Exit stage left
After 12 years on City Council and two stints as mayor, Scott Gruendl gives up his seat
As increasingly grim poll updates came in on Election Day (Nov. 4), it hit home for Scott Gruendl—he would not be re-elected to the Chico City Council.
With three seats open and seven candidates, Gruendl finished in sixth place, ending his 12-year run on the council and his second term as mayor of Chico. On one hand, he lamented the panel losing its liberal majority. On the other, he said he felt liberated.
“When it was clear to me I wasn’t climbing in the results—I started at the bottom and remained there the entire evening—I was so relieved,” he said. “It was probably the best thing that could happen to me.”
The 52-year-old says he’s been stretched thin of late. With his respective duties as mayor, director of Glenn County’s Health and Human Services Agency, treasurer of the California Mental Health Services Authority in Glenn County, and part-time instructor at Chico State, “it got to the point where I wasn’t doing anything well anymore,” he admitted.
Even so, Gruendl said he felt it was important to defend his council seat despite previously stating he wouldn’t run for another term.
“We didn’t have enough [liberal] candidates, and I wasn’t going to just turn the seat over,” he said. “It was last-minute and I did a half-assed job of it. I raised half as much money as I normally would, and did not incur certain expenditures—no TV, no radio, no newspaper ads. So, it was pretty half-hearted, and where I finished reflected that.”
Councilwoman Ann Schwab, twice a former mayor herself, was taken aback by the election results, but said she was “honored” to have served with Gruendl for the last 10 years.
“I’ve always respected Scott very much as a community leader,” she said. “He was always there when somebody wanted him to represent the city.”
During an interview with the CN&R before the new council was sworn in on Tuesday (Dec. 2), Gruendl reflected on 20 years of public service—including eight years on the Planning Commission—and what he considers “the sun-setting of my political career.”
Gruendl was elected to the council in 2002, following a narrow loss to Larry Wahl in 2000. After serving on the Planning Commission, he’d developed a reputation as an extremely liberal and aggressive policymaker.
Upon first becoming mayor in 2005, Gruendl was among only a handful of openly gay mayors in the country and one of eight government leaders to share their HIV-positive status. He remained an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community for the entirety of his tenure on the council.
Gruendl believes his two stints as mayor—his second beginning in August 2013, after then-Mayor Mary Goloff unexpectedly stepped down—tempered his “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude.
“I saw my role as neutral from a party standpoint; more of a facilitator,” he said. “I think it’s important that the mayor not be too politically over-toned either way.
“I really did go from being this commie-liberal to more of a moderate, found myself voting with the minority conservatives on the council,” Gruendl said of his last term. “With Mary [Goloff] acting the same way, the council was more moderate, and I actually thought it was a better council—we were more reflective of the community overall and, more important, we were more conservative when we really had to be because of the financial situation.”
Indeed, much of Gruendl’s final term was colored by the general fund deficit facing the city, and some have laid blame for the city’s financial struggles squarely at his feet. For instance, leading up to the November election, a campaign mailer sponsored by the Butte County Awareness and Accountability Committee called on voters to “save the city of Chico” and “fire” Gruendl.
Yet, the city has made positive strides on that front. On June 30 of last year, financial statements reflected a net deficit of about $7.7 million—a $13.1 million deficit countered by emergency reserves of about $5.3 million. Now, the deficit has been trimmed to $2.8 million, and optimistic estimates have the city dissolving the deficit entirely within one or two years.
Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen credited Gruendl for doing “exactly what needed to be done” to address the city’s ongoing financial crisis.
“I’ve found him to be a very hard-working, diligent council member, especially starting in late 2011, when I started meeting with him about concerns of the city’s financial situation,” Sorensen said by phone.
Gruendl maintains that the council’s unanimous decision to hire Brian Nakamura as city manager—which prompted sweeping organizational changes and employee layoffs—“was the right thing to do.”
“We had incestual behavior in City Hall that was hurting us financially and organizationally,” he said. “We had to blow the lid off it. We busted administration, and there’s not one person left—all the key positions are filled by people with lots of experience from somewhere else.”
Some decisions do haunt Gruendl, such as voting against a proposal to expand Walmart in 2009. It’s not that he regrets the vote; it’s more that “some people just don’t let things go,” he said.
“You question your sanity when you have little old people saying you’re the spawn of Satan because they’ll forever have to pay more for milk.”
Gruendl hasn’t ruled out returning to politics in the future. If he does, he’ll go big—maybe a run at Congress, he said. (He made unsuccessful bids for Assembly and state Senate in 1998 and 2000, respectively.) Short of that, he may consider running for the Butte County Board of Supervisors, or moving to Glenn County and running there.
Of his accomplishments, he most values the impact the council’s decisions have made on the physical landscape of Chico—moving forward with the new City Plaza and Peregrine Point disc-golf course, maintaining the Greenline, and, in the near future, development of the Meriam Park subdivision.
But Gruendl won’t miss the abuse often hurled at him from members of the public.
“People say the position is thankless, and for the most part that’s true,” he said. “It’s easier for people to criticize than to praise. Somebody can stand at the podium and attack you, say really terrible things about you, and in the end they think it’s OK because, ‘Hey, it’s just politics.’
“That never really jived with me, but I will happily use that phrase now; I will enjoy being involved in politics from the outside.”