Measure A, nasty politics and the leadership gap

Why Chico should switch to an elected mayor

WILL THE LEADERS PLEASE STAND UP? Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Dan Nguyen-Tan (slightly hidden), Rick Keene

WILL THE LEADERS PLEASE STAND UP? Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Dan Nguyen-Tan (slightly hidden), Rick Keene

Photo by Tom Angel

Two-timing mayors: The last Chico mayor to serve two terms in a row was Bob Thorne, from 1977 to 1981. Before him, Gordon Casamajor was mayor from 1967 to 1971, Harry McGowan from 1963 to 1967 and Ted Meriam for four terms, from 1949 to 1957.

The gentleman shown on the cover of this issue, Dan Herbert, would be the first to admit that most Chicoans don’t know he’s their mayor. A soft-spoken man of 47 who runs the Sheraton Real Estate Management firm, he’s been in office since the first of this year, when the six other members of the City Council elected him to the two-year position. “It probably won’t be until the end of my term before people begin to realize I’m mayor,” he jokes.

Being mayor wasn’t something he wanted to do, either. “Up until about two months before it happened,” he says, “I never thought about it.” When two other councilmembers felt him out about the job, he said he’d like to mull it over first.

Eventually Herbert decided that being mayor would be both an honor and a challenge, and he accepted the position. But he’s not interested in serving a second term, at least not right away. “I think at this point it would be nice for someone else to have the experience, too,” he says.

Herbert’s easygoing attitude toward the mayoralty is fairly typical. The position confers upon its holder some powers that other councilmembers don’t have, but it’s largely ceremonial in nature. The mayor runs council meetings and represents the city at public events but otherwise does not have great authority, compared to mayors in many other cities. The mayoralty is not a steppingstone for someone with political ambitions. Nor is it a job to be coveted, though naturally many councilmembers harbor a secret desire to enjoy the ego boost the job provides.

In Chico, which has a council­manager form of government, virtually all political power resides with the seven-member City Council as a whole. The council hires and oversees the city manager, a professional administrator—in this case Tom Lando—whose job is to run city government. The council also makes the policy and land-use decisions that determine the shape and nature of the city. Whoever controls the council controls Chico. And, in a city as divided as Chico is over growth and its related issues, the “rule of four” prevails: Whichever power bloc controls four seats controls the council.

Of the three principal mayoral models, Chico’s is the weakest. Many large cities—San Francisco is an example—have the so-called strong-mayor­council form, in which the mayor is an executive who actually runs city government, with all the hiring and budgeting power that entails. Historically this often has led to corruption, as these mayors have used patronage and other perks to solidify their power.

Early in the 20th century a reform movement emerged, and many cities opted to replace their strong mayors with a weak-mayor, council­manager form of government. In some weak-mayor cities, like Sacramento, the public at large elects the mayor. In others, like Chico, he or she is a councilmember elected by others on the council. This single difference seems to have a profound effect on what the mayor is expected to—and can—accomplish.

In Sacramento, the mayor at least has the potential, by virtue of his or her electoral mandate, to become what political scientist James H. Svara, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at North Carolina State University and an expert on this subject, calls a “facilitative leader.” This is a “weak” mayor who nevertheless can use his or her popular authority to improve communication among other community leaders, coordinate problem-solving efforts and provide guidance in the formation of policy.

Such facilitative leaders work by empowering others, not by overpowering them, as a traditional strong mayor might attempt to do, Svara argues. His book Facilitative Leadership in Local Government offers several examples of mayors of council­manager towns who, by virtue of their knowledge of the community, wide range of contacts and nonpartisan, collaborative, problem-solving approach accomplished a great deal.

In Chico, the mayor is much more limited in his or her ability to lead in this way. Because our mayor is elected by the council, not the voters, he or she lacks the recognition and intrinsic authority that come from having garnered a majority of the votes in a campaign. (As a councilmember, he or she needed only enough votes to be among the top three or four vote-getters, depending on the number of seats open, to win election.) In addition, each mayor tends to be seen as beholden to the majority “rule of four” bloc that selected him or her, usually from among the members of that very bloc. Herbert, who by all accounts is a good and fair person, can’t at this time escape being associated with the conservative majority led by Councilmember Rick Keene and, right or wrong, does not enjoy the trust of those who disagree with Keene’s approach.

