Butte County’s mayors share what drives them—and drives them crazy
“All politics is local.”
—Thomas “Tip” O’Neill
Remember Mayor Pike of TV’s Mayberry? Just about the only image of a small-town mayor provided by popular culture is that dithering, roly-poly stuffed shirt who made Sheriff Andy’s job so much more difficult, even though he was, at bottom, decent and harmless. Played by character actor Dick Elliott, Mayor Pike set the mayoral bar pretty low—easily distracted, none-too-bright, eager to be liked, and serving a mostly ceremonial function.
I looked up the word “government” in a couple of the books of quotations I keep near my desk. The overwhelming majority of quotes I found were negative, from reformer Lincoln Steffens ("City government is of the people, by the rascals, for the rich") to English novelist Joyce Cary ("The only good government … is a bad one in a hell of a fright") to arch-conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater ("A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away").
Having loaded myself up with these and other negative opinions and images of local government, I went out and made contact with five mayors of five Butte County municipalities—four men and one woman who all seemed utterly committed to the communities they serve, and utterly unlike Mayor Pike of Mayberry.
For the sake of an interesting story, how much better it would have been if I had unearthed a cesspool of corruption, or found, one after another, duplicitous scoundrels who had wormed their way into the hearts of their communities in order to enrich themselves and make mischief.
How much more interesting the story you are reading would be if I had been able to pull the screen away to reveal a collusive network among these five mayors, all of them working in secret to turn Butte County into a wall-to-wall development that would come to look like L.A., all while they were busy taking kickbacks from big nonlocal developers whose only interest in these sleepy Northern California towns was pecuniary.
Fortunately for Biggs, Gridley, Oroville, Paradise and Chico, that is not the story I found, or the people I met. Nothing I heard or saw from any of these five stalwart pillars of their respective communities lent a particle of credence to such cynicism.
I talked to them over a period of a couple of weeks in conversations that provided evidence of just how mixed they are—in personality and in personal politics. Those conversations also revealed how much these five people have in common, how similar are the challenges they face.
If you’re a young person reading this piece, the population of Butte County will have more than doubled by the time you’re an old person. How that growth happens is at the exact center of those challenges, and at the heart of the jobs these mayors do.
John Busch, Biggs
John Busch has been the mayor of Biggs for four years. On the phone, he was a little wary. As a proud conservative, he’s not sure he’ll get a fair shake when he talks to a paper he considers antithetical to many of the ideas he holds dear.
When asked why he ran for mayor in the first place, he said:
“I’ve never refused to talk to your paper, but you have to understand that I can’t give you a truthful answer to that question without being political. I ran because I didn’t want a Democrat to gain the seat. It’s my mission to have as many conservatives on the council as possible. That’s one of the reasons I ran for mayor.”
But, as partisan as such a statement might sound, he added: “I’m adamant about limiting government control and taxes, but to not recognize or to look at somebody who’s registered to a different party as someone you can’t work with is just plain silly.”
He traces his fierce conservatism to the place he grew up. “I came from the northeastern corner of California,” he said, “from mining, lumbering, and lots of other activity that some of the people on the left would like to see disappear. It’s not about the environment; it’s about people having control over their own property.
“I manage to remain friends with people who have different political attitudes, including my own sister, but in my opinion, government has run amok, and I don’t believe things can be fixed with more government. Socialism has never worked anywhere, and it won’t work here.”
If his strongly held beliefs prompt disagreement, that doesn’t bother John Busch. “What bothers me more than angry constituents is apathetic constituents who don’t bother to come to the meetings. Most of the time, the town council is addressing a pathetically small number of people, and regardless of your political persuasion, that’s a shame.”
He added: “We’ve made a tremendous difference in the city of Biggs in the last four years. We’ve laid new sewer pipes and water lines, paved a large portion of our streets, with the help of our planner. The present council was able to take a dysfunctional public works department and help it become very effective….
“We hired a new city manager a year ago, unanimously. He was long on business experience, and our most pressing concern is staying in business as a city so we can actually serve people. The role of government is to serve people, not control them. Our objective is to keep the city of Biggs solvent, and to serve the 1,800 people who elected us. We want to bring Biggs back to life through carefully planned and directed growth.”
