Petition and pot

Chico City Council takes on two of the city’s hottest issues

Jim Walker is a contemplative city leader, someone who’s not easily provoked. And, while he didn’t lose his temper Tuesday evening (March 1) during the Chico City Council’s regular meeting, he certainly relayed his anger related to one item on the agenda.

Walker described walking out of a local grocery store and being approached by a signature gatherer who asked him to sign a petition calling for “fair elections in Chico.” However, that petition was actually part of the effort to move the City Council elections from the November general election to June. Walker recalled his nostrils flaring in response to the gatherer, who he said misrepresented the intent of the petition. He was outraged then and clearly remains so.

“Since that time, I can’t tell you how angry I’ve been that this has moved forward,” he said.

Walker was referring to an item on the agenda that asked the panel to set a date for a citywide election on the matter. City Clerk Debbie Presson explained that a random count of the petition signatures by the Butte County Clerk/Recorder’s Office found enough valid ones to qualify it as a ballot measure.

Stephanie Taber, a regular council attendee and member of Chico Tea Party Patriots, is the face behind the endeavor. She began organizing the effort back in August, and was given 180 days to come up with the necessary signatures.

Based on recent campaign statements, she had a lot of help.

The reports, filed last month by Thomas Dauterman, show the Chico businessman, owner of Thomas Welding and Machine Inc., paid $31,500 from early September to mid-December to Carl Towe, the owner of high-profile Towe and Associates Petition Management, a professional petitioning company. Dauterman is a longtime supporter of conservative politicians; he contributed several thousand dollars prior to November’s general election to the campaigns of council candidates Bob Evans and Mark Sorensen, as well as that of Larry Wahl, who in June defeated long-time Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan.

During the meeting, Councilwoman Mary Flynn noted Taber’s use of the company, to which City Attorney Lori Barker quickly responded that hiring such a firm is perfectly legal. Flynn, too, related an encounter similar to the one described by Walker, as did a couple members of the public who spoke on the issue.

One of them, Charlie Preusser, a longtime Chicoan, called the initiative “a blatant attempt to disenfranchise students.” Several speakers echoed him, noting that the many local college students who leave town in the summer will not have the opportunity to head to their local precincts. Proponents, however, have consistently pointed out that students can vote absentee.

Other speakers opposing the initiative had another theory. David Welch pointed out that the turnout during a general election is much greater than in June. County figures back him up; 25,000 more Butte County voters headed to the polls this past November than during June’s primary. The disparity was greater in 2008, when 57,000 more residents headed to the polls in November over June. High voter turnout is a good thing for the process, Welch said.

He charged that the petition is really about helping candidates who haven’t been able to win elections under the current system, and he noted that higher numbers of conservative voters tend to turn out during the primaries.

“I think that’s profoundly undemocratic and un-American to change the game,” he said.

What makes the initiative ironic is that Taber fancies herself a fiscal watchdog. Yet placing the measure on the ballot, according to Presson, will cost the city $78,000 in general-fund monies, at minimum. That’s if it can be consolidated with Gov. Jerry Brown’s expected statewide special election. And if the voters pass it, the city—that is, taxpayers—will incur recurring costs. According to a staff report, the county clerk estimates that holding City Council elections in June of next year will cost $73,000 more than it would in November. (Taber did not return a message from the CN&R as of press time.)

Eventually, the panel voted unanimously to schedule the election for June 7, hoping for a consolidation with the predicted statewide election. The council can change the date, should the governor choose to hold the election on another day. A special election will occur in the absence of a statewide election, and it will include traditional precinct voting, the council decided.

Other news during the evening included several hours of discussion on the city’s draft ordinance related to medical-marijuana dispensaries, as well as cultivation and processing. The panel had to extend the meeting twice to allow time for debate on the topics in order to give city staff direction on its next move.

The vast majority of the 19 people who spoke on the issue extolled the benefits of medical cannabis and the need for dispensaries. Proponents repeatedly called for safe access to the herb, while opponents, including District Attorney Mike Ramsey, charged that the industry is riddled with fraud.

One of the questions for the council was whether cultivation and distribution should be conducted on-site, in a “closed-loop” fashion. Another was whether the panel should place a fixed limit on the number of dispensaries. They also considered whether the permitting of potential facilities should be subject to a discretionary process.

As during previous meetings on the topic, confusion at times reigned during the discussions, especially around 10:30 p.m., when fatigue appeared to set in.

For example, not every council member fully grasped the concept of a closed-loop dispensary. That became clear when the panel voted for a type of system in which the plants are grown on-site, and then minutes later voted in favor of a system that also would allow the dispensaries’ members to grow at various satellite locations.

Councilman Mark Sorensen voiced frustration over what he deemed contradictory actions. “We might as well take the whole ordinance and set it on fire,” he said at one point.

When it came to the discussion about limiting the number of dispensaries, Councilman Andy Holcombe lobbied to allow the free market to decide, noting that city staff estimated a maximum of 10 dispensaries could open based on land-use restrictions in the ordinance. Mayor Ann Schwab was the only one to support that idea, however, and moments later Flynn called for the number of dispensaries to be limited to two.

Her subsequent motion passed by a vote of 6-1, with Schwab dissenting. Doing so, explained Sorensen after the meeting, automatically meant that the permitting process would be discretionary.

City staff will include those changes in the proposed ordinance, which will come back to the council in the coming months.