County candidates spar politely at forum

Even when they were criticizing each other, candidates for several county offices were all smiles at a political forum Jan. 31.

Candidates for sheriff, district attorney, county supervisor, assessor and county clerk all attended the event, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters. Chico’s City Council Chambers were standing room only for the forum, and while the candidates (taking turns) spent two hours addressing questions from the audience, they never got the chance to go more than skin deep on the issues.

The two-hour forum ended promptly at 9 p.m., and there was still a small stack of questions for several candidates that were never asked because of time constraints.

Still, the candidates were friendly enough and gamely addressed issues ranging from growth and sprawl (relating to the future of the open canyon space between Paradise and Chico), Measure B and redistricting (as in, who’s for and against the plan) to meadowfoam and fairy shrimp, medical marijuana use, the county’s outdated General Plan, and the public trust in local government.

While the debate between sheriff’s candidates Scott Mackenzie and Perry Reniff was the most heated of all, even it was tepid—and short—compared to what it has been in the past. Reniff criticized incumbent Mackenzie’s expensive reliance on helicopters and grant money to eradicate marijuana from the hills around Butte County, saying that methamphetamine production is far more deadly and violent than illegal marijuana farms.

Reniff, a sheriff’s sergeant, said he would continue to find and eliminate marijuana farms but would emphasize meth eradication in his administration.

Supervisorial candidate John Merrifield, who is challenging Dist. 2 incumbent Jane Dolan, wasn’t shy about criticizing the county’s tough building laws designed to protect native species in the county, prompting a hushed chuckle in the audience.

“I personally wouldn’t protect [meadowfoam or fairy shrimp] at all,” he said in response to an audience question. “It’s amazing how we’ve come to a point where we protect these things over people and business. … You think a farmer in Brazil has time to worry about ecosystems?”

When asked about his stated support of redistricting Plan 5—which is set for a referendum vote on March 5—Chico City Councilman Steve Bertagna didn’t deny that he still supports the plan but creatively backed away from “the process that created it.” His opponent, incumbent Dist. 3 Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, helped organize the campaign against the plan, which would shuffle much of Chico’s urban voting blocs into the rural District 4, shifting much of Houx’s and Dolan’s support out from under them. More than 12,000 county voters signed referendum petitions to get the measure on the March ballot.

In a short exchange, district attorney candidate Dale Rasmussen said that “a large section of the population does fear” incumbent Mike Ramsey, which prompted a smile from Ramsey.

“If criminals fear me, so be it,” Ramsey said. “That only makes the law abiding public more safe.”

Rasmussen said that, if elected, he would be more lenient on minor drug offenses and emphasize the prosecution of the white-collar crimes that he said Ramsey has overlooked.

The debate between Assessor Ken Reimers and his challenger, Chris Baker, was short and relatively subdued, with Baker claiming that the department needs a new leader to “move on.”

Reimers, who was first elected to the position in 1994, said that Baker, who has worked for the department for five and one-half years, lacks the experience to manage it effectively, by six months.

"You really need at least six years," Reimers cautioned. "You have to work your way up through [the several levels] in the department, and that takes at least six years."