The top 10 stories of 2016

CN&R looks back at the biggest news events of the year

Bernie campaigns in Chico in 2016.

Bernie campaigns in Chico in 2016.

National politics go bananas

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States in 2015, few people—including pundits, pollsters, establishment and average Americans—thought he would end up as the Republican Party’s nominee, let alone win. That all changed in 2016, and it was a wild ride.

In January, Trump, along with a cast of six other candidates, met for the sixth Republican presidential debate. By then, 11 other strong candidates had either been knocked out of the race or were polling so low that they weren’t allowed on the main debate stage.

Meanwhile, a longtime independent and self-described Democratic socialist who’d changed his party affiliation began drawing the biggest crowds of any candidate—Republican or Democrat. By 2016, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had captured the attention of America with his “political revolution” and by spring was no longer considered a fringe candidate but rather a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton.

Sanders brought attention to many of the issues affecting the working class: wage stagnation (including the minimum wage), affordable housing, Wall Street reform, free college tuition for public institutions, among many others. In doing so, and giving her a real horse race, he pulled Clinton further to the left on issues like fracking and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership—both of which she once supported.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be for Sanders when the votes were tallied. And let’s not forget about the superdelegates—the elite party insiders who ultimately determine the party’s nominee when they cast their votes at the Democratic National Convention. The night before the primary election, The Associated Press, in a rush to be first, announced that Clinton had received enough so-called pledged delegates to be crowned the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Afterward, Clinton focused on defeating Trump, the official GOP candidate as of that party’s July convention.

As he had throughout the primary season, Trump used every tactic in the annals of demagoguery—from fear-mongering to castigating the media—during the final leg of the race. Clinton was widely considered the winner of the three presidential debates, where she remained cool and collected despite Trump’s grandstanding, including his pledge to hire a special prosecutor to investigate her use of a private email server.

Both candidates were dogged by controversy during this time. The Washington Post published audio and video of Trump bragging about groping women without their consent. Then, with only weeks until Nov. 8, following Wikileaks’ release of hacked emails from the Clinton camp, FBI Director James Comey briefly reopened an investigation into the issue after having put it to rest back in the summer. Just two days prior to the election, Comey announced that nothing was there.

Now, despite his populist promise of “draining the swamp,” Trump is creating the murkiest cabinet in the modern era by picking out-of-touch Americans who have a reported combined wealth of more than $12 billion. Many of them, including Trump’s pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, have deeply troubling backgrounds and ideologies that make them likely to dismantle the agencies they will be charged with heading.

Trump’s administration begins officially on Jan. 20, inauguration day.

Conservatives hold on

Sean Morgan, Randall Stone, Karl Ory and Ann Schwab won seats on the Chico City Council.

In a year with such divisive politics at the national level, it wasn’t surprising that there was a ton of mud-slinging locally, and the perennially polarizing Chico City Council race was no exception (see “Other notable stories,” page 18). By our account, this was the most interesting local contest. Headed up to Nov. 8, the big question was whether the liberals could regain the majority they lost two years earlier. They’d have to win all four open seats, a tall order. To do so, they formed a slate of candidates. So, too, did their ideological opposites. There were 11 candidates altogether.

On the conservative side, incumbent Vice Mayor Sean Morgan seemed a pretty solid lock. He’d raised upward of $60,000 and had the support of a political action committee led by a former police chief. Morgan ended up aligning with Jovanni Tricerri, a fundraiser for the North Valley Community Foundation; Jeffrey Glatz, a local business owner; and Loretta Torres, a retired rice farmer. None of the three had sat on a city board or commission.

On the progressive side, incumbents Ann Schwab (going for her fourth term), Randall Stone and Tami Ritter got together with Karl Ory, an old-school Chico politico who served two terms on the council in the 1980s, including a stint as mayor. Despite entering the race late, Ory raised more than $30,000.

In the end, sure enough, Morgan came in first, beating Schwab by a few hundred votes. Stone placed third and Ory fourth, bumping Ritter off the dais. During the second to last council meeting of the year, Morgan was voted mayor. Reanette Fillmer became vice mayor on a 6-to-1 vote (Schwab dissented). The coming two years are going to be interesting, to say the least.

Homeless crisis continues

Homelessness ranked as one of the CN&R’s top 10 news stories for the fourth consecutive year in 2016, a dubious distinction that drives home the complexity and severity of the issue.

