Schwab sets a broader agenda
Chico’s ‘sustainability mayor’ also takes on role of ‘economy mayor’
Ann Schwab has prepared for this moment for years. No, not her lunch interview with the editor of the local newsweekly, though she readily accepted the invitation. It was the occasion of the get-together—her new role as mayor—that shaped so many of her days.
Schwab served as vice mayor from 2006 to 2008, and her seat beside the mayor allowed her an up-close-and personal view how Andy Holcombe conducted business. She got reelected handily to the City Council in November, then selected unanimously as mayor by her colleagues.
Immediately, she began scaling back on commitments to accommodate mayoral responsibilities, for which she gets a stipend but not full-time pay. At CAVE (Community Action Volunteers in Education, through the Associated Students of Chico State University), her job as program manager is now 30 hours a week; her boss, Councilwoman Mary Flynn, is flexible about scheduling.
Schwab spent her noon hour Monday talking about her first three months of ceremonies, meetings and agenda-setting. Among her revelations: the self-described “sustainability mayor” is now the “economy mayor,” too.
CN&R: Now that you are in the center chair, how does the reality compare to your expectations and hopes for the position?
Schwab: I have said to Andy, “Why didn’t you tell me it was this much fun? I would have wanted to be mayor sooner!”
I thought it was going to be very ceremonial—being the face of the city of Chico to the public. It certainly is that, but I don’t think I realized the big responsibility it is. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for the budget and the city’s economy, and I think that’s my biggest challenge.
Prior to becoming the mayor, I knew I wanted to continue with my Sustainability Task Force efforts, and I do want to continue those, and I thought that maybe that would be my priority. But after being the mayor for a few months, it definitely has to be the economy and the budget, and I take those things very seriously.
I started [up] the Mayor’s Business Advisory Council again—something that Scott Gruendl established and Andy continued. I had my first meeting last week. It’s so important that I hear from business leaders in the community…. It’s my job to be accessible to them so if there are needs the city can fill for them, we can react to that quickly. As we go through the general plan update, it will be important to know what they need for 20 years down the road, but they [also] need to know things can be shovel-ready right now so they can move quickly and react to opportunities.
I know it sounds depressing when you think about the economy, but it’s also an opportunity to look at different ways of doing business and work with one another. I’ve seen a lot more compatibility of groups in town with the shared hardships of the economy, and that gives me a lot of reasons for hope.
How do you integrate the business-friendly attitude with “sustaining Chico’s values” that you preached during the [2008 City Council] campaign?
I think they’re very compatible. When we look at sustainability, we look at the three legs of sustainability: the economy, the environment, and improving society and our community.
There’s a lot businesses can do to save energy, which’ll save them money. If we can lower their transportation costs, that benefits the environment and the economy. If we can create a community with affordable housing for their workers, that’s safe and has good roads and sewer systems, that benefits business and our community. So I think they’re very compatible.
Right now, there’s a slowdown; if we take the time now to plan what we want our Chico to look like when the economy turns around, and if we prepare through those [three] sustainability outcomes, then the outcome is going to be even better.
When you meet with business-owners, do they tend to respond to that line of thinking, or is their idea of what you can do to expedite things simply cutting regulations and shortening processes?
Business leaders in this community are very intelligent and forward-thinking. They are very receptive to these ideas.
What specifically, as the mayor, does your focus on the economy accomplish?
I hope that I would be giving businesses the confidence that Chico is a good place to do business—that they would want to stay and not be drawn by another community or another state. Having my accessibility so I can help them with any obstacles they foresee; be a liaison between the business and [city] staff when need be, to make things happen when they want them to happen.
Do you have to spend more time on budget oversight in this current climate?
Not at this time. The budgets are being developed for the following [fiscal] years…. In my meetings with the city manager, we talk about our deficit-reduction strategy.
This year, I’m sitting on the Economic Development Committee. I’m not on the Internal Affairs or Finance committees; I chose to sit on Economic Development so I could increase my knowledge of that and know what the issues are.
Businesses are saying they hope they can hold on through ’09—that’s the goal for the city. We’ve done our first step: We’ve reduced the [department] budgets overall by 7-1/2 percent, and we’ve decreased the payroll by at least 7-1/2 percent. The reduction in salaries, that’s going to be compounded over the next few years for more increased savings, and I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment.
Now it’s forecasting the unknown. The trends are unprecedented. I’m concerned about what our next step will be, because our strategy for the deficit-reduction strategy is not to cut services, and if that’s still our desire, then we may have to look at some of the nonessential services and cut back on those while still providing a high quality of life.
Do we have to look at the arts budgets? Do we have to look at the library budgets? Where do we go?
Those are tough decisions based on the values people have in Chico.
