Fresh face on the dais

Chico City Council gets a new member at a weird meeting

Mark Sorensen’s first night as a member of the Chico City Council gave him a taste of the sometimes unpredictable politics of city government, and included an odd revelation by the councilman who was giving up his seat on the dais.

During the panel’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (Dec. 7), outgoing Vice Mayor Tom Nickell announced that he’d like to see the panel appoint conservative candidate Bob Evans to replace veteran Councilman Larry Wahl, who soon will be vacating his seat and taking up his new post on the Butte County Board of Supervisors.

Left-leaning Nickell suggested that by picking him the panel would be following the will of the community. (Evans was the fourth-highest vote getter in the race for three open seats last month.) He voiced his surprising suggestion during his parting words as a council member. That took place just moments after Mayor Ann Schwab and Chico State professor Mark Stemen recognized him for his four years of service to the community.

“Tom, you brought a lot of life to this council, and you’re going to be missed,” Schwab had said.

The next surprise followed the pomp and pageantry of the swearing-in process for Sorensen, along with re-elected Councilmembers Scott Gruendl and Mary Flynn. The new panel’s first order of business was to select a mayor and vice mayor, and to the surprise of many, Jim Walker, who several folks had pegged as the next mayor, instead nominated Schwab to serve as mayor for an additional two years. His motion was unanimously approved. Another unanimous vote made a vice mayor of Walker, who was nominated by Flynn. She was originally nominated for mayor by Walker, but declined the position.

The panel moved on to more serious matters during the four-hour meeting, such as consideration of a controversial program designed to decrease wintertime air pollution by restricting residential wood burning on days in which fine-particulate-matter levels exceed federal standards.

It’s been nearly two years since the issue has been on the panel’s radar. Back in February 2009, the council recommended that the Board of Governors of the Butte County Air Quality Management District institute a ban. It would apply only to old fireplaces and wood-burning devices not certified by the EPA. But a majority of the board, composed of 10 elected officials (city council members from various Butte County cities and county supervisors), failed to adopt the ban last fall.

Then, about a year ago, the council asked the Board of Supervisors to take up the issue for the unincorporated areas of the city. That hasn’t happened, and, according to a staff report, City Manager Dave Burkland learned from new county CAO Paul Hahn this fall that the county is not interested in addressing the issue at this time.

The few members of the public who cared to weigh in on the issue supported the ban.

Luke Anderson, one of its most vocal advocates, noted previous documentation of 20 local medical professionals who are in favor of an ordinance. He cited others, too, including Joel Schwartz, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, who says it’s likely the particulate levels found in Chico are killing people.

Anderson’s view was buoyed by a local respiratory therapist.

In addition, Gail Williams, a senior air-quality planner for BCAQMD, pointed out that 75 percent of Chico’s wintertime particulate matter is estimated to come from wood heaters. In previous meetings, she has explained that the district’s voluntary “check before you light” program had failed to reduce pollution.

This time around, she said people do seem to be catching on. Prompted by a question from Sorensen, she said both weather patterns and human activities appear to be helping the situation. In January 2007, a drought year, the district logged 17 days during which pollution levels exceeded federal standards. This year, just one day has risen to that level.

Still, Williams noted that there are instances when a whole neighborhood is smoked out by one resident’s burning.

It was immediately clear that some members of the council favored the ban. Schwab reminded the panel of the intent of the ordinance: “Our real goal is to have clean air for the city of Chico,” she said.

However, somewhat predictably, Councilman Wahl cited his mantra of keeping the city out of the homes of citizens.

“I think what we’re looking at here is another excuse to micro-manage our lives and our homes,” he said.

During his first vote on a controversial issue, Sorensen joined Wahl in casting the two dissenting votes in a motion to move forward with a ban. The issue will come back to the council next year, allowing city leaders and the public plenty of time to put something together by next winter.