Picks for ‘06

Enloe, elections and environmentalists rank among the year’s top 10 news stories

TO THE VICTORS<br>Mary Flynn, Scott Gruendl and Tom Nickell finished 1-2-3 in the November election, giving progressives a 5-2 majority on the Chico City Council.

Mary Flynn, Scott Gruendl and Tom Nickell finished 1-2-3 in the November election, giving progressives a 5-2 majority on the Chico City Council.

It’s that time again! We’ve stuffed the trash with ripped wrapping paper, hit the after-Christmas sales and finalized our plans for New Year’s Eve. We’ve also grown reflective, looking back at 12 eventful months that brought some significant changes to our community.

Dominating the news like nothing else was Enloe Medical Center. In fact, on our list of the top 10 stories of 2006, Enloe appears twice. But a whole lot more happened this year.

We’ve probed our memories and combed the archives to come up with the year’s most significant occurrences. We came up with so many that our honorable-mention section has 10 as well.

Read, discuss, and let us know what you think.

Election ‘06 goes progressive
Nov. 7 brought a night of celebration for liberals all around the country, and Chico was no exception.

Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. Although centrist Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger retained California’s governorship, he’ll be checked by Democrats who won most every down-ticket office and kept their majorities in the Legislature. Locally, three progressives claimed seats on the Chico City Council, and moderate-liberal Maureen Kirk beat conservative council colleague Steve Bertagna in their runoff election for Butte County supervisor.

Chicoans had to wait a while before knowing for sure who their municipal representatives would be.

Dan Neumeister

Math teacher Mary Flynn—a political newcomer—was the top vote-getter for City Council, followed closely by incumbent Scott Gruendl, who capped his first term with two years as mayor. The third spot was too close to call, however, as liberal CHP Officer Tom Nickell held just a 40-vote lead over conservative businessman Mark Sorensen with thousands of absentee votes left to count. Partway through that process, the margin dropped to 28.

In the end, thanks to a strong push on the Chico State campus, Nickell edged out his fellow election rookie by 78 votes. Incumbent Dan Herbert finished fifth, and the third member of his pro-business slate, Michael Dailey, was a distant sixth.

Endorsed by outgoing Supervisor Mary Anne Houx, Kirk fell 79 votes short of the District 3 supervisor seat in the June 6 primary election. The third candidate, Chuck Kutz, endorsed Bertagna in the runoff. Kirk led by 234 votes with all the precincts reporting—a comfortable yet surmountable margin—but wound up winning by 521. The final tally came less than two weeks after Houx’s death Nov. 17.

Thirteen thousand Butte County voters cast their November ballots by mail, some out of concern for the Diebold electronic voting machines rolled out this year. But no one contested either election—a tribute to Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs.

Power struggle at Enloe
For the people working at Enloe Medical Center last spring and early summer, it was like having a Shakespearean drama playing out in their midst—a history play, perhaps, in which the dukes and earls rise up against the king and topple him. The king was, of course, CEO Dan Neumeister, and the rebels were the hospital’s doctors, and by the time the struggle was over, the rebels had won and Neumeister’s head had rolled.

Initially the drama focused on the hospital’s anesthesiologists, the 16 members of Anesthesiology Associates of Chico. By early May, 12 of them had quit—some out of frustration with drawn-out contract negotiations, others because Neumeister had gone behind their backs and set up an alternate group led by one of their members, Dr. Duane Menefee. The hospital said the conflict was about money, that the doctors (who already made about $350,000 annually) wanted an increase that the hospital couldn’t afford. The doctors said it was about governance issues and a “long list of behavioral controls and gag orders,” in the words of one.

In any event, the walkout created an instant crisis for the hospital, since surgeries can’t be performed without anesthesiologists. Enloe scrambled to reschedule operating rooms and hire locums tenens, or traveling anesthesiologists.

