Ghost in the machine

As has been well documented in print, TV and radio, the state Legislature voted overwhelmingly April 16 to adopt a compromise workers’ compensation reform bill. Democrats opposed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s idea of workers’ comp—it tightens the workers’ belts rather than those of the insurance companies, they said. But in the end, facing the probable passage in the fall of an even less pleasant (in the Demos’ minds) insurance-industry-backed initiative, almost every legislator climbed on board the 95-page, 31,835-word bill that was crafted late into the evening of April 15 by 11 senators and 30 Assembly members and then approved in both houses by a combined vote of 110 to 6. One of those authors was Rick Keene, R-Chico. Not surprisingly, he is also listed as one of the 77 “yes” votes cast in the Assembly for the bill. But the fact is Keene was on a plane to Los Angeles to meet with the governor when the vote was taken. Keene’s vote was actually cast by fellow Assembly member Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City. It’s called a “ghost vote,” and it is technically illegal.

“I had to leave to go to L.A., and I forgot to tell Tim,” Keene explained. The two assemblymen work together and cover each other if one is unavailable when a vote is taken. However, the missing Assembly member (MAM) must be in the Capitol Building at the time of the vote. There is a green carpet that runs from the Assembly floor into various rooms of the building, including the Speaker’s Office. If the MAM is in a committee meeting, for instance, or maybe using the restroom, the vote can be cast in absentia as long as the MAM has a toe on that carpet. Apparently Leslie thought Keene was indeed on the carpet when he cast the vote on his partner’s behalf. But then again, the vote is only to be cast if the MAM has requested the partner do so. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, since the bill carried with such a whopping majority. That’s just a glimpse into how the machine works.

The Chico City Council this week made a number of important decisions, from doubling parking meter rates and fines to placing city charter changes on the ballot in November, when voters can decide whether councilmembers should be paid up to $500 per month (right now they make $80 to $90) and if the legal minimum age to run for council should be lowered from 21 to 18. But perhaps the more important decision was on an issue pulled from the consent agenda that would have increased the minimum density for R2 (medium-density) zoned land from four units per acre to seven units per acre, thereby allowing the maximum number of units to double to 14 units per acre. That is what the General Plan adopted in 1994 called for, but a previous conservative council, led by Keene, lowered those densities under pressure from the building industry. Now the city is running out of land on which to build. Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan says he figures development on such property at the lower density equates to the loss of 683 living units between 1995 and 2002.

Right now there are 314 acres of undeveloped R2-zoned land in Chico. Total potential loss of units because of the lower density means 1,470 that will not be built, which is roughly equal to the number of homes once planned for the Bidwell Ranch project. These higher densities are not appalling; they don’t mean the construction of “the projects.” Chico’s older neighborhoods were built at about seven units per acre, and the town’s much-celebrated Doe Mill Neighborhood development runs at about 10 units per acre. But this week, Councilmember Steve Bertagna pulled the item from the consent agenda—those things normally thought uncontroversial (ha!) and passed collectively with a single vote—and with Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis and Scott Gruendl absent, the item was defeated by Bertagna, Larry Wahl and Dan Herbert. Listen to that: You can almost hear the city’s Greenline straining under the pressure.