Exit left, right and center
Three Chico City Council members bid adieu
Tuesday, Dec. 4, saw the exit of three Chico City Council members, two by choice and one by defeat on Election Day. Andy Holcombe served two four-year terms, including two years as mayor. Jim Walker goes out as the sitting vice mayor after a single four-year term. Bob Evans was appointed to his seat in January 2010 to replace Larry Wahl, who’d won a seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors.
The three men sat next to each other on the council, with Evans flanked by Holcombe to his left and Walker to his right. Politically speaking, Holcombe, an attorney, was a progressive, Walker, a physician’s assistant, was a moderate, and Evans, a retired businessman, was a conservative. Holcombe, however, helped Evans gain his seat by breaking a 3-3 council standoff to replace Wahl.
They each agreed to an exit interview that asked about lessons learned, proudest achievements, possible regrets and advice for the newest members of the council.
Holcombe said he discovered a number of things during his tenure.
“Be polite, always listen, be respectful and never assume you know everything,” he said. “I guess one of the surprises for me was how many people I encountered that from my perspective weren’t particularly respectful, didn’t listen well and did think they knew everything or how things should be done.”
He said he is proud of the fact that, in his run for re-election in 2008, he received the most votes.
“To me it signified people were appreciating my approach and how I went about doing my job,” he said. “In terms of the city as a whole, I think it was being a part of a team that weathered a very difficult economic storm and that has helped position the city to move forward in a truly positive way.”
“I honestly can’t say there are things I would have done differently, even though I undoubtedly made mistakes,” he said. “I truly believe I always made a strong effort to get all the facts, to understand the policy and make the best decision I could at the time based upon city policy. Sometimes you get it wrong, but I did the best I could.”
As for advice to the new council members, Holcombe kept it simple.
“Be humble and listen well,” he said.
Evans said he learned a couple of things about serving on the council that he didn’t expect.
“I’m amazed at the slowness that it takes to get anything done in the public sector,” he said. “Coming from a business world, I was surprised to find that it takes months to a year to get simple things done, things that should take no more than a matter of a week. It just seems to be a pace that everybody is used to.”
As for successes, Evans said he believes he helped shape current council policy.
“Obviously, when you are in a five-to-two [political] disadvantage on votes, you can’t expect many clear victories,” he said. “But I think I influenced the other council members on a variety of subjects, from how we name our replacements to the desire it seems the liberals have taken up to make our [budget] reserves a high priority and get them back up to a decent level. I can take credit for part of that by continually raising the issue.”
As for possible regrets, he pointed to his failed campaign for election.
“I don’t know what went wrong there,” he said, sounding somewhat dumbfounded. “As far as actually serving, I can’t think of any that jumps out at me right now. Obviously there is a learning curve that makes you less effective when you start. But then you start to learn more background about the city and why we are where we are and how to be effective on the council. I think everybody goes through that same process.”
As for advice, Evans said he hopes the liberal majority pays attention to finances and understands the state is no longer there to help.
“If we want to grow we need to help our local businesses,” he said. “I think there are strides being made in that direction, and that is one of the things I was proud of. The council has to realize, until we get some growth business-wise and get people employed, all these city programs just aren’t going to be funded.”
Before getting elected to the council Walker served 10 years on the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission and eight on the Chico Area Recreation and Park District board of directors. He said that experience helped prepare him for the council.
“To me it’s not about politics, it’s about public service,” he said “You have to be somewhat of a political animal to get involved, but it’s a public-service thing. I learned that it’s harder to forge compromise and get people to give up things in hard times. I was a little surprised at how hard it was to get unions to realize that they need to be part of the solution.”
Walker said he’s proud to have helped the city navigate tough economic times and continue to provide services.
“We didn’t have to lay off a whole lot of people, although there are 70 fewer city employees now than there were four years ago,” said Walker, who pointed out the downsizing came mostly via attrition. “But it’s been really challenging with the lack of revenue and the loss of the [redevelopment agency funding] and now with Measure J, it really puts us in a bind.”
Measure J was the attempt to protect the city’s phone-tax revenue by updating the Utility Users Tax ordinance to include cell phones, though the city had been collecting the tax on cell phones all along. The measure failed and as a result could cost the city in excess of $900,000 a year in revenue.
“That is my biggest regret,” Walker said. “I feel as though I should have gone out in front of Measure J as an outgoing council person who has a reputation of being pretty moderate. I didn’t get out and say, ‘This is something we need; it’s not going to increase taxes. It’s a change in the verbiage, and we need this revenue.’
“So the anti-tax people got what they wanted, and now we have to deal with that. I feel like I’m leaving this council in a much more precarious situation. That is the one that is going to linger with me because you think it is going to win, you think the logic is there.”
His advice to the new council members reflects his experience on the job.
“Consider it as public service instead of politics, and ask one another questions without being politically pointed or making an accusation,” he said. “Listen to what other people have to say. When you read the agenda, if you have questions ask the staff members before the meeting. That gives you time to let that clarification sink into your brain and makes it easier to change your mind if that’s what you need to do.”