Shape up, council

In a letter to the editor this week (”Major development: ‘hypocrisy,’"), Chicoan Tom Sharp offers some telling observations about the Sept. 5 Chico City Council meeting.

As he writes, at issue was an 18.3-acre rezone and General Plan amendment to allow slightly higher density for a proposed infill project off Eaton Road in north Chico. The council’s discussion was wandering and confused and, as we noted in our Sept. 7 issue, involved “a lot of the thinking out loud and impromptu planning this council tends to do when matters get complicated.”

Neighbors of the proposed project wanted a lower, not higher, density. Councilwoman Maureen Kirk sided with them, which led Councilman Dan Herbert to lambaste her for hypocrisy, even though he said he agreed with her in concept.

You have to understand the history here. Councilmembers have been arguing over densities since 1994, when a new General Plan called for higher overall densities for new developments in order to maintain Chico’s “compact form” and minimize sprawl—a position that local “smart growth” advocates such as Kirk generally support. Many developers insist people want houses with big backyards, and pro-business councilmembers like Herbert have supported them.

In accusing Kirk of hypocrisy, Herbert—with Councilman Steve Bertagna, Kirk’s opponent in the 3rd District supervisor race, backing him up—was referring to this historic difference on the issue and, no doubt, trying to score political points. His problem was that in this case the developer wanted a higher density, which Herbert supported, leaving himself vulnerable to the hypocrisy charge.

But there’s another issue here, and that’s the dysfunctional nature of council meetings. Whether it’s getting into a fight with Supervisor Mary Anne Houx (Herbert and Bertagna again), doing on-the-fly planning at the podium or spending three hours on items that should take 30 minutes, this council too often is out of control.

Mayor Scott Gruendl doesn’t have the institutional power to control the meetings, and councilmembers haven’t voluntarily reined themselves in. With nobody in charge, the meetings often become like unfocused bull sessions full of back-and-forth, interruptions and the occasional emotional tirade.

Councilmembers perform a valuable service and receive little direct reward for it, so we don’t want to be too hard on them. We just want them to run the meetings better. They expect people who come to the podium to be succinct; they need to be succinct, too, as well as polite to each other and members of the public. And they should stay on task and end meetings on time.

The alternative is more of the same antics Tom Sharp so rightly scorns.