Another thing: The reasons why someone is selected as mayor may have little to do with the person’s ability to be effective. He or she may be the only person in the dominant bloc willing to do the job or may be chosen as the person least likely to mess it up. In any event, the decision on who’s going to be mayor is usually made outside council chambers by the members in power and is a done deal by the time the council ratifies it.

Finally, because the position is for two years only, Chico’s mayor doesn’t have time to build the level of trust among parties needed to be effective. And the job itself, with its focus on ceremony, is limited compared to mayoralties elsewhere.

Political scientists will tell you that it’s the kind of system that works best in towns that are growing slowly, have few pressures on them, and operate with a high degree of consensus about what is best for the community. That’s a description that fits the Chico of 40 years ago but not the Chico of today.

What names do the words “Chico leader” bring to mind? Lately I’ve been asking this question of fellow Chicoans—friends, co-workers, acquaintances, even strangers on the street. Few people come up with a name. One woman, a 30-year resident of Chico, says, “Steve Bertagna—he’s mayor, right?”

“No, he was mayor, but no longer,” I reply. “Do you know who the current mayor is?”

“Can’t say I do,” the woman answers. She laughs embarrassedly.

“Don’t worry about it,” I tell her. “Most people don’t know who the mayor is.”

In fact, of the dozen or more people I interview, only three know that Dan Herbert is mayor. And few can name any past mayors.

What they all share, however, is surprise at what they see as a lack of identifiable political leaders in Chico. “I’d never thought about it before,” says one, “but you’re right: There are no strong leaders in Chico.”


Photo by Tom Angel

Compare this with, for example, San Francisco, where everyone knows the name Willie Brown. Or Oakland, where Jerry Brown is mayor. Or Sacramento, where the late Joe Serna was a highly visible mayor in a town full of political leaders.

Chico is no San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento—it lacks their money, their sizeable populations and, to a large degree, their complex problems. But it’s been growing fast for at least the past 25 or 30 years, and it’s taking on many of the characteristics, good and bad, of a real city.

To this point it’s done pretty well with its current form of government. By most nuts-and-bolts measures of such things—smooth streets, functioning sewer system, effective law enforcement and fire protection—Chico runs quite well, thank you.

But the lack of visible leadership, and in particular the lack of a mayor whom most people know and can identify, is starting to hurt Chico.

One sign of this is the increasingly fractious and polarized City Council. Another is the nasty nature of local elections. Anyone who has followed local politics closely in recent years has seen, and been dismayed by, its degeneration into often-vicious dogfights. Gone are the days when campaigns were high-road affairs in which candidates studiously ran on their qualifications and eschewed negative campaigning as undignified. Now candidates fight, and fight hard.

Sometimes they fight dirty, something that was unheard of 40 years ago. One City Council candidate, a genteel woman, is called a “baby killer” because she voted for funding family planning services at an agency that also provided abortions. Another, a single mother who put herself through law school, is called a “welfare queen” because she once accepted public assistance. Another candidate is called a “wife beater” because of a fracas he and a former girlfriend got into years earlier. Another, an independent-minded moderate who supports the arts, is called a “stooge of developers” because he received campaign financing from development interests.

At the same time, the public at large has become more pugnacious. You want to build a homeless shelter in my neighborhood? Over my dead body! Put affordable housing for low-income folk on my street? Fergiddaboutit!

People fight when the stakes are high, and the stakes are much higher in Chico now than they were in the slower 1940s and ‘50s. Greater Chico in the past quarter-century has more than doubled its population—and continues to grow at the same rate. Growth means jobs and profits and, for a few, great wealth. It also means problems—increased traffic, air pollution and noise, crowded schools, more crime and loss of natural environments.

That Chico is seriously polarized on the growth issue has been clear at least since 1988, the year of the vicious fight over the proposed Rancho Arroyo subdivision, but it was visible long before that. What has happened, however, is that after several nasty elections and years of often ill-tempered blaming-and-shaming by members of the City Council, the issue has fostered opposing political camps around which all-encompassing ideologies have developed.

In the new model of political competition in Chico, politics has become like warfare: The more you can demonize the enemy, the better your chance of victory. Thus developers, who build the homes we all live in, become “greedy profiteers,” and environmentalists, who are trying to protect nature, are “knee-jerk no-growthers.” Shades of gray give way to black and white. Compromise, the subtly crafted product of good politics, becomes increasingly difficult to reach.

