Much ado about meals

Church’s longstanding fellowship with the needy at City Plaza come under fire

Orchard Church Pastor Jim Culp speaks during one of the church’s recent gatherings at City Plaza.

Orchard Church Pastor Jim Culp speaks during one of the church’s recent gatherings at City Plaza.

Photo By robby maloney

Chico’s City Plaza has been the site of a local church’s community-outreach ministry for years, but its gatherings there, which include breaking bread with members of the homeless and transient population, are now in jeopardy.

During the City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 15, one of the items on the agenda was discussion about the Orchard Church and its Church on the Street ministry. More specifically, the agenda called for the panel to consider Councilman Sean Morgan’s request to agendize a review of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission’s recent decision to approve a permit allowing the church to continue its Sunday-evening get-togethers at the plaza.

By the time of the meeting, however, a community member had filed an appeal of the commission’s decision, so rather than discussing whether to agendize a review, Morgan expounded on “a disturbing chain of events,” as he put it, leading to his request. In short, he described being blindsided by the commission’s decision. He’d learned about it from reading a story in the Chico Enterprise-Record last week.

“I was surprised by that headline … given the transient issues we’re faced with downtown,” he said.

Morgan went on to express shock that the council hadn’t been consulted over what he considered a “lightning-rod issue.” His decision to bring the issue to the council was intended to explain what had happened to members of the public, a number of whom had emailed and called him expressing anger over the permit being granted.

The freshman councilman then explained how City Manager Brian Nakamura asked if he wanted to agendize the issue, but that he later learned through city staff that the council could neither place a review on the agenda nor appeal the commission’s decision.

“My knee-jerk reaction to that was, ‘That’s insane,’ because the council is the governing body that gives authority to the commission,” he said. “So I just thought, so if the commission can usurp the power of the council, maybe we need to look at suspending all the commissions, because this isn’t democracy.”

Morgan said he subsequently found out that a private citizen could appeal the decision. He then decided to file an appeal himself, only to find out that doing so would mean he would have to recuse himself when the council discusses the issue.

“And I’m just going, OK, I [now] understand all of the jokes about government and how none of this process works—at all. And to be quite honest, I was appalled,” Morgan said.

Long story short, one of the citizens upset about the church’s gatherings—local businessman Wayne Cook—filed an appeal. That appeal, according to City Clerk Deborah Presson, likely will occur during the last meeting in November. (As it turns out, Morgan noted, the city manager has the authority to agendize any decision by a commission, which explains how the issue appeared on Tuesday’s agenda.)

Morgan went on to say that he’d met with some members of Orchard Church, including its pastor, Jim Culp, who explained that the church had been feeding the needy at City Plaza for more than five years, and that only recently did he learn that a permit is required.

Toward the end of his self-described monologue, Morgan claimed that the church didn’t actually receive a permit, but rather its application was approved with a recommendation that the permit be approved as well.

Because the council was taking no action on the item, Mayor Scott Gruendl decided to close the floor to public comment on the issue.

However, during a break in the meeting, Culp told the CN&R he’d jumped through a bunch of legal loopholes, including getting special certification from the Butte County Health Department. He said he believed the church had received a permit through the city.

Mark Herrera, a member of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, attended Tuesday’s meeting and confirmed that the commission had indeed given the church the requisite permit. That decision came out of a Sept. 30 meeting during which the panel’s seven members agreed by unanimous vote to allow the church’s events to continue for three months’ time.

Herrera said the commission routinely allows community groups to use parks for events. “We pass permits left and right,” he said.

He noted that all of the supporting documents related to the commission’s meeting, including the application from the church, were available for the City Council and the public to view prior to the commission’s meeting. Herrera said he’d attended one of the gatherings to gauge for himself what was happening there.

“It’s the most peaceful event I’ve seen at City Plaza,” he said.