Still scrapping

City Council delays decision on Chico Scrap Metal referendum

Chico Scrap Metal on East 20th Street.

Chico Scrap Metal on East 20th Street.

Photo by Howard Hardee

‘I object!” said attorney Richard Harriman, rising from his seat in the Chico City Council chambers and approaching the dais. “All of us came here believing we would speak on an item that has been taken off the agenda without a vote of the council.”

He wasn’t the only one who felt misled during the meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 3). According to the evening’s posted agenda, the council was set to make a pivotal decision in the decade-long saga of Chico Scrap Metal, but due to a clerical snafu, no such discussion was held.

First, history: Some people believe CSM should move from its current location on East 20th Street near Chapman Elementary School due to its documented history of environmental pollution. In 2007, the Department of Toxic Substances Control found polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a known carcinogen, at the site. In addition, zoning changes enacted years earlier by adoption of the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan meant the industrial business no longer fit in with the neighborhood. Through an amortization process, the council ordered CSM to move but a series of extensions granted by the panel has dragged out the issue for years.

In October, the council voted to change sections of the Chico municipal code and the neighborhood plan, effectively allowing CSM to stay put. In response, environmental group Move the Junkyard—represented by Harriman—launched a petition drive to let Chico voters decide the recycler’s fate.

On Dec. 1, the group submitted more than 9,000 signatures to City Clerk Debbie Presson, well more than the 5,001 required. Presson called for a full count, to be conducted by the office of Butte County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs, rather than following standard procedure—reviewing a sample of 500 signatures.

Grubbs told the CN&R by phone that Presson requested the full count because many of the signatures were invalid or duplicates. On Dec. 28, Grubbs verified 5,050 signatures (her employees stopped counting after clearing a comfortable threshold), thereby certifying the referendum.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Karl Ory removed himself from the discussion due to a potential conflict of interest. He helped organize Move the Junkyard before he was elected in November. “I have no legal conflict with the issue in front of us today, but I’m going to step down, sit in the audience and listen to the discussion tonight, because I want it to be fair,” he said.

In an apparent jab at Councilman Andrew Coolidge, who has been dogged by criticism of his former ties to CSM’s owners, Ory added: “I want to raise the bar for what is a conflict for this council.”

On the agenda, Presson outlined three choices for the council—rescind its decision to let CSM stay; submit a measure to voters, either during the next municipal election in 2018 or during a special election called for that purpose; or provide direction to city staff. However, City Attorney Vince Ewing clarified that the panel’s only task was considering receipt of the county clerk’s certification.

“Irrespective of what you just read in the staff report,” he said, “the question before you is whether or not you’re going to certify the count of the county recorder. … Your conversation about the other issues will be at a later date.”

Members of the audience grumbled; many attendees had expected a broader discussion.

“I think we’re upsetting a lot of people,” said Councilman Randall Stone. “We led the public to believe we were going to have a discussion on these items … people came here to speak.”

Ory left his seat in the audience to address Mayor Sean Morgan. “I was told by the city clerk that the other items were actionable tonight.”

Presson explained that she didn’t know Ewing hadn’t completed his legal analysis of the referendum before posting the agenda; Morgan moved the discussion forward. Councilman Mark Sorensen made a motion to accept the county’s verification of the referendum, which was seconded by Coolidge and passed by a 5-to-0 vote, with Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer absent and Ory abstaining.

In a second motion, Sorensen proposed delaying the decision on the CSM referendum until Ewing has reviewed it. Coolidge seconded, and the motion passed 5-0. The council will revisit the issue during its next meeting on Jan. 17.

In other council news, the panel appointed Scott Dowell as the new director of administrative services, head of the city’s Finance Department. Dowell served as an accounting manager for two years. He replaces Frank Fields, who retired last month after 10 years of working for the city. Barbara Martin, former budget and treasury manager, was promoted to deputy director.

Also of note, the council agreed to grapple with how to regulate recreational cannabis. At Morgan’s request, the council voted unanimously to agendize a discussion of the various implications of California voters legalizing weed.

“It seems prudent to have our city attorney start to draft some policy,” he said, “and we can start agreeing on what those policies are going to be sooner rather than later.”