The irony here is that most Chicoans, I believe, whether they work building houses or restoring riparian habitat, selling plumbing supplies or teaching environmental education, agree on two things. One is that, given the population increases occurring throughout California and the West, Chico is inevitably going to grow. The other is that every effort should be made to ensure that, as much as possible, growth enhances rather than hurts the quality of life here.

Why, then, doesn’t this translate more consistently into appropriate action on the City Council level? Why do we have so much bickering and name-calling? Why do we end up forced to have expensive special elections like last week’s vote on Measure A?

There are no simple answers to these questions. City government is a complex process, and Chico is an increasingly complex town. But it’s become clear that the lack of recognizable leadership, and particularly the absence of a mayor who serves as a focal point for communitywide debate and functions as a real community leader, has contributed to the problem.

To understand what an elected mayor might be able to accomplish, consider the case of Heather Fargo, the current mayor of Sacramento.

Like Dan Herbert, Fargo was a city councilmember. But she became mayor only after running full-scale campaigns in both the primary and November general elections. By the time she took office late last year, hers was a household name in Sacramento. Just about every Sacramentan knew who the mayor was.

In a June 4 article on how Fargo is doing as mayor, Sacramento Bee staff writer Tony Bizjak notes that in her six months in office she’s already helped solve two thorny but important problems, one a lawsuit that was tying up development in the Natomas area, the other a stand-off on how to redevelop the old Union Pacific rail yard downtown.

In the Natomas case, she used her credentials as a former neighborhood activist to coax environmentalists into settling their lawsuit, allowing development to go forward. And, Bizjak writes, “in a series of closed-door meetings, she got warring preservationists and transportation officials to lay down their arms long enough to sign a set of principles allowing the city to move forward on developing the downtown rail yards.”

This willingness, and ability, to get opposing groups to sit down and work out solutions is one of the attributes that distinguish Sacramento’s four-year elected mayor from Chico’s two-year appointed one.

Fargo is still new to her job and hasn’t yet faced any major crises, but what’s clear from Bizjak’s article is that other community leaders are looking to her to “proactively set an agenda for the city.” She is expected to be visionary, to articulate a possible future and to work to realize it.

Technically, Fargo does not have much more power than Dan Herbert has and is considered a “weak” mayor. She makes appointments to important boards and commissions, subject to council approval, but otherwise does pretty much what Herbert does: sets the agenda for and runs council meetings and represents the city at public and official functions. City Manager Bob Thomas runs city government.

And yet, because Fargo’s elected to a full four-year term, she’s expected to be the city’s principal political leader—to bring groups together, to work toward compromise, to articulate a direction and goals. To accomplish this, she’s provided with four full-time staff people, says her chief of staff, Chuck Dalldorf.


Photo by Tom Angel

Fargo’s elected predecessor, the late Joe Serna, was also a successful facilitative leader. A much respected educator, he was determined to use his public mandate to bring about change, says Sacramento-based political analyst Jock O’Connell.

Instead of butting heads with council members or the city manager, as a traditional “strong” mayor might do, Serna instead seized the initiative on an issue that transcended the usual political divisions of city hall—the city’s deplorable schools and dysfunctional school board.

As O’Connell writes in the January 2000 issue of Comstock’s business magazine, Serna, using his personal charisma and inherent authority, “commissioned a blue-ribbon group to analyze the under-performing district, then recruited a ‘reform’ slate of school board candidates. That slate won and has been credited with improving the district and winning back public confidence in the administration of the city’s schools. …”

The schools don’t even come under the aegis of the city, but Serna didn’t care. As he himself said, “You can’t have a great city without great schools.”

Let’s take an example much closer to home: the Otterson Drive bridge and extension project that Chico voters soundly rejected last week.

As City Councilmember Coleen Jarvis noted following Measure A’s defeat, one lesson to be learned by city leaders was, “If you want to make plans for traffic circulation, you’d better include the neighbors in the discussion.”

Later, in a phone conversation, she elaborates. Supporters of the project in the business community failed to solicit broad-based community participation in developing a traffic plan for southwest Chico, she says. With a sympathetic “rule of four” majority on the council, they plunged ahead with the piecemeal project they wanted, largely ignoring the neighbors of the Hegan Lane Business Park. As the election results show, the council majority’s willingness to pay for a park did not offset the absence of broad-based community participation.

