Chico Vice Mayor Maureen Kirk and Chico school trustee/weatherman Anthony Watts go one-on-one
This year will see what should turn out to be one of the more interesting local political races in some time as Maureen Kirk, Chico City Councilmember and Anthony Watts, school district trustee and well-known weatherman, vie for Butte County Supervisor Mary Anne Houx’s District 3 seat, from which she is stepping down at the end of this year.
Kirk may not enjoy the same household name recognition in Chico as Watts, but her moderate politics may work in her favor and strong support in Chico may help her overcome that disadvantage. Plus, she has received the endorsement of the incumbent.
In making his announcement to run, Watts was surrounded by representatives of the county’s deep-set conservative crowd, which will provide the weatherman with a strong base.
We asked the two candidates to answer some questions for us, some for both, others tailored to the candidate. We appreciate their cooperation.
Who are your political heroes/role models?
Maureen Kirk: My high-profile political heroes are John McCain and Joe Lieberman. While I do not agree with all of their positions, I admire their independence.
Mary Anne Houx is my local political hero. I admire her ethics, her tenacity, her 30 years of public service and her commitment to the citizens of Butte County.
My role model would be Trish Dunlap, recently retired assistant city manager for the city of Chico. Her unparalleled public service and commitment to always strive for the best is to be recognized. I also consider Maureen Pierce, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Chico, to be a role model. Maureen makes things happen because she works for a goal and always finds a way to succeed.
Anthony Watts: Ronald Reagan is my all-time political hero, because through his vision and character, he was able to finally end the cold war. But in practice, I like to aspire to statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Both were farmers, publishers, engineers and visionaries. I think a leader must be more than just an elected official; you must inspire. Locally I’ll have to give some points to Scott Gruendl. While I sometimes disagree with his views, he’s worked very hard to overcome many personal obstacles, and I respect that, having overcome many obstacles of my own.
Define your governing philosophy. What makes for good local government?
MK: My governing philosophy is to study, investigate and listen. Good local government demands participation by citizens, openness and education. Local leaders must be accessible and responsive. I am always available and make it a point to always return my phone calls and e-mails.
AW: I see local government as three main parts. One: being accessible [via] my e-mail, phone, letters and one-on-one conversations so that constituents don’t feel left out of the loop. Two: being hands-on; just studying the problem from reports gives you little real insight. I prefer to show up where the problem is, see for myself and ask my own questions. Three: Being visionary; planning for the future is key. If you can’t look beyond this year’s budget to plan ahead, you aren’t serving the community. I’m reminded of a phrase: “A vision without action is called a daydream; but an action without a vision is called a nightmare.” That pretty well sums up California today. We need both vision and action to move forward.
What are the three most pressing issues facing the county?
MK: Land use and long-range planning. An example would be the proposed Wal-Mart in north Chico. I am very skeptical that the impacts of such a project can be mitigated. Water issues are huge. The bottom line is that the citizens of Butte County must be assured that there will be enough water now and for our children’s children. There is also the issue of the re-licensing of the Oroville Dam. Promises have been broken and Butte County and Oroville must be compensated. Preserving our valuable agricultural land is paramount. It is not only important for our economy, but for our quality of life.
AW: Economic development. Butte County is filling up with big-box retail jobs and low-paying service jobs. This does little for our tax base and doesn’t help families grow. Yet, housing prices continue to escalate. Unless this trend is reversed, our own children won’t be able to afford a home in the town they grew up in. The key is in attracting better quality jobs in the hi-tech sector, and in the alternate energy sector. We have more solar power per capita than anywhere in California; we should capitalize on that. The Oroville Dam re-licensing will be huge, because we finally have a chance to recover what we gave away 40 years ago for next to nothing. It’s a big opportunity to bring something back for the people of Butte County, its also going to be a David-and-Goliath fight, so we have to be smart. Then there’s the General Plan, the oldest un-updated plan in the state. This needs to become our roadmap for growth while protecting our precious natural resources and quality of life. We need the time, the money and the will to do it, I see that all converging.
What makes you more qualified to lead Butte County than your opponent?
