his supporters booed the apartments decision—"but part of our role is to develop policy that works for the most people.”