The top 10 stories of 2017
The CN&R looks back at the biggest news of the year
After nearly seven years of drought, California was pounded by the second wettest winter in 122 years of record-keeping last winter. Severe flooding affected much of the state, but arguably the most dramatic effects played out here in Butte County, at Lake Oroville.
Cracks in the Oroville Dam’s main spillway were discovered on Feb. 7. The spillway was closed to assess the damage, but reopened the next day to alleviate rising lake level that threatened to overcome the dam’s emergency spillway—an earthen hillside topped with a concrete weir that had never been used before. Water continued to rip away the damaged main spillway while the lake rose, but officials from Butte County and the state’s Department of Water Resources—which manages the facility—maintained that there was no immediate danger to residents of Oroville or its southern neighbors, assurances that continued after water began pouring over the emergency spillway on Feb. 11.
The following afternoon, the emergency spillway was discovered to be eroding and in danger of failing, with the potential to unleash a 30-foot wall of water. That prompted Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea to declare the emergency evacuation of more than 180,000 people downstream of the dam. Oroville residents scrambled to escape with no predetermined evacuation plan (see “What were they thinking?”). The mandatory evacuation was lifted Feb. 15.
Construction began immediately to shore up the dam for this winter, and is expected to continue for at least another year at a projected cost of roughly $500 million. The dam was in the midst of a contentious relicensing process that was supposed to have been finished in 2007. The disaster shined light on unfulfilled obligations and perks promised to the Oroville community by DWR before the dam was built, and the crisis has thus far sparked more than $1.2 billion in damage claims, not one of which has been paid yet, according to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee. And, as investigations into the disaster continue, hairline cracks—which the DWR says aren’t cause for concern—were detected in October.
Three fatal encounters with law enforcement officers occurred in a roughly four-month period this year, two of which involved the Chico Police Department.
Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old black man experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot by CPD officers Jeremy Gagnebin and Alex Fliehr on March 17. Phillips’ father, David, had called for medical assistance. Authorities say Phillips rushed officers wielding kitchen knives and/or a sharp stick; police used a Taser before firing their weapons. In an odd bit of timing, Chico PD implemented body cameras just weeks later.
On July 23, 34-year-old Tyler Rushing, of Ventura, was shot by armed security guard Edgar Sanchez after Rushing attacked Sanchez on the back patio of a Main Street business. Rushing retreated inside the building and—after a stand-off lasting less than an hour—was shot twice more by Chico Police Sgt. Scott Ruppel.
On Aug. 22, Mark Jensen, who’d previously run for a seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors, was killed by Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputy Matt Calkins. Jensen was apparently angered by a notice from the county’s code enforcement division ordering the removal of marijuana plants. Jensen made threatening, vulgar phone calls to county staff, and was shot sniper-style during an armed standoff outside his Durham home.
Based on Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team investigations, District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared all of the killings justified, resulting in ongoing public outcry from the Phillips and Rushing families and community supporters. Both victims’ families are formulating legal challenges to those rulings.
Evidence of mental illness and uncharacteristic behavior played a role in all three shootings. Now-retired BCSO Capt. Andy Duch blasted the CPD for having inadequate crisis intervention training after the Phillips shooting. An investigation by the CN&R into the last 20 years of police shootings revealed mental illness played a role in more than half of those deaths—a rate more than double the national average.
Ramsey announced Dec. 20 that Ruppel—the officer involved in Rushing’s death—has been charged with misdemeanor assault after being caught on camera applying a stranglehold to a handcuffed suspect in August. Ruppel abruptly retired. As of press time, he hadn’t filed a plea in the case.
'Just ban it'
With the passage of Proposition 64 last November, Californians voted to legalize the adult use of marijuana, as well as the sale and manufacturing of the herb. Butte County, however, and its municipalities, remained wary of the implications and decided to cast aside the will of the voters (53 percent in Butte County voted in favor of legalization) and ban commercial activity and even stifle the growing of cannabis for medical purposes within Chico city limits.
Prop. 64 put it to cities and counties to come up with their own regulations regarding commercial cannabis activity—everything from growing to manufacturing to selling. With a deadline of Jan. 1, 2018, by which to do so, or risk losing the ability to control the enterprise, local jurisdictions chose the path of least resistance: Ban it altogether (with the exception of delivery services, which are allowed in the county).
