The value of symbolism

Chico Vice Mayor Ann Schwab’s proposal that the city stop buying individual bottles of water for City Council meetings and other city-sponsored events is a good one, though largely symbolic. In the grand scheme of things, the number of bottles is small. But as she has said, it’s a step toward sustainability, and we all should take such steps, be they small or large.

It’s amazing, really, that so many people have been convinced to pay as much or more for water, a commodity that heretofore has been virtually free, than they pay for gasoline. Until recently, however, the true cost of bottled water—in petroleum used to make the bottles, and in the waste they generate—has been largely ignored. That’s changing, and it’s due somewhat to symbolic actions like the one Schwab supports.

The city had another opportunity recently to take a meaningful symbolic action, but it failed to do so. At its Feb. 19 meeting, the council considered the fate of its Human Resources Commission. City staff had said the commission’s work was done and recommended it be disbanded, but the council voted 5-2, with Councilmen Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna dissenting, to allow commissioners to redefine its functions to become something along the lines of a “Human Relations Commission.”

Perhaps such a commission could do good work. Who knows? And 80 hours of staff time isn’t a huge amount. But when the city is facing unprecedented budgetary pressures, axing the commission was just the kind of symbolic action that would have told city residents that the council was serious about saving money.

The time may come when the council will have no choice but to ask city residents to support a tax hike to balance the budget. It won’t get that support if it keeps missing opportunities to show it’s serious about saving money, even if they are largely symbolic opportunities.