Our big fat City Council race

Making sense of a huge—and hugely important—contest

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C hico City Council candidate Sean Morgan often uses the term “cultural change” to describe what he and other conservative candidates want to do—capture a majority of seats on the council and change its culture and course dramatically.

This year, after nearly a decade in the minority, they see an opportunity to take back majority control. Two of the three council progressives up for reelection, Jim Walker and Andy Holcombe, decided not to run, leaving Mayor Ann Schwab as the only liberal incumbent in the race and three unclaimed seats up for grabs.

If the conservatives win those three seats, the new council members will join fellow conservative Mark Sorensen to form a four-person majority. And if they manage also to oust Schwab and elect four conservatives, they will have the same 5-2 majority the progressives currently enjoy.

There are 11 candidates, a large number, and only two are familiar to most voters: Schwab, who has served two terms on the council, and appointed incumbent Bob Evans, whom the council selected in 2010 to fill out the two years remaining in former Councilman Larry Wahl’s term when he moved to the county Board of Supervisors. Voters who haven’t watched one of the several candidate forums may have a hard time distinguishing among them.

Here’s some information that could make it easier: Nine of the 11 candidates form roughly into two blocs, one of four progressives, the other of five conservatives. Another candidate, Dave Kelley, an architect and eight-year member of the city Planning Commission, proclaims himself the lone moderate in the race, and the remaining candidate, Lisa Duarte, a veterinary assistant, has a variety of positions that, taken together, defy categorization.

The five conservatives are Andrew Coolidge, a businessman who produces the annual Chico Home and Garden Show; Sean Morgan, a management instructor at Chico State University who also operates a small business with his wife; Dave Donnan, a real-estate agent; Toby Schindelbeck, who owns two sports-nutrition stores in Chico; and Evans, a retired business manager.

The four progressives are Schwab, who is program director for CAVE and co-owns a downtown bicycle shop; Tami Ritter, who’s headed up several social-service agencies, including the Torres Community Shelter and Habitat for Humanity; Kimberly Rudisill, a “semi-retired” substitute teacher who previously served a term on the council in the 1990s, when her last name was King; and Randall Stone, a financial manager and, with his brother, a builder of affordable housing.

Each of these candidates is unique, of course, and there are noticeable differences among them, even within their blocs. But the two blocs have fundamentally different visions of Chico and the work of the current council. It’s easier to understand this race if we understand what the terms “progressive” and “conservative” mean in this race and what the two blocs hope to accomplish, while remembering that the candidates ultimately are running as individuals.

There are two main issues that animate the conservatives and put them at odds with the liberals. One is what they insist is the need immediately to restore police and fire staffing, along with city reserves, to pre-recession levels.

Second, they want to restore public-safety positions by reallocating resources from other city departments and focusing on job creation in the community. The more people who have jobs, the more who are spending money, and thus more sales-tax revenue comes in with which the city can hire more cops and firefighters and build up the reserves.

The current council, they charge, has spent too much time and energy on such “feel-good” issues as whether to ban plastic carry-out bags and a “corporate personhood” resolution, has put the city in financial jeopardy by borrowing from some funds to prop up others, and has put citizens in jeopardy by cutting fire and police staffing.

In the meantime, the liberal majority has failed to do the kind of economic development that they say would bring jobs to town and bolster the economy.

“My whole goal,” Morgan said during the Oct. 15 League of Women Voters forum, “is to reorient the council so it’s no longer wasting staff time and there’s no time when they’re not talking economic development.”

The city’s permitting process and regulations make it hard to do business, the conservatives charge. “We need to change the sign to say the city is open for business,” Morgan said. Coolidge echoed him, saying “we must treat businesses like customers.”

Schindelbeck goes further, saying the city should attract businesses by offering them financial incentives—waiving environmental or development fees, or at least deferring them until the businesses get on their feet.

The conservatives had few good things to say about the city’s sustainability efforts, suggesting that in pursuing a green agenda the council was again taking its eye of the economic-development ball. Ditto the public-arts program and its director, whose salary could be better used to fund a police officer.

The progressives have a more holistic view of economic development. They believe that the economy can’t be approached separately from all the other services the city provides. The best economic-development plan in the world couldn’t make up for a lack of parks, poor schools and a shortage of cultural and recreational activities when it comes to attracting businesses, they say.

They see the city’s efforts to decrease energy use and foster sustainability, and its emphasis on such amenities as the arts, bike paths, parks and cultural diversity as business attractants, not distractions.

Besides, they argue, the city has not ignored economic development. Schwab cites its consistent effort to improve the city’s infrastructure—now hampered by the loss of redevelopment funds—as well as the council’s recent passage of an economic-development action plan. She mentions her regular meetings with the Mayor’s Business Advisory Committee, the city’s work with such business-development groups as 3CORE, the Center for Economic Development and Innovate North State, and the recent update of the city’s general plan as contributing to economic development.

On the issue of police and fire staffing, the progressives agree that restoring both departments to full strength should be a high priority, but they generally aren’t as willing to cut other city services as are their opponents.

And they too want to restore the reserves, but they know that will happen when the state economy improves, as it seems to be doing. The current council’s use of emergency reserves to balance the budget has been appropriate, they believe, because since the onset of the recession the city has been in an emergency situation, one compounded by the state’s appropriation of redevelopment and vehicle-license-fee revenues to help balance its budget. As it is, they point out, the city still has nearly $6 million in that reserve fund, half of the ideal amount of $12 million.

Dave Kelley has carefully positioned himself as the lone “moderate” in the race by refusing to take consistent—or, one might say, rigid—ideological positions. He tries to make “independent decisions,” he says. He cites his stint on the city Planning Commission, which includes three years as its chairman, his chairmanship of the General Plan Task Force, and his work as an architect as giving him the experience a successful council member should have.

Lisa Duarte has become the “mystery candidate” in this race. A promotion at work made her unable to attend candidate forums before this week, she explained in a phone interview. Also, her sample ballot statement, which she dug into savings to pay for, somehow failed to be included in the printed version.

She said she’s running because she wants to help people and make a difference in the community, and “how better than to be on the City Council?” She favors more funding for public safety, protecting the parks, programs for kids and “healthy human-pet relations.”

Asked what her qualifications are, she replied, “Mostly life, you know, balancing my own budget.” Duarte has raised no money and doesn’t intend to do so.

That makes her unique in the race, in which, as of Sept. 30, several candidates had raised more than $20,000. Four of the top five are conservatives: Morgan ($28,121), Evans ($26,665), Coolidge ($23,285) and Schindelbeck ($17,917).

The only progressive in the top five is Schwab, who raised $22,942. She is followed by Ritter ($13,811), Stone ($9,437) and Rudisill ($4,454).

Donnan, the remaining conservative, raised $5,065, while Kelley raised $7,321.

An examination of campaign reporting statements shows that in general the conservative candidates, with the exception of Donnan, received fewer but significantly larger donations than their liberal opponents. Donations to the progressives and Kelley, in contrast, tended to be more numerous but smaller in amount.