People to watch in ‘02

Eight folks you should keep an eye on in the year ahead

At the beginning of each year the News & Review takes a look at some of the people in Chico and Butte County who its editorial staff believes are likely to be important newsmakers in the year ahead and therefore worthy of your attention. This year our nominees include a city councilman looking to step a rung up on the political ladder, an unconventional barrister hoping to unseat the longtime district attorney, and a county supervisor who enters his second season after turning the county on its ear in 2001.

Assembly required
Rick Keene

From where we sit, Chico City Councilmember Rick Keene is a shoo-in to be our next assemblyman. As a religious man, he of course displays a modest approach to his chances in the March primary against chief Republican opponent Dan Ostrander, who may have more money than Keene to toss into his own campaign.

“I would hope I can just keep up with him [financially],” Keene said a few weeks ago.

Keene, who’s been a city councilmember since he was elected in November 1993, concedes that as a politician he does enjoy the advantage of having better name recognition than Ostrander, a Butte College history instructor and real estate investor.

“It is hard to just walk in and create a name out of thin air,” Keene said.

Keene, who’s long been suspected of harboring political ambitions, said the idea of running for Assembly has “been in the back of my mind and I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. [Senator] Tim Leslie [R-Tahoe City] encouraged me to run a long time ago. And the timing is such with this seat just coming available [incumbent Sam Aanested, R-Grass Valley, has set his sights on a state Senate seat], and we have good leadership at the city level.”

If Keene wins the primary, then his days as a councilmember are numbered. His council seat is up for grabs in this year’s November general election. He could conceivably run for both that seat and as the Republican candidate for the Assembly but says he will not do so. A display of such unchecked ambition could prove fatal to even a conservative Republican running in a conservative district. It could also significantly erode Keene’s base support here in Chico, meaning he could conceivably lose both races.

Some local progressives would much rather see Keene win a two-year state Assembly term than serve four more years on the council. Conventional wisdom tells the liberals that Keene’s conservative tendencies will be less effective at the state level than at the city level. With that in mind, we hear many Democrats have reregistered as Republicans or “Declined to State,” which allows them to vote in the Republican primary and help give Keene the boost toward the state seat.

If Keene were to lose the primary, he says he will probably run for council again. “I really like what I’m doing now.”

Rick Keene

photo by Tom Angel

The local political landscape has changed with the recent death of Dan Drake, builder and major financial contributor to local conservative candidates and causes. Keene’s not sure what the loss of Drake means in the big picture.

“Dan played a significant part [in local conservative politics] but never directed anything. There was always different leadership.”

Still, Drake’s financial influence could continue to play a role in the local political scene for some time to come.

“Ginger,” Keene said, referring to Drake’s widow, “has a deep interest in politics.”

—Tom Gascoyne

The man with the land
Jim Mann

Jim Mann, who heads the North Valley chapter of the Building Industry Association, doesn’t consider himself “one to watch” this year. He’s not a key player, he insists, “just a down-to-earth kind of guy.”

We respectfully disagree. Mann represents the business interests of several Chico-area landholders. As Chico grows, Mann will be the front man to wrangle with.

This year, the city is set to study how it plans for new growth as the population inevitably increases and houses continue to be in demand. City officials have identified several “expansion study areas,” and, sure enough, several of those shaded areas on the map trace back to Mann’s clients: people like Tom Fogarty, Pete Giampaoli, Ed Simmons, George Schmidbauer, Gerry Blakeley and the late Dan Drake, whose properties Mann still tends. He also owns his own construction consulting firm, Rural Consulting Associates, which means even more projects Mann has a hand in.

Mann can be found working behind the scenes with permitting agencies, and he’s also the fellow at the front of the City Council chambers arguing the case for, say, lower housing densities or lessened impact fees, while the actual landowners sit quietly in the audience. (Those same developers can be counted on to give generously to politically conservative City Council candidates, and in 1996 it was Mann who administrated the Chico Economic Foundation, which funneled tens of thousands of dollars to candidates.)

