Lights out

Plan to declare city curfews in cases of PG&E outages stalls—for now

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien proposed a city curfew during PG&E power outages that was met with public opposition on Tuesday (Aug. 6)

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien proposed a city curfew during PG&E power outages that was met with public opposition on Tuesday (Aug. 6)

CN&R File Photo

Police Chief Mike O’Brien painted an eerie picture at the City Council meeting on Tuesday (Aug. 6) of what the city could experience during its first widespread power outage dictated by PG&E: homes and businesses without functioning alarms, susceptible to looters; dark streetlights and limited to no cellphone availability, truncating communication not just for the public but also for emergency personnel.

He proposed the adoption of an emergency ordinance allowing the city to declare a nighttime curfew, which would prohibit people from loitering or gathering at—and traveling through—specific public property. There would be some exceptions that would allow folks to travel through such areas for work-related purposes, and a designated “convenience area,” such as a public park, in which folks would be allowed to gather.

After significant public dissent, council members came to a consensus to discuss how to respond to a prolonged blackout more broadly. Mayor Randall Stone will appoint an ad hoc committee to meet with O’Brien and Fire Chief Steve Standridge to listen to their concerns and bring ideas to the city’s Internal Affairs Committee and eventually the council for review.

O’Brien said that while he knew the proposal would be controversial, he viewed it as prudent and preventative.

“Cutting power to 112,000 people for up to a week causes me significant concern as to how we protect and serve our community,” he said during a presentation, adding that “that is unprecedented as to our emergency planning and response, and not planning is not a response.”

During the public comment period that followed, many in attendance balked at the proposal. Twenty speakers addressed the panel, and all either said the city should vet the issue further or spoke vehemently against what they saw as an infringement on individuals’ civil liberties. Service providers also voiced concern about how homeless folks would be impacted. The law would allow police to arrest or cite violators.

Others offered a contrasting image of the city during a power outage, of folks coming together, hosting events and sharing resources.

“We could work as a community and not be thinking in policing [terms], this horrible riot that we see in our darkest, draconian version of the future,” said Sascha Sarnoff. “We could be thinking in positive terms like, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a lot of frozen food that’s thawing out, let’s have a barbecue.’”

She described the proposal as “government overreach” and said it felt like “herding people into holding areas” if they otherwise have nowhere to go or just want to go outside.

Stone noted he did not anticipate seeing this subject come before the council as an emergency ordinance for adoption that same night, and that there were other factors to discuss before making a decision.

“You know who gets targeted in these things? People that are going to work. People of color, people of lower incomes. Unintentional,” Stone said. “The socioeconomics weigh in very, very heavily, and the nature of this emergency proposal shocked even me.”

Assistant City Attorney Andrew Jared said that while researching the topic his office did not find any other examples of such a local ordinance. It was drafted with a lot of input from O’Brien and took cues from state law that allows for a curfew during national disasters, he added.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab called it a “bold move” on O’Brien’s part, and thanked him for bringing the urgency of the issue to the council’s attention. She expressed interest in identifying which businesses and locations would be open due to access to backup generators, and how the council could advise folks to be prepared. Vice Mayor Alex Brown and Councilman Scott Huber also voiced support for neighborhood plans and preparation for outages.

Earlier that night, the council revisited its previous decision to pursue a requirement that landlords extend lease termination and eviction notices to 120 days. Apparently, the city can’t proceed. Jared said another charter city attempted to change noticing requirements in the 1980s and was shot down—if the city proceeded, it could be sued, he added. “The courts have determined it to be an issue of statewide concern and have fully occupied the field,” Jared told the CN&R.

More than a dozen speakers addressed the council on the item. Several were renters who shared eviction stories, and said they live in fear that their housing is never secure. Rain Scher has moved multiple times since the fire, in one instance because a landlord wanted to renovate a property and another in which a landlord’s family member needed a place to live. Scher briefly became homeless before being able to find another spot.

Several speakers emphasized the importance of getting renters to the table for future discussions on the issue. Real estate professionals and property owners also supported continued conversations.

“I think one thing that’s very disturbing is the shockingly little degree to where actual renters are consulted in this process,” Jeremy Markley said. “How about we have City Manager [Mark] Orme talk with an organization of renters?”

Orme said he met with the North Valley Property Owners’ Association and Sierra North Valley Realtors to understand and legally vet the proposal the organizations brought to the city when the issue was discussed last month (see “Displacements continue, Newslines, July 11).

The council opted to continue discussing how to provide relief to renters in Chico at an Internal Affairs Committee meeting and an upcoming city-hosted housing conference to conduct more research and gather more public input. This will include Schwab’s initial proposal of an eviction for good cause ordinance, which would make it tougher for landlords to kick out well-behaved tenants. There are similar ordinances in other California cities, such as San Francisco.