The Board of Supervisors seemed open to considering the idea of allowing a dispensary, with Chairman Bill Connelly going so far as to say he’d be willing to continue talking about the subject based on strong arguments from the public. The panel will revisit the topic in May.
In Chico, the conversation was more one-sided, with the City Council’s conservative majority ignoring the fact that 61 percent of city voters approved Prop. 64. The panel approved an outright ban in September.
Moreover, a Planning Commission recommendation to take time to consider a move to ban outdoor grows, plus pleas from the public—including Chico State professor Mark Stemen, who argued that growing indoors is environmentally unfriendly—also were ignored.
The decisions prompted a group of cannabis proponents to organize a petition drive to put the matter to the voters, but it failed to gain enough signatures.
Expect this issue to resurface in 2018, as the state regulatory framework for commercial activity goes live and dispensaries and other operations begin opening in other communities.
In Butte County, Chico was the epicenter for activism triggered by the election of Donald Trump, a reality-TV firebrand who has upended Washington and, based on the policy out of the White House, intends to further enrich himself and other mega-wealthy Americans. That’s based on, among other bills, his controversial tax law that stands to save those in the 1 percent and giant corporations billions at the expense of the poor and middle-class.
Even prior to Trump’s ascension to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in late January, Chico saw three major marches in opposition to his pending presidency. But the most massive local demonstration, by far, took place on Jan. 21, the day after his inauguration. An estimated 3,000 gathered at Chico City Plaza and marched downtown holding signs and chanting slogans, including “We will not be silenced,” during one of many sister marches to the national Women’s March on Washington.
More than 2.6 million people participated nationally, making Jan. 21, 2017, the largest single day of protest in American history.
But that was just the beginning. Several local resistance forums sprung up online in 2017, while existing groups became more active. Among them is Mobilize Chico (mobilizechico.info), which formed shortly after the 2016 election and has more than 1,200 members on Facebook who regularly engage in discussions related to national, state and regional politics, and take action when the need arises.
On a Sunday back in August, for example, Mobilize Chico quickly joined forces with the Chico Peace and Justice Center and other groups, organizing a demonstration to show support for those who stood in opposition to the white-nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., earlier that same weekend. The latter group’s protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee included participation of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as other neo-Nazi groups, and the demonstration is the one Trump famously said included “some very fine people.”
It was following that racist rally that a 20-year-old Ohio man allegedly plowed into peaceful counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 19 others. He was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, among other offenses.
More than 100 local protesters took to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in response, carrying signs denouncing racism.
And speaking of people showing up, Jan. 20 is the date of yet another local demonstration—the Women’s March on Chico 2018, which is scheduled once again to coincide with similar marches throughout the nation as a way to encourage participation in the upcoming midterm election. And if the turnout for the inaugural Women’s March is any indication, the streets of Chico will again be teeming with resisters.
To say it’s been an interesting year in the Chico Scrap Metal saga is an understatement. It probably would be more accurate to call it bizarre. An even better term: litigious.
That’s because the city of Chico’s conservative majority—during closed session on a 4-to-2 vote—decided to sue its newly elected seventh member for participating in a grassroots effort to continue the city’s long-planned amortization of the embattled business, which was expected to vacate its home on East 20th Street years ago.
Indeed, Karl Ory, who won a seat in the 2016 general election, is a defendant in that lawsuit, brought forward by the city to stop watchdog group Move the Junkyard from putting the fate of the recycling center in the hands of voters. The community group gathered more than 9,000 signatures and submitted them to the City Clerk’s Office in December 2016—and, according to a review by the county clerk, exceeded the 5,001 valid signatures needed for a referendum.
The drama of 2017 began in earnest at the City Council’s first meeting of the year, on Jan. 3. That evening, as per the posted agenda, the full council was supposed to decide whether to rescind its decision to let Chico Scrap Metal stay put; submit a measure to voters, either during the next municipal election in 2018 or during a special election called for that purpose; or provide direction to city staff. (Ory recused himself from the discussion due to his connection to the referendum drive.)
However, the city attorney shot that plan down and called for the panel to vote only on whether to accept the county clerk’s verification of the referendum. That upset those who came to speak on the issue, including an attorney representing the grassroots group.
