Council candidates jockey for position

One candidate tries to leave the race—but there’s a hitch

First there were nine City Council candidates, then there were eight—sort of. That’s Chamber of Commerce CEO Jolene Francis standing behind them.

First there were nine City Council candidates, then there were eight—sort of. That’s Chamber of Commerce CEO Jolene Francis standing behind them.

Photo By robert speer

The race horses were barely out of the gate when one of them pulled up lame and hobbled off the track—metaphorically speaking, of course.

It happened Friday morning (Aug. 20) at the CARD Center, during the first Chico City Council candidates’ forum of the season, when Dave Donnan surprised everyone by announcing in his closing statement that he was dropping out and throwing his support to three other candidates.

It was a shockeroo, but it turns out Donnan’s decision may not have the result he intended. Legally, it’s too late for him to drop out, and his name will most likely appear on the Nov. 2 ballot and attract some votes.

How that will influence the outcome is yet to be seen. Right now the remaining candidates include the three like-minded conservatives endorsed by Donnan—retired business manager Bob Evans, retired businessman Bob Kromer and small-business owner (and third-time candidate) Mark Sorensen—and the two liberal incumbents in the race, Scott Gruendl, an agency head at Glenn County who is seeking his third term, and Mary Flynn, program administrator at CAVE, seeking her second term.

In addition, there are three wild-card candidates: Mark Herrera, a young sustainability activist and organic farmer; Brahama D. Sharma, a retired chemistry professor known for his frequent letters to the editor; and Quentin Colgan, who is in sales and also is a blogger but is perhaps best known locally as a political prankster. (It was he who organized the costumed Alice in Wonderland tea party as a counter-demonstration to the Tea Party gathering in City Plaza on April 15.)

Three seats are up for grabs (Councilman Tom Nickell is calling it quits after one term). One of the first duties of the new council will be to appoint someone to fill the seat of Councilman Larry Wahl, who is moving to the Butte County Board of Supervisors in January.

Friday’s forum was sponsored by the Chico Chamber of Commerce, so naturally there was an emphasis on business-related issues. Before the forum, in fact, the chamber had asked the candidates to respond to a questionnaire on such issues as the proposed West Park Avenue extension over Comanche Creek, downtown parking, balancing the city budget, increasing sales tax revenues and priorities for supporting local businesses. Their answers were printed up and handed out at the forum.

There isn’t room here to convey all those responses plus what the candidates said during the 90-minute event. Instead, here’s how they lined up on the major issues:

Business and jobs: The conservative candidates were unanimous in their conviction that the city wasn’t doing enough to create jobs. Worse, it was actually getting in the way. “Businesses want to go where they’re welcome,” Evans said, but “the city is not treating businesses with the dignity they should get …”

“We shouldn’t have a situation where it takes years to get a project approved,” Sorensen said.

Flynn and Gruendl mentioned the city’s new economic-development plan, available-land inventory and continued efforts to streamline the approval process. Both said the emphasis should be on nurturing local entrepreneurs and the quality of life that keeps them here.

Money’s tight and the city can’t do much, Colgan said, adding that he had some “outside-the-box” ideas on his website. Sharma said the city shouldn’t “create burdensome conditions for any business,” and Herrera said the city should foster local businesses.

City employee recompense: All of the candidates acknowledged that city employees make more on average than private-sector employees, and there was near consensus that wages and benefits need to be reset, perhaps via a two-tier system in which new hires are paid less.

By the same token, there was general acknowledgement that resetting union contracts is never easy.

Flynn noted that city staff has been reduced by 58 positions, and that many employees are being cross-trained to be able to do more than one job. “We’re much more nimble as an organization,” she said.

Sorensen said the situation “has gotten so far out of balance it’s indefensible,” blaming it on the method of setting salaries by comparing Chico to other cities. “Before you know it, you’re two or three hops from San Francisco.”

Only Gruendl challenged the premise of the question. “Why are we having a race to the bottom?” he asked. “Why not raise everybody’s wages?” The purchasing power of city employees benefits the whole community, he said.

Defunding the arts: The issue was whether, during tough budgetary times, the city should stop funding arts programs. Flynn and Gruendl pointed out that the funding had been cut across the board as part of the city’s deficit-reduction plan. Gruendl insisted that the arts are part of what attracts business to Chico, and Colgan said it was a “red-herring issue” since the arts comprise only 1 percent of the city budget.

Sorensen and Kromer favored cutting arts funding, while Sharma, Herrera and Colgan strongly opposed it. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Sharma said.

West Park Avenue extension: The issue is whether a bridge should be built over Comanche Creek to improve access to the Hegan Lane Business Park. Evans, Kromer, Sorensen and Flynn support the concept. Colgan says it’s not needed. Gruendl believes the whole area needs a closer look and that alternatives may exist. Herrera says the bridge is low priority, and Sharma is against it.

The candidates also discussed the recent proposal to switch City Council elections from November to June. See From This Corner on page 4 for more on that.