That wasn’t good enough for the rest of the hospital’s doctors. Upset at what they saw as the dismantling of a first-rate anesthesia team, they voted no confidence in Neumeister. This came as a surprise to the hospital’s Board of Trustees, who now had an open revolt on their hands.

EXPANSION PLAN<br /> Enloe Medical Center is moving ahead with its Century Project, though hikes in building costs have pushed the price tag to $125 million.

Perhaps the most surreal moment in the drama occurred on June 2, when the hospital hosted a soirée—planned long before the crisis erupted—and invited community dignitaries to honor both Neumeister, who’d been elevated to the CEO position only recently, and a new Board of Trustees. The irony was that the very trustees being honored were in the process of decided whether, or even how, to fire the CEO being honored. Meanwhile, a group of about 50 protestors was gathered outside, insisting that Neumeister had to go.

Sure enough, on June 27, the hospital announced that Neumeister was resigning effective July 31. Also stepping down were board Chairwoman Betty Dean and Vice Chairman Mark Spelts. All of the parties agreed that it was best for the hospital—though, lacking the support of the doctors, Neumeister really had no choice.

Since then Enloe has hired an interim CEO, Beth O’Brien, and begun a search for a permanent chief. The Board of Trustees has new top officers, Chairman Darby Makel and Vice Chairwoman Judy Sitton; has added several new members, and pledged to be open and communicative henceforth.

Though forced out, Neumeister left with the strong support of the trustees, upper management at the hospital and many in the community. Unfortunately, his leaving came at a time when the hospital was just beginning construction as part of its huge expansion plan, leaving the facility without the leader who’d spearheaded the project to that point.

Enloe to grow, neighbors to plan
There was never any doubt that Enloe Medical Center’s plan to expand its Esplanade facility wouldn’t be approved, despite almost universal agreement that it wasn’t good for the historic Avenues neighborhood.

Neighbors represented by the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association turned out en masse to city Planning Commission meetings in early February, but by this point their goal was to make the project more neighborhood-friendly, not stop it—though a few wishful thinkers were still asking that it be built elsewhere. Most of all, neighbors wanted the hospital’s FlightCare helicopter service, which is noisy, moved to its Cohasset Road facility or the airport. They didn’t get that, nor much else. The commission did include a requirement that Enloe soundproof 35 homes in the flight path.

When the matter when to the City Council in March, CANA again asked for concessions. But hospital employees and managers testified in large numbers about the importance of quickly moving forward with the project, and the council voted approval.

This was the end of a planning and permitting process that had taken three years and involved many, many meetings and one charrette. By year’s end, as construction finally was about to begin, estimates of the final cost continued to rise because of hikes in construction costs, especially concrete, and it is now estimated at $125 million.

OK, NOW WE LIKE IT<br /> The City Plaza project drew rampant criticism during the drawn-out contruction phase. Chicoans have warmed up to the downtown square (shown below in early December).

One positive outgrowth of the process, however, was the emergence of CANA as a viable and representative neighborhood association, the first in Chico.

In November, armed with a promise of $7.5 million in redevelopment money, CANA held Chico’s first grassroots, charrette-style neighborhood planning workshop. Its goal was to generate improvement ideas for the neighborhood that eventually would be incorporated into the city’s General Plan. Begun in reaction to Enloe’s expansion plans, CANA has since become constructively engaged with Chico State University, neighborhood schools, the city—and the hospital.

City Plaza views transformed
Who knew that a square block in downtown Chico would cause such an uproar? Well, people care about their plaza, that’s for sure. This year, the City Plaza went from a whole lotta nada to a concrete jungle to a well-received upscale hangout. The transition was not an easy one, though.

When the old elms failed us and the park was razed in late 2005, everyone, including us, mourned the loss of the tree-canopied greenery and quaint, wooden gazebo. By the beginning of 2006, there were just the beginnings of a band shell and lots of metal piping popping up out of the grassless square. People began to get scared.

