Pay to play

Council refuses to jettison its facility rental fees

Will the League of Women Voters be willing and able to pay to use Chico City Council chambers for its candidate forums? Not likely, and some council members think that’s a shame.

For that reason, among others, they sought at their Tuesday, July 5, meeting to reverse the council’s February vote to charge for use of the chambers. Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who has consistently opposed the fees, again argued that the city should be making its facilities available to groups like the LWV that provide a benefit to the community.

“There are few buildings for our community to really come together and discuss the issues,” she said.

The city charges $137 per hour for use of council chambers, along with certain ancillary fees, and $150 per hour for the auditorium in the Old Municipal Building.

At issue was an element that City Attorney Vincent Ewing added to the ordinance giving the city manager the option to waive the fees for certain nonprofit public-service groups.

Loretta Torres, who is a candidate for the City Council, argued on behalf of the LWV, saying the group provides an important service not only for those who attend the forums, but also those who watch the televised events from home.

Councilman Randall Stone pointed out that 44,000 Chicoans registered to vote in the June election, arguing that use of the council chambers for candidate forums would be “appropriate.”

Not so, countered Councilman Andrew Coolidge. Most cities don’t open their council chambers for political debate precisely because it is inappropriate.

Vice Mayor Sean Morgan said trying to decide public benefit is a “slippery slope.” Allowing free use of city facilities was costing the city money, which is why the council came up with a policy. “It’s still well below market cost.”

The biggest user of the chambers was the school board, which held its monthly meetings there. “Now, Chico Unified didn’t like [paying a fee] at all, and they left. OK,” Morgan shrugged.

Mayor Mark Sorensen noted that the school district has a fee policy for use of its own facilities, and “there are no waivers.” He agreed with Morgan about the difficulty of determining public benefit: “Just about everybody will say they provide a public benefit. Just ask them.”

The proposed changes failed, 3-4, with Stone, Schwab and Coucilwoman Tami Ritter in the minority.

The only other significant item on the council’s agenda involved three proposed changes to the City Charter.

One would simply eliminate an outdated provision mandating that the first council meeting in December of even-numbered years begin at 7:30 p.m.

The others had to do with the city’s ads in local newspapers. The more controversial one would allow the city to advertise its public-works projects on a free Web service called Public Purchase rather than in a newspaper.

Sorensen noted that contractors seeking to bid on public-works projects all subscribe to Public Purchase, so newspaper ads aren’t needed. Addressing the council, Jim Gleim, publisher of the Enterprise-Record and 10 other Northern California newspapers, countered that “there are far more people looking at the public-notice section than simply your vendors.”

The other would eliminate the requirement that the city put its newspaper legal notices and official advertisements out to bid. City Clerk Debbie Presson said there was no reason to do so.

Charter changes require voter approval. The council voted, 6-1, with Coolidge dissenting, to put the measures on the Nov. 8 ballot.