MK: The most defining difference is experience. My experience with local issues began with the Chico Unified PTA Council. I then was a member of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission for four years. My recent experience of seven years on the Chico City Council allowed me to work on budget issues, land use, public safety and infrastructure issues. I purposely have worked with the county on issues such as the Automatic Aid agreement for city/county fire departments, the Nitrate Action Plan, LAFCO [the Local Agency Formation Commission] and as the Chico member of the Water Advisory Committee. I have served as mayor and vice mayor (twice). I have a very positive working relationship with city staff, county staff and fellow councilors.
AW: I possess several qualities that round me out. I’m a small businessman, and I employ five people, so that helps me understand the struggle of many of our local business owners. I’m a father and sole breadwinner for my family, so my experience parallels many local families. As a school board trustee, and as part of a five-member board, I managed a budget of nearly $100 million, serving over 1,200 employees and 13,000 students. It’s larger and more complex than the city budget. But even more importantly, to keep CUSD solvent, I’ve had to make excruciating decisions, such as cutting programs and closing schools, that affected families and livelihoods. While I wish that didn’t have to be, the fact is that unless tough decisions are made, we may not successfully emerge from some problems that loom large.
How would you characterize the county’s situation in regards to its water resources?
MK: Ostensibly, there seems to be plenty of water in Butte County in our underground aquifers, but more information is needed. There is currently a project authorized by the Butte County Board of Supervisors to determine Basin Management Objectives for the management (quality and quantity) of our groundwater. The ultimate goal is to make sure there is enough water for citizens and agriculture. There is also a movement to cooperate with the four surrounding counties since our aquifers are related. Water is our gold and coveted by Southern California. We must preserve it for our children.
As I mentioned above, the re-licensing of the Oroville Dam is underway and the Board of Supervisors and county staff have hired an experienced attorney to represent our county to reach fair compensation for the dam’s impacts.
AW: Besides agriculture, water is our biggest cash crop, and yet we virtually give it away. We need to be more proactive in reclaiming some of that value for ourselves in our licensing agreements and in our long-range planning for watersheds we need to ensure that we maintain its quality and quantity through proper resource management.
As you know, much of the county’s general fund is spoken for by state-mandated expenditures. Explain how you would carve out enough to ensure Butte County citizens have adequate public safety, roads, etc.?
MK: This is a tough question to answer. I respect the work of the CAO and the present Board of Supervisors. The Butte County budget is about as lean as it can be. Public safety is my first priority as it is of the present board. I will study the budget in detail and work cooperatively with the board members to carve out the money needed maintain our quality of life. We are at the mercy of the vagaries of the state government. Passage of Proposition 1A was a positive step to allow a bit of certainty in budget deliberations. The solar projects done by the county are examples of forward thinking which ultimately save the county money. I will support projects which are a win/win for all.
AW: “Carve” might not be the right word, because that will come at somebody’s expense locally. The better choice would be to enhance revenue. We can do that several ways; through promoting economic development, which promotes the tax base. We can be more aggressive in demanding that state agencies pay the share of state-mandated expenditures. Many of these state-mandated costs aren’t fully reimbursed, as stated by the law which enacted it. We shouldn’t be afraid to complain, loudly and often, to demand what’s right. We should also demand more for the natural resources we export. Water and hydropower exporters aren’t paying a fair share now because Butte County didn’t plan for the future when they were licensed.
Questions specific to Maureen Kirk:
Some see you as liberal, others see you as moderate to conservative. Are you worried voters will see you as wishy-washy? Or do you reject political labels?
I am proud of my record. I am also proud that I cannot be labeled. My decisions are made after careful thought and deliberation. The citizens of Butte County can be assured that I will always be open-minded and deliberate.
Mary Anne Houx has endorsed you. How important is her endorsement to your campaign?