In 2002, Mann expects two big projects to come before elected boards and public scrutiny. They are the proposed Oak Valley subdivision, which would put 43 acres’ worth of homes along Highway 32 near the Humboldt Burn Dump on land owned by Fogarty and Bay Area investors; and hundreds of homes hoped for as part of the Eastgate Ranch subdivision on Bruce Road near Humboldt Road, for which Drake and Simmons submitted a tentative map last year.

JIm Mann

photo by Tom Angel

“It’s very frustrating, a lot of the rules and regulations that make it very difficult to offer up housing, especially to younger people,” Mann said. “We’re very tenacious,” he conceded, but “we are good stewards of the land.”

Mann’s name has also been prominent as the Chico Unified School District continues to try to buy land to build a new high school. Lately, Mann and the district have relayed different impressions of just what the CUSD has offered—if anything—to pay for the property, where the owner hopes to build 178 houses. Unless the district decides to go around him and talk directly to the Schmidbauer family, owners of the property, or choose a different site, Mann is the one the CUSD must continue to deal with.

In a previous life, Mann served two terms as a member of the Glenn County Board of Supervisors, so he’s no stranger to politics. But he said his motivation is more humanitarian. “I’ve got this great opportunity to work with a lot of landowners and the development community to offer up the American dream of home ownership,” he said. “I feel very blessed.”

—Devanie Angel

The passionate president
Sandra Acebo

Forget the days of sit-back-and-take-it community college presidents.

Sandra Acebo, who has been leading the Butte-Glenn Community College District as superintendent/ president since June 1998, isn’t afraid of getting directly involved, whether it’s with budget cuts or a bond in the works.

When Gov. Gray Davis yanked $98 million promised to colleges for maintenance and instructional supplies, Acebo was on her way to Sacramento to protest along with community college leaders from across the state. It didn’t matter that Acebo technically has a state job; she still felt justified in going up against the government when “her” students were at stake. “I’ll be pressuring him,” Acebo said of Davis. “I think it’s our role to be more aggressive with the governor because he doesn’t have a good record of appreciating and understanding the importance of the community college.”

After three and one-half years at the helm, Acebo said she’s feeling “more comfortable and confident,” but she’ll always seek to expand her knowledge of the community. “I still feel new, but people have made me feel welcome.”

In contrast to some local leaders past and present, Acebo is sincere, friendly and fun to be around. That makes her a genuine catch for the community, where such attributes are always helpful for a cash- and recognition-strapped “junior” college. She doesn’t shy away from speaking engagements or press interviews.

Butte College has a good reputation that’s getting better, and Acebo said, “I just think we may need to communicate better about all the things that are going on here.”

Sandra Acebo

photo by Tom Angel

Although she’s a member of a statewide board of community college “CEOs,” Acebo tries not to travel too much, so she can “put the college first.” She eats her lunches in the college cafeteria, often chatting with students.

She’s predicting several challenges in 2002 and the years to come. For one, Butte College is going through what Acebo refers to as a “tremendous growth phase.”

“We’ll be on a talent search for great new people to fill in where our retiring faculty are leaving,” said Acebo, who will be in on the interviewing process.

And there there’s that bond. The college’s Board of Trustees has decided to put a bond measure on the March 5 ballot that, if voters agree, would bring almost $85 million for building repairs and upgrades, a library remodel, the construction of the Chico center and other needs.

“I feel quite optimistic about it,” Acebo said. “I can’t campaign during work hours, but I’ll definitely be campaigning at lunch, at dinner and on Saturdays and Sundays.”

—Devanie Angel

A kinder, gentler DA?
Dale Rasmussen

Attorney Dale Rasmussen has promised that, if he’s elected Butte County district attorney, he will strive to “inflict as little damage as possible while prosecuting crimes.”

Rasmussen is a Chico criminal-defense attorney who’s made a name for himself by successfully defending medical-marijuana patients in a county where law enforcement officials are known for their open hostility toward pot users, whether recreational or medical. Rasmussen is also only the second candidate to ever run against Butte County DA Mike Ramsey.

