They got letters
Commissioners get warnings not walking papers
They came to oust the renegade commissioners, but in the end decided to send them letters of reprimand instead.
A few speakers into the public comment period of the Tuesday night Chico City Council meeting, the conservative council minority—Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna and Dan Herbert—saw the light. The venom they hoped to hear spewing from a public outraged over ill-chosen words from two city commissioners never materialized. Instead, it became painfully obvious that evening’s main course was an event fueled by pure politics in an election year.
Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas and Parks Commissioner Tom Barrett were called to the carpet for language they had used while on the job.
Luvaas, at a Planning Commission meeting about Enloe Medical Center’s proposed expansion, had questioned the financial wisdom of using the hospital’s helicopter to ferry “82-year-old people who are going to live for a year and a half anyway.”
The local daily put the comment on its front page the next day and Wahl soon after asked that the council look into tossing Luvaas off the commission for his insensitivity to old folks.
“The shocking, insulting, and disparaging comments toward seniors and others in need of health care by Mr. Luvaas on Wednesday evening breached the line of appropriate conduct,” Wahl wrote to the council in a letter dated Feb. 9.
For his part, Barrett used the word “bullshit” in an e-mail exchange last May with disc-golf promoter Lon Glazner in a long-running electronic debate over the existence of a disc golf course in Upper Park.
“Lon,” Barrett’s e-mail said, “I’m really getting tired or [sic] your endless bullshit and self-serving derogatory crap you continually spew in these emails.”
Glazner shared the offensive e-mail with the full council earlier this month after Barrett made a motion to close the course during wet conditions, a move Glazner strongly opposed.
On Feb. 6 Bertagna called for Barrett’s expulsion from the Parks Commission with a letter to Mayor Scott Gruendl.
An outraged Bertagna told the mayor, “Tom clearly has little respect for those who he is serving. His statements and accusations within his e-mail is [sic] unbecoming of a City of Chico Commissioner appointed by the Chico City Council.”
Bertagna denied his actions were politically motivated, saying his request came on the heels of his learning about a second series of e-mail exchanges involving Barrett and outspoken park trails blazer Michael Jones.
“This arrogance is not the kind of activity I can tolerate,” he said.
An angry Councilmember Ann Schwab asked Bertagna if he’d ever said anything he later regretted—an obvious reference to Bertagna’s infamous use of the word “Jew” as a verb during an August 2003 council meeting.
Yes, Bertagna said, he had indeed, but that Barrett’s tirade went on for a length of time. “This is not how I’m going to allow a commissioner to act,” Bertagna said.
Gruendl asked why there was a nine-month delay between when the word was typed and when it was made public.
“How is [Barrett] being disrespectful?” The mayor asked. “This is a very contentious item. Both individuals were contentious. This does not excuse Tom, who has apologized. His choice [of words] was bad, but his dedication is incredible.”
Barrett was also supported by liberal Councilmembers Maureen Kirk and Andy Holcombe, who said Bertagna was trying to hold him to an unknown standard.
Councilmember Herbert said he was ready to accept Barrett’s apology until he’d heard that Barrett had shown disrespect in e-mail communications to Michael Jones as well. Herbert, whose been on the council for eight years, said he did not know Barrett, who’s served on the Parks Commission, on and off, for the same period of time. When Herbert said he’d be shocked if anyone on the council ever used the word in question. Schwab said she had used it, right there on the council dais.
When it came time for the public input on the matter—14 audience members spoke on Barrett’s fate, 29 on Luvaas’ (a few commented on both)—the first person up was Norm Nielsen of the newly formed conservative political action committee the Hooker Oak Alliance, of which Glazner is a member.
Nielsen, hoping to kill two birds with one stone, read the PAC’s mission statement, which talked about private investment driving growth and then talked about the uncivil behavior of both Luvaas and Barrett.
“This is not political nor partisan,” Nielsen assured the council.
Next came two members of the Chico Rod and Gun Club who said they didn’t think Barrett gave their group proper respect. They were followed by Glazner, who told the council Barrett was a problem that had to be dealt with.
Gruendl challenged Glazner on his behavior. Glazner said he was not a public figure like Barrett and thus not held to the same standard. A few more disc-golf fans complained that Barrett didn’t give them or their course a fair shake in hearings.
Laurel Blankinship, who came forward to defend Barrett, said the public had no idea what word the council was talking about.
“They think you mean the ‘F’ word,” she said. “You are talking about BS. I counted four craps and one BS” in Barrett’s e-mail exchanges.
And so it went, the moral outrage slipping away as Barrett defenders took their turns. When attorney Susan Minasian—"I don’t know Tom Barrett; I don’t know anything about disc golf"—suggested the council employ “progressive discipline” in the form of letter of censure, the ouster of both men was over.
After a break the council came back and Bertagna made a motion to send a letter of reprimand to Barrett. The motion passed 7-0. Then Wahl suggested Luvaas receive a letter of reprimand and a visit to the Enloe emergency room for a lesson in health care.
After a string of one-minute public testimonies—almost all in favor of Luvaas—the council voted 5-2 (Holcombe and Schwab dissenting) to send Luvaas a “gentle letter” of reprimand. Wahl’s suggestion of a mandatory ER visit was ousted.
Barrett called the outcome “appropriate;” Luvaas said the council listened and responded to “public input about the right of public officials to fully express themselves.”
The council also voted to start the process of establishing behavior standards for commissioners.