The top 10 stories of 2003

Recall circus and a controversial war compete with local events to dominate the news

Photo by: Tom Angel

War rouses Chico’s sentiments
With war raging in Iraq, the peace movement in Chico spilled over from the sidewalks to the streets.

On March 20, the day after bombs first fell in Baghdad, war opponents were not content to hold protest signs on a street corner. Hundreds of people marched to the Downtown Park Plaza for a city-approved anti-war rally. After awhile, about 150 mostly college- and high-school-aged students decided to take the protest to Main Street, sitting down in the road near Third Street. They blocked traffic for nearly two hours while police, including newly seated Chief Bruce Hagerty, tried to reason with the protesters before arresting 23 people, including a local defense attorney who walked down from his office to see what the ruckus was all about. District Attorney Mike Ramsey ultimately decided to charge them only with jaywalking.

A month earlier, Chico State University officials ordered a “peace camp” on the campus’ Free Speech Area removed for safety and liability reasons. Students and others set up about 15 tents Feb. 9 and kept them there for nearly two weeks to make people think about why the nation was at war.

Other citizens focused their frustration on President Bush’s Patriot Act, which removes several civil liberties in the name of national security. They urged local governments to oppose the act.

In the pages of the Chico News & Review, a soldier wrote home to say how confusing the war is, even to him. Garth Talbott’s letters from Iraq stirred readers and were later referenced on both pro- and anti-war Web sites across the nation.
—Devanie Angel

Party’s over (really this time)
Halloween was a major bust this year for partiers and police alike, with attendance and arrests both up at the annual, unsanctioned event.

Even though a Chico Police Department press release stated that there were “no more people walking downtown and in the west side than are seen on a normal Friday night,” police still saw fit to arrest 111 people, most for being drunk in public. Last year, when an estimated 5,000 revelers took to the streets, there were only 88 arrests.

This is the second year in a row that the city and local police have taken a “zero tolerance” approach to partying downtown on Halloween, a local tradition that dates back at least 15 years. On Halloween 2001, a crowd of about 15,000 young people, many from out of town, spooked city officials and residents alike, as there were four stabbings and numerous assaults reported that night. After spending an estimated $200,000 in the last two years on beefed-up police patrols and anti-Halloween media campaigns, the city seems to have quashed the rowdy tradition, at least for now.

But Chico’s police agencies say they are not going to sit back and enjoy their success. Instead, both Chico PD Lt. Mike Weber and Chico State University Police Chief Leslie Deniz said law enforcement agencies have realized that events such as Halloween, along with St. Patrick’s Day (at which 108 were arrested this year) and Labor Day (44 DUI arrests, 111 water assists and 15 “critical rescues") are not so much isolated incidents as spikes in a continuing problem with alcohol abuse and a party-’til-you-puke culture among college students. Both say they hope to use the momentum generated by the past two Halloweens to step up enforcement of rowdy westside events.
—Josh Indar

Photo by: Tom Angel
Architect Seth Harry working on the Meriam Park.

A new way to grow
When historians 50 years from now look back on turn-of-the-21st-century Chico, they may well note 2003 as the year the town began to grow in a new way.

Since World War II, it had expanded in typical fashion, suburbs spreading out from the town center, with certain large areas set aside for strictly commercial uses such as malls. It’s a model designed to accommodate the automobile before people began realizing the price being paid—in pollution, isolation and wasted time sitting in traffic—for the convenience cars offered.

In 2003, Chicoans began looking seriously at another model for growth, one built around the concept that a town should have not one but several centers, each within walking distance of the homes surrounding it. It’s called “new urbanism,” and it attempts to create walkable, diverse neighborhoods within larger communities.

Two large “new urbanism” projects began to take shape in 2003, the 138-acre Barber Yard Project on the former Diamond Match site off 16th Street in south Chico and the 240-acre Meriam Park project in southeast Chico. Both are being designed in a “neo-traditional” way—that is, with streets laid out much like those in Chico’s older neighborhoods—and with small village centers to which residents can easily walk to have coffee, eat in a restaurant, buy an ice cream cone and visit with their neighbors.

The developers’ hope is that these new designs will prove so popular that they will convince other developers to design in the same way. Judging from public reaction so far, Chicoans really like these new concepts. When the city held a public charrette in November seeking help in designing a plan for the huge (632 acres) Northwest Chico Development Area, most participants wanted it to employ similar “new urbanism” concepts.
—Robert Speer

Photo by: Tom Angel
Manuel Esteban and his wife Gloria.

Parade of presidents
Both Chico State University and Butte College saw the selection of new leaders this year, as popular presidents retired and were replaced in the midst of a worsening budget crisis.

Manuel Esteban emerged from a decade of leadership generally praised and well-liked. The California State University Chancellor’s Office and Board of Trustees embarked on a search that was, from its outset, controversial. First, the CSU put off Chico State’s search for several months, so it could first fill slots at two larger universities—not a way to make friends in Chico. When they finally got around to Chico State, one of the three finalists dropped out to vie for the presidency at another CSU campus.