Mayor Busch stands strong on behalf of the rights of property owners to dispose of their property as they see fit. By the same token, “forced annexation is not my thing, unless all parties agree,” he said—plus, “you have to be careful not to just build rooftops. You need to encourage the kind of growth that can also create jobs.”
As an example of what he doesn’t want to see happen in Biggs, he points to his neighboring city.
“Just look at Gridley,” he said. “When I came to Gridley in 1968, every building in town was occupied by a thriving business. But now their downtown is a disaster because of the growth out along the highway. Lots of downtown businesses are gone.
“In terms of growth, if it happens for Biggs, it’s going to happen with the preservation of our town. We want to grow a city, not a string of places along a roadway. We are fortunate in Biggs, it’s a beautiful community, and we’d like to make it more beautiful.”
His future in local politics? “I probably won’t seek office in Biggs again. I’ve had my share of it.”
I asked all five mayors what they would ask their fellow mayors if they were conducting these interviews. Busch said he would want to know how they feel about growth, economic development, planning, and the role of government.
“I know them all,” he said, “so it’s hard to come up with generic questions. But I’d want to know how they intend, if they do intend, to keep government at a manageable size.”
Jerry Fichter, Gridley
Jerry Fichter has lived in Gridley since 1981, and her love for the place is apparent in just about every word she speaks. “It’s a great community,” she said, “a great place to raise kids. We’re folks here; everybody knows everybody, and one of the things we just did was the dedication of a lovely little park downtown. We get together, and we do things together.
“We have the highest percentage of growth in Butte County, but still and all, the people who have moved in are very pleased with what they’ve found here. They may come from places like L.A., but Gridley is just what they were looking for, and we work very hard to keep those qualities that make us what we are.”
She first set out to become mayor in 2006 because there was a threat to tear down a local landmark, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening.
“I got kidded,” she recalled, “and people said, ‘What’s your background?’ ‘What’s your platform?’ “What are your qualifications?'—and really I had no idea what it took to run for office. But I was motivated because they were going to tear down the Hazel Hotel, and that just sort of touched my heart. I hated the idea of seeing such a link to the past destroyed.”
So she ran, and she won, and the hotel was spared.
Those few brief clauses leave out a great deal of time and energy spent in the process. “We call her The Lady Hazel. It’s not a hotel any longer, but we have commercial space on the ground floor, and senior-citizen housing on the top floor.” Her voice swelled with pride at the accomplishment, while speaking of the hotel as though it were a much-loved personage.
Fichter is also proud of being a woman in a position only one other woman has held in Gridley over the past 105 years. “I’m a mother of eight, a grandmother of 15,” she said, “and when I ran for mayor, I told people, ‘After all that, I think I can do just about anything.’ And they said, ‘So you’re running on mom and apple pie,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I guess I am.’ “
When she moved to Gridley from Corning more than a quarter century ago, Fichter’s new neighbors told her that since she had not been born and raised in Gridley, she could never hope to be part of the community. “But that did not prove to be true at all,” she said. In addition to her work as mayor, she manages the Gridley Business Improvement District and is the co-owner of The Bath Shoppe, just down the street from the hotel that gave her the motivation to get so active in local politics. And, like most of the other mayors, she serves on a variety of committees.
“The entire town council began their service with little experience at this sort of thing,” she said, “but we’ve done our homework, we’ve educated ourselves, and we’ve put in the hours. Everything was new to us—land use, environmental-impact reports, all the various agencies and jurisdictions. There were a lot of questions from all of us about the impact of new growth.
“We were the first Gridley town council to deal with a new subdivision since 1965, if memory serves. We now have Heron Landing and Eagle Meadows, and they have some lovely homes. Our planner, Andrea Redeamonti, is the one who gets the credit for getting our general plan as far ahead as it is.”