The council was expected to take the issue back up at its next meeting, but instead, weeks later, Move the Junkyard and Ory got slapped with that lawsuit. Since then, the issue has been stuck in legal limbo. What’s noteworthy is that, in August, the CN&R learned that Chico Scrap Metal had joined the city as a complainant.
As of the CN&R’s deadline, a trial was scheduled for late February at Butte County Superior Court.
A major component of homelessness got a lot worse this year as the local housing market tightened up and low-income residents, especially, felt the squeeze.
The affordable housing shortage was driven by several factors. Despite experiencing its first real building boom since the Great Recession, Chico went several years with very little new construction, and the housing stock has yet to catch up. Meanwhile, the stream of federal and state monies that used to support local low-income housing slowed to a trickle, providing private developers no incentive to fill the gap.
David Ferrier, president and CEO of CHIP—a nonprofit that builds subsidized housing from Marysville to Redding—explained the situation during an interview with the CN&R: “In this sort of market, people who can pay higher rents tend to get served, and the people who can’t tend to really struggle. They either overpay or accept a poor living situation, and it can force people to choose between food and housing.”
Another sign of the squeeze was the apartment vacancy rate, a statistic published quarterly by the North Valley Property Owners Association (NVPOA). In 2009-10, the average vacancy rate for apartments in Chico was about 6 percent, a level that provides enough market fluidity for people to move around and find apartments. However, the vacancy rate went into a long-term nosedive, and then hovered between 1.5 percent and 2 percent this year.
The uptick in construction brought no relief because builders are concentrating on luxury apartment complexes and high-end student housing rather than affordable or subsidized housing. (For example, check out the $60 million, 173-unit apartment complex under construction on Nord Avenue, just north of Walgreens, which is set to house 625 students.)
Meanwhile, more and more people learned that finding affordable housing is difficult in Chico. The most recent NVPOA report, compiled in October, shows that the apartment vacancy rate had dropped yet again—to 1.1 percent.
Chasing the dream
Nationwide, there are an estimated 800,000 young immigrants who are shielded from deportation through a federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—or DACA, which allows them to work legally and also enroll in college. The North State is home to many such young people, including an estimated 200-300 who attend Chico State alone.
The controversial Obama-era Homeland Security program is open only to those who arrived in the United States illegally as children. Enrollees also must meet other requirements, including not being convicted of a felony or posing a threat to national security.
Locally and throughout the nation, DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers, became increasingly nervous about their deportation-proof status following the inauguration of Donald Trump. That’s because, on the campaign trail, during speeches and at rallies, Trump cast immigrants as criminals by highlighting acts of violence. That nationalist rhetoric dismissed numerous academic studies showing immigrants commit crimes less frequently than native-born citizens.
Within his first few months in office, the president signed executive orders that streamlined the deportation process and gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leeway in detaining immigrants. And in September, Trump directed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to phase out and eventually end the Obama-era initiative over the next 2 1/2 years. The president also set a March deadline for Congress to pass legislation that would extend protections to those immigrants.
In response, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he’d filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration. Several other states have signed onto that effort.
Many had hoped that Democrats in Washington would stand by their pledge to force a vote on the issue, via the Dream Act, by withholding support for a federal spending bill. But those plans fizzled when Congress voted in favor of a temporary federal spending bill last Thursday, Dec. 21.
In the meantime, since DACA protections must be renewed every two years and the program is effectively on hiatus, day by day more and more recipients lose their protections, becoming vulnerable to deportation.
Opioid epidemic hits home
The national opioid epidemic has hit Butte County particularly hard, and that became apparent in 2017. In January, two heroin overdose deaths cast a spotlight on the issue and in February, the CN&R reported on the opening of a new outpatient rehab center called Chico Life Restored whose focus is on treating people with alcohol and opioid dependencies.
In reporting for that story, the CN&R discovered that not only is Butte County’s rate of overdose deaths more than three times the state average, but for every 1,000 people in 2015, there were 1,376 opioid prescriptions (nearly three times the national rate).
In late October, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national health emergency. It was killing 175 Americans a day, he said, and something must be done.