“They are making some great progress right now, and I’m still hoping it can be done by April,” Dennis Beardsley, the city’s general services director, said in January. That was after initial delays due to problems getting the elms out and wet weather. The budget back then was still set at about $3.2 million, too.

Fast forward to July, when much of the concrete had been laid down and there was not a green thing in sight (save for two large evergreens). Residents wrote letters to the editor en masse, criticizing the city for building a “concrete jungle.” City employees urged the public to be patient—it would be finished in the fall.

“One of the things that’s happening right now is that, when you’re standing and seeing the exterior of those planters, you’re also seeing the inside,” Beardsley said then. “It looks like a tremendous amount of concrete.”

The price tag finally settled at about $3.5 million, but the hard work of site superintendent Brian Vickery and his crew have paid off. When the fencing was taken down and the plaza finally opened in November, the public’s response was overwhelmingly positive. Many still miss the simplicity of the old, tree-lined park, but that’s not enough to keep people out of the new, more sophisticated plaza, which is actually still in its final stages. A mural is being painted across from the band shell by local artist William EverOne. (See page 47 for an interview with him.)

PUTTING THINGS IN PLACE<br /> Chico City Manager Greg Jones, in his first year on the job, has reorganized municipal operations with an eye toward efficiency and customer service.

Jones shakes up city government
For a low-key guy who doesn’t put on much of a show, Greg Jones is having a big impact on Chico government. The new city manager, who took office Jan. 1, has initiated wide-ranging changes not only in structure but also in the way employees interact with each other and with the public.

He calls it making government “faster, better and smarter,” but others have called it “reinventing government,” after the title of a seminal 1992 book on the subject.

The most visible changes are structural: When several longtime department managers retired this year, Jones used it as an opportunity to reorganize the monolithic Community Services Department by breaking it into four smaller, leaner departments: Planning Services, Building & Development Services, Housing and Neighborhood Services and Capital Projects Services.

The idea, he said, was to make the departments more manageable and more responsive to the community. Jones is a strong believer in analyzing outcomes and adjusting to improve them, and it’s clear he’ll make structural changes whenever he thinks they will improve performance. Toward the end of the year, he looked at the City Council’s several boards and commissions and how much staff time they required. He recommended that several, including the Parking Place and Solid Waste commissions, be eliminated—which the council proceeded to do.

Jones is also changing the internal processes of city government in an effort to give managers more authority to make decisions and build their “entrepreneurial spirit.”

“You’ve got to let people do things,” he said in early April. “It’s a risk on my part, but that’s how you build internal capacity. I want employees who can respond to the community as soon as possible, who are confident in their ability to do that. … This place should be able to run just fine without me.”

Chico goes sustainable
For some reason, or many reasons, concern about the health of the planet reached a tipping point this year, not only in Chico but also statewide and throughout the nation.

Suddenly, global warming was Topic No. 1. Al Gore’s hugely successful global-warming movie An Inconvenient Truth no doubt contributed to this, as did major reports on climate change in other media (Time magazine’s April 3 cover headline read: “Be worried. Be very worried"). With the exception of a few last hardcore doubters, the American people seemed to reach consensus that global warming was real and scary and needed to be dealt with.

MODEL HOMES?<br /> Advocates for a homeless camp in Chico have drawn inspiration from Dignity Village in Portland, Ore. (shown here).

In California, which is so dependent on the Sierra Nevada snow pack for water, the Legislature passed the nation’s most ambitious law to decrease greenhouse emissions. In Chico the City Council voted to sign on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and create a task force to suggest ways to implement its provisions. The city also formally dedicated its new solar power system at the sewer plant, the largest of its kind in the nation.

In the private sector, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. was in the forefront, purchasing four new emissions-free fuel-cell power plants to run its operations.

But the organization that led the way locally was Chico State University, which in recent years has made a concerted effort to build a campus that minimizes waste, uses as little outside energy as possible, focuses on stewardship, recognizes the interconnection among all things and encourages civic engagement.

