Sued by the city
City Council member named as defendant in complaint against referendum
Less than two months after winning a seat on the Chico City Council, Karl Ory was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the city he’d been elected to serve.
The lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 23 and also names the citizens’ group Move the Junkyard as a defendant, seeks to nullify a referendum effort aimed at reversing council actions taken last November to let long-embattled recycler Chico Scrap Metal stay at its East 20th Street location.
But Ory, an outspoken progressive who’s long advocated that the business move in keeping with improvement plans for the surrounding neighborhood and past council decisions, characterized the legal complaint as a partisan attempt to deprive local residents of their say in the long-running saga.
“This is the four Republicans on the City Council suing city voters,” Ory said by phone, referring to Move the Junkyard’s reported count of more than 9,000 Chico residents who signed a petition to qualify the referendum. (The Butte County Clerk-Recorder certified the signatures after counting a safe number past the requisite 5,001.)
The City Council discussed the lawsuit in a closed session Tuesday (Feb. 7), but no public action was taken. Thus far, the only legal proceeding on the docket is a case management conference scheduled for July 28.
Ory was one of the founders of Move the Junkyard, but said he stepped back after being elected to the council in order to avoid perceived conflicts of interest, and to help negotiate a move with the business. He says the petition is sound and believes it will withstand legal scrutiny, but admitted the lawsuit is jarring on a personal level.
“I have to believe that the voters will win out, and I have to say that it does cause worry in my household,” he said.
To allow Chico Scrap Metal to stay, the City Council agreed to alter zoning codes, long-term city plans and a decade-old ordinance calling for the business to move; it also approved a development plan pitched by CSM to make operational changes and aesthetic improvements at the property. Those actions were finalized in November, but the referendum calls for the council to either rescind them or let Chico voters weigh in during an upcoming election. Move the Junkyard and Ory’s stance has been that once the changes are rescinded, the city should negotiate with the business to help it relocate.
The complaint against Move the Junkyard and Ory was prepared by City Attorney Vince Ewing and two other representatives from his Southern California law firm, Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin. Ewing expounded on several items listed in the complaint during a phone interview Tuesday, beginning with the city’s claim that each page of the petition should have included the entire text of the neighborhood plan.
“The way we read the elections code, it states that if you’re circulating a petition for signatures, you need to provide all of the relevant information,” Ewing said. “By not including a copy of that plan and attaching all of the relevant documents, we believe they didn’t correctly inform people of what they were signing.”
The complaint also alleges the city’s actions on Chico Scrap Metal were executive rather than legislative, and therefore beyond the scope of a referendum’s power, making the referendum illegal and unenforceable under city, state and national laws. He explained that legislative decisions affect broad laws and policy, while executive—or, as he called them, “adjudicated”—decisions affect specific things, such as a single property.
“A referendum can’t tell the City Council to move the junkyard, or otherwise engage in taking of land,” he said. “If a vote was to undo what the city has done, that would result in the city taking land, which would require just compensation. We don’t believe that would be a lawful taking of land.”
In addition to asking that the referendum be nullified, the complaint requests that the defendants pay for attorney’s fees and further relief as the court sees fit.
Attorney Richard Harriman is representing Move the Junkyard in the lawsuit, while Chris Loizeaux is representing Ory.
Harriman was reluctant to comment on particulars in the city’s complaint as his team is still analyzing it, but he spoke about the bigger picture.
“It seems the city has already spent enough money making mistakes on this particular project,” he said. “The majority on the City Council purports to be business-smart and shrewd, yet they continue to waste taxpayers’ money.
“My clients believe there are more effective ways to deal with this, like letting the people vote on it so we can see what the people of Chico really want,” he said. “If the referendum petition was supported by the necessary number of voters, then the city ought to allow that vote.”
Harriman said it’s not uncommon for a city to challenge a referendum, but that those legal challenges generally come after the public votes. He added it’s the first time he’s seen a city sue a sitting council member.
“That’s unprecedented, in my experience,” he said. “It seems strange Karl Ory is being victimized instead of being respected for exercising his First Amendment rights.”
City Attorney Ewing said Ory was included because he was the contact person listed on the referendum.
“The referendum gave the city two choices—they could have put it on the ballot or rescinded and started negotiating,” Ory said. “Instead, we’re subjected to a long and expensive delay, but in the end it will come right back around to those two choices.”