Playing hardball

Council members aren’t fazed by tough questions at Chamber event

Setting policy and making crucial decisions for a dynamic city like Chico is challenging and often controversial, but as the members of the City Council showed last Friday morning (Jan. 29) before a skeptical crowd at the CARD Center, they’ve gotten pretty good at it—and at defending their actions.

The event was what used to be the Chamber of Commerce’s annual “State of the City” breakfast, but this year, after the city decided to do its own such event, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, it became “Community Forecast 2010.”

The chamber changed not only the event’s name, but also its format. Instead of opening with the traditional speeches from the city manager and each of the council members, it began with a brief budget update from City Manager Dave Burkland and then went straight to questions and answers. It turned out to be a lively and probing session, and far more revelatory of this council’s strengths than the city’s own event, which came off as self-congratulatory and staged and ignored the controversies—Walmart being the salient example—that had been much in the news.

Chamber members are smart and concerned people, and they ask probing questions. They also tend to take their talking points from the editorial page of the Chico Enterprise-Record, which has been highly critical of the council’s liberal majority in recent years. Friday, Chamber CEO Jolene Francis peppered council members with tough questions submitted by audience members.

Why, for example, is WinCo’s expansion sailing through the approval process, while it took years to decide on the Walmart expansion? Councilman Andy Holcombe responded, noting that WinCo’s expansion was just 10,000 square feet, compared to Walmart’s 80,000. Also, WinCo was already zoned appropriately, but Walmart needed a zoning change, which required environmental review and public hearings at both the Planning Commission and council levels. The two cases are “entirely different in scale” he said. “The entire WinCo store is smaller than the Walmart expansion.”

Holcombe’s answer was typical of the command of the issues the more experienced council members possess. That would include Larry Wahl, except for the fact that he doesn’t believe that city government should have any role in regulating business.

“I have a business, and all I want is for government to stay out of the way,” he said.

But that’s impossible, Holcombe responded. “We [the city] have a regulatory process, whether we like it or not.”

And so it went, with liberal council members repeatedly making the case that, while they want business growth as much as anyone and will work hard to achieve it, they won’t sacrifice the town’s quality of life in the process. Ultimately Chico’s greatest selling point is Chico, they insisted.

It also became clear that they don’t always agree with each other. Walker noted that he’d voted for Walmart. Flynn did too. Both votes were presumably contrary to the wishes of their backers. And all of the liberals joined Wahl in voting for the Chico VW expansion, again defying their constituents in the Barber neighborhood.

This is not a monolithic council. Yes, they form a liberal majority, but my experience is that they arrive at decisions conscientiously and are willing to vote against their political self-interest if they believe the community will benefit.