The top 10 stories of 2004

Presidential politics, Marshgate and the death of a local leader are among them

Photo By Tom Angel

With the war raging in Iraq, this year’s presidential race turned out to be one of the most hotly contested in decades, and its impact was felt in every community, including Chico. More than at any time since the Vietnam War, international news dominated the media in 2004.

But Chico had its fair share of grabby local stories, none more fascinating than the battle between Jeff Sloan, the popular principal of Marsh Junior High School, and schools Superintendent Scott Brown. Then there was the sad loss of much-loved City Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis, whose death from cancer in May not only plunged much of the community into grief, but also changed the balance of power on the council.

There were other big stories, as you’ll see below. Some made us hopeful, others made us wince, but that’s the nature of life, apparently. We hope this look back offers you some perspective on the year that was.

The Marshgate embroglio
One of the stories that gripped the community revolved around the charges brought against and ultimate reassignment of popular Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, a controversy that spiraled into an unfolding drama that lasted almost the entire year.

It all started on March 12, when Chico Unified School District Superintendent Scott Brown notified Sloan and Marsh Vice Principal Frank Thompson that they could be laid off or reassigned.

It turned out that the district, with the Board of Trustees’ OK last fall, had commissioned a $2,500-plus audit by a Sacramento firm to investigate how Marsh was tracking and spending the nearly $280,000 the student body raised each year.

Following the audit, the district amassed two large volumes of paperwork in an attempt to show that Sloan had misused student body funds on staff meals, office furniture and trips and wrongly sold used textbooks and filed false vandalism claims in an attempt to generate money that would be used to pump up Marsh in relation to other campuses.

Sloan countered that the district provided limited training about accounting rules, he thought the purchases were allowed and at any rate—as student government adviser Lisa Reynolds confirmed—all the financial decisions were approved by student leaders. Also, in the case of the vandalism claims, he said he didn’t know the perpetrators had paid more in restitution than they were supposed to. Furthermore, Sloan said, no money was missing and every decision he made was in the best interests of the students.

At the May 5 School Board meeting, which lasted until 2:30 a.m., trustees voted 4-1 to reassign Sloan, who ended up becoming assistant principal at Fair View High School.

NICKEL AND DIMED TO DEATH Former Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan was tansferred to a position as assistant principal at Fair View High School after a controversy involving his usage of funds at Marsh.

Photo By Tom Angel

Months later, supporters still clung to the hope of keeping Sloan on the job, but on July 23 the trustees appointed Stephen Piluso as Marsh’s new principal.

The ordeal played out like a bad soap opera. Over the course of the year, teachers, parents and students rallied at School Board meetings in an effort to defend Sloan, saying the reassignment was part of a vendetta by CUSD Superintendent Scott Brown and that Sloan had built Marsh into an extraordinary school. Their efforts may also have had an impact on the Nov. 2 School Board race, in which a Marsh parent and Sloan supporter, Jann Reed, won a seat and incumbent Trustee Steve O’Bryan, who had voted for Sloan’s reassignment, was ousted.

—Mark Lore

Hot at the top
Any presidential election year is an exciting one politically, but 2004—with the Iraq War bursting forth from TV sets every day—saw the most contentious presidential contest in recent history. Voters everywhere were passionately divided over the choice.

When it was over on Nov. 3, Chico had gone blue for John Kerry, but Butte County had voted red for George Bush—results that seemed to mirror the nation as a whole.

Kerry prevailed on the two urbanized coasts, but Bush prevailed everywhere else, winning both the popular vote, 51-48 percent, and the Electoral College vote.

That blue-vs.-red divide distinguishing more-liberal Chico from the surrounding area also prevailed in the local City Council elections, in which liberals regained a narrow majority with the election of two newcomers, bike shop owner Ann Schwab and attorney Andy Holcombe. In a reflection of the community’s basic centrism, however, voters also returned two conservative incumbents, Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl.

Meanwhile, voters were returning conservative Republicans to office everywhere else in the Northstate. Wally Herger won his 10th race for Congress, Rick Keene and Doug LaMalfa were re-elected to the state Assembly, and Sam Aanestad won for state Senate. Democrat Barbara Boxer easily won re-election to the U.S. Senate, however.

Much earlier, in March, voters in Oroville elected a new supervisor, Bill Connelly, to replace Bob Beeler starting in January, 2005. The incumbent Paradise- and Gridley-area supervisors, Kim Yamaguchi and Curt Josiassen, easily won re-election.

The year was also notable statewide for the passage of several important propositions, including, in March, a massive $15 billion bailout bond measure requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a $12.3 billion school facilities bond measure. In November, voters approved a controversial $3 billion stem-cell-research bond measure and a measure, Prop. 1A, that guaranteed local governments’ funding allocations. They turned thumbs down on a reform of the “three-strikes” law, mandatory health insurance and expanding casinos while approving support for mental-health services and allowing greater access to government records.