Effective leadership, Jarvis says, could have foreseen the opposition and stepped in to work out a plan that was satisfactory for all parties. But it would have required someone who was not too closely allied with either side—someone, that is, who enjoyed broad-based community support. Someone like an elected mayor.

“Leadership was missing here,” she says. “The council majority just went ahead and did what it wanted.”

Polarization can occur in any community, and having an elected mayor won’t automatically stop it from happening. But if voters see polarization as a problem and elect a mayor who they think can bridge the divides, the community will have a powerful tool for solving problems before they get to the special-election or lawsuit stage.

All of this is not to suggest that Chico’s mayor doesn’t already have a substantial job to do, nor that he or she can’t exert considerable influence. A good mayor can set the tone and style of council meetings, moving them along efficiently and inhibiting squabbling among the councilmembers. He or she also can influence the shape of council agendas, has the power of appointment to council subcommittees, is the council’s principal liaison to city government, and represents the council and city in public situations.

Even though most people don’t know he’s mayor, Herbert says, he’s still putting in about 25 hours a week on the job. “I had no idea it was so time consuming,” he says.

He meets often with Lando, he says, and with city staffers “at least daily. A lot of it’s heads-up things, where they want the mayor to be aware of what’s going on.”

He says he’s not sure that making the mayor’s job an elected position would automatically eliminate conflict on the council, but he agrees that it’s a topic that’s worth discussing. “People don’t realize that there are other ways of doing it” that might work better, he explains.

In all, I talked with nearly a dozen people, including seven current and former city councilmembers (including four mayors), four political scientists who’ve studied the issue, former long-time Chico City Manager Fred Davis and the chief of staff to the mayor of Sacramento. With one notable and adamant exception (please see sidebar, “The dissenter"), all think that having an elected mayor in Chico is at least worth considering. And several believe it is essential to dealing with the city’s increasing problems as it grows.

Dan Herbert’s predecessor as mayor, Councilmember Steve Bertagna, says he agrees that an elected mayor would have greater visibility in the community and enjoy greater authority in the position. But he doesn’t agree that the conflict on the council is all bad. It’s unnecessary, he says, but not always counterproductive. Many good decisions have been made. “Look at the community we’ve got,” he says. “We’ve got a beautiful community.”

Former Councilmember Dave Guzzetti, who in 16 years in office never became mayor, says he could support having the position be an elected one. “An election would be an interesting process [for mayoral candidates] to go through,” he says.

He never really wanted to be mayor, he explains, because by its nature the position requires one to be more moderate, to move toward the middle and become “more of a mediator.” He didn’t want to give up his strong advocacy role, he says, and besides he “didn’t want to have to do all that ceremonial crap.”

For her part, Jarvis enthusiastically embraces the possibility of changing the mayor’s role. “I love the idea of exploring this,” she says. Switching to an elected mayor would require a change in the city’s charter, and she thinks the time is right to take a look at the entire charter, not just the mayor’s job. She’d like to see a youth commission established, and she also believes the age limit for council service should be lowered from 21 to 18.

Another former mayor, James Owens, has many thoughtful concerns about changing the mayoralty. He wonders, for example, whether Chico is ready for a more professional type of politician and whether voters are ready to pay the cost—in staff and compensation—of asking more of their mayor (please see sidebar, “What would it cost?"). And he worries that mayoral campaigns will be expensive and hotly contested, potentially giving more power to political-action committees and other moneyed interests.

On the other hand, he says, Chico’s population base has grown significantly and now needs more leadership than a seven-member council can provide. Besides, he adds, an elected four-year mayor would have a much stronger presence with other governmental agencies, including the state and federal governments and especially the county, and that could be a tremendous boon for the city.

“I guess, if given a choice, would I want to experiment with [an elected mayor]? The answer is yes, because the town is getting big enough to need stronger leadership.”

Steve Bertagna is right: Chico is a beautiful town, and the many dedicated members of the City Council in recent years have done their best to keep it that way, often with great success. But, as the Measure A election showed once again, the days when Chico enjoyed a consensus on where it was going and how to get there are long gone. It is a deeply divided community, and it needs to find a way to cultivate greater leadership.

Jock O’Connell may have put it best: "Having a more visible mayor is a fundamental requirement of any community that’s growing enough to shatter its old consensus."