Dramatic exit

Polarizing topics at lengthy council meeting cause early dismissal

Erica Traverso, a longtime Justice for Desmond Phillips advocate, called on the city to defund its police department. As she spoke, others held up signs for safety, in protest.

Erica Traverso, a longtime Justice for Desmond Phillips advocate, called on the city to defund its police department. As she spoke, others held up signs for safety, in protest.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

There has been a palpable sense of fatigue in the Chico City Council chambers lately. Tuesday (April 16) was the panel’s fifth consecutive weekly meeting, and the last two clocked in at more than five hours due to packed agendas and polarizing topics with lengthy discussion.

It appeared to all come to a head with an early shutdown of Tuesday’s meeting, which featured discussions on the budget, housing and public safety. The meeting ended before closed session, just past midnight.

Most public speakers showed up to voice support of Assembly Bill 430, introduced by Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City. Also known as the Camp Fire Housing Assistance Act, the bill would streamline development throughout Butte County up to 2030.

Councilwoman Kasey Reynolds asked her colleagues to send to the state Legislature a letter of support for the bill, which she said would “allow building in Chico to happen as quickly as possible, so we can keep prices down and get people housed.”

Her liberal colleagues were apprehensive. Some noted that the final version of the bill has yet to be drafted. Councilwoman Ann Schwab called the proposed legislation an “overreach,” and added that rebuilding homes in Paradise should be the priority.

Reynolds replied by noting that some Chico-based employers have lost an estimated 7 percent to 15 percent of their workforce due to the Camp Fire, and the city has a responsibility to help displaced employees get housed.

Public speakers in favor of the bill echoed Reynolds’ points. “Either you want to help people in emergency housing situations and are willing to overlook environmental regulations to get it done, or you’re not,” Kami Denlay told the panel.

In contrast, those against it said they felt it was tailored in the interest of developers. Attorney Richard Harriman, who often represents environmental advocates, called it a “wide-open Trojan horse” exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act.

Ultimately, the discussion fizzled—a vote for staff to provide input on the bill’s language failed 3-4, with Schwab, Mayor Randall Stone, Vice Mayor Alex Brown and Councilman Karl Ory against.

Tuesday marked the first of several budget discussions for the 2019-20 fiscal year, as well.

Though the city should remain solvent the next two years, Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell painted a bleak picture down the road. He estimates that city revenues will stagnate by 2022-23. At the same time, its debt to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (aka CalPERS) will grow. By 2020, the city’s annual payment will be nearly $10 million, and by 2025, nearly $13 million—it was around $6 million in 2017.

Either the city has to generate more revenue (e.g., pursue a tax increase) to the tune of at least $1.2 million, Dowell said, or “will have to do some major reductions.”

City Manager Mark Orme already noted in his opening comments to the council that all departments, aside from Chico Police, are at 2013 staffing levels—since then, PD has grown by approximately 14 positions (five are grant-funded) and received the lion’s share of the general fund. About $26 million is proposed for CPD in 2019-20.

The topic was one of the more popular that night, with eight speakers. During public comment on the item, Chicoan Mat Bacior approached the council stupefied. While everyone wants a safer city, continuing to direct more money to law enforcement staffing is “short-sighted,” he said.

“This city, the infrastructure is falling apart. It’s obvious,” he said. “I don’t think throwing more money at [public safety] is going to be the panacea we keep claiming it’s going to be.”

Following the budget discussion, the council took a step toward entertaining a sales tax. The panel provided direction to staff and consultant EMC Research for a voter survey. It will ask Chicoans if they’d pass a 1-cent sales tax to fund public safety and roads. The vote fell along party lines.

The council also decided to talk about public safety at a later date. Reynolds initially wanted to discuss the declaration of a public safety emergency, but her colleagues took issue with that classification. The vote fell 4-3, with Schwab, Brown and Stone against.

Also, final appointments to the Commercial Cannabis Citizen Advisory Committee were made: Jessica MacKenzie/cannabis expert; Mike Waltz/local business representative; Carrie Welch/real estate representative; and community members Danelle Campbell and Vincent Villegas. Brown was chosen as the council appointee in a vote along party lines. Chico State chose Juanita Mottley, Student Health Center director, as its appointee.

The most speakers of the night, about 24, showed up for business from the floor, which is when the meeting came to a halt. Many argued for the council to prioritize public safety and declare such an emergency. Ashley Atkinson mentioned a rash of recent robberies and said citizens are “living in fear.”

Others, like Erica Traverso, a longtime Justice for Desmond Phillips advocate, called on the city to defund its police department, which she called “poorly trained [and] overly aggressive.”

Kat, also with Justice for Desmond Phillips, said people possess a “privileged state of mind” when calling for a crime-free city without addressing systemic issues with the police department, which she said “includes military-style defense tactics” and lacks de-escalation and implicit-bias training.

“The officers will murder again,” she said.

During her impassioned comments, Kat cursed multiple times, causing a stir. When fellow attendee Jaime Jin retorted something indecipherable from her seat, Stone asked her to not “disturb the hearings or we’ll ask you to leave.”

Jin stormed off, calling out, “You’re a joke!” Others joined her chant and exited the chambers. In the cacophony, Stone pounded his gavel and shut down the meeting. Several audience members lingered, a few yelling insults at one another, before being ushered out the doors.