—Robert Speer

STRONG VOICE SILENCED Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis, above, an outspoken advocate for the poor, the homeless, women and local liberal causes succumbed to cancer in May.

Photo By Tom Angel

Jarvis dies in office
Coleen Jarvis, public servant, family law attorney and social activist, died in the early hours of May 21, overcome by the cancer she’d been diagnosed with two years earlier and that in the end had rendered her unable to speak. Her last public appearance was at the May 4 City Council meeting; when roll was taken and her name called, Jarvis hesitated, smiled and then clapped her hands to indicate her presence.

On the Monday before she died, what would become a four-day vigil began in her back yard, where friends, family, supporters and others gathered quietly to pray, meditate and recall her many accomplishment. She and her longtime partner, Michael Stauffer, were married the weekend before she died in a hurry-up ceremony to beat the inevitable. Their original wedding plans were to wed May 29, which instead turned out to be the day of her memorial in Chico State University’s Laxson Auditorium.

Stauffer, with Jarvis’ dying blessing, offered to step in and fulfill the remaining six months of her council term. But at the June 14 meeting, the council split 3-3 on the appointment, widening the political gap that already existed. Councilman Scott Gruendl called the split vote “embarrassing” and “disgraceful” and said that having a six-member council would “essentially paralyze this community.” Councilmember Steve Bertagna said the evenly split council would not be a problem and might even bring the ideologically divided council closer together.

Her seat remained open until the Nov. 2 election. A task force has been formed to try to find a way to honor Jarvis’ service to the community by naming a building, park or other entity after her.

Many in the liberal camp are still incensed at the three conservative councilmembers who refused to name Stauffer to fill her seat—an anger that could resonate until they are out of office.

—Tom Gascoyne

Voters kill Measure D
In the spring, local activists and organic farmers seeking to join the statewide effort to contain the spread of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) qualified a ballot measure that would have banned GE crops from the fields of Butte County. Patterned on an earlier, successful effort in Mendocino County called Measure H, Butte County’s Measure D read, “It is unlawful for any person to propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow genetically engineered organisms in Butte County …”

The fight pitted supporters against the county’s traditional crop and orchard farmers, who feared a ban would put them at a competitive disadvantage. The measure would have allowed research into GEOs at Chico State University as long as it was conducted under closed conditions to prevent cross-pollination with non-GE crops through drift. GEO corn is being grown on the University Farm, which is posted with a number of bio-tech warning signs.

Most GEOs grown in this country to this point are modified to be more resistant to insects or able to withstand large doses of Roundup herbicide. The idea is that in time less pesticide will have to be used, but so far the results have been mixed at best. Organic farmers argue that GEOs will eventually contaminate their crops and wipe out a multi-million-dollar market. Others argue that the use of GEOs gives too much control to huge corporations like Monsanto that produce the seeds and their conforming pesticides.

Supporters of D feared that companies like Monsanto would pour thousands into the campaign, as they had done in Mendocino, particularly in light of the fact that Butte County is more of an agricultural county than Mendocino and is part of the agriculturally rich Sacramento Valley. But in the end the supporters raised and spent more, but in a losing effort. Nearly 70 percent of Butte County voters went against Measure D.

—Tom Gascoyne

WHAT’S THE SCOOP? Soil potentially laced with lead is gathered up and placed into a pile on private property during cleanup last summer of areas around the old Humboldt Burn Dump in east Chico just south of Highway 32.

Photo By Tom Angel

Shootout at the ranch
The 750 acres of former grazing land known as Bidwell Ranch, just north of Wildwood Avenue at the entrance to Chico’s Upper Bidwell Park, is unlikely ever to be developed. It’s directly under the airport flight path, for one thing, and two earlier development proposals have gone down in flames, one hit by a 1988 citizens’ referendum, the other picked off in 1996 at the City Council level. Who would want to invest millions of dollars to buy a property with three strikes against it?

Nevertheless, the land, which is now owned by the city of Chico, became the center of a controversy this year when several councilmembers tried to convince a majority of the council to give it permanent status as open space.

On Jan. 27, the council, on a 4-3 vote, directed city staff to begin the process of downzoning the property from medium-density residential to open space. The three councilmembers against the proposal thought more consideration should be given to selling some of the land for future development.

A few months after the directive, Coleen Jarvis, one of the four councilmembers favoring the move, died in office, leaving an evenly divided council and the future of the property up in the air.

Sure enough, when the issue came before the council on Oct. 5, it couldn’t agree on what to do with the property. Most public speakers that night wanted to see the land, which has numerous vernal pools and some concentrations of endangered Butte County meadowfoam, become permanent open space. A few favored selling some of the land to raise money for parks elsewhere in the city. The final vote, 3-3, meant the issue was tabled for the time being.

