Familiar issues return to roost
Tax day is when many Americans take a fast look at the past, often with a wince or grimace. So it was particularly fitting that the agenda for the April 15 Chico City Council meeting was full of flashbacks.
The disorderly events ordinance. Tradewinds Court. Proposition 1B. The Avenues Neighborhood Plan. The Mechoopda casino. It was like 2006 and 2007 all over again, complete with familiar faces: civil-rights activists Jessica Allen and Laurel Blankenship, Esplanade advocate Fred Davis (the former city manager), Mechoopda leaders Sandra Knight and Arlene Ward, Mechoopda attorney Robert Rosette, and gadflies Karen Laslo and Michael Reilley.
Even the Humboldt Burn Dump resurfaced—Tom Fogarty’s litigation not only appeared on the closed-session agenda, but it was clearly the specter referred to but not named by Councilman Steve Bertagna in the neighborhood plan deliberation.
The five-hour-plus meeting yielded a lot of discussion, a handful of decisions and a number of big deferrals. It also exposed some political tensions, with progressive rookie Mary Flynn twice rebuking conservative stalwart Larry Wahl (the second time at the five-hour mark, about wrapping up business expeditiously).
So it was a nice snapshot of recent Chico history, even if it took a while to develop.
The disorderly events ordinance came back before the council for its final reading and adoption. To be precise, it was the second disorderly events ordinance, replacing the one on the books that got approved last year.
That first addition to the Municipal Code drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union as well as citizens such as Allen and Blankenship concerned its broad wording could impinge on the First Amendment right of assembly. Even the revised ordinance worries members of the ACLU’s new Chico chapter, and resident Leslie Johnson suggested a delineation between political and social gatherings.
The speakers swayed Flynn, who joined Scott Gruendl in voting no. The rest affirmed their previous votes, with Wahl so eager to do so that he barely gave Mayor Andy Holcombe a chance to close the public-comment session before moving to ratify the ordinance, which the 5-2 vote did.
It was just one of the 12 items on the consent agenda and among the five either removed for future consideration (the Baroni Neighborhood Park assessment) or pulled for discussion. The Tradewinds Court matter was another.
In October, with a 4-3 vote that went against legal counsel, the City Council denied Jessica Haggard’s application for the abandonment of utility easements on adjoining lots the city allowed her to merge. The decision halted her remodeling plan—also approved—to join the two houses, so she sued.
Her legal action prompted the city to revisit the issue, and the 7-0 vote Tuesday night agendized it for a public hearing at the next meeting, May 6.
The Avenues plan put the council in a pinch. Holcombe, Flynn and Wahl live in the neighborhood; Bertagna rents property there for his business. That disqualified them, but also left the council one member short of a quorum.
City Attorney Lori Barker explained that the Political Reform Act permitted randomly selecting one of them to participate. Each picked a sealed envelope containing a folded sheet of light-blue paper; Bertagna unfolded the one with an X, so he became the fourth deliberator.
And, it turned out, the lone dissenter.
The bulk of the neighborhood plan drew unanimous praise. At issue was The Esplanade. The Planning Commission, in its approval, recommended removing the boulevard from the plan—prime reason being it’s a major thoroughfare stretching beyond neighborhood boundaries.
Davis seconded this notion, as did some other speakers. Bertagna agreed, declaring that “to even consider piecemealing something as important as The Esplanade is mind-boggling to me.”
City staff, however, recommended the plan as originally drawn. Neighbors stepped forward to share how much they know and have learned about their signature roadway. “To say we can’t have ideas on making The Esplanade more attractive to all motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians is a fallacy,” Molly Amick told the quorum, and Nancy Ostrom said taking out The Esplanade “would rape our neighborhood plan.”
Scott Gruendl noted that “while I appreciate Fred’s concerns, at the same time I really do see this as a plan.” So while it has specific proposals and even first-year action items, it’s really just “a place to start … a platform for future discussions.” Indeed, as dais neighbor Tom Nickell noted, any significant changes—including projects—would need City Council review.
That’s the realm where the Fogarty suit reared its ghostly head. In talk of funding neighborhood improvements, Bertagna spoke of “potentially millions and millions of liability out there yet to be accounted for.” That followed his “full disclosure” that “I don’t believe for a moment given the fiscal impacts in the downturn of the economy that there’s a snowball’s chance of us funding the $7.5 million people [in the Avenues] may be expecting.”
Gruendl responded that, based on Finance Committee discussions on redevelopment, “there’s no doubt in my mind there will be money for the neighborhood.”
After the 3-1 vote, neighbors in attendance applauded.
The Mechoopda discussion rounded out the night. Up for consideration was the Internal Affairs Committee’s report regarding the tribe’s request for proposals from local municipalities to provide public safety services at the casino slated for the intersection of highways 99 and 149.
The Mechoopda have spent a decade enmeshed in the federal entitlement process to get the land, purchased by a Nevada gaming company, taken into trust on their behalf. The Butte County Board of Supervisors vehemently objects to the location, going so far as to lobby Washington and, just last month, suing to stop the project.
Nearly two years ago, when the tribe inquired about the city providing police and fire protection, two supervisors (Curt Josiassen and the late Mary Anne Houx) came before the council and sharply requested that Chico not do so. Entering into such an agreement, they said, would strengthen the bid for federal approval.
Since then, the National Indian Gaming Commission has issued a FONSI (finding of no significant impact), clearing away a major hurdle. The tribe now has entered negotiations with the state to secure a compact with the governor. A memorandum of understanding with the city would be a big asset; an RFP accepted by the Mechoopda would be beneficial, too.
Practicalities, rather than political maneuvers, prompted Internal Affairs and City Manager Dave Burkland to oppose a service contract. The property sits seven miles south of the city’s sphere of influence and 11 miles from Chico police headquarters. “It’s not part of our core mission,” Burkland said, and considering the city budget deficit, “it’s not the time to expand to something new.”
Councilmembers couldn’t help from turning the discussion to the overarching debate surrounding the proposed casino. Several times, Holcombe reminded them of the matter at hand: whether to approve Internal Affairs’ recommendation not to submit an RFP by the tribe’s April 25 deadline.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached. Knight, tribal vice chairwoman, said the Mechoopda would suspend the deadline indefinitely since the city seemed eager to learn more before deciding. Thus, Wahl made a motion to table the matter, instruct Burkland to have further discussions with the tribe and have Internal Affairs consider the new findings.
It passed 6-1, with Nickell dissenting. The meeting ended at 11:40, and by 11:41, Knight and Burkland—both smiling—were engaged in cordial conversation.