Since last year, funding support from state and national sources has become more contingent on shelters and service providers lowering barriers to better align with “housing first” and harm-reduction models, which emphasize sheltering those without homes before addressing often-related issues like mental illness and addiction. This has pushed some local organizations to adapt to the new strategies.

Bret Wray and his canine pal Homine were among the hundreds of homeless individuals to find help at Project Homeless Connect.

For example, Torres Community Shelter Executive Director Brad Montgomery announced in January that the shelter was facing a financial crisis due in part to potential grant eligibility issues. Generous donors helped the shelter continue operations, and in August, Montgomery announced that Torres had started a “wet shelter” program in addition to offering its traditional services, which require guests to remain sober.

Butte County’s first-ever Homeless Symposium was held in April, bringing together representatives from the county’s Behavioral Health and Social Services departments, law enforcement, area hospitals and other service providers to discuss the direct local impacts of homelessness.

One of the highlights of local efforts to help the homeless—Project Homeless Connect—also happened in April. The event, organized by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care, brought together hundreds of volunteers and dozens of organizations at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds to provide 675 homeless or near-homeless people with wide-ranging services including ID cards, free cellphones, bike repair, haircuts, health checkups and veterinary care for animal companions. Project Homeless Connect was held once before locally, in 2012, but organizers and participants said they’d like to make it an annual event.

Also in 2016, Stairways Programming continued to report success in helping people get off the streets, and Safe Space Winter Shelter launched its fourth and most ambitious season of operation. The Jesus Center continues to be a go-to destination for those in need, and the Esplanade House celebrated 25 years of service. Most local service organizations report serving more clients each year, evidence that the problem continues to grow.

Before the end of the year, the Chico City Council began discussions on how to address the crisis. The talks will be ongoing.

Jury convicts killer cop

As police shootings dominated headlines in 2015, Butte County had its own high-profile incident. Over Thanksgiving weekend that year, then-Paradise Police Officer Patrick Feaster shot a DUI suspect after chasing his vehicle down Pearson Road and watching as it flipped over and ejected a female passenger. The driver, Andrew Thomas, whom Feaster shot, was rendered paralyzed and died from injuries caused by the bullet wound in his neck a few weeks later.

Patrick Feaster

That incident was brought under the microscope this past year, when Feaster, who’d been fired from his Paradise Police job, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and faced trial by jury, which convicted him. The most damning evidence against Feaster was the video and audio captured during and after the shooting.

Feaster’s dash cam video clearly showed him unholstering his weapon and shooting Thomas, who fell like a sack of potatoes back into his SUV, which was on its side. Lapel audio revealed Thomas telling the other officers who arrived on the scene that Feaster had shot him—and Feaster saying he had not. Aside from the actual shooting, perhaps the most disturbing part of the video shows Feaster ignoring the vehicle’s passenger, Darien Ehorn, who lay dying on the ground, and instead pacing the scene looking for a bullet casing.

The entire incident smacked of an inept police officer—someone who is entrusted by the public to serve and protect—and an attempted coverup. Ultimately, the jury saw fit to convict Feaster of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months in jail and will be eligible for release after three months for good behavior.

Trees embattled

It was a bad year to be a tree in California. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the combination of the state’s epic drought and growing bark beetle problem killed an estimated 62 million pine trees this year alone, mostly in 10 counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada.

Local field experts are monitoring the tree mortality phenomenon’s progression north and hoping that drought-busting rainfall will give North State forests a healthy boost this winter. According to the National Weather Service, the rainy season, which began Oct. 1, is off to its wettest start in the northern Sierra Nevada in 30 years. However, groves of dead and dying trees have appeared near Feather Falls, Forest Ranch and communities on the Ridge, and Butte County officials are bracing for the financial and logistical challenges of removing trees at risk of falling across public rights of way.

In Chico, the plight of the urban forest continued. The city is responsible for maintaining more than 31,000 street trees, but local advocates say that number is dwindling. The city has cut down more trees than it planted every year dating back to 2009, according to the city’s annual Sustainability Indicators Report.

One of several oak trees uprooted by spring storms in Lower Bidwell Park.

In June, the city’s Street Tree Division gained an additional worker—for a grand total of three—thanks to the budget for fiscal year 2016-17. It included $75,000 in capital projects for street tree improvements and $30,000 for tree maintenance in Bidwell Park.

However, the Street Tree Division burned through most of that money by Nov. 1, according to Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance. Additionally, the department has been unable to work through a backlog of of 800 to 1,000 calls for service. Gustafson requested a one-time infusion of $150,000 to pay contractors for pruning and large tree removals. The City Council’s conservative bloc was reluctant to approve any funding at all for tree services and, ultimately, the panel settled on the seemingly arbitrary sum of $69,000.

