Three-ring council

Dave Waddell teaches journalism and advises The Orion at Chico State. This week, College Media Advisers chose him for its 2006 Distinguished Adviser Award.

I required students in my reporting class to write stories about the Chico City Council meeting of Oct. 3. Little did I know I was sending them to the circus—though definitely not the Barnum & Bailey variety. What they witnessed would never be mistaken for the Greatest Show on Earth.

My thinking was there would be value in budding journalists observing the functioning of a city council, but what they saw instead was municipal dysfunction.

Under consideration that night was a development proposal, called Wildwood Estates, for an area east of Cactus Avenue in northeast Chico. The council held a previous hearing on the project way back in August.

Apparently the land contains some vernal pools, which are, I’m given to understand, home to fairy shrimp. I’m not sure what fairy shrimp are, but I’m certain they’re important because they’re endangered and people are concerned.

This vernal-pool area, depending on whose testimony you care to believe, is either (1) something environmentally valuable and beautiful like you’d see in Sunset magazine or (2) a future dried-up gopher reservation whose multiplying inhabitants might need to be periodically burned out and beaten to death with shovels by guy-types. Of course, if the fairy shrimp flourish and if they happen to eat gophers, then all could be right with the ecosystem.

The council got lots of maps to look at. They came from different folks and were different versions of what the development should look like. The developer even had a brand-new map. One articulate fellow, who complained that he hadn’t had enough time to review the developer’s new map, brought his own map—with the ink barely dry.

In most cities, the council sets policy, and so much of the micromanagement that our council engages in—for hours on end—is handled by various commissions and a more forceful city staff than Chico seems to possess. Indeed, council members themselves indicated they didn’t want “to plan from the dais,” and then they proceeded to plan in excruciating detail from the dais—down to deciding whether individual lots should be created or not.

Of course, they couldn’t agree. Not once, not twice, not eight times. The council made nine motions in an effort to reach closure on Wildwood Estates. Finally and thankfully (if not productively), the council voted to send the whole mess back to the poor ol’ Planning Commission. What for was never made clear.

At one point, a city official noted a legal deadline looming in 10 days, and Mayor Scott Gruendl responded that it would be his sincere hope that the discussion would actually last only a couple more hours.

Oh, the mayor is such a kidder. I think.