When she chairs meetings of the Gridley Town Council, Mayor Fichter tries to keep things informal. “We get things done in a pleasant manner, and we do it with laughter and good spirits most of the time. Our city attorney, Brandt Bordsen, came up to me after one of the first meetings I chaired, and he said, ‘Your way of leadership is different from anything I’ve seen, but it certainly gets the job done.’
“Some people aren’t pleased with the outcomes of what we do sometimes, and I’m not always happy, either, but I try very hard—we all try very hard. In my time in office, there was only one time I used the gavel to quiet a person who simply couldn’t be pleased. But, if something can be changed that needs to be changed, we’ll revisit issues.”
Fichter likes the idea of getting all five Butte County mayors together periodically. “We get our news about what’s going on in the other towns from newspapers and other meetings. We see each other now and then, and we sometimes serve on the same boards and such, but we’re all so busy that we just never get a chance to talk about our common problems. We really should do that.”
Andy Holcombe, Chico
I met Andy Holcombe about a decade ago when he turned up in a night class I was teaching in a dingy classroom at Chico High, one of those “temporary” modular classrooms that somehow never turn out to be temporary at all. It was a class in writing fiction, a subject some cynics might think is a requirement for anyone planning to enter the political arena.
But one thing that surely isn’t fictional is how much Andy Holcombe loves the work of making things run at the level of city government. When I asked him how he can bear all those boring meetings, he seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “I don’t see them as boring at all,” he said. “What I like about being mayor is hearing all the voices, and trying to be sure that all those voices get heard and reflected in what the city does.”
For Holcombe, making sure all voices get heard is a defining characteristic of the mayor’s job, which he got when his City Council colleagues picked him unanimously in December 2006.
“As a councilmember,” he said, “you can push an agenda, but as mayor I think my role is to protect the sanctity of the process. The job of mayor is to listen, make sure people are heard, and allow people to know they’ve been heard even when the outcome may not go as they had hoped.”
It’s the give-and-take of the process that keeps things from getting stale.
“The meetings are just the surface of the exchange; there’s always a lot going on in the push and shove of people’s differing agendas,” Holcombe said. “There can never be full transparency in government because we can never really hear what underlies all that is spoken in public. If all the subtexts got aired, we’d never get to the end of the meetings.”
Holcombe thinks that some of the heat generated by local political decisions is based on misunderstandings that grow out of ignorance of how the system works.
“Lots of e-mails come in complaining about the huge salaries of councilmembers,” he said. “Well, councilmembers don’t get any salaries [just stipends of $600 per month, plus $50 for a cell phone and $30 per Redevelopment Agency meeting; the mayor gets an extra $120 a month].
Holcombe continued: “I got an e-mail that criticized me for a sewer fee hike, and said that if the city wasn’t wasting money on public art like the Hands sculpture, we wouldn’t need a sewer fee hike. When people write about decisions that were made 10 years ago to complain about their sewer bills going up, that represents a misunderstanding of how things work.
“Sewer and infrastructure is needed for our community to grow, and public art is integral to that growth, too—as an investment in the place we live. It’s all part of how we work as a city, and how we grow.”
Listening to all sides, and attempting to reconcile differences, keeps Holcombe’s job interesting. “I find it to be personally and intellectually engaging,” he said, “the whole panoply of people, from environmentalists to developers.
“On my billboard when I ran for City Council [in 2004], the slogan was ‘problem solver and consensus builder.’ I joke with friends that my re-election slogan [this year] should be ‘still solving problems, still building consensus.’ There are systematic problems that need solving, and if I can build consensus toward solving those problems, that would be a terrific legacy.”
The challenges to solving those problems and building that consensus are all tied to budgets, and on that front, the outlook is not good—not for the state of California, not for Chico, not for lots of other California towns and cities.
“One of the frustrations of this office is the constant need to fix this or fix that,” he said, “but funding is a pressing problem. It’s going to take an institutional change, kind of like changing the direction of an ocean liner; it’s a couple of degrees, but it’s a big turn to get you to where you want to go.
“It’s incumbent on us as a city council to take it slowly and judiciously, but people want immediacy. How we fund the city will require some changes, but those changes will play out over time.”
Holcombe, like his mayoral peers, has given much thought to the question of growth, and the conflicts embedded in that issue.