The outlook isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Gustafson hopes to hire a full-time urban forest manager by early January (the position has been vacant since the city’s sweeping budget cuts in 2013) and says he’ll seek additional funding for the Street Tree Division ahead of next year’s budget sessions.

In the meantime, there’s a grassroots effort to preserve the urban forest. Chico Tree Advocates, a volunteer-based group, intends to plant thousands of trees over the next several years.

Legal weed!

Aside from the presidential election, perhaps the biggest news—for Californians, at least—that came out of the November election was the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis.

Prop. 64 went into effect immediately and its implications are far-reaching. For one, all adults 21 and older can now legally ingest the substance recreationally. They can also grow it, up to six plants apiece, and local governments can’t write laws to stop them.

Proposition 64 passes in California.

What local governments can do, however, is decide how to regulate commerce surrounding the drug. Do they want to allow dispensaries? What about commercial grows? Manufacturing facilities? That’s all still up in the air, and they’ll have until January 2018 to figure it out.

In an attempt to get a jump on these decisions, and in an effort to set up local dispensaries and other businesses for medical marijuana, the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association put Measure L on the local ballot in November. That measure would have allowed for commercial growing, manufacturing and dispensing of marijuana for medicinal use—using a framework already created by the state’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act.

Measure L faced a lot of opposition. Local law enforcement, including Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, panned it. And mailers labeling it as good for cartels and gangs were sent out en masse. Predictably, it failed.

The coming year likely will be another big one on the marijuana landscape. Local governments will face decisions on dispensaries and other commercial activity, and we can expect a large number of low-level convictions being overturned thanks to Prop. 64. So, stay tuned.

Never-ending scrap

More than once in 2016, it seemed like the long saga surrounding Chico Scrap Metal’s East 20th Street location was finally over, but at year’s end the recycler’s future remains uncertain. Recent developments indicate the battle could continue for at least two more years, with the business’ ultimate fate possibly resting in the hands of Chico voters.

In 2006, the Chico City Council ordered the business to move in light of zoning changes directed by the city’s adoption of the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan. Due to the high cost of the move, deadlines were extended until the end of 2014, at which point a newly minted, conservative majority council decided to negotiate a compromise to let the business stay put if operational and aesthetic changes were made. Complicating the issue, the Department of Toxic Substances Control found contaminants on the property in 2007 and the site—which is located near homes and an elementary school—has yet to be fully cleaned up.

Move the Junkyard volunteers collected more than 9,000 signatures in November.

CSM’s plans to stay were approved by the City Council in May, but later that month the city announced that the city had screwed up—details in the ordinance the council had passed were incorrect, invalidating the decision. The process was repeated—with the same approval, but sans the disqualifying defects, in October.

On Nov. 8, an opposition group called Move the Junkyard launched a referendum campaign to roll back that decision; that same day, Karl Ory—an outspoken CSM critic and one of Move the Junkyard’s primary organizers—won a seat on the City Council.

Move the Junkyard members delivered signatures supporting the referendum to the Chico City Clerk’s Office on Dec. 1, and the Butte County Clerk-Recorder’s Office is currently verifying them. If they’re certified, the City Council will have the option of rescinding its October decision or putting it to Chico voters at the next election, which, barring a special election, will take place in November 2018. Members of Move the Junkyard said they hope the city will rescind and then begin negotiations with the business to help it relocate.

Esplanade hysteria

Few issues that came before the Chico City Council in 2016 caused a hubbub like the mere suggestion of roundabouts on The Esplanade.

The council held several contentious meetings on the Esplanade Corridor Safety and Accessibility Improvement Project, which originally included roundabouts at the intersections of Memorial Way and East First Avenue, early in the year. City staff explained that the city’s historic, tree-lined boulevard—sacred though it may be—is downright dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists and badly needs modern upgrades. For example, the rate of auto/cyclist collisions at East First Avenue is 1 in 800,000, about three times the state average, according to the Esplanade Corridor Improvement Study.

As proposed by consulting firm W-Trans, the solution was constructing multilane roundabouts at the boulevard’s most heavily trafficked intersections. Most of the council members agreed, at least initially, and voted 4-3 in favor of the project during a special meeting in April. However, the decision elicited such widespread public outcry that Councilman Randall Stone soon rescinded his vote and called for reconsideration. During another special meeting, the council voted 6-1, to not install either of the Esplanade roundabouts, sending that part of the project back to the drawing board.

