Other notable stories
The best of the rest of what made headlines in 2014
Obamacare rolls out
It’s no secret that, across the nation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s first open enrollment period for health insurance was marred by technical difficulties. Here at home, the story was much the same.
The county got off to a rocky start when its computer system’s connection with Covered California, the state health insurance exchange, was nonexistent at first and later unreliable. Eligibility workers turned to accepting old-fashioned paper applications.
But things smoothed out, for the most part, and about 6,800 Butte County residents signed up for health care insurance before the open enrollment deadline of March 31, according to data released by Covered California.
“It’s a pain in the ass for everybody,” said Bruce Jenkins, a local certified ACA adviser, during an interview with the CN&R in January. “But it’s a great thing. People finally have health insurance they can afford.”
Bye bye, bags
The idea of regulating the use of single-use plastic bags at certain Chico retail establishments goes back to a Sustainability Task Force meeting in 2011. Back then, just 19 jurisdictions in California had enacted such restrictions. The issue eventually came before the Chico City Council and got kicked down to the Internal Affairs Committee.
Conservatives on the panel, first Mark Sorensen and Bob Evans, and later Sorensen again, along with then-newcomer Sean Morgan, argued against what they considered a nanny law. Supporters maintained that most single-use plastic bags aren’t reused or recycled and end up clogging the landfill or, worse, enter the watershed and make their way to the ocean.
In May, the council voted along party lines to adopt the restrictions, joining more than 100 other California jurisdictions. The law will be phased in over time (Jan. 1 at major grocers and pharmacies; a year later for liquor and convenience stores). The state Legislature passed a similar bag ban about four months later. However, industry groups battling the pending law have gathered signatures in an attempt to force a referedum on the issue.
Butte College football fiasco
In May, Butte College was included on a list of schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for their handling of sexual assault cases. At Butte, this was because of a 2012 off-campus incident.
Then came the early-September revelation that the Butte College football team roster included Brandon Banks, one of four Vanderbilt University players accused of a 2013 gang rape. Banks was booted from Vanderbilt and facing aggravated rape and sexual battery charges when he suited up for the Roadrunners, but was cut from the team Sept. 9 as his legal status came to light. Butte College President Kimberly Perry promised an immediate review of the school’s athletic department practices and revision of the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct.
The Banks fiasco prompted the alleged victim of the 2012 incident to release details of her case through her lawyer, including that the alleged assault was committed by a football player. The attorney criticized Director of Student Services Al Renville for his handling of his client’s complaint, calling for Renville’s removal as the school’s Title IX officer—to whom students must report sexual assaults.
Banks’ trial is yet-unscheduled, and whatever change is afoot within Butte’s athletics department did not hinder the recruitment of Damariay Drew, a former UC Berkeley football player suspended for the 2014 season after being charged with felony assault.
Regulating the cultivation of medical marijuana has long been a hot topic in Butte County. Discussions of regulation came to a head in 2014, with the growers—those who want looser restrictions—taking on their opponents at the polls. Medical marijuana proponents successfully blocked the passage of amendments to the county ordinance regulating growing, arguing they made it too strict.
Conservatives backed Measure A on the November ballot, which limits garden sizes significantly (essentially the amended version of the original ordinance). The alternative was Measure B, which called for looser restrictions on garden size as well as a vote of the people to amend those rules. They duked it out with political mailers and signs around town, leading to plenty of confusion over which was which, but ultimately Measure A came out on top.
Chico State's a mess
This fall it became apparent that low morale, workplace dissatisfaction and distrust of administration are pervasive conditions among Chico State’s rank and file. In September, the Academic Senate passed a resolution asking the CSU Chancellor’s Office for outside review and, in November, a campus-wide survey revealed widespread distrust of administration, a perception of pay inequality and complaints of poor communication from officials in Kendall Hall.
As Chico State President Paul Zingg has acknowledged, major issues include the university’s inability to retain intuitional knowledge—it’s lost 164 tenure-track faculty members since 2009, and has hired back only 100—and compensation levels, as faculty and staff wages remained frozen since the worst of the Great Recession, while many administrator have enjoyed steady increases in salary.
Late in the year, the CSU Board of Trustees approved contracts with a handful of unions, including the California Faculty Association, but it remains to be seen whether employees will be mollified by their pay increases.
Council accused of open-meeting violations
In August, city government watchdog Jessica Allen sent a 22-page document to the City Council alleging violations of the state’s open-meeting law, also known as the Ralph M. Brown Act. Allen said the council had violated the law six times, mostly in connection to the July appointment of Mark Orme as city manager.
Mayor Scott Gruendl’s response on behalf of the council read: “To avoid unnecessary litigation and without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Chico City Council hereby reaffirms its unconditional commitment to continue to abide by the Ralph M. Brown Act.”
Allen’s attorney, Paul Boylan, provided this interpretation: “We didn’t do anything wrong, and we’ll continue doing things right.” Allen and Boylan said they weren’t accusing the council of nefarious deeds, but simply wanted the law followed.
In October, Allen filed suit against the city.
Urban forest assault
Trees were a hot topic in 2014, mostly due to a number of them being cut down in high-profile regions or in large numbers.
In late summer, four trees near the Rite Aid store along Mangrove Avenue were chopped down without the city’s consent. Tree defenders cried foul, charging that the trees were in the city right of way. That wasn’t the case. Still, city staff said the trees were part of a city-approved commercial development and that the property owner erred in not seeking the city’s permission.