Expect it to come up again soon, however. Liberals now have a four-member majority on the council, and they are likely to go ahead and designate the land as open space.

In other growth news, the biggest item locally was the council’s tentative consideration of adjusting the Greenline slightly to allow more development, particularly in northwest Chico. This is being looked at in conjunction with the ongoing adjacent development of the Northwest Chico Specific Plan, some 750 acres west of The Esplanade at Eaton Road.

At issue is whether to extend the Greenline, the historic line protecting westside agricultural land from development, out to Mud Creek, which proponents argue would provide a more natural boundary than the current one while helping to solve Chico’s lack of developable land. The council also began to look at planning for development in the Bell-Muir area, which already has many ranchettes and other residence scattered among its largely abandoned orchards.

Expect this highly emotional issue—many Chicoans see the Greenline as sacrosanct—to come up again in 2005.

—Robert Speer

Humboldt Dump dispute finally buried
For 20 years the issue of what to do with the old Humboldt Dump burn site was pushed around by a variety of Chico City Councils. And for years it seemed the city, under pressure from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, would foot a majority of the cleanup costs, needed if the private landowners were ever to develop the area residentially, as called for in the General Plan. Years of dumping, burning and burying waste has left the soil in the area contaminated with various toxins, including lead.

SMILEY-FACED KILLA Sunset Hills, the old pitch and putt on the northern outskirts of town, could become the site of Chico’s second Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Photo By Tom Angel

Neighbors said construction would kick up lead-laden dust and endanger their health. Local environmentalists said fence it off and leave it alone. But the property owners wanted their speculative investments to pay off through development.

Then last year, just when it looked like the city would foot the entire bill, Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan came up with a novel idea. He learned that there had actually been a number of private dumps operating close to the city/county dump that had taken in refuse from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s. Nguyen-Tan asked why the city should be responsible for cleaning up the contamination it did not create. Landowners were told if they could prove the city had polluted their acres, the city would pay. None did.

The approved plan calls for capping toxic soil in place on the 157 acres and cleaning up the property the city owns, two relatively small parcels of privately owned property next to the city’s and any other private property for which the city is determined liable by a mediator.

Today the cleanup has begun on one property, owned by developer Tom Fogarty. The city will begin cleaning up its acreage this summer, when the nearby Hank Marsh Junior High School is out. In the end, the city saved millions by not cleaning up the entire site.

—Tom Gascoyne

Wal-Martians land
How many Wal-Mart Supercenters does Chico need? At least two, in the eyes of the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant, which gave plans to the city this year both to expand the current Wal-Mart on Forest Avenue and construct a new Superstore on land currently being used by north Chico’s Sunset Hills Golf Course.

While many (if not most) area residents seem to feel that Wal-Mart’s Everyday Low Prices constitute the fulfillment—indeed the very embodiment—of the American Dream, others worry that the stores will provide unfair competition to local businesses.

Like other municipalities across the country, the city seems willing to bend over backwards for Wal-Mart, counting on what it hopes will be a huge influx of sales tax dollars from the stores to subsidize future city growth. But when the Planning Commission narrowly approved the Forest Avenue expansion, local union sympathizer John Shannon filed suit, alleging the new store would drive smaller stores out of business and contribute to Butte County’s already high unemployment rate.

Several studies have found that Wal-Mart’s practices of paying low wages to mostly part-time workers has saddled state governments with millions per year in increased public-assistance costs. In addition, Wal-Mart forces its suppliers to constantly lower their manufacturing costs, which has had the effect of moving millions of high-paying factory jobs to places such as China, where workers earn something like 30 cents an hour.

Wal-Mart and its supporters dispute those figures, saying that offering lower-priced merchandise actually helps local economies by freeing up consumers’ money that would otherwise go to paying the union wages and spiraling health care costs associated with smaller retail and traditional grocery stores.

In the case of the store proposed for North Chico, the city opted to annex the entire area from the county at the request of Wal-Mart’s Northern California developer, PacLand, to avoid any potential hassles county planners might throw its way. The owners of Sunset Hills refused to talk the CN&R about any potential sale, saying they didn’t want to see their business suffer due to negative publicity.

SOLAR FIELDS FOREVER An array of solar panels that sits just east of Highway 70 in Oroville was connected in September to power three Butte County buildings, including the jail.

Photo By Tom Angel

—Josh Indar

Butte County’s solar flares
This past fall, with a flick of a switch that put a huge bank of new solar panels into operation, Butte County government joined its municipal counterpart, the city of Oroville, and became a national leader in the solar-energy movement. Oroville now can boast of utilizing more solar energy per person than any community on earth. The city has sun-powered installations running its police and fire headquarters and City Hall, its public works yard, the Pioneer Museum and the State Theater.

