Political theater

Council amends election process, including Morgan’s district; votes to discuss syringe program alternatives, rescinding sit/lie

Citizens rally outside the council chambers calling for a ban of a local syringe distribution program and for the city to keep its sit/lie and Offenses Against Public Property ordinances on the books.

Citizens rally outside the council chambers calling for a ban of a local syringe distribution program and for the city to keep its sit/lie and Offenses Against Public Property ordinances on the books.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

With three extremely controversial issues on the docket, tensions were high from the start of Tuesday night’s (Feb. 4) Chico City Council meeting.

The first half hour of the meeting was punctuated by droning honks from cars passing by a throng of citizens on Main Street protesting a local organization’s syringe distribution program and the potential for the council to address ordinances that supporters argue are useful for law enforcement.

Both issues were councilmember requests to agendize those subjects for a future meeting: Councilman Sean Morgan asked for a discussion on drafting an ordinance to ban syringe programs, while Mayor Randall Stone and Vice Mayor Alex Brown requested the council consider rescinding sit/lie and amending the Offenses Against Public Property ordinances. Detractors have criticized these laws for criminalizing homelessness.

These issues drew the most comments from the public—on sit/lie alone, 30 speakers addressed the council. The charged crowd filled the chambers, overflowing into the conference room next door. Per the council’s policies on such requests, the panel could vote only whether or not to agendize a full discussion at a later date. Still, both issues got so heated that Stone called recesses to maintain order.

Debate about the laws was evenly split. Several who argued that the city should discuss repealing or amending the laws called them unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights. Robyn Engel said that every human being has a right to sit and recline.

Conversely, those who argued to keep the laws as-is said they’re tools for law enforcement to keep public paths clear and improve safety. Richard Parks, of the North Valley Plaza Mall, said the issue isn’t about homelessness, but about “decency and a functioning environment.”

Getting discussion about the laws on a future agenda was a hard sell: It passed 4-3, with Morgan and Councilwomen Kasey Reynolds and Ann Schwab dissenting. Councilman Karl Ory added that he was considering voting the proposal down, given the transition of two key positions in the city with the retirement of Police Chief Mike O’Brien in June and City Attorney Andrew Jared’s recent move to a Grass Valley-based law firm. (The council has a temporary agreement to keep Jared on board and is weighing its options in closed session.)

When it came to the syringe program, the council played nice: Morgan modified his request to discuss banning such programs, and a future discussion to examine syringe program alternatives passed unanimously.

The evening’s drama continued as the council reached its first regular agenda item after 10 p.m.: passing an ordinance to codify district-based elections.

When it came to the election process, however, they changed course. Two weeks ago, a map was chosen, receiving bipartisan support (Councilman Scott Huber was the only nay). Then, a majority voted to choose an election sequence in which all incumbents up for election would be on the ballot—except for Morgan. The vote at the time fell 4-3 (Schwab, Morgan and Reynolds dissented).

The decision sent shock waves through the community: It was unclear whether it was a partisan move or motivated by the city’s adherence to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which requires that districts with higher minority populations be sequenced first.

At this week’s meeting, many speakers criticized the council for its decision, alleging politicking. Nathan Methvin-Terry told the panel he is a “blue-blooded Democrat” who “campaigned hard against Sean Morgan,” but the council should reconsider its vote so “everybody can have a fair shot to sit up there.”

“This is wrong. This is putting party politics over the will of the voters,” he said.

Morgan, wearing a “Make Northwest Chico Great Again” cap, started his comments by rehashing the panel’s convoluted conversation from its last meeting to emphasize his point. It took him about 11 minutes.

“Boom, 12,000-plus voters without representation because four people on this dais believe they know what’s best for them without their vote of consent,” he said.

Ory challenged the assertion, saying that no matter what, three districts in Chico would have to wait it out this year and end up on the 2022 ballot. There will be councilmembers who continue to represent the entire city until the full shift to district elections is complete, he added.

Ultimately, Brown and Huber changed their votes, and Morgan’s district will be up for election this year instead of Brown’s. The vote passed 5-2, with Ory and Stone against. In addition, the city will have a meeting on Monday (Feb. 10) at 6 p.m. for the second reading of the ordinance to ensure it complies with the CVRA’s deadline.

In explaining why he changed his mind, Huber pointed out that the council’s original decision would have put it in a position where it could have had to appoint someone to fill Brown’s vacant seat, as her current term runs through 2022.

Huber said the council shouldn’t be making that call.

“This scenario avoids the possibility that councilors rather than the voters will decide on a future council seat,” he said. The councilmembers of the three districts whose terms are up in 2020 should logically be included in the election this year, he added, and “whether or not [an] incumbent decides to run is besides the point.”