The man who was ultimately selected, Paul Zingg, formerly provost at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, seems like a good sort, friendly, smart and communicative. He’ll have to be, as the university braces itself to deal with a budget that will increasingly hurt both the school and the economy of the Chico community.

Meanwhile, at Butte College, popular President Sandy Acebo announced her retirement after five years.

A nationwide search turned up Diana Van Der Ploeg, a community college veteran who has vowed to include the campus community in budget decisions. With less money and more students, this should be no easy task. On the up side, the bond-funded Chico campus is now under construction.
—Devanie Angel

City slogs through the dump
The ongoing controversy over how best to remedy the contaminated property in east Chico affectionately known as the “Old Humboldt Dump” occupied a considerable amount of the city government’s time this year.

The property in question is 160 acres of land owned by a number of private residents as well as the city. Once the home of the city dump, where locals used to toss their unwanted appliances, paint cans and other assorted material for burning and burial, today the land is considered by the state to be a toxic hazard—accumulated lead is the main culprit—that has to be cleaned. The controversy revolves around a number of issues, including who pays, how extensive a cleanup is needed and where and what can be built there.

The players in this year’s version of the drama included neighbors concerned about mitigation efforts stirring up lead-laden dust and the residential development that will most likely follow. The local daily got personal with its editorials, a state employee got whiney with a councilmember’s comments to this paper, and opponents of the cleanup devised a lame plan that included children and on-site blood tests.

Finally, at one of the last meetings of the year, the City Council agreed on a phased cleanup in which the seasonal creek or slough that runs through the property would be scoured, the areas contaminated with lead would be capped in place, and the city would pony up to clean its property as well as that for which it is liable. The rest of the property owners must pay for their own cleanups.

The project should begin next summer. In the meantime the city is negotiating to purchase back 10 acres in the middle of the mess that it sold to a local junk yard operator 10 years ago. That man, George Scott, has had such property dealings with the city before, including the city-owned “passive park” along Humboldt Road near Chapman, where Scott once operated a scrap yard.
—Tom Gascoyne

Photo by: Tom Angel
Tom Lando

Face the change
In January the city hired a new police chief, its fifth (counting interim chiefs) in seven years. Bruce Hagerty, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and more recently chief in the Kern County town of Ridgecrest, took the reins in March.

Less than three weeks after he took the chief’s chair here, the Iraq war started and his department was faced with civil disobedience in a downtown intersection. His officers showed great patience in trying to reason with and then wait out the war protesters, who were eventually arrested and loaded on a waiting bus for a trip to Oroville. There has been concern among many in the community that Hagerty’s L.A. experience would not fit in well with Chico sensibilities.

According to most reports the new chief is providing much-needed leadership and has the respect of the rank and file. He and his wife Myrna each have three children from previous marriages, including her son, Dr. Scott Hood, a Chico orthodontist. The chief is a big supporter of the Boys & Girl Club.

A month after the new chief’s arrival, his boss, Chico’s city manager, Tom Lando, announced plans to retire after a decade of deftly running city affairs, handing out advice to staff, providing direction that sometimes baffled City Council members and often taking the wrath of unhappy and suspicious citizens. He said he would stay through most of next year if that’s how long it takes to find his replacement. Then, in September, he announced he was scheduled for surgery to replace a defective heart valve. The weak valve is a congenital problem, he said, joking that it is “only one of many defective body parts I have.”

The surgery went well, and Lando was back at work sooner than expected. He said he expects his successor to be on board by next March at the latest. Trish Dunlap, the assistant city manager, has said she has no intentions of applying for the city manager position and will likely retire shortly after Lando does.
—Tom Gascoyne

Photo by: Tom Angel
Mad About Cows
Animal rights activists caused little damage but got a lot of press for their actions last summer, which included vandalizing the McDonald’s on Mangrove.

When ALFs attack
Animal-rights activists created quite the hubbub when they left a pair of incendiary devices—milk jugs filled with flammable liquid—at the McDonald’s restaurant on Mangrove Avenue on March 3. The devices didn’t go off, but the action shut down “Mickey D’s” for several hours and drew a horde of reporters, police and federal investigators to the scene, where the perpetrators had spray-painted “Meat is murder” and other animal-rights slogans on the property.

A few days later, the McDonald’s on East Avenue was singed slightly when an anonymous firebug lit part of a box on fire and placed it near the restaurant. A construction site across town was likewise singed and slogans painted on the walls. Then, in May, somebody planted two explosive devices similar to those used at the Mangrove McDonald’s underneath a pair of SUVs at Wittmeier Auto Center. Those devices also failed to ignite.

Although FBI investigators refused to draw a connection between the events, they stepped up their search for the culprits, interviewing shoppers and workers at natural-foods stores and scrutinizing animal-rights graffiti found in the bathroom at Duffy’s Tavern.