It turns out local health experts were already hard at work formulating a plan to address the issue. In November, Dr. Andy Miller, Butte County public health officer, unveiled an initiative to cut back on prescriptions through a set of community prescribing guidelines based on the input of three dozen local clinicians. Miller was making the rounds—to government bodies, hospitals and private practitioners—to gain support for the initiative, whose goal is to bring the level of local opioid prescriptions down to the national level.
“The goal is pretty aggressive, but you’re talking about getting down to our national average—we already have a national crisis,” Miller told the Chico City Council. “So, even if we get to our goal, it does not mean that our problem has gone away.”
Still without a home
For the fifth consecutive year, homelessness remains in the CN&R’s list of top stories, an unfortunate streak that seems unlikely to end in the foreseeable future.
In January, volunteers and service providers organized by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care (CoC) conducted the biennial Homeless Point-in-Time (PIT) Survey, contacting 1,983 homeless individuals in a 24-hour period—the highest local count to date.
In Chico, public debate over the issue has reached fever pitch, playing out on social media and at Chico City Plaza. A summertime effort by a downtown business owner to get more community members to eat lunch there was interpreted by some critics—and participants—as effort to “take back the plaza.” Several new Facebook-born community groups have cropped up, resulting in some positive community engagement but also a lot of dialogue that borders on vigilantism.
There are also conflicts among local service providers. Stairways Programming left $72,000 in federal grant money sitting on the table, with former Executive Director Michael Madieros citing problems with the CoC as his reason for doing so (see “What were they thinking?”). A proposed move by the Jesus Center to city-owned property in south Chico would ostensibly result in consolidated delivery of increased services, but it’s also given rise to concerns about transparency in the city’s dealings with that organization and whether the move is aimed at shuffling the homeless population out of the public eye. In November, founders of sober living/transitional housing facility the Esplanade House ended a 26-year relationship with the Community Action Agency after calling for the resignation of the CAA’s chief executive officer.
Torres Community Shelter’s longtime executive director, Brad Montgomery, resigned in July. His replacement, Joy Amaro, recently reported record numbers of nightly guests at the shelter.
The Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) and Jesus Center have expanded their transitional housing programs, with CHAT overseeing a total of 11 homes housing 40 people and the JC overseeing a total of six houses (and an overnight shelter) serving 60 people. CHAT is also trying to establish Simplicity Village, a tiny house community.
Those efforts address a major factor contributing to homelessness—a lack of affordable housing. Respondents to the PIT listed that deficiency as the primary reason they’re homeless, but some people fail to see the obvious correlation: Mayor Sean Morgan denied such a link exists at a Chico City Council meeting held this month.
It was a rough year for Chico’s infrastructure as the City Council has prioritized public safety (read: hiring cops) above all else, leaving the city’s streets, bridges, sewers, storm drains, rights-of-way, bike paths, landscaping, parks and street trees to fall by the wayside.
In May, city staff painted a troubling picture to the City Council. Barely maintaining all infrastructure would cost about $16.2 million annually, but the city set aside a total of $6.6 million for infrastructure improvements in its 2017-18 budget
The problem is most acute when it comes to roadways. Indeed, according to a city-contracted survey of streets called the Pavement Management Plan, the quality of street surfaces here grade poorly. The survey rates roads on a scale of 0 to 100, with “0” being a dirt road and “100” being a brand-new paved one. Chico’s average score is 60; the state’s is 66.
They’re only likely to get worse: It would take $7 million annually to maintain the current condition of the city’s streets and an additional $3 million a year to make significant improvements, but the 2017-18 budget earmarked a mere $1 million for road maintenance, a total that includes engineering, street sweeping and sidewalk repair.
The council made a move to direct funding to the city’s deficient roadways in September, when the panel voted to earmark funds generated by the city’s waste-hauling franchise agreement for roadway repair, totaling an estimated $800,000 more in annual fees—still well short of what’s required.
Meanwhile, cracks in Chico’s crown jewel were equally visible as a lack of funding and a bare-bones park staff has resulted in perennially deferred maintenance in Bidwell Park. In November, there was even talk of transferring maintenance of Bidwell Park to Chico Area Recreation District (CARD). Whether that shakes out remains to be seen. If city staff has its way, CARD will take over the majority of Chico’s smaller, neighborhood parks, but Bidwell Park—as well as Children’s Playground and Bidwell Bowl—will stay under city oversight.