Cops, poverty and appointments
After early drama, City Council discusses homelessness, police staffing
The Chico City Council’s agenda on Tuesday (Jan. 17) included discussions of homelessness and police staffing, issues almost guaranteed to get community members worked up. The council, however, was first thrown into a tizzy over a new procedure for appointing members of city commissions.
The panel started by voting via anonymous ballots to appoint both B.T. Chapman and Steve Breedlove to the Airport Commission. That used to be the process for appointing members of all city commissions, but under a new policy, council members made individual appointments to round out the parks, arts and planning commissions. Appointees for all 12 vacant seats would be approved en masse by a vote of the council (see infobox).
Councilman Mark Sorensen made a motion to accept the appointments, minus Councilman Karl Ory’s pick for the Bidwell Park & Playground Commission: Tom Barrett. Sorensen characterized Barrett, a former park commissioner, as a vitriolic environmentalist. “He’s one of two members of a city commission in the last 100 years, that I can think of, to receive a letter of censure from the council,” he said.
The motion threw the entire process into question and exposed the council’s political divide. “When we made this change to how boards and commissions were appointed, I understood that it was the responsibility of each council member to pick someone they thought would best represent the community,” said Councilwoman Ann Schwab. “If Tom Barrett is out of line, the onus is greater on Councilmember Ory to ensure that Mr. Barrett is a good representative.”
Fellow progressive Councilman Randall Stone also rallied behind Ory, calling the new process “a prostitution of the system.” Ory then asked Sorensen to “respect my appointment.”
The council’s conservative majority was unmoved. “My question,” said Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer, “is why do we even vote, if we have to vote ‘yes’ on everybody presented?”
The squabbling subsided and the council voted 4-3 down party lines to accept Sorensen’s motion and reject Barrett as a park commissioner. In his place, Ory nominated Aaron Harr, who was appointed unanimously.
The issue didn’t die there, however. Ory made a motion to agendize a discussion of the commission appointment process for a future meeting. That passed by a 5-to-2 vote, with Mayor Sean Morgan and Councilman Andrew Coolidge dissenting.
After that icy exchange, it fell on Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center, to warm up the room. She made a presentation as part of an ongoing discussion of homelessness requested by Fillmer.
Cootsona urged the council to consider homelessness as a “human, economic and community crisis” and identified how the city’s elected leaders can help.
Collecting comprehensive data on Chico’s homeless population is the starting point, she said. The council can support that effort by helping pay for a full-time coordinator for the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care, the agency responsible for allocating federal housing funding to local service providers and maintaining the county’s homeless management information system.
“Helping fund that position over three years would leverage city dollars so we could get state and federal funding,” Cootsona said. “We can’t get that money without staff energy and focus. In addition, that person would be charged with full integration of the data collection we [service providers] do day-to-day.”
Accurate data would “bust myths that continue to drive poor decision-making,” she added. “One of the questions we don’t agree on is: Are homeless people coming to Chico for services, or are they homegrown? The police have one perspective, and the service providers have another.”
The floor was opened for public comment, and 18 speakers suggested solutions ranging from tent cities to inclusionary zoning—i.e., mandating or encouraging new housing developments to make a certain percentage of units affordable for low-income residents.
Brad Montgomery, executive director of the Torres Community Shelter, provided the council with an update on the shelter’s new low-barrier program, Come as You Are. Historically, the shelter had been entirely dry, but in June it began offering a wet shelter program for homeless people who don’t meet the sobriety requirement. So far, the program has served 123 guests, 83 percent of whom have tested clean and moved to the sober side of the shelter.
“Regardless of political ideology, what we all want is people to move forward and lead self-sustaining lives,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing every day.”
Cootsona’s presentation was for educational purposes only, so the council wasn’t asked to take action, though it agreed to accept quarterly updates from local experts on homelessness.
Finally, the council was presented with a long-term staffing plan from Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien. His department currently has allocated positions for 92 sworn officers, but he’d like to have 105.
There’s an increasing demand for police services, he said. Last year, Chico PD responded to about 73,000 calls, roughly 5,000 more than the year before. And, aside from the partially staffed Target Team, the department doesn’t deploy proactive units to the streets, parks and schools.
“I’d much prefer, as your chief, to prevent and intercept crime before it happens,” he said. “That’s the best way to police.”
O’Brien emphasized that the plan would add officers incrementally as funds become available. His first priority is staffing a four-officer traffic unit, he said, adding that he’ll request money for those positions during the next budget cycle.
In a mostly symbolic move—they didn’t make a binding agreement— council members voted unanimously to support O’Brien’s staffing plan.