Chico was not far behind. On Aug. 7, the city officially dedicated its first solar-powered system, which sits on top of the downtown parking structure and provides 80 percent of the power the building uses for a police substation, two elevators and lights.

In early September Butte County officially turned on its $8.4 million solar energy system to provide electricity to three county buildings—the Sheriff’s Office and both wings of the jail and the county offices. The system is the fifth-largest such operation in the country and 17th-largest in the world, producing enough electricity to power about 750 homes.

In June, a Butte County group called North State Renewable Energy announced its formation with the mission of promoting renewable energy and progressive conservation practices and technology in the region. The organization was put together by Scott McNall, the Chico State University provost, and (now former) Chico City Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan and includes among its members Mark Stemen, a professor of environmental studies at Chico State.

“The solar power people call where we live ‘the sun corridor,’ “ said Stemen. “[The region] from Redding to Fresno gets as much sun as any municipal areas in the country. We are on par with Phoenix. … Why aren’t we tapping into that?” Stemen sees more than just a source of power in the revolution. He sees a whole new energy-based economy.

—Tom Gascoyne

Education takes a financial hit
California colleges and universities and the K-12 school system felt the economic pinch in 2004.

It all started when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled his state budget proposal on Jan 9. It hit the California State University system the hardest by cutting 9 percent, or $240 million, from its spending.

Chico State was looking to have to cut 7.2 percent from its already-slashed budget, which amounted to about $8.6 million in cuts, said then-Interim President Scott McNall.

The cuts, which came on top of a $531 million cut in 2003-04, were no doubt factors in the CSU Board of Trustees voting to increase undergraduate fees by 8 percent in November.

PAPA DOn’t PREACH Gina Rose Grinsell enters court to face justice for causing the death of her minutes-old baby.

Photo By Tom Angel

A few weeks later new Chico State President Paul Zingg said he was willing to invest some coin in hiring a new vice president of advancement to help the school reach a goal this year of raising $11 million in non-state money. Robert Alber, who replaced Ed Masterson as associate vice president for advancement in December, 2003, may be the one who fills the slot.

Alber held the post of associate vice president for advancement for two years at San Diego State, the CSU system’s flagship campus that raises more than $50 million a year, tops among the 23 CSU campuses. Prior to that Alber headed advancement for four years at Arizona State University at Tempe.

In money matters dealing with K-8 schools, the Chico Unified School District was faced with the daunting task of trying to save more than $1 million.

On June 23, the CUSD Board of Trustees unanimously voted to appoint a Campus Consolidation Committee that would consider rearranging school boundaries and shutting down elementary schools in an effort to reach its savings goal.

The committee, chaired by Paul Moore, has since been sifting through binders of demographic data, enrollment statistics and budget reports in order to present a recommendation to the board by the middle of January, 2005. The task proved a difficult one as the committee wasn’t able to make its original deadline of Dec. 15.

In its last meeting on Dec. 14, the committee, along with Schreder & Associates, a firm hired by the district to perform demographic analysis, narrowed the field of 14 possible scenarios down to five. All involved shutting three small campuses, in Forest Ranch, Nord and Cohasset, along with a variety of companion options.

—Mark Lore

Sorority baby killer gets six years
In one of the year’s more gruesome events, it was discovered last April that a seemingly normal sorority girl, Gina Rose Grinsell, who was then a sophomore at Chico State University, had secretly given birth alone in her sorority bedroom only to discard what prosecutors said was a living, healthy baby in a plastic bucket. The discovery shocked her Kappa Sigma Delta housemates, from whom Grinsell had gone to great lengths to conceal her pregnancy, even telling them the swelling in her belly was a non-malignant tumor.

Grinsell was arrested and charged with murder and assaulting a child with intent to kill, both of which could have resulted in life sentences for the 20-year-old. Her parents put up some San Francisco property as collateral against her $1 million bail, and a trial date was set and reset several times. Grinsell initially pleaded not guilty to the murder and assault charges but later admitted to voluntary manslaughter in a surprise plea deal. She was sentenced to six years in state prison.

In letters to editors and on community Web sites, residents expressed shock and outrage over the killing. While some urged compassion, others bemoaned what they thought was a lenient sentence. In the end, the reason for Grinsell’s actions was never made clear. Her Chico attorney, Dennis Latimer, offered that, “This is a sad, tragic, lonely thing that happened. Something inside her made her do this unusual thing. It is a phenomenon that happens to a certain [number] of young women.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who had angered defense attorneys by releasing some truly grisly details of the incident, was in the end also mystified as to Grinsell’s motive.

“All of us need to understand that there is a huge ‘why?’ here,” He said. “Here we have a young woman who appears to have thrown her child’s life away, as well as possibly her own.”

—Josh Indar