New grassroots organization seeks to reform the way Chico elects mayor, City Council
When it comes to hot-button topics that have recurrently stirred debate in Chico’s City Council chambers over the years—the Saturday morning farmers’ market, Bidwell Ranch and disc golf in Upper Park—Ken Fleming and Robert Speer are remarkably well-versed. Both have followed local politics for decades.
That some issues simmer unresolved for so long is just one undesirable aspect of a political system Chico has outgrown, Fleming and Speer say.
“We’re still pretending that Chico is a city of 30,000 people, and with a good city manager and a meeting every couple of weeks we can make everything work just fine, thank you,” Fleming said during a recent interview. “That hasn’t been the case for at least two decades. Generally speaking, the track record of city councils is that they haven’t been able to solve problems.
That would change if council members represented the neighborhoods in which they live, rather than the population at large. At least, that’s the stance of Districts for Chico, a new nonpartisan organization led by Fleming and Speer that intends to reform elections of the mayor and the other six members of City Council.
“They represent everyone, and therefore no one,” Speer said. (Speer worked for CN&R for 30 years, including stints as editor-in-chief.)
Districts for Chico held its first press conference on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 30, to announce the goal of placing two measures on the November 2016 ballot—one separating Chico into six voting districts represented by one council member each, and another mandating that the mayor be elected at large and serve two- or four-year terms. (Currently, the mayor is appointed by fellow council members and serves a two-year term.) The proposal wouldn’t change Chico’s so-called weak mayor system, in which the mayor wields only figurative power while the city manager runs day-to-day operations.
On top of holding representatives more accountable, Fleming and Speer touted benefits such as reducing the cost of candidates’ campaigns; addressing harmful partisanship; encouraging more candidates of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds; and protecting the city from potential litigation over the voting rights of minority populations.
Speer was introduced to the district system in Boise, Idaho, where he served as editor for Boise Weekly. He saw how voters benefited from having their neighbors on the City Council.
“They knew who to go to,” Speer said. “They knew who their representative was.”
He also saw it was possible to mount a strong district campaign without a lot of money. “With fewer voters to reach, you can really do a shoe-leather campaign by knocking on doors,” he said.
In last year’s election, council candidates raised a total of more than $180,000 in campaign funding. The three candidates who won—Andrew Coolidge, Reanette Fillmer and Mark Sorensen—all raised at least $25,000, and Fillmer alone raised nearly $50,000.
Which leads to another problem: The two major political parties have taken over the elections, Speer argues, because they are the only organizations with the money it takes to win. Therefore, nearly one-third of Chico voters—those who aren’t registered as either Democrats or Republicans—are effectively shut out from the City Council.
“What are ostensibly nonpartisan elections have become very partisan elections, and it’s been that way quite a while,” Speer said. “We think that’s wrong. Having district elections won’t get rid of money in the system, but it will reduce the need to have a lot of money to run an effective campaign.”
There’s also the matter of diversity. With the notable exception of Dan Nguyen-Tan, the son of Vietnamese refugees, the council has overwhelmingly been made up of white people who live in relatively affluent neighborhoods north of Big Chico Creek, according to analysis by Districts for Chico. That isn’t fair representation for minority and working-class neighborhoods, they say.
It also might violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which makes it easier for minority populations to prove their voting rights are diluted in at-large elections. Robert Rubin, a San Francisco-based attorney who’s following Districts for Chico’s efforts, can’t yet definitively say whether Chico is noncompliant. Further analysis would reveal whether minority groups in Chico—about 65 percent of residents are white—are underrepresented in local government.
“If that was the case, we would certainly be looking at potential litigation,” he said.