Never a dull moment

Controversial issues top Election Day meeting

The Chico City Council dealt with some political hot potatoes during a sparsely attended regular Tuesday meeting Nov. 2. The rest of the city evidently had better things to do, such as keeping tabs on the results of the midterm elections.

Still, the council members, including candidates Mary Flynn and Scott Gruendl, somehow kept focused on the tasks at hand. However, few of the issues ended in resolution.

First off, they discussed a proposed municipal-code amendment to increase the costs of conservation measures required of residential homeowners prior to the sale of their properties. Back in April, based on a recommendation from the city’s Sustainability Task Force, a majority of the council directed the city attorney to raise the costs for single-family homes built prior to 1991 from $500 to $800, and from $300 to $560 per multifamily unit.

The changes to the existing code have been in the works for more than a year, and are intended to help the city meet its greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction goal. But several of the council members had questions about the language in the code, sparking a debate not only about its implementation, but also about its timing.

Councilman Larry Wahl has been against the proposed changes from the get-go.

“This is another glaring example of a nanny state,” he said.

Wahl was particularly concerned that owners who had complied with insulation upgrades (a priority measure under the proposed revisions) had only an 18-month window during which they would be exempted from having to perform additional conservation measures. Wahl said, given the current depressed housing market, that the council should extend the timeframe to 42 months.

His suggestion came toward the end of the discussion, after the panel heard from Steve Depa, president of the North Valley Property Owners Association. Depa was concerned over language asking for the installation of low-flow toilets and programmable thermostats. In the case of the thermostats, he said, the number of calls for service to the landlord would far outweigh the energy savings they might generate.

Mayor Ann Schwab acknowledged that toilet replacement could be extremely expensive, should flooring also need replacing.

Eventually, the panel agreed (in a split vote) to extend the 18-month grace period to 42 months. They also directed City Attorney Lori Barker to revise the ordinance to make the priorities clearer and to strengthen the wordage denoting that low-flow toilets and programmable thermostats be installed only when feasible. (The proposed amendment likely will head back to the council for approval on Nov. 16.)

Later in the meeting, the council dealt with Wahl’s request that the panel agendize a discussion on whether the city should consider contracting with an outside agency for the duties now performed by city firefighters. He brought up the issue “in the interest of efficiency, economy of city operations, and budget projections,” noting that a memorandum of understanding with the International Association of Firefighters requires the city to give three years’ notice if contracting out some services becomes a consideration.

Speakers on the issue included two Chico firefighters who, for obvious reasons, were against the idea. But there were other citizens who thought the issue should come forward.

Chicoans Ken Fleming and Juanita Sumner both said the issue warrants discussion. In fact, Sumner favored a much closer look at the agency. She called for greater transparency, especially as it relates to salaries. Some firefighters, she said, are getting paid double their salaries due to overtime pay.

“I think you guys have kept this away from the public discussion for too long,” she said.

Wahl’s request did not receive support from any of his colleagues, which effectively squashed it. (The elephant in the room is the fact that the city is currently in contract negotiations with its employee bargaining groups, and is seeking wage and benefits concessions to balance the city’s budget deficit.)

Another controversial item during the evening was Wahl’s request to bring forward discussion on the role of the Arts Commission when it comes to vetting certain city-funded art projects. One of the motivations for bringing the issue to the council includes the recent work on Manzanita Avenue, a capital-improvement project with significant artistic elements that the commission had no input on.

Assistant City Manager John Rucker noted that the commission and city staff are in the process of putting together a draft public-art policy manual and that the intention is to present it to the council.

But the work on the policy hasn’t been going smoothly, according to Arts Commissioner Ginny Crawford. She told the panel, for example, that an ad-hoc arts committee was given less than five days to comment on and edit a section on the so-called aesthetic treatments. Local artist Gregg Payne further noted that two commissioners have resigned in recent months.

Councilman Scott Gruendl suggested holding a joint meeting with the commission when the new arts policy does reach the council level. Meanwhile, City Manager Dave Burkland agreed that city staff would work on clarifying the panel’s role in its reports and communications to the council at an upcoming meeting.