Down to two

City Council needs more time to decide who should fill a vacancy

Who is Sor Lo?

Chico City Council members will contemplate that question for the next couple of weeks, until their next scheduled meeting on Feb. 1. That’s just two days shy of the deadline for the panel to appoint someone to fill its vacant post, and Lo, who to some members came out of nowhere, is a frontrunner.

The local Hmong-American resident was among the 20 Chico residents seeking the appointment. Tuesday evening (Jan. 18), after several rounds of voting, the council whittled down the candidates to two: Lo and Bob Evans, the retired longtime businessman who was beaten by a slim margin (128 votes) in November for a seat on the dais.

But that’s where they hit a wall. The panel of six was split evenly between Lo and Evans, with no signs of budging.

“I could consider Sor Lo,” said Councilman Jim Walker, “but I don’t think I could make an educated decision tonight.”

Walker’s statement came at the end of more than three hours of testimony related to the issue. First up, the council members talked about what they were looking for in a candidate. Second, the applicants spent five minutes apiece selling themselves to the council. Then, the public weighed in. Afterward, the council began voting by ballot, and during that process, as is customary with the panel during controversial decisions, its members rationalized their decisions.

A large, standing-room-only crowd had gathered in City Council chambers, and many of them were wearing “What about Bob?” buttons in support of Evans, who was the first applicant to speak at the podium. Evans largely talked about three of the biggest issues facing Chico: the budget, economy and jobs.

He was followed by a cast of well-qualified candidates. Lo, who works for Independent Living Services of Northern California and is originally from Laos, said one of his goals as a council member would be to create jobs by building partnerships between the public sector and businesses. He’s got a master’s degree from Chico State in political science and speaks four languages.

Lo is a member of the Chico Police Advisory Committee, but he’s not exactly well-known in the community.

The other applicants included several familiar faces, including Planning Commissioner Dave Kelley, former Assistant City Manager Bob Koch, activist Ali Sarsour, Stephanie Taber of the Tea Party, and former City Council candidates Mark Herrera, Bob Kromer and Brahama Sharma.

Kromer took to the podium and focused less on his qualifications and more on how the council should consider appointing someone only if she or he had gone through the rigors of a campaign, including the vetting through forums such as those sponsored by the League of Women Voters. He then went on to endorse Evans. He wasn’t the only applicant to do so. Ann Marie Robinson, a retired Butte College anthropology instructor, endorsed him, too. So did retiree Laurel Tower.

Evans’ strong contingent of pro-business supporters has clung to the fact that he was the fourth-highest vote-getter in the election. As such, they say he is deserving of the seat. Chico resident Karen Zinniel urged the panel not to ignore those constituents’ voices, asking what kind of message that would send to them.

Interestingly, a majority of the public speakers during the evening asked the panel to deliberate carefully, and not be pressured into appointing Evans. Retired Chico State professor Paul Friedlander encouraged council members to fill the seat with someone who would continue the visionary policies they had put into place. “Please don’t listen to the very loud and fractious voices of the past,” he said.

Former Planning Commissioner Irv Schiffman used an analogy to make his point. He asked whether Gov. Jerry Brown would appoint second-place finisher Carly Fiorina to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat should the senator’s post become vacant. “I doubt it,” said Schiffman, who was lobbying for Kelley.

Eight candidates remained after the council’s first round of voting. The list was quickly pared down to five. Then it started getting trickier—the panel voted the same way on the third round. Things got interesting on the fourth round when Mary Flynn moved her support from Tami Ritter, the former director of the Torres Community Shelter, to Evans. Just Evans, Lo and Koch remained at that point. One more round narrowed the field to Evans and Lo—and a stalemate.

The council subsequently voted 5-1 (Councilman Mark Sorensen dissenting) to table the issue until the next regular meeting. If a decision is not reached at that time, the issue will go to the voters in the form of a special election. Walker said he’d like the time to get to know Lo a little better. “I don’t know Sor Lo other than through this process,” he said.