‘Make fast-breakers, not law-breakers’
Chicoans have grown to expect passionate pronouncements from Councilman Steve Bertagna. He’s served on the Chico City Council for 11 years, and in that time he’s developed a reputation for catchphrases and bluntness.
Usually, those come from the dais or a public-appearance podium. Tuesday (May 6), he turned a 180—literally—and addressed his colleagues as a citizen speaker.
At issue was the policy regarding basketball hoops in city streets. The Internal Affairs Committee received a complaint about the code and its enforcement, specifically at the cul-de-sac home of Dr. Peg Howard. The committee and city staff endorsed the status quo, but Howard, Bertagna and others pushed for specific standards that would keep roadways safe and kids playing—legally.
“Let’s make fast-breakers, not law-breakers,” Bertagna declared. That’s in effect what his compatriots decided to do. Unanimously, they instructed City Hall staff to follow the example of towns that allow basketball games on side streets—and, acceding to Councilman Scott Gruendl’s request, consider ways to apply such an ordinance to other forms of active play.
Bertagna participated in other key votes Tuesday night. From his chair on the right-most edge, he sided with the majority in reversing an earlier decision regarding Jessica Haggard’s property on Tradewinds Court, and went against the majority who supported prohibiting the use of city funds to buy single-serving water bottles.
When it came to the hoops hoopla, though, he didn’t feel he could deliberate objectively. “I feel so passionately about this, and it’s so much a part of who I am,” he said, “I’m going to speak as a parent.” With that, he left his seat and headed into the seating section of City Council Chambers.
Streetside basketball set-ups are far from rare in Chico. Drive a few blocks into any neighborhood, and you’re bound to see a portable standard by the curb. Code Enforcement officers just drive on past unless they notice unsafe conditions or receive a complaint.
The latter was the case for Howard, a chiropractor who lives and works in California Park. She moved onto Alameda Park Circle three years ago and put up a basket for kids to use. At the time, her homeowners’ association’s CC&Rs (covenants, codes and restrictions) did not prohibit this.
New board, new rules. Howard received a $100 fine. So she moved the hoop to the street. That prompted complaints to the city, a citation from Code Enforcement and another fine, also $100. So, in order to keep the basket, she’d either have to keep it on her driveway in defiance of CC&Rs or on the street in defiance of city code—thus her request to Internal Affairs.
None of the complaining neighbors came to the council meeting. The Park Circle Property Owners’ Association did draft a letter Tuesday; with such short lead time, it only got into the supplemental packets awaiting councilmembers in chambers.
Absent a compelling counterargument, and skeptical of the reasons Howard got cited, councilmembers chalked the matter up to a squabble. Mary Flynn—who drove through the neighborhood and thought, “This must be the wrong place; it’s almost serene to me"—said, “I don’t think this situation is just about a basketball standard, and I’d hate for us as a council to move forward on an action that would affect the whole community based on one circumstance.”
So the focus turned to the community, including points made by Bertagna.
Councilmembers should have known something was up when Bertagna was the first to pick up his briefing binder—something akin to an ice floe in Hades. He had submitted for their consideration an ordinance from Tualatin, Ore., which sanctions street basketball; sure enough, it was there.
He also dressed up—a red dress shirt and black slacks, not his usual Jimmy Buffet attire.
As he did during the Internal Affairs hearing, he disqualified himself and spoke as an audience member. “We’re not talking about anything except little kids playing legally on basketball hoops in front of their houses,” he began, dismissing the idea of an encroachment permit looked into by city staff. “We’re just asking for a simple set of guidelines.
“It’s not appropriate to allow us to stay with the status quo and tell children something is illegal and allow ’em to do it…. You all have said children come first. Now show it!”
Mayor Andy Holcombe reminded him of the three-minute time limit placed on citizens addressing the council. Bertagna went over, though not egregiously so. The politician side really emerged when Holcombe pondered safety; Bertagna answered that he wasn’t advocating play on East Avenue—"Where it’s a no-brainer, it’s a no-brainer.”
Ultimately, the deciding argument came from Gruendl, Glenn County’s public health director. “Obesity is a large issue, and obesity is an epidemic; I wonder [if] we’d be liable like McDonald’s for fattening our population” by putting a damper on exercise. He later added: “How we build our environment has become conducive to chronic diseases killing Americans.”
Ahead of the basketball matter, the council voted 6-1 to abandon utility easements on the merged lot at 5 Tradewinds Court. In October, on Larry Wahl’s motion, the council refused to do so, and that 4-3 decision resulted in a lawsuit.
Gruendl, Flynn and Ann Schwab voted differently Tuesday. Though they share neighbors’ concerns about merging two houses into a “superhouse,” they came to the conclusion that a using a technicality with dubious legal merit to block the project is not, in Gruendl’s words, “the means to do it.”
Wahl was the lone dissenter. He and Bertagna also voted no on the bottled water policy, which all five progressives approved.