Red menace

A revolution of titanic proportions swept over Chico Nov. 5 when the political balance of the City Council was radically altered because one seat changed, with a progressive replacing a conservative. All hell broke loose that night, as the liberals rode victoriously into town, tearing down statues and other symbols of the hard line conservative rule that has so long dominated this town. Watching the chaos that night reminded me of the fall of Saigon in 1975, when helicopters plucked panicky people off the roof of the American Embassy as the North Vietnamese rolled over the city gates. I wondered, were the developers gathered on the roof of the Chico Municipal Building, waiting for a last-second rescue by Sheriff Scott Mackenzie‘s swarm of county helicopters?

The above is obvious fiction. Nothing of the sort happened. Despite the picture painted by the local daily of the new City Council’s “liberal” tint, the fact is this council is a classic 3-3-1 arrangement, with a true moderate serving as the swing vote. This is the most balanced council since 1996, when the conservative bloc of Rick Keene, Ted Hubert, Mary Andrews and Steve Bertagna held sway over council affairs. At that time Andrews, a conservative real estate agent/hair salon owner, acted as the swing vote, though mostly flexing her independence on community art matters and on rare occasion on issues she knew would tweak political enemy Keene. Following the death in 1998 of Hubert, another real estate broker, Bill Johnston, was elected in a special election. He, too, had a soft spot for the arts—he was married to a local artist—but didn’t hesitate to say his constituency was the developer community. When Johnston died, he was replaced by conservative Sheryl Lange. Conservative Dan Herbert replaced Andrews in 1998, and Bertagna was as close to a swing vote as the conservative led council could muster.

Now we have Maureen Kirk serving as the swing vote. As for a “liberal” bent to this council, that is a stretch at best. She is liberal only relative to the generally conservative nature of the previous council majority. Now, only Councilmember Coleen Jarvis truly comes close to that description. In this town, it seems, if you question the motives or methods of the development industry, you are automatically labeled a left-wing wacko. On the other hand, if you are funded by developers, you are labeled a conservative. But the fact is those developer-backed councilmembers have hewn to a conservative agenda more rigorously than their counterparts have stayed loyal to any sort of liberal agenda. The progressives have been more willing to compromise, though that may well come from being in the minority.

Don’t expect the city to lurch left anytime soon. The General Plan (which the conservatives under Keene attacked with a vengeance) will be held to a little tighter, and there will probably be some more campaign finance reform. Also, look for Kirk to be named mayor and, perhaps as a conciliatory move by the progressives, a conservative, maybe Bertagna, to be given the vice-mayor’s job. The first meeting in January will feature a workshop led by Jarvis to set council priorities so that everyone is on the same page—or at least in the same book.

There are 21 seats open on the city’s boards and commissions, and Friday, Nov. 15, is the deadline to apply for one or more of those seats. The new council will make those appointments soon after it is sworn in on Dec. 3. Included in those 21 seats are four on the Planning Commission, four on the Parks Commission, three on the Arts Commission and two on the Architectural Review Board. Remember, you have to live within the city limits to serve and also must be aware of possible conflicts of interest. This week’s paper includes a letter from Tom Hall taking me to task for reporting in last week’s Inside view that the Chico City Council voted 4-3 to uphold a local builder’s appeal of a Planning Department requirement that he get a permit before bulldozing some elderberry bushes to make way for houses. In that column I reported that the council majority had given developer Tony Symmes its blessing to mow over the bushes, which serve as habitat for the federally protected elderberry beetle. Of course four councilmembers didn’t collectively say, "Go ahead and rip those plants out, Tony," as I suggested they had. I was being a smart-aleck and using poetic license. Had that been reported in a news story rather than my column, then I could see Hall’s concern. He wonders how he can now believe anything he reads in the paper. The paper’s on the level, Tom; it’s this damn column you have to be careful around.