Parking referendum recognized then shelved

The certification of a citizens’ referendum to rescind or put to vote the extension of meter-enforced parking hours to evenings and Saturdays was acknowledged and then put in limbo by the City Council this week, meaning at this point it’s as if the council never took action on the matter.

The extension of parking-meter enforcement from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and all day Saturday was adopted in May as a means of helping pay for construction of a multi-level parking structure to be located most likely at Second and Wall streets. The council voted a year ago to double parking meter rates, which didn’t go into effect until last month.

Both actions were taken to help issue a $10 million bond that will partially pay for the estimated $15 million to $18 million project.

Opponents of the structure figured nullifying the extension would cripple the scheme to pay for the project and possibly bring it to a halt. They could not fight the rate increase because the statute of limitations to qualify a referendum expired 30 days after the council voted for the increase.

After recognizing the certification, as deemed by the county elections clerk after verifying more than 4,000 valid signatures (3,865 were needed), the council could not agree to act on the referendum’s requirement, which is to either rescind their decision to extend or else put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

City Manager Tom Lando told the council that he saw any action on the issue premature in light of a community charrette, or public workshop scheduled for sometime in September.

Councilmember Steve Bertagna said he liked the idea of a charrette and noted that taking no action put off the matter indefinitely.

Lando later explained that there currently is no law dictating that a successful referendum must be acted upon within any prescribed time.

At this point, if the council chooses to put the matter to the voters, it would not qualify for the November ballot, when the governor holds his special election for a number of state issues. It would either be held as a mail-in election, special election or placed on next June’s ballot.

Councilmember Andy Holcombe asked if the council could in effect “do nothing forever?”

City Attorney David Frank answered that theoretically it could.

“The resolution [to extend the hours] is now in suspension,” Frank said. “The council doesn’t have the power to repeal [the referendum] outright.”

If the council rescinds the extension or if the voters defeat it, the matter may not be brought up again for one year from the date of the action.

Karl Ory, a former Chico mayor and now member of Friends of the Downtown, the group fighting the structure, said this was not just about the merits of the parking garage; it was also about respecting the wishes of the 4,000-plus people who signed the petition. He asked that one of the councilmembers add the matter to the Aug. 16 council agenda for public discussion.

But with Mayor Scott Gruendl on vacation and Councilmembers Anne Schwab and Larry Wahl conflicted out for financial reasons, the remaining four councilmembers were split. Vice Mayor Maureen Kirk and Holcombe voted to put it on the agenda, but Councilmembers Dan Herbert and Bertagna voted not to, urging the council to let the upcoming charrette work its magic.

Herbert accused the signature gatherers of “manipulating” the petition signers into thinking they were voting against the parking structure, not the extension of meter hours.

Parking garage opponent Dennis Latimer argued that there was no misrepresentation about the petition.

“No doubt those who signed it did not want a parking structure,” Latimer allowed.

Turning to City Attorney Frank, Latimer, who is also attorney, said, “The question is about the law. Is this petition accurate; is there anything wrong with it?”

Frank said he thought the referendum was legal.

Herbert was not swayed.

“There was a young man over by the post office saying [the referendum] would stop the parking structure,” Herbert said, insisting signers were led astray. “From what I understand, he was a paid signature-gatherer. And that’s manipulation.”

Kirk said the issue would be discussed again when Gruendl is back at the Aug. 16 meeting.