They are. That’s why it’s important to bring those issues to the community.
I’ve asked Dave [Burkland, the city manager] to look at what those nonessential services are and maybe bring them as a package to the council or through the Finance Committee, with a projection of what our revenues will be, and have that public discussion of where and what percentage do we cut.
Do we cut certain services, or a certain percentage across the board? Those are decisions we need community input on, because they affect the community so much, and that’s how we came up with the first step of our budget-deficit-reduction strategy, by having a lot of community input.
Are there other issues the community should be aware of, or is the economy so pervasive that anything else is a distant No. 2?
I think that public safety is a very important issue to our community. When we had the riot at the end of January, it really hit home that on any given night, it’s possible for our police resources to be tied up in one part of the community—namely, south of campus—and we need to work with the university to come up with a solution for that.
I believe university students weren’t proud of what happened that night. This is not what they want our university and our town to be known for. I think what the city and the university can do is help the students identify what those values are.
When we talk about “Chico values,” we can look at “values” as both a noun and a verb, and come up with those things and act on them…. I think that’s how we can turn that situation around. It won’t bring us any more police officers on the street, but at least it will let the police officers patrol and be available for more serious crimes [elsewhere].
Do you think we need more officers to patrol the streets?
Yes, I do. I think that we do. The city of Chico falls below the national average of police per capita. We have one per thousand residents, and as it is right now, many times police officers can’t respond to calls of theft; they can’t do as much preventative work in gangs or in drugs. I’d much rather be proactive than reactive as a community.
Then, going back to your new role as the ‘economy mayor,’ where do the resources come for this?
The resources come from having a vibrant economy, by having base-level employers here in the city of Chico who are exporting products and importing resources and having employees who are paid well so they can shop locally to raise sales tax [revenues].
So until the economy turns around, this [staffing] is going to be a problem?
It is very dependent on the economy.
Are you confident in the leadership of the police department at this point?
We recently had about a dozen promotions within the police department, and I think that speaks very well about the department’s ability to train officers so that they can progress in their career. I think it speaks well that officers chose to remain here in Chico.
I think Mike Maloney is doing an excellent job as acting chief. I’m proud that we have our first woman captain in Lori McPhail, and she has just stepped right into the position created when John Rucker also received a promotion, to assistant city manager.
In any organization, when you have a leadership void created when the chief goes out on medical leave, there could be some disorganization, but I think the transition has been very seamless, and there has been good leadership in a very trying time.
One of the things that has taken a lot of attention of city officials is disc golf. Do you think it’s getting a disproportionate amount of attention, or the right amount of attention, from staff and council members?
I think if you look at the disc-golf issue in the whole picture of what’s going on in the city, I think there’s too much attention. We have so many serious issues in the city and challenges that we face, I hear from a lot of people saying, “Why are we still talking about disc golf?”
[However] over 6,000 people signed a petition in two weeks saying they didn’t agree with the City Council’s decision on disc golf. That’s a significant amount of the community that’s interested in this. I think the city has reacted quickly to the issue… The park is important to people, so there’s a lot of passion about it.
With how important the park is to you personally, do you wish that you could be involved in this discussion and didn’t have to be recused?
Yes; it’s very hard. But I don’t want to even have a bit of intimation of impropriety. If a project is within 500 yards of where your home is, it has the potential to impact the property value. I think any public official should be ethical, and if it removes any suspicion by me sitting aside on that’s particular issue, then that’s what I’ll do.
What do you say to citizens who think the council reconsidered its decision simply out of pressure from certain people—that if council members had made the “right decision” in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to face the referendum and gone back on the vote?
Six-thousand signatures in two weeks showed me that there was a voice out there that definitely needed to be listened to.
Do you think reconsidering a decision is a weakness?
No. No. If additional information comes in on a particular item, then I don’t think it’s a weakness to change your decision. I think admitting a mistake is an admirable thing to do. What I don’t agree with is getting too hung up on an issue.
What do you take from being the mayor with a 6-1 majority council, where the things that you want are basically going to pass?
As far as managing the meeting, I think it’s very important for me to be fair and give equal time to any party who wants to bring an issue before the council.
I’m still a City Council member with one vote on any issue. Through my exposure as the mayor to a lot of different community groups and constituencies, I think I can more clearly see an opposition side, but I still will interpret them through my own lens. It’s important as mayor to give access to all viewpoints, but when I’m voting, I’m voting as an individual.
You know, before I was elected [to the council], I didn’t realize I was progressive, or a liberal. It’s the media or opinions that label that, and I don’t like to be labeled. I like to think there are seven individuals on the council, and we aren’t seeing things through a predetermined lens; we’re looking at an issue’s specific pros and cons, and how it will affect the city of Chico and make it the best community in the world.