Disc golf: It’s back! But wait …

Referendum and leaked memo mean controversy persists

After a series of contentious meetings on disc golf, particularly the City Council session in which the sport was banned from Upper Bidwell Park, Larry Wahl knew Tuesday night’s reconsideration of that decision had the prospect of confusion. So the third-term councilman sought to blaze a trail through the wilderness.

“I’m going to take the unusual but not unprecedented step of making a motion prior to the public hearing,” he said, and he laid out a proposal that would, to quote the name of the movement to which he lent his support, restore disc golf.

His motion (including the few slight modifications from the deliberation process):

• Keep the Highway 32 long course in its general vicinity, but with restoration preserving natural and historical features (e.g. wagon ruts) in accordance with the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan.

• Keep the Highway 32 short course for up to 18 months, until a new site is identified and developed.

• Have the council’s Internal Affairs Committee sort through the potential sites, counseled by a panel of stakeholders (e.g., “disc-golf enthusiasts” and the Chico Area Recreation District).

• Separate from this decision the issues of funding and the trailhead project.

• Review, in 48 months, the use and impacts of the long course.

Councilman Scott Gruendl, who voted against the “preservation option” precluding disc golf, seconded the motion—beating to the punch Andy Holcombe, architect of the Jan. 6 reconsideration.

The 18 speakers were divided on the issue—eight favoring disc golf in Upper Park, six opposing it, four with other concerns—but the council had found consensus. With a 7-0 vote, they approved Wahl’s plan, thereby overturning the 4-3 vote from Dec. 18 that prompted a referendum drive.

“We got from point A to point B without a lot of extraneous stuff thrown in,” Wahl said after the three-hour meeting, with two hours devoted to disc golf. “I think we’ve spent plenty of time on this subject [including the previous council and commission sessions]. It’s time to get business done.

“I was very pleased it was a 7-0 vote,” he added. “I frankly had no idea I’d have four …”

Neither did Vice Mayor Tom Nickell, though he expected a compromise measure of some sort to pass.

“The whole problem with the vote on the 18th was there was so much disruption and the focus was on what’s going on about you,” he said, referring to raucousness and outbursts. “No one was listening to compromises I brought out at the meeting—it was wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”

Gregg Payne, a leading advocate behind Restore Disc Golf, also said he felt the way the wind was blowing, though he, too, was pleasantly surprised by the unanimity.

“It’s a great solution,” he said, taking a few moments’ break from the post-vote gaiety. “We’ve been discussing that very solution now for weeks with a lot of council members and decision makers, and I sensed a lot of support for it.”

What it provides is an opportunity for disc golfers to do what they’ve wanted to do but couldn’t: maintain the courses and protect the parkland. “We have 10 years of not having permission to catch up on,” he said.

Two elephants remained in the room after the vote. The first was the referendum; the second was a confidential memo regarding the referendum that got leaked from a closed session.

During his remarks prefacing the deliberation, Holcombe stated multiple times that the referendum had nothing to do with disc golf. The petition signed by some 8,000 people (6,200 of which, proponents say, are registered Chico voters) calls for reversing the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan. Disc golf got decided separately, Holcombe argued, so throwing out the park plan wouldn’t throw out the disc-golf vote.

Tuesday night’s action may have taken away the Restore Disc Golf impetus for the referendum—but Holcombe, Nickell, Mayor Ann Schwab, City Manager Dave Burkland and City Attorney Lori Barker all said that the referendum continues to work its way through the certification process.

If certified, the council has two choices: throw out the master management plan or put it to a vote, the latter requiring a special election for which the cash-strapped city would have to pay.

Wahl has a different take. “I don’t think we have to have a referendum,” said the councilman, who gathered signatures for it. “What we did tonight will negate the need for it. Just because they get signatures doesn’t mean there has to be a referendum.

“If the city attorney recommends to the city clerk not to certify, it won’t come to the council, and the council can’t schedule a special election.”

That wrinkle comes straight from a closed-session memo prepared by Barker that got leaked to the Enterprise-Record, which ran a front-page story quoting it on the day of the council meeting (Jan. 6). The E-R interviewed Wahl for the story, and while Burkland, Barker and other council members wouldn’t discuss its contents, he expounded on what was made public.

That the cat got out of the bag was foremost on Schwab’s mind after the meeting. Glad as she was that consensus was found, she decried the leaking of “a confidential attorney-client communication"—the memo—and said, “That is the bigger story.”

Neither council members nor city administrators identified a suspect; Schwab simply honed in how “somebody that the community should trust violated that trust, and I think that is a very basic issue. I’m appalled.”

Holcombe, an attorney and former mayor, used the term “outrageous” and stated this is “not the first time it happened since I’ve been on the council. This harkens back to the Oak Valley memo,” which Nickell confirmed as involving litigation from developer Tom Fogarty. Added the vice mayor: “There were other times where information has been leaked to sources that’s been discussed solely in closed session.”

For now, the city is not mounting an investigation, but Nickell said the council is “looking at ways to prevent this from happening.”