These people are pissed off

Survey meeting turns into City Council bitch session

Karen Zinniel spearheads a conversation about Chico City Council Monday night.

Karen Zinniel spearheads a conversation about Chico City Council Monday night.

Photo By christine g.k. lapado

The Chico City Council chambers were almost packed Monday evening (Oct. 5), when local business owner and longtime Chico resident Karen Zinniel—on behalf of a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Chico—presented the findings of a survey the group conducted in late July.

Before long, what began as an informational meeting turned into something much different—a bitch session, really, with people expressing their displeasure with the City Council generally, its Walmart decision, students and the direction the city is taking.

Before that, though, Zinniel presented the results of her group’s survey. Concerned Citizens had randomly mailed out a list of nine questions to 6,000 Chico-area residents asking questions about housing density, traffic and parking, and public satisfaction with the Arts Commission, among other things. Nearly 900 people—roughly 15 percent of those receiving the surveys—responded.

“I’ve never been involved with city politics before,” offered Zinniel, before launching into a short PowerPoint presentation detailing the survey’s findings, “but I wanted to help and assist the council make decisions that reflect what people want.”

Some of the questions were more specific than others. For example, the first asked, “Should housing density be increased in the older neighborhoods?” This was clearly in response to the council’s June decision to change the requirement that second units, so-called “Granny units,” have a setback of 30 feet from the main house, reducing the distance in special cases—those in which the 30-foot setback was impractical—to as close as 10 feet

A number of residents of the Avenues and other older neighborhoods, including Zinniel and members of her group, had opposed the change, worrying in particular that more units would be built and end up occupied by students. Although the council added a requirement that a use permit be obtained—a lengthy process that costs $1,500, includes architectural review and isn’t always successful—opponents were upset.

Whether all of the survey respondents understood that the first question referred to the council’s second-units change is unknown, but 82.9 percent of them said “no,” Zinniel reported. One respondent, it was emphasized, answered “Hell no!”

To the question, “Are you happy with the recent decisions made by members of the Chico City Council?” 57.1 percent said “no.” No specific council decisions were listed.

“This can only be interpreted as significant,” said Zinniel, of the response to the loosely framed question.

The “Hell no!” response, it turned out, was indicative of the tone the evening took after Zinniel finished her talk and opened up the floor for audience members to speak. Quite quickly, the gathering took on the tone of a “tea party” in which people vent their dissatisfaction with what they see as unnecessary government spending, among other things.

Longtime Chico resident Ray Schimmel did speak specifically to the change in second-unit setbacks. “The distance is moved down to 10 feet from 30 feet,” he said. “That’s my height and four feet. That would have a very, very negative impact on those [older] neighborhoods.

“They’re pretty bright people, but I do think they have a problem,” he said of City Council members. He closed with a reference to “the hubristic arrogance that the City Council seems to be exhibiting,” for which he was applauded.

Mike Pelak, who owns North State Auto Parts, after venting about the increased intrusion of “government” into his business life, spoke in favor of moving the City Council election from November to June, citing a desire—which seemed to be shared by many in the room—to keep Chico State students from voting in city elections.

“I really, really want to see the people who live here, who work here, have the final say on who is elected to the City Council,” Pelak said, before making a vague reference to “Chico State students who are being led by other people to cast votes.”

A man who identified himself only as “Bill” changed the topic to the City Council’s recent decision to deny the expansion of the local Walmart. “The council feels they have the right to tell us where we can shop,” he said. “They’re running businesses out of Chico.”

A woman who was volunteered by her husband to get up and speak used the words “blackmail,” “extortion” and “strong-arm robbery” in speaking about Councilman Scott Gruendl’s suggestion that Walmart contribute $1 million to the Air Quality Management District’s wood-heater change-out program. “I have friends who want to move here [to Chico]. I say, ‘Don’t—there’s no place to shop.’ ”

Local artist and former Arts Commissioner Gregg Payne calmly encouraged more public participation on public-art projects. Arts Commission meetings, he recalled, “were very sparsely attended” during his tenure, he said.

“It’s up to the people to really engage themselves,” said Payne. “They have the right and privilege to really speak up. … That needs to happen a lot more.”

After the meeting, Leslie Johnson, secretary of the local ACLU chapter, said that her greatest concern was that the majority of those in the room wanted to exclude Chico State students from voting in city elections.

“How can they justify excluding one segment of the population?” she asked. “It’s illegal and unconstitutional.”

Jim Gregg, a retired Chico State professor and former director of the university’s now-defunct Survey Research Center, challenged the notion that Chico State students affect the outcome of city elections.

“It’s a myth that students vote in large numbers,” Gregg said. “There’s never been a study done at the university showing that students carried the election.”