Chico’s beloved, roundabout-free boulevard, The Esplanade.

The rest of the plan is moving forward, including a separated bike path, crosswalk signals, ADA-compliant sidewalks, and elements designed to solve congestion problems around Chico High School. In late October, the project got a $7.24 million boost in grant funding from Cal Trans. The funding, secured through the 2017 Active Transportation Program, will cover most of the estimated $7.6 million cost of improvements, according to Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering.

However, the drama isn’t dead—yet. The council is expected to revisit alternatives to the roundabouts early next year.

Big changes on campus

For those who might not have stepped foot on campus for a few years, visiting Chico State in 2016 may have been a little disorientating. With many new facilities and resources being added to the school over the past decade—Student Services Center, Gateway Science Museum, Sutter Hall dorms, Wildcat Recreation Center, et al.—and a new president taking over in the past year, Chico’s cultural and intellectual hub has been significantly updated.

Perhaps the most prominent facility constructed as part of the Chico State Master Plan—set in motion in 2005, and implemented during the tenure of recently retired President Paul Zingg—is the Arts & Humanities Building. The impressive structure, which opened in August and replaced the old Taylor Hall, sits at the apex of what has been newly dubbed the Chico State “Arts District,” with Laxson Auditorium on one side, and the Performing Arts Center building (with a fresh coat of matching gray paint) on the other. The building, with its slew of new and updated performance and exhibition spaces, makes for an attractive entry point right at the junction of the university and downtown Chico.

Chico State’s first female (and the CSU’s first openly gay) president, Gayle Hutchinson, was hired as Zingg’s replacement last spring and is set to guide the revamped campus into a new era. Hutchinson is a familiar face around campus, having worked at Chico State for 23 years in various capacities, including faculty member, chair of the Department of Kinesiology, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and member of the Academic Senate.

She returned after a three-year stint working as provost and vice president of academic affairs at CSU Channel Islands in Ventura, and took over a campus in turmoil. A Chico State Climate Survey, conducted in 2015, revealed a dissatisfied faculty and staff with low morale attributed such issues as salary inequity and a lack of transparency from upper management. Hutchinson’s first week in office saw an upheaval in that same upper management.

The Arts & Humanities Building (left) opened its doors on the Chico State campus in August.

As she prepared for her first semester on the job, Hutchinson told the CN&R she would work to build consensus and bring the university community together: “I see a campus that is waiting to have somebody unite the campus in a way that improves morale and sets the direction for the future of the campus, to move us into the future so we can continue doing an extraordinary job.”

Walmart looms large

The nation’s largest big box came back in a big way in 2016 with Walmart’s plans to expand its Forest Avenue store into an unofficial supercenter. To be fair, the new expansion plans were made public last year. But this past summer, the draft environmental impact report was completed and outlined the potential effects of adding 66,000 square feet to the current footprint, plus an eight-pump gas station with a kiosk and two separate restaurant/retail buildings.

As with Walmart’s previous plans over a decade ago to increase the square footage of the Forest Avenue store, the biggest impacts outlined related to traffic and other local grocers. (The latter because a majority of the expansion will be to the grocery department.)

With the publication of the DEIR and the public comment period open, a group opposed to the expansion began to mobilize in June. It started with a Facebook page titled Stop Chico Walmart Expansion and a fundraiser. Ultimately, the group united under the moniker used a decade ago—Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy. The first time around, opposition was successful and although the Chico Planning Commission OK’d the supercenter, the City Council’s liberal majority nixed it.

This time around, a conservative majority council approved plans to grow the store. But CARE is putting up a fight, albeit one less organized than in the past. When the Planning Commission approved the DEIR in October, CARE attorney Brett Jolley filed a last-minute appeal, pushing the decision to the City Council. Jolley spoke before that panel and argued that the DEIR should not be approved because it understates the potential negative economic effects on nearby grocery stores such as FoodMaxx and WinCo. Also, he mentioned, the corporation had recently revealed plans to close 200 stores nationwide, citing that online sales had diminished the need for brick-and-mortar locations.

Walmart faces opposition in its second attempt to expand the store’s footprint.

“What happens when this store goes out of business? You don’t want to be stuck with a vacant big box,” Jolley said.

The council approved the DEIR anyway and CARE moved forward with a lawsuit earlier this month in further efforts to thwart Walmart’s expansion. It should be noted that, in the meantime, Walmart is building a supercenter in Oroville to replace its current store and plans are still brewing for one on the Skyway at the entrance to Paradise.