Nobody was ever arrested for any of the crimes, but a Chico State student, along with a friend of his from Redding, was later charged with perjury for comments he made before a Sacramento grand jury that was looking into the incidents. Both cases are still pending.
—Josh Indar

Photo by: Tom Angel
Local Repubs Josh Cook, Assemblyman Doug La Malfa and former Chico Mayor Mary Andrews pledge their allegence to Arnold.

Enter the Governator
California has long been known for its colorful politics and politicians, but 2003 took the cake. In a word: recall. Who could have foreseen such a circus? And who could have imagined that voters would toss out a sitting governor re-elected only a year before and replace him with “the Terminator,” Austrian bodybuilder-turned-superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger? Even Hollywood couldn’t have come up with such a bizarre tale.

Oh, and let’s not forget some of the more, uh, intriguing among the 135 candidates who also ran to replace Davis. There was Mary “Carey” Cook, the porn star, whose publicity pix showed her in a stars-and-stripes bikini and whose platform included trading porn mags for handguns. And how could we forget Angelyne, the blond bombshell whose platform called for painting the state Capitol pink?

Yes, it was, as so many said, a circus, but it was also serious politics. And in the end Davis was gone, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante had put his political future in the tank by running to replace Davis and then flaming out, and Schwarzenegger, a political neophyte, was our new governor.

His was an unusual campaign, to say the least—announced on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and then run like a well-orchestrated media event whose goal was to keep the celebrity candidate away from prying reporters. That, combined with Schwarzenegger’s promise to rescind two unpopular recent acts—a hike in the car tax and passage of a bill that would enable undocumented aliens to get driver licenses—and “sweep out the waste in state government” was enough to sweep him into office.

Then the real work of repairing the state’s devastated fiscal house began.
—Robert Speer

Money meltdown, partisan politicking
California has the sixth-largest economy in the world, larger than France’s. Most of its residents enjoy prosperity unprecedented in human history. And yet it’s plagued with poverty, a tattered health care system, thousands of dilapidated schools, deteriorating highways and, informing all of this, a hugely dysfunctional system of funding state government.

The state has gone through several fiscal crises, usually when the national economy has soured and tax revenues have declined, but 2003 was the worst year yet. With the economy still mired in recession, Democratic legislators unwilling to cut services and Republicans adamantly opposed to any new taxes, even on the very wealthy (who have enjoyed huge tax breaks from the Bush administration), the state ended up many billions of dollars in the hole. By using a variety of accountancy gimmicks and triggering a return of the car tax to its original 2-percent level, Gov. Gray Davis was able to get a budget passed, but it meant carrying a $10 billion shortfall between income and expenses into the future.

During the recall campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger, seizing an opportunity, promised to rescind the hugely unpopular car tax, and when he won he immediately did so. The result was to deprive local governments, the historic recipients of the tax revenues, of $3 billion in operating funds this year and potentially another $4.2 billion next year, making the shortfall even worse.

The Governator and the Legislature made nice briefly in early December when they agreed to put a $15 billion bond measure designed to cover the shortfall and a spending-cap measure on the March ballot. But that didn’t solve local governments’ immediate budget woes, so Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency and appropriated a stop-gap $150 million by cutting programs for the poor. Then he and the legislators made merry for the holidays, though only by forcing themselves not to think about the mess they’d left in Sacramento.
—Robert Speer

Photo by: Tom Angel

Paradise Post gobbled by media giant
In February, after 57 years of independent ownership, the Paradise Post joined the growing ranks of small-town newspapers, including the Chico Enterprise-Record, the Oroville Mercury and the Red Bluff Daily News, that have been scooped up by remote corporate owners whose main goal is to turn a profit, often at the expense of serving the local community. Now those papers all belong to media mogul Dean Singleton’s Denver-based Media News Group.

The feisty paper had served as a voice for the Paradise Ridge, aggressively covering town politics, crime, sports and business news for the pine-tree-shaded retirement town. The paper has been a consistent award-winner, pulling in more than its share of California Newspaper Publishers Association prizes, annually beating other papers of its size from across the state.

For the previous 25 years the Post was owned by Roland Rebele and Lowell Blankfort, longtime business partners and old-fashioned, ink-stained newspaper men. With no heirs interested in getting into the newspaper game, coupled with looming expensive investments, they put the paper up for sale. There were few bites, and in the end they sold to the only party that could afford the rumored $10 million price tag.

Rebele and Blankfort said that, while they wished they could have sold to another independent owner, reality dictated otherwise. “Every time an independent paper sells, it is upsetting to me,” said Blankfort. “But the reality is [that] the name of the game is capitalism, and whoever has the most capital can do the most things. We would have been delighted to have sold to an independent. We’re not unhappy that it had to be Singleton, but candidly I would have preferred to have an independent owner.”
—Tom Gascoyne