In September, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission approved the request by a homeowners association to remove 25 Yarwood sycamore trees in the Mission Santa Fe Circle neighborhood. The trees were uplifting the sidewalks and creating a hazard, the homeowners association said. The commission approved the cut-down and the decision survived an appeal to the Chico City Council; the trees were felled a few weeks ago.
Furthermore, the lag in filing the urban forest manager position, which has been vacant for 18 months, and the lack of an Urban Forest Management Plan have the tree supporters up in arms, though the city says progress is being made on both fronts.
Don't mind that alarm
In May, a letter from now-retired Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle informed home and business owners that police would no longer respond to “unconfirmed automated alarms”—an alarm triggered but not confirmed as a real emergency by a security guard or camera—beginning on June 15.
Police officials said the change would make more efficient use of staff time, as the department responded to more than 3,000 false alarms in 2012 alone. The City Council discussed the issue at a meeting in October, when Lt. Mike O’Brien told the council the new policy effectively reduced the burden on police, and “criminals have not run wild.” Still, at the behest of businesses and homeowners concerned with security, the council explored different options.
The result was a new law that would hold alarm companies, rather than users, responsible for false alarms that prompt police response. The law, which still requires a second reading and final adoption, would be the first of its kind in California.
Marc Thompson's murder
On the evening of Sept. 3, the charred remains of a man were found in a burning car off of Highway 70, near the rural community of Mountain House. Several days later, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office announced that the body was that of Marc Thompson, a 25-year-old Chico State student, and that homicide was suspected.
Thompson was a burgeoning political activist who’d distinguished himself as a leader at Butte College and Chico State. At the latter, he served as commissioner for multicultural affairs, and was in his last semester before graduation.
Police haven’t announced any leads in Thompson’s murder. Nor have investigators shared information suggesting the crime was racially motivated, but the murder of a young black college student in rural Northern California has led many people to wonder. Friends, family, activist groups and members of the public have since established a memorial website, Justice for Marc Thompson (www.stirfryseminars.com/JusticeForMarc), and the Sheriff’s Office followed suit, launching www.buttecrimesolver.com and urging anyone with information to contact authorities.
Rapist cops a plea
Who could forget the case of Lonnie Scott Keith—the seemingly upstanding physician assistant, church-goer, father and husband—who, as it turns out, was drugging and raping college-age women in Chico? The details of the crimes—such as a secret compartment in his car to conceal syringes, zip ties, latex gloves and leg restraints—were chilling.
Keith was arrested back in January 2013, but it was this year, when we all expected a trial at Butte County Superior Court, that Keith pleaded guilty to one felony count of forceful rape and three felony counts of kidnapping. Keith had maintained his innocence up until the day—Aug. 28—he accepted the plea deal. He was sentenced to 28 years in state prison.
Goloff comes clean
Mary Goloff’s many absences from City Council meetings during her second term prompted speculation about her health and whether she’d be able to continue with her commitment as a council member through the end of 2014. Between May 2012 and April 2014, she missed 11 meetings.
In August 2013, Goloff resigned as mayor, citing medical reasons. Then, in the fall, she underwent hip surgery. In April 2014, returning to the dais after missing three consecutive meetings, Goloff announced that she’d sought treatment for addiction to prescription drugs. It was a bombshell for the public, but not for the local journalists who’d already been tipped off anonymously.
Deadly I-5 crash
Ten people were killed and nearly three dozen injured—most of them Los Angeles-area high school students bound for a tour of Humboldt State University—in a fiery head-on collision on Interstate 5 just outside of Orland in April.
Investigators are still unsure of what caused a southbound FedEx semi truck to veer across a grassy median into northbound traffic, colliding with the chartered bus carrying 46 people; both vehicles were enveloped in flames. The truck and bus drivers were killed instantly, as were seven others aboard the bus, and another died after being airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center. Emergency workers from Glenn and Tehama counties set up on-site triage centers, and 34 people were transported by air or ambulance to hospitals around the North State, including several to Chico’s Enloe Medical Center.
Arts funding dries up
No portion of the city budget took as big of a hit as funding for the arts in 2014. Funding support for community and arts organizations was slashed to $25,000, down from the $207,243 the previous year, and the City Council recently voted to cut the city-appointed Chico Arts Commission’s meeting schedule down from bi-monthly to twice per year.
Galleries, theaters and producers are now scrambling to find ways to make up the difference in their budgets. Recently, the nonprofit Chico Arts Foundation stepped in with the goals of fundraising and keeping arts in the spotlight, starting with an interactive public-art tour and raising money to repair and protect existing public-art works.
Sierra Nevada expands east
On Aug. 3, 2014, Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. celebrated the opening of its second brewing facility, in Mills River, N.C., with (what else?) a beer festival. The grand opening was the culmination of the seven-city Beer Camp Across America beer-festival tour, to which the pioneering brewery had invited all craft brewers in the country to join in celebrating the growth of craft beer in America.
In its 34-year history, Sierra Nevada had gone from maxing out at 13,000 barrels a year to 1 million barrels a year. Owner Ken Grossman pursued the expansion to alleviate the burden on the maxed-out Chico brewery and cut down on the costs and environmental impact of shipping across the country. In January, the new brewery started shipping beer, and by summer had already reached its current maximum production pace of 350,000 barrels a year.