Mary Anne Houx’s endorsement is very important! The fact that she has put her trust in me is a huge complement. Supervisor Houx and I have worked together on many issues. We were both founding members of the Boys & Girls Club of Chico. We worked on the Redevelopment Committee together for several years. We worked for the Automatic Aid agreement and nitrate issues. She knows that I will work to protect public safety, fiscal responsibility, water issues and agricultural issues. We have also worked together on the Cooperative Planning Committee. We want to see good land use planning for Butte County and District 3, in particular.
The board has a history of 3-2 votes against the two Chico supervisors. How much does this concern you as a potential supervisor?
I am optimistic that this is no longer an issue. I plan to work with the other supervisors to move forward for Butte County. I have worked with all of the present supervisors in different capacities and I believe we can work together as a board.
What lessons has being on the city council taught you about public service? Do you think of yourself as a politician now?
Being on the City Council has taught me that public service is a privilege. It has taught me that I must give my very best for the citizens I represent. I have learned that the citizens are passionate in wanting the best for our community and I strive to reach that goal. The first definition of a politician is “one experienced in the art or science of government.” With that definition, I am definitely a politician because of my experience.
What issues specific to Chico have you worked on that you will attempt to advance with the county?
I have worked on public safety, land use planning, transportation and infrastructure issues. I will specifically try to advance excellent planning for District 3. I will continue to work with the nitrate compliance plan from the county side. I have been the Chico representative to the Water Advisory Committee and I will bring that experience to the County level. I will work with [Sheriff] Perry Reniff and [District Attorney] Mike Ramsey to see that they have the tools they need to advance public safety for our county.
Questions specific to Anthony Watts:
In the past you ridiculed the environmental community for attempting to protect Butte County Meadowfoam. Do you still feel the same way? Would you still eat a meadowfoam salad?
Meadowfoam was a personal journey. It started with anger, over delays in the high school and the Highway 149/70 project and the deaths there. But then when I couldn’t find out much about it, I decided to study it, because I couldn’t successfully criticize something I couldn’t understand or even locate. So I made it a very hands-on project, including identification, mapping and photography which culminated in a complete Web site I published at www.meadowfoam.org. Now that Web site has become a reference. It’s been used by the Sac Bee, TV reporters and botanical researchers. Just last week I answered questions from a botanist in England. So after learning all about it, here is where I stand: It’s unique and has value, like anything in the biosphere. But we need to find better ways to replant it, cultivate it and to mitigate it. There’s been some progress in the mitigation banks near Vina, and through research at Oregon State University. But when it comes to choosing between people dying on a dangerous highway over protecting a small patch of it, I’ll choose people every time.
In a recent letter to the editor responding to a CN&R editorial, you implied that those backing your campaign were of diverse political beliefs. Are there any liberals in your corner?
Well, I have a number of folks of the liberal persuasion I like to call friends. The best man at my wedding is a liberal, former Chico State art professor Steve Wilson, and I love our conversations dearly. Our current school board president, Rick Rees, whom I nominated, and I have a strong mutual respect for each other. Another friend I served with, Steve O’Bryan, I count as a good friend. I stop by his bike shop and we talk shop fairly often. Probably my best interaction comes from the folks whom have sought out my ideas on alternate energy. Between putting solar on my own home, running a Web site for the Northstate Renewable Energy Group (www.nsrenergy.org) and publishing letters in the Enterprise-Record on ground-based heatsinks, I’ve had a lot of interaction with many people with a broad range of ideas. It’s a good thing.
How much are you counting on name recognition in this campaign?
None. I’m planning on working my keister off. Watch for some unique campaigning methods to come your way soon.
What lessons has being on the school board taught you about public service?
Being on the school board has brought me personal strife, angst over decisions I knew would affect people’s lives, and sometimes hateful ignorant comments. But it has also been a tremendous personal growth experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Mostly it’s taught me to think more broadly than ever before.
Many candidates have used the school board as a stepping stone to higher office. Was that ever a part of your thought process in deciding to run?
Nope; ask County Clerk Candace Grubbs how I came to run for school board in 2002. I called her up from the beach in Hawaii after hearing her in a radio commercial on the way to the airport saying that people were needed for many unfilled public offices. I had just left TV and I wanted to do something positive for the community. Running for county supervisor is just an extension of that positive experience.