Suits fly over Otterson arguments

They aren’t playing softball here. The latest weapon in the Otterson Drive ballot battle has turned out to be lawsuits, lobbed this week by the sides for and against the extension of the road to the Hegan Lane Business Park. All seven members of Chico’s City Council are named in the suits.

The $2.9 million Otterson Drive extension would bridge Comanche Creek to create quicker access to the business park and annex land into the city to add “creekside greenway.” It’s been approved by the City Council but faces a referendum vote, as Measure A, in a June 5 special election.

On March 19, proponents of the extension filed a writ of mandate in Butte County Superior Court, claiming that the voters’ pamphlet rebuttal against Measure A signed by Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis, Maureen Kirk and Dan Nguyen-Tan contains “false and misleading statements” in violation of the state Election Code. By the end of the day, a representative of a group opposing the project had fired back with a similar writ.

Craig Alger, who runs a Hegan Lane business, V-Tech, filed the first suit, since such challenges must be made by a registered voter. But Alger was quick to acknowledge he’s backed—philosophically and financially—by the Coalition for Parks and Jobs, an ad hoc group of business organizations formed to get the extension approved through passage of Measure A.

Alger said he hopes a judge will force the rebuttal to be rewritten.

Voters legally have 10 days to object to arguments submitted for or against a ballot measure. Both writs also name the clerk, Deborah Presson, to keep her from printing the ballot.

Nguyen-Tan said that after learning of the suit late Friday afternoon, the three councilmembers who had signed the anti-extension argument felt “backed into a corner.” They worried that the city might not pay to legally defend a minority of councilmembers and no longer wanted the language to stand unchallenged. So, on March 19, a lawsuit was filed against Councilmembers Dan Herbert, Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna and Rick Keene, alleging that the ballot argument signed by them had misstatements of fact.

Steven Schuman, a member of the anti-Otterson-extension group Neighbors for Environmental and Fiscal Responsiblity (NEFR) and a businessman who lives near where rerouted traffic could go, is the petitioner in the second case. “It’s sort of a corporate-welfare project,” he said of Measure A. “[Voters] shouldn’t be spending almost $3 million to fancy up this business park.”

Nguyen-Tan said he was surprised people found fault with the anti-extension argument, since he sought input for it all over town. But, he said, the “legal bomb” includes only “nitpicky points that are trivial to the larger debate” of whether the project is urgent in the big scheme of city roads funding.

Jarvis took the news more personally. “They have a number of different avenues they could have gone through,” she said, calling the “frivolous” lawsuit a resurgence of the type of “nasty” campaigning that she thought was in the past.

The proponents’ writ takes issue with two elements of the argument against Measure A. It counters the opponents’ assertion that traffic studies cited by the pro-Otterson contingent say the bridge wouldn’t solve the problem of congested roads. Also, the writ argues that the rebuttal shouldn’t say that the city Planning Commission and park commission disagree with Measure A, since neither body technically took a position on the ballot measure itself.

Jarvis said she stands by the interpretation of the traffic study and also the statements about the commissions, since both had the opportunity to approve the Otterson Drive project as proposed in Measure A and declined.

Laurel Blankinship, a member of NEFR, said that members of the anti-Otterson Drive group, as well as the dissenting councilmembers, immediately saw factual errors in the proponents’ ballot argument. “We knew that it was false and misleading, but we chalked it up to campaign hyperbole,” she said. “We weren’t going to sue them.”

Among other things, the second suit challenges the statement by the proponents that all of the major business organizations in the city support Measure A. Blankinship called that “terribly arrogant,” quickly tallying the Downtown Chico Business Association and Soroptomists International as two that took no stand on the measure.

NEFR members figure that having two suits on the table will get the sides talking. “We want to talk about the issue,” Blankinship said. “I think they realize that.”

Bertagna said that while he didn’t know about the Parks and Jobs-backed suit ahead of time, he agrees that there were misstatements in the rebuttal. But he called NEFR’s similar claims “ridiculous.”

Bertagna also said the three Measure A opponents on the council shouldn’t have feared the majority would have denied them city-funded legal counsel. “We wouldn’t hang them out there,” he said.

Jim Goodwin, chief executive officer of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, a Parks and Jobs member, said all his group wants to do is “make sure that the information that goes out to the voters is accurate.” Councilmembers shouldn’t feel targeted, he added. “The remedy is just a change in the language. There’s nothing punitive against the councilmembers.”

Nguyen-Tan called the pro-Otterson suit "a political decision that had unintended consequences." Now, he said, "It makes all of us look foolish."