The saga continues

City’s ‘clerical error’ likely means Chico Scrap Metal referendum is off ballot

It’s easy to drown in the details of the Chico Scrap Metal (CSM) saga. But really, Karl Ory says, it’s simple: The recycling business isn’t a good fit for its neighborhood, and the city should help it move. And that’s why he’s beyond frustrated with the latest, complex twist.

Ory is an organizer of Move the Junkyard, a citizen-led group that wants CSM—which has a documented history of toxic pollution—to move away from its current location on East 20th Street near Chapman Elementary School. The group’s effort to let voters decide the recycler’s fate on Nov. 8 recently was derailed due to a “clerical error” by the city.

“Chico Scrap Metal might be there forever now,” he said, “because of this one small error and the city’s interpretation of it.”

For more than a decade, Chico Scrap Metal has been operating out of compliance with zoning laws outlined by the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan and the city’s general plan. On May 17, the Chico City Council adopted two ordinances changing sections of Chico municipal code and the neighborhood plan, respectively, allowing CSM to stay put. The council also imposed operational changes and aesthetic improvements to the property.

Unsatisfied, Move the Junkyard immediately set about organizing a referendum that would put the issue in the hands of Chico voters. The group had printed 1,200 initiatives and gathered about 200 signatures, but on May 24 received an email from City Clerk Debbie Presson stating that, due to a mistake by staff, the city was restarting the whole process.

Here’s the problem: In writing the ordinances, city staff took an excerpt of text from an outdated and invalid version of city code, said Mark Wolfe, the city’s community development director. The mistake wasn’t discovered until the document was reviewed by American Legal Publishing, the firm that maintains Chico’s municipal code.

“It isn’t something that could be easily caught; you wouldn’t know you were reading something that’s out-of-date,” Wolfe said. “But it shouldn’t have happened, obviously. The document should have relied on text from our updated city code.”

The referendum effort has been suspended. So long as the city is working to amend its error, there are no ordinances to overturn.

Wolfe couldn’t pinpoint a date, but conceded it likely will be at least a couple of months before the updated ordinances appear before the Planning Commission—let alone the council.

First, the council likely will rescind the ordinances at its next meeting on June 7. Then the city must open another 30-day public review of a negative declaration stating that the environment is not being significantly impacted by allowing CSM to stay. From there, the city’s Community Development Department needs time to prepare a staff report and get the revised document on a Planning Commission agenda.

As a former city councilman and mayor, Ory is familiar with the molasses-slow pace of local government, and so he’s convinced that the ordinances won’t be approved in time to organize another referendum prior to the deadline to file on Aug. 10.

“This puts us off the November ballot—period—because of the late date of this screw-up,” he said.