In fact, sustainable development is one of the six priorities in the campus’ strategic plan. Chico State now offers 147 courses in various disciplines that address sustainability at some level, and this year it hired a campus sustainability coordinator and gave retiring Provost Scott McNall a new position as President Paul Zingg’s assistant on sustainability. McNall says his goal is to make Chico State the green CSU campus.

And, thanks to CSUC grad Jack Rawlins, the university now has an endowed professorship in environmental literacy and a new Rawlins Environmental Award, a $10,000 scholarship. The award was given for the first time this year, to junior Taylor Bass, who plans to use it to establish a student-run hub for social entrepreneurship that will focus on pressing social problems related to the environment.

The university has also implemented numerous energy-saving efficiencies on campus, and this year it began construction on its new, “green” Student Services Center building.

Students figure strongly in the effort, of course, through numerous organizations (A.S. Recycling, Environmental Advocates) and efforts to make such businesses as Food Services more sustainable (by using compostable utensils, for example). This year students organized the second “This Way to Sustainability!” conference, the largest of its kind in the country.

Whose water is it?
An effort by a group of water agencies this year to form a nine-county regional water outfit called the Northern California Water Association was the latest campaign in the ongoing conflict over who will control the North State’s water—and particularly its groundwater.

SIGN OF THE TIMES<br /> Chico State’s sustainability conference Nov. 2-5 represented just one way the university—and community—embraced environmental awareness in 2006.

At a May panel workshop on “regionalism” as an approach to protecting Northern California water, held in the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room, state Sen. Sam Aanestad stressed the importance of joining forces locally. “Right now, all the votes are in the south; that’s where 75 percent of the people in the state live,” he said. “Regionalizing gives the north more clout.”

But many local water experts were leery of this particular plan, mostly because it included some large users—Sacramento County, for example—with a natural interest in the groundwater aquifer, called the Tuscan Aquifer, under Butte, Glenn, Tehama and Colusa counties.

One problem is that nobody really knows how much water is in the aquifer, but many environmentalists and local farmers are wary of plans that say they’re going to study the underground basin. They’re concerned such studies are prelude to taking the water.

When representatives of NCWA held an Oct. 3 hearing in Durham, the local library was packed to overflowing with farmers and others who greeted the NCWA’s representative with skepticism and even hostility. One concern was that the project was being rushed—supposedly in order to form the group in time to obtain some $25 million worth of grants to assist in forming a consistent water infrastructure.

The Butte County Water Commission also wrestled with the NCWA proposal: A vote on whether to recommend that the county sign on tied at 4-4. Subsequently the grant money was withdrawn, and the county continues to study the issue. There is considerable sentiment to stick with a four-county alliance to protect the Tuscan.

Water is the lifeblood of California, and the struggle over who’s going to control it has been going on as long as it’s been a state. It’s not going away, here in Butte County or anywhere else in the state.

Casino gamesmanship
Ever since the days of city founder John Bidwell, Chicoans have had a special place in their hearts for the Mechoopda Indians. The tribe had its sovereignty removed, then restored, and through it all has toiled to provide for its members.

The Mechoopda want to build a casino south of town, toward which opposition has been relatively quiet. With one major exception: officials from Butte County. Supervisors and administrators have actively battled the Mechoopda’s bid to get 600 acres near the junction of highways 149 and 99 put into trust. Once that happens, it will become tribal land, and construction will begin on a 100-acre patch.

ON THE DRAWING BOARD<br /> As the Mechoopda Indians held low-key community meetings about their proposed casino (depicted in this rendering), officials from Butte County loudly and actively opposed the project.

The county has echoed environmentalists’ concerns about impacts on wetlands and water resources. But supervisors also balk at traffic plans that will cut into the Highway 149 improvements they fought for years to secure.

So, with the federal approval process nearing its conclusion, county officials were particularly aggressive in 2006—taking their fight to Chico and even going so far as to challenge the tribe’s legitimacy.

