Helpfulness vs. ‘chutzpah’

In its report on Butte County’s dismal land-use regulating and planning process, the 2004-05 county grand jury charges that “a triumvirate of chutzpah” is largely responsible for the mess. Chutzpah is the Yiddish word for “brazenness,” and it’s a good fit for the three men in question, the “development-at-any-cost” majority of the Board of Supervisors from 2001 through 2004.

This unholy trinity formed when Kim Yamaguchi took his seat as the Paradise-area supervisor, joining Oroville’s Bob Beeler and Richvale’s Curt Josiassen, two other supervisors who seemed also to believe that county planners and building officials were stalling the permitting process out of a desire to slow growth.

The process was indeed sometimes slow, but that was due more to the county’s diminished staffing levels, along with the complexity of state laws and regulations, than to any bias against growth. Nevertheless, the three amigos fired the perfectly competent director of the Department of Development Services, Tom Parilo, only to replace him with a succession of temporary directors. (They wanted to fire CAO John Blacklock, too, but he quit before they could do so.)

Then, in 2002, the board hired Yvonne Christopher as DDS director, despite her lack of qualifications (no bachelor’s degree and virtually no planning experience). Given marching orders to clear out “troublesome employees … and especially those who seemed to enjoy telling the customers ‘no,'” Christopher went to work. The result was the exodus of the most experienced workers as well as mounting pressure to mislabel projects to avoid fees and to speed up the approval process in the name of “customer service,” the grand jury states. Some supervisors, notably Josiassen, pressured employees directly on behalf of constituents.

Christopher has resigned effective Aug. 1. The county now has an opportunity to begin fixing the mess. Christopher has made a number of appointments and other changes in her final weeks that should be scrutinized. CAO Paul McIntosh needs to talk with the remaining employees in the department to find out who among the remaining leadership is respected and who is not, which changes are good and which are not. And he and the board need to find a director who is committed to crafting a professional department.

Most important, the supervisors need to keep their noses out of it. As long as they have firing power over department managers, any intervention in daily operations is manipulation, plain and simple. The supervisors’ job is to set policy and hire good people and let them do their jobs. We need less chutzpah and more helpfulness. Curt Josiassen, are you listening?