“Some might see me as a no-growth mayor, but I see myself as pro-growth, because growth is essential and inevitable. The question is where you grow and how you grow. A no-growth philosophy would kill a town, would suck the life out of it, but where we [progressives] sometimes disagree with conservatives is on questions over how we grow, and how that growth is paid for. Is that cost put on the developers, or on the backs of the community? We need a balance.
“Government has a role in facilitating growth that builds to our strengths, and our diversity. What’s special to me about Chico is its diversity—the diversity of ideas, demographics, opportunity.”
What would he ask the other mayors of Butte County? Given the tension between growth and the preservation of things people love in their communities, it was not surprising to hear his answer. “What I’d ask the other mayors,” he said, “is what can you do as mayor to protect and nurture what’s special in your community?”
He concluded the interview by saying: “I like being mayor, and I hope to be re-elected. It’s fun. There’s so much to learn, and I think public servants are sometimes only hitting their stride in the second or third term. When the fun goes out of it, I’ll stop.”
Steven Jernigan, Oroville
I can’t imagine the person who wouldn’t take a liking to Steve Jernigan. His friendliness isn’t forced or fabricated, isn’t the kind of backslapping and glad-handing so often on display when politicians turn up. He is at ease with people—even strangers with notepads who could readily be suspected of the kind of mischief strangers with notepads often create for people in the public eye.
I met him at the train station in Chico, down at Fifth and Cedar, just across from where he works. He’s the mayor of Oroville, and he’s lived in that town all of his life, but he commutes to Chico for his day job at Suter Dental Manufacturing—which is, in its way, a little paradigm for how connected we all are in this county, especially economically.
“Your question about what I’d ask the other mayors is a good one,” he said, “and it got me to thinking I should ask them if they’d be willing to get together once a year to discuss our common problems. Transportation is a big issue we could work on together. I’d love to ride a bus early in the morning. I’ve been commuting to Chico for 21 years, and the amount of traffic has really increased over that time.
He continued: “It’s exciting to be a public servant. I get goose bumps to this day when I think about the opportunity to serve the town where I was born and grew up. I think of myself as an ambassador for Oroville. Changing the city’s image is critical to the vitality of my community. I have a passion for public service. You have to have that; otherwise why bother?”
Jernigan is the father of eight children, so he was in the business of managing things long before he became mayor of Oroville in 2006. And perhaps his status as a father has helped motivate his dedication to public service.
“Much of what we do is for 20 years from now,” he said, “for our grandchildren. How do you balance the natural beauty with the growth? One proposed development in Oroville could increase the population by approximately 6,000 people. One development could increase population by 45 percent. Development on that scale creates a big impact on infrastructure—sewers, roads, schools, police. Coming up with solutions to provide those services is a challenge.”
He continued: “We have an abundance of blessings. We want to ensure that growth has the least amount of environmental impact on our community. How far up and out do you want to go? I don’t want to see the hills around here sprawling with houses. I want to see standards that preserve recreation.
“Growth, on the one hand, I know is coming, but, on the other hand, I want to preserve what we have.”
Jernigan, like his counterpart in Biggs, casts a wary eye on development in unincorporated areas of the county. “One of the ways to have smart growth is to plan for where you want open space. Growth should be contiguous with the city limits. Down south, you can’t even tell what town you’re in; they’ve all sprawled together.
“By 2050, Butte County will double in population, and smart growth is to plan for accommodating that growth without ruining what we have. We need to plan ahead so that growth doesn’t overrun a community. Can we do that? That’s the million-dollar question.
“It’s a humbling experience being mayor. Change is difficult, for a lot of us.”
Asked about the negative image Oroville has in the minds of so many county residents, Jernigan said: “I like to think of Oroville as the capital of Butte County, but I’ve been concerned about improving the image of Oroville for almost eight years. If you have a positive image, the investors will come, and we’re going to have the infrastructure and the businesses to go with that.
