Political plants

Last week the Enterprise-Record published a front-page story accusing the Chico Unified School District of misspending $337,149 over the past three years on teacher salaries rather than materials for students learning the English language, for which the federal funding was intended. It’s a complicated story that, under normal circumstances, would have never made the front page. It would have been buried deep in the paper, if published at all. But for the school district these are hardly normal times. There is a cloud hanging over the school board and the upcoming election for two trustee seats. The cloud, of course, is the infamous Hank Marsh Junior High School story, whose final chapter has yet to be written. The condensed version is that Jeff Sloan, the school’s principal, was shown the door by district Superintendent Scott Brown, who enlisted and got the support of four of the five school board trustees. Two of those trustees are up for re-election next month, and a smolderingly angry group of Sloan supporters is looking to unseat those two fellows—Rick Anderson and Steve O’Bryan.

Now, the E-R story was fine and dandy and displayed some good old-fashioned research on the part of the reporter. Except for one thing: It was planted by someone supporting two candidates hoping to unseat the incumbents. How do I know? Because the story was offered to us as well, with the warning that the E-R is biting at the bit to get this thing published so we’d better hurry and run with it. That’s an old trick to get something in the paper, kind of like when a letter writer ends by saying, “I dare you to print this!” The person who planted the story provided 28 pages of printed e-mails, various documents and even questions to ask all the sources he listed. It was gift-wrapped with a red ribbon and big bow. And the E-R opened it up and ran with it. To his credit, the reporter didn’t tie this story to the Sloan story. But a few days later the paper’s editorial did with the headline, “Bad accounting raises questions.” And now the letter writers are going to work. I’m not going to mention the name of the man who planted the story—and not because he repeatedly asked me not to do so and insisted that it had nothing to do with the candidates he was supporting. I’m not mentioning his name because he is someone I’ve long respected. It’s all just politics, of course, but we decided we didn’t want to play with this one. It was too obvious.

The Esplanade League announced its endorsements for the four City Council seats this week, tapping Andy Holcombe, Ann Schwab, John Merz and Barbi Boeger. (I know I’ve made this joke before, but wouldn’t it be cool if Merz’s first name was Ken, as in, “We endorse Raggedy Ann and Andy and Barbi and Ken.”) The league had nice things to say about candidates Sharon Nichols, Jolene Francis, Shawn Hughes, Fred Davis, Rodney Willis and DNA, noting “their willingness to submit responses and to serve the community. Unfortunately,” the league laments, “incumbents Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl, as well as new candidate Phil Brock, refused to respond to any of our questions, after repeated requests to each of them.” The group describes itself as “Chico’s ‘common sense,’ non-partisan, civic and political organization.” I think the words “common sense” are in quotations because the league more or less stole them from local conservatives, who for years have described themselves and their philosophies as such. Maybe that’s why Wahl, Bertagna and Brock wanted no part of their endorsement.

One last thing: That Willis fellow is pretty sharp—and articulate. I’m predicting there will be no “Watch you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” questions in the upcoming League of Women Voters council candidates debates set for Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers. (Can you believe somebody actually pays me to write this?)