Ramsey was appointed to office in 1987 and ran for re-election three years later against George Robison, a criminal-defense attorney who had also worked in the DA’s Office earlier in his career prosecuting both criminal and civil matters. Ramsey won that 1990 campaign by garnering 72 percent of the vote, and he’s never looked back.

That’s because no attorneys have been willing to oppose him in the two elections since then. Many of the lawyers we’ve talked to—the type who may harbor such ambition—have argued they can make more money in private practice than as DA, a position that pays $106,492 per year. Plus, Ramsey is said to be married to the job, putting in more hours than most are willing to devote.

Dale Rasmussen

photo by Tom Angel

And there is the fact that Ramsey is well entrenched in his job and has high name recognition; the most likely candidate to defeat him would be a deputy DA. But Ramsey has been choosy about promotions within his office.

Now comes Rasmussen, whom Ramsey calls “a very nice guy who doesn’t have the experience [to be DA].” Ramsey argues that a DA must be “a bit of an asshole” to effectively carry out the job responsibilities.

Rasmussen, whose calm demeanor helps disguise his dry wit, looks and—when not on the job—dresses like he could be an ex-Deadhead. He is decidedly a far cry from any description containing the word “asshole.”

His platform consists of seven points, including the promise to inflict as little harm as possible in the course of prosecution. He also says he would prefer not to arrest people accused of economic crimes like welfare fraud, bouncing checks or failure to pay child or spousal support. Rasmussen has accused Ramsey of doing that very thing as part of his grandstanding to call attention to his tough stance on crime.

“Whenever possible, a letter from the DA or a notice to appear should be used to get the defendants into court, as opposed to arresting them,” Rasmussen writes in his platform statement.

Other planks in that platform argue that the third-strike law should not be applied if the first two strikes were from the distant past and the third strike is for a minor theft; implementing the medical-marijuana law in Butte County; and “realistic and consistent” plea bargaining and the filing of charges only on “crimes that would realistically result in convictions.”

Rasmussen also says he would do his best to avoid allowing federal authorities to step in and prosecute local crimes—this in obvious reaction to the feds coming in to prosecute marijuana cases. Because federal law demands “draconian” minimum sentences—as much as 10 years in prison on each count—for marijuana crimes, defendants prosecuted by the feds are at much greater risk than those convicted of similar crimes under state standards.

As a result there are many Californians who are harnessed with long prison terms simply because they were unlucky enough to get popped by the feds rather than local law officials.

In a letter addressed to the inmates at the Butte County Jail telling of his plans to run for DA, Rasmussen says this does not mean he has changed sides but that in fact he would be “representing the interests of all persons in Butte County, including you.”

He closes the letter with a curious and philosophical metaphor.

Amber Johnsen

photo by Tom Angel

“In Butte County, the house of the prosecution is a concrete edifice on a hill. The prisoners’ quarters lie below, a stone’s throw away. If I should ever inhabit that concrete edifice, I will not forget that I have been to the Butte County Jail and looked upon the face of humanity.”

—Tom Gascoyne

Planning for continuity
Amber Johnsen

Associated Students President Amber Johnsen wishes she’d been around when the contracts were signed on the now-disputed construction of the new Bell Memorial Union at Chico State University. She also half-wishes she could be there when it’s all resolved. But it’s the transient nature of student government: Four or five years, max, and you’re termed out by graduation.

While she often finds herself sifting through years-old minutes of student government meetings to find out why a particular decision was made, she plans on telling her successor just what the A.S. was thinking when it decided, say, to protest the Common Management System (CMS), a computer software platform the California State University system has forced its campuses to adopt. There are also ongoing issues with how best to run such A.S. businesses as the bookstore and food services.