“I’m intent on working to ensure we have places to go that fuel the economy within my sphere of influence. We are a community, and unity is so vital to quality of life. Working together is key to the future, and the generations to come so they can enjoy the quality of life we’ve had. I’d like to build bridges and friendships one at a time in order to build a future for our children and grandchildren.
“We should not wait for catastrophe to unite us, but work together ahead of the curve. Through good annexation strategy, we can conserve our way of life, through good-quality planning for the future.”
Those thoughts are all pretty lofty, especially coming from a mayor who said, “I have my office at the kitchen counter,” and who added, “I really want to brag on my staff. We work together on solutions, and I couldn’t do it without the support I get. We all try to keep our minds open as things come before the council. If you’re listening, you can learn a whole lot more than when you’re talking.”
Alan White, Paradise
You don’t have to spend much time in Alan White’s presence to see how important fatherhood is to him, and how much being a parent factors into his work as mayor. When he recently was introduced by musician Norton Buffalo, a town resident who was hosting his second annual benefit concert at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, it surprised no one who knows Mayor White to see him bring his daughter, Sarah, on stage with him.
“I’m pretty basic,” White said. “I own Ace Rentals, an equipment-rental business in Paradise. I have two children [Matt just turned 13; Sarah, 10]. I am a very involved parent.”
White has served on the Paradise Town Council for nearly a dozen years and has been mayor twice, in 2001 and 2008. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Long Beach State, and he grew up in the Owens Valley.
On the ever-present issue of growth, he said, “Paradise has a different perspective from the other four cities. Paradise is topographically constrained; our abilities to grow are almost nonexistent. But down on the flat, the valley communities, compared to us, have almost unlimited growth potential, which is not necessarily a good thing. If I were asking the other mayors a question, I guess I’d ask how they’d handle that.”
He explained his commitment to serving in local government by saying: “I am a firm believer that you can’t complain if you’re not willing to try to do something about the situation. There are lots of ways to make contributions. I can’t be a coach, for instance, because I’d be too harsh. I do have a thick skin, and I thought that would serve me well in local politics.
“When I ran for Town Council for the first time, I wanted to run for the irrigation board. Someone wanted my father-in-law to run for Town Council; he didn’t want to do it, but he said he thought I should, and I didn’t hesitate.”
Like the other mayors interviewed, White enjoys the position. “There are certainly times when it’s frustrating,” he said, “but there are times when I really enjoy serving on the Town Council. The frustrating times are the meetings I go to confident I have a great plan to solve the problem at hand, and then find out my peers don’t agree with me.
“I’ve found that to be especially true lately because I’ve been on the council so much longer than any of the others. I see issues that are mistakes we’ve already made, and I see people proposing that we make those same mistakes all over again.”
Asked to tout the contributions he’s made while on the council, he answered: “My contributions are pretty specific. There’s the new Paradise Community Park, at the corner of Black Olive and Pearson, and we’ll break ground for Estes Park this summer, over on Buschman across from Eagleson Field. And there are plans for some traffic improvements that will make getting through town safer.”
Satisfactions of that kind offset the disgruntlement White sometimes hears from the people he serves.
“There’s a frustration constituents have because they have the perception that we’re spending money that could be spent for better purposes,” White said. “What they often don’t know is that lots of money comes with strings attached, and has to be spent for particular projects or in particular area.
“I’m a fiscal conservative. If I can’t get value for money, I’m not going to spend it just for the sake of spending it. I’m going to find a use that will benefit our community. If there’s a funding program to bring state or fed money into the community, I’m going to find ways to use it. As elected officials, there are conferences we can go to, and you wonder sometimes if it’s worth going, but one conference I went to led to a $350,000 grant.”
White believes he’s making a difference. “Four years ago,” he said, “my term was expiring and I had to decide if I wanted to run again or not. I wondered if the town was a better place than when I’d started.
“I was driving up the Skyway and I began to notice the look of things, the change in the look and feel of the business attitude along the stretch from Pearson Road to Beyond Fitness, and I saw things like the Boys and Girls Club and the Family Resources Center and Youth for Change, and I thought, ‘There have been some definite changes I think are for the better.’
“I have the patience to see things through, and so I decided I’d run again.”