Stalemated by the county, Mechoopda leaders approached the city about providing police, fire and emergency services for the casino. City Manager Greg Jones asked the City Council for permission to hold exploratory talks, and the council was prepared to approve that request at its July 11 meeting.

What councilmembers anticipated to be a quick consent-agenda vote turned into a bitter two-hour debate, with supervisors Curt Josiassen and Mary Anne Houx criticizing the city for sticking its nose into a county issue and Councilman Steve Bertagna—running for a seat on their board—firing back, “I see a complete, defiant Butte County; who would want to negotiate with you?”

The council agreed to take up the matter again at its Aug. 1 meeting. After a calmer discussion and deliberation, the council voted 4-3 to hear the tribe’s proposal, then decide whether to negotiate.

The county stirred up emotions later that month by charging that the Mechoopda had “manufactured” their history, were not a legitimate tribe and had no claim to a reservation site. The basis for this conclusion was a report commissioned from a historian in Oregon. Local experts disputed the findings.

As of now, the City Council has not readdressed the matter, and the Mechoopda still await word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Immigration marches
Cities around the country—Chico included—took a fresh look at immigration issues when a controversial bill in Congress sparked protest marches.

ON THE MARCH<br />Opponents of a controversial immigration bill took to the streets of downtown Chico, in solidarity with marchers in other cities this spring.

H.R. 4437—the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Control Act—called for making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or offer humanitarian aid to one. It passed the House and, in the spring, was under debate in the Senate.

A groundswell of opposition turned into national movement as hundreds of thousands took to the streets for organized protests. April 9, for instance, 1,000 people marched through downtown Chico and congregated at Chico State’s Free Speech Area. May 1—as part of the “Great American Boycott"—sign-bearing Chicoans gathered at City Hall, and their number grew to about 3,000 during their peaceful march in town.

Latinos and non-Latinos alike participated, such as Chico High student Chondra Spaeth, whose reasons for marching put the issue in perspective. “My boyfriend is Mexican, and I’m supporting his whole family,” she said at the May 1 event. “Why would we kick out [people] who do so much for us?”

Ultimately, the bill did not make it out of the Senate, and the Iraq War replaced illegal immigration as the focus of national debate.

The ‘homeless problem’
There are homeless people in Chico. No big surprise, really, but this year, more than ever, the homeless found themselves pushed out of their stomping grounds.

With the closure of the City Plaza, many a bench-dweller was forced elsewhere to sleep. The island at First and Main also was closed and remodeled and is no longer a friendly gathering place for the local wanderers. In addition, the City Council voted to close all city parks at night, making it easier for police to enforce the no-camping ordinance already in place.

So, where will all the people who call the parks home go at night? If they choose not to go to the Torres Community Shelter (where dorm-style sleeping arrangements and the no-pet policy keep some away), they might be out of luck.

The most recent talk about the homeless has swirled around forming a homeless camp in Chico. Andy Holcombe, the city’s new mayor, heads the Homeless Task Force, which has held meetings to discuss how such a concept might work. They have been taking inspiration from Dignity Village, a homeless camp in Portland, Ore., which started as a squatter’s camp and now has permanent land from the city.

Designating land for a homeless camp in Chico will likely be the biggest challenge.

“Quite likely the best place for a camp would be in the county,” Holcombe said at an Oct. 26 task force meeting. “It’s very unlikely that the city would designate public land [for a camp].”

At least one private citizen, Robert Seals of the Serenity Center, has offered a parcel. But even that could become more like the Torres Shelter than Dignity Village, which is open all day and offers private structures rather than bunk-style living. The Torres Shelter plans to build a second structure that would include smaller rooms in addition to the dorms, and would allow pets.

One clear ingredient for a homeless camp’s success emerged at the Oct. 26 meeting: empowerment.

“It needs to be self-regulating,” Holcombe said.