University officials, city leaders and even newspaper reporters know that, if they’re having some kind of disagreement with A.S. officers, that’s easily solved: Just wait a couple of semesters. Not to sound condescending, but the A.S. has finally accepted what the administrators and other community power-players have known all along and sometimes taken advantage of: “Typically, what’s talked about this year has been talked about some previous year,” Johnsen said. “So, don’t reinvent the wheel.

“We can’t be successful unless [we work together and] have some cohesion,” she said.

Permanent A.S. staff member Jon Slaughter, who holds the innocuous-sounding title of “director of activity fee,” is pretty much the A.S.’ institutional memory. Although it’s his style to step back while the students run things and give advice when solicited, Slaughter has been around since 1981 and knows what’s what. He’s a great resource.

Sometimes, A.S. elections are a bit contentious, and students—perhaps leaning more to the left or right—are elected who aren’t naturally predestined to work well together.

After springtime elections, the new student leaders—who usually include several incumbents who carry over to the next year—take office May 1. The previous officers stick around until May 15. But, Johnsen said, while the overlap is designed to transition the new team, “a lot of times it just doesn’t get done properly.”

As a result, said the four-year veteran, “you spend half a year just figuring out where to go and what to do.”

Kim Yamaguchi

photo by Tom Angel

This year, Johnsen said, the students will get the best, most-informed representation they can—even if the new regime’s goals are different. A harder-to-reach goal is that the general populace become more excited about student government.

“This isn’t your high school student government. This is much more,” Johnsen said. “The students have a lot of power.”

—Devanie Angel

The loose cannonKim Yamaguchi
You knew we couldn’t leave this guy out. Kim Yamaguchi won the 5th District county supervisor’s seat in November 1999, and in his freshman year made headlines right and left in 2001. Much to his chagrin, they were rarely positive.

He raised eyebrows for the first time in March, when his campaign manager, longtime political consultant David Reade, was hired on as a consultant for Norcal Waste Systems. Sounds pretty innocent—until you hear that at the same time Reade got the job, his pal Yamaguchi was leading the county’s effort (which was successful) to clinch a deal that gave the garbage giant the hauling rights for a whopping half of the county’s unincorporated areas.

The screaming implication, of course, was that Reade had only to whisper the profitable proposal to Yamaguchi before he’d lobby for it, which he did with gusto.

But that was just the beginning of Yamaguchi’s wild year. By midsummer, Yamaguchi managed to turn what had been a tame and by-the-numbers effort to redistrict the county’s supervisorial boundaries into an exercise in political nightmare, complete with lawyers and lawsuits and meetings that ran way past dinnertime.

It all started when Yamaguchi released his “Return to Fairness” plan on July 24—two weeks after the public-comment period ended on the four other plans the board was considering at the time. It infuriated his colleagues Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx, who pointed out that the plan disenfranchised thousands of Chico voters by dividing several neighborhoods.

So Dolan, a Democrat, and Houx, a Republican, launched a referendum effort on the plan that gathered more than twice the number of signatures needed to qualify the issue for the ballot. Not to be outdone, Yamaguchi made headlines again when he complained that the old districts were illegal, and therefore the county had no choice but to institute his plan’s boundaries for the March 5 election—despite the fact that voters had slated it for a referendum. County Clerk Candace Grubbs refused, and a lawsuit ensued.

To make matters even screwier, Yamaguchi managed to hire Chuck Bell, the state Republican Party’s general counsel, to represent the board in its suit. That made even more people mad, given that Bell’s advice cost county taxpayers $275 an hour.

The CAO seat

photo by Tom Angel

Most people know the rest of the story. The board majority (led by Yamaguchi, with Curt Josiassen and Bob Beeler) lost their case against Grubbs Dec. 6 and decided not to appeal.

But to be certain, we haven’t heard the last from Yamaguchi. He clearly loves playing the political game, and he’s not afraid of a fight—in fact, he seems to welcome fights. He’s made that more than clear—and he still has more than two years left in office.

