Clarity on the way

Audit may shed light on missteps that led to city’s financial woes

The most interesting news to come out of the city of Chico this week took place not within the City Council chambers, but in the lobby outside during a press conference called by Mayor Scott Gruendl Tuesday evening just prior to the council meeting.

There, flanked by five of his six council colleagues (Ann Schwab had an appointment elsewhere), Gruendl made a case for the community to come together—to join forces to address the financial woes facing the city. He cited a number of motivations in holding the gathering, including an unprecedented number of Public Records Act requests recently filed with the city by a couple of individuals seeking the minutes from old meetings (see “A matter of minutes,” Newslines, by Tom Gascoyne). Most of the information sought, he pointed out, is readily available on the city website, via the city’s video recordings.

Gruendl lamented how the staff members (the city clerk’s office) dealing with these public-records requests are the same folks attempting to catch up on preparing the minutes. Later, during the council meeting, City Clerk Deborah Presson noted that there is no legal deadline for preparing such documents. As of Tuesday’s council meeting, there was a backlog going back to January. And that’s not unusual, according to city staff.

Additionally, Gruendl spoke about the negativity directed toward City Manager Brian Nakamura, who took his post as the city’s top administrator one year ago this week.

To say it’s been a tough first year in that job is an understatement. As Gruendl alluded to, the city manager and city leaders have been threatened with bodily harm. A couple of those threats have come in the form of public commentary in the local media, including a “Tell It to the E-R” calling for administrators’ and City Council members’ heads to be placed on spikes in the new downtown roundabout. Why Chico Enterprise-Record Editor David Little hasn’t abandoned those anonymous comments—an embarrassment to journalism—mystifies me.

Gruendl said he was worried that the tools for democracy were being “used in a concerning way.” He also said the public needed to look forward. Doing so, he said, is more important than looking back and laying blame for the city’s financial straits.

But by far the most interesting thing Gruendl said started with a passing comment about how more info regarding the city’s financial situation would be forthcoming. When the CN&R asked what he was referring to, he said the city is conducting a financial audit that will include findings, in contrast to previous years in which there were no findings and the finances passed with an “unqualified, or clean, audit opinion,” as outside auditors put it. Gruendl didn’t go into too much detail, but the gist he gave is that previous approved audits had been predicated on the city’s plan to take certain actions. Those actions were not followed.

Gruendl may think the community needs to move forward, but that’s not going to happen until there’s a clearer picture of what missteps led to this financial meltdown, including who is ultimately responsible for it. That audit and the discussion about it may finally lead to the answers the public needs to move on.