Civil discourse

Council discusses respect in chambers; recall effort initiated for Randall Stone, Karl Ory

Councilman Karl Ory, left, and Mayor Randall Stone were served on Tuesday (May 21) with notices indicating a citizen effort to recall them from their seats on the Chico City Council.

Councilman Karl Ory, left, and Mayor Randall Stone were served on Tuesday (May 21) with notices indicating a citizen effort to recall them from their seats on the Chico City Council.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

The City Council could stand some improvement when it comes to exhibiting respect and civility. That was the general consensus at Tuesday’s (May 21) meeting, during which there was much discussion about the panel’s members needing to model better behavior toward one another and the general public.

Setting the backdrop for this discussion was an effort to recall Mayor Randall Stone and Councilman Karl Ory that was launched that evening by members of citizens group One Chico, who argue that the councilmen have misrepresented, disregarded and disrespected citizens.

Notably, when discussing management of public responses, members of the council, including former Mayors Sean Morgan and Ann Schwab, didn’t have a clear grasp of the sanctity of First Amendment rights. The panel was reminded repeatedly by Assistant City Attorney Andrew Jared that censorship of public commentary is legally dicey unless that speech is disruptive or includes threats or fighting words.

The most shocking exchange came when Morgan brought up a previous meeting during which a member of the public called Police Chief Mike O’Brien a white supremacist. He argued that was riot-inciting behavior and “there’s a point where a personal attack becomes so egregious someone should get punched in the mouth.”

Vice Mayor Alex Brown replied incredulously, but calmly: “You just made a comment about inciting riot behavior by being insulted by being called a white supremacist, and you said somebody deserved to be punched in the mouth?”

“If you call me a white supremacist, then yes,” Morgan replied.

Ultimately, the council came to a general consensus to be more respectful toward one another, but side-stepped any policy changes regarding public speech for the time being. Stone stood firm on his position, saying that it’s part of the job to hear all comments, no matter how “ridiculous” or untrue.

“I’m not going to shut off the mic on a person, because I can’t. It’s their First Amendment right,” he said. “I’m not going to restrict anything here … just because I’m uncomfortable with what they have to say.”

Jared did make it clear that the council could prohibit finger snapping (done frequently by attendees rather than clapping to show support) by arguing that it is disruptive and intimidating.

During a broader discussion on council meeting procedures, the panel decided to make two key changes come July in an effort to allow for more public comment and to end meetings earlier: Business from the floor will be shifted to the beginning of the meeting, just after the consent agenda, and the council will move up the start time by half an hour, to 5:30 p.m. The vote fell 4-2 regarding business from the floor: Brown argued that it would delay policy decisions, and Stone said it could encourage filibustering. All except Huber supported starting earlier. Ory, who left the meeting early due to illness, was absent.

Later in the meeting, during business from the floor—currently at the end of the agenda—the theme of civility emerged again, with the recall effort taking up the bulk of the discussion. Speakers were roughly split for and against.

Nichole Nava shared a statement from the group behind the recall, saying it is not because of political party or views, but “because both of the council members have summarily dismissed the repeatedly voiced concerns of citizens,” among other allegations, including fostering “public acrimony.”

While some speakers said it was myriad things that led them to this point, Nava specifically cited the handling of the city’s move to reject its inclusion in Assembly Bill 430 (the Camp Fire Housing Assistance Act), which exempts development from state environmental regulations.

In contrast, Jessica Giannola defended the councilmen, arguing that projects they’ve supported are intended to improve the city.

“The integrity of the city is threatened when we have groups that feel their voice is the only one that counts,” she said. “I feel that this attempt to recall intelligent and compassionate people is just another bullying tactic used to silence your voice.”

Ory told the CN&R he is “looking forward to serving my full term as I was elected to do” and that he’s “very disappointed in this distraction.”

Tuesday also marked the final round of budget presentations from city departments. Public Works shared a similar story to last year—an overworked staff deferring maintenance and projects due to lack of funding.

For example, Erik Gustafson, director of operations and maintenance, said the city fleet needs approximately $3 million worth of repairs, including the replacement of two fire engines. He was able to budget $600,000 for vehicle repairs citywide, which isn’t enough for even one of those engines. Two of the city’s fire stations need to be remodeled, which staff will begin in phases this year. Gustafson also plans to add four positions: a wastewater treatment plant office assistant and operator, a traffic signal technician, and a maintenance aid for the tree crew, the latter made possible by decreasing funds paid to outside contractors.

“Some of it is new money, absolutely,” he told the CN&R later. “But otherwise we’re doing everything we possibly can creatively to find funding.”

Also of note when it came to the budget: Staff is recommending shifting $350,000 per year from waste-hauling fees ($800,000) to the Police Department to fund a street crimes unit. In September 2017, the previous City Council voted to reserve those fees to repair the city’s roadways. Then, last October, the panel expressed an intention to fund the street crimes unit, floating the idea of drawing from the fees but ultimately postponing the decision until this year’s budget cycle.