Media reps grill candidates
Back-to-back council, school board forums showcase choices
Woody Allen’s line that “80 percent of success is just showing up” got a lot of play Monday night (Oct. 6), when all eight candidates for the Chico City Council were present for a candidates forum, but only three of the five candidates for the Chico school board showed up for theirs.
The League of Women Voters sponsored the back-to-back forums, which featured questions from media reps (the E-R, the CN&R and KCHO) as well as audience members.
Four council seats are up for grabs. Three incumbents—Larry Wahl, a businessman; Ann Schwab, program manager at Community Action Volunteers in Education; and Andy Holcombe, an attorney and disabled-rights advocate—are seeking re-election. (Councilman Steve Bertagna decided not to run for a fourth term.)
The other candidates are Jim Walker, a physician’s assistant and member of the Park Commission; Ali Sarsour, a retail manager and chairman of the Human Resources Commission; Mark Sorensen, a business owner and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce; Joe Valente, a business owner seeking his first office; and Cynthia Van Auken, a housewife and retired teacher, also new to Chico politics but formerly a congressional candidate in Georgia.
Subjects ranging from historic preservation and the general plan to the Butte Humane Society were addressed, but the questions seemed to come back most often to finances and the city budget.
Earlier this year the council attacked a $6 million shortfall by making 7.5 percent cuts across the board, and the city is also renegotiating some employee contracts.
All the candidates seemed to agree that taxes shouldn’t be raised, but none had specific recommendations for further cuts, other than that “essential services” should be kept intact. Van Auken thought the average firefighter recompense of $167,000 was too high. Valente said public safety was the highest priority, and the others seemed to agree no further cuts should be made to police and fire. Wahl included libraries, roads and parks as essential services, as did Schwab.
Sorensen assailed the across-the-board cuts, saying they resulted from “analysis paralysis” and were “not very imaginative.” The council needs to ask city managers to find ways to reinvent the budget, he said, without cutting public services.
Holcombe said that was exactly what the city was doing with its long-term budgeting. Schwab pointed out that the city was being creative, citing the solar array on the water-treatment plant that saves the enough energy to pay for three firefighters annually.
Asked whether the generous multi-year raise given firefighters earlier this year was “a good deal,” Schwab and Holcombe said it was, given the information available at the time.
Sorensen attacked on this point, saying it was a bad decision. “The city has been stealing millions from road maintenance for eight years,” he said. “Revenues have risen 112 percent, while wages have gone up 160 percent.”
Holcombe retorted, “If we had a structural deficit eight years ago, where’s the one councilmember who was present at the time?”
He was referring to Wahl, who retorted: “For Andy to be critical of the budget eight years ago is hypocritical when he’s approved every spending increase in the last four years.” Wahl then acknowledged, though, that the firefighters’ raise had been approved unanimously.
The upshot? None of the candidates provided a quick answer to the budget problems … because there is no quick answer, and nobody wanted to put a particular program on the chopping block.
Liz Griffin, one of the five school-board candidates, said weeks ago that she would not be able to attend the forum because of prior family plans, but where was Dave Pollak? His name card was on the dais, but he was nowhere to be found.
Current board President Jann Reed showed up, as did Jjon Mohr and Zane Schreder, the other candidates competing for the two open seats on the CUSD Board of Trustees.
As short-handed as the forum was, it turned out to be quite lively, thanks mostly to Mohr, a burly, bearded man who seemed determined to shake things up. His big issue: Why were more than 25 administrators earning more than $100,000, and some nearly $200,000, when teachers are being laid off and students being affected?
“There’s money for salaries, but no money for kids,” he said, disgusted about actions defying campaign pledges. “If that happens to me, just shoot me.”
Again, the budget seemed to be topic No. 1, as the candidates argued over whether schools should have been closed and what caused the budget crunch.
Reed said the district was fine until the state started having budget problems, and suddenly it was facing an $8 million deficit. There was no choice but to shut the two small schools in Cohasset and Forest Ranch. “Closing schools is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said.
Schreder, who is a school construction project manager, seemed most interested in the quality of school facilities, several times mentioning that CUSD’s should be better than they are. He also is a strong supporter of charter schools (his two children attend one) and said the district should be looking at creating more of them.
Asked what they would first address if they won, Schreder said he’d move the public-comment part of board meetings to the beginning, rather than the end, to get more community involvement. Reed said the district needed to get out of “negative certification” (by the county Office of Education) so it could borrow money and break out of its budget freeze. And Mohr commented that this budget freeze obviously “doesn’t include the high-paid administrators.” He said he’d be ready to accept the resignations of Superintendent Kelly Staley and Assistant Superintendents Bob Feaster and Jan Combes, though he hedged on Staley, acknowledging she’d been in office less than two years.