—Laura Smith

After Odle, who?
The county CAO seat

Watching Larry Odle, the county’s interim chief administrative officer, will be a little tricky, because we don’t really know how long he’s going to hold office. His four-month contract ends in late February, but the majority on the Board of Supervisors (which appoints the office) seems ready to give him the job permanently. The question is, will he take it?

He very well might—the job pays $124,000 a year, along with nearly $500 a month for a car and cell phone allowance. It has the added benefit of prestige and notoriety. Trouble is, the county is in bad shape, wading through increasingly muddy financial waters, governed by supervisors that can’t get along, and seemingly incapable of filling several high-level management positions with permanent employees.

It’s a looming morass, and the new CAO, whether Odle or someone else, will be responsible for leading the county through it.

That’s why the CAO seat is “one to watch” this year.

The county has been looking for a permanent replacement for former CAO John Blacklock since summer, when Blacklock announced his retirement, effective in September. Even after spending $25,000 on a nationwide recruitment effort, the board couldn’t agree on one and was criticized for declining to promote Assistant CAO Star Brown to the office.

The board isn’t through looking for that permanent replacement yet—board members will spend another $25,000 for another recruitment effort this month. Which begs the question: What is it about Butte County that makes it hard to find someone to take a $124,000-a-year job here?

—Laura Smith

Mary Anne Houx

photo by Tom Angel

The veteran
Mary Anne Houx

Supervisor Mary Anne Houx isn’t surprised that Butte County has had trouble finding a new chief administrative officer. “Who wants to work for Butte County when it’s got a board like this one?” she asks rhetorically.

Houx knows whereof she speaks. She’s represented the 3rd District, which is comprised of the east side of Chico and the foothills north and east of town, on the county Board of Supervisors since 1991. She was there in the early ‘90s, when the county almost slid into bankruptcy, and she was there through the stable middle years of the decade, when the board enjoyed five members who liked each other and shared a common goal of making government work well.

Things have changed dramatically this year, with the election of Paradise-area Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi. Suddenly, the board has become painfully dysfunctional, even “embarrassing” in its inability to take care of county business, Houx says.

Houx, an old-school Republican who should be enjoying the respect due a longtime public servant who is widely seen as being a hard-working, intelligent, well-connected moderate, instead finds herself under attack by a three-member majority led by Yamaguchi that makes no bones about wanting to get her off the board.

To that end, apparently, they attempted to drastically alter the shape of her district by approving Yamaguchi’s now-infamous redistricting “Plan 5.” That effort failed when Houx and fellow Chico-area Supervisor Jane Dolan led a successful referendum drive to set aside the plan.

So it is that when Houx runs for re-election in March, against Chico City Councilman Steve Bertagna, the outcome will be determined by the same voters who’ve elected her to office twice before.

At this point she’s optimistic that she will win, and also that the referendum on Plan 5, also on the March 5 ballot, will pass. But she’s taking nothing for granted and has the apparatus set up to run a vigorous campaign. “I always take any challenges very seriously,” she says.

There are many significant differences between her and Bertagna, Houx says, but one dominates: experience. Houx has been in public office for nearly 25 years, beginning in 1977 with the Chico school board. The current Board of Supervisors majority, she says, has almost no institutional memory, and electing Bertagna would only make a bad situation worse.

She points particularly to the looming budget woes facing the county as the state begins to cut back on revenues. This is dàjà vu all over again, she notes, pointing out that she was there in the early ‘90s, when the county had to dig its way out of near bankruptcy. She sees the current board majority wasting money on fruitless executive searches and unnecessary lawsuits, and she worries.

If she is re-elected, Houx says, keeping the county fiscally sound will be her highest priority, but she will also work on other issues, including her ongoing effort to provide flood protection along Rock Creek north of Chico. She also expects to work hard on finding ways to help families who’ve fallen through the safety net as a result of welfare reform and the current recession.

A widow who is past retirement age, Houx still seems to have plenty of energy for her work. To her it’s service. As she puts it, “If you believe in a certain way of life, you’d better stand up for it, or it won’t be there.”

—Robert Speer