Top 10 in 2010

The CN&R editors’ picks for the biggest stories of the year

The raids on medi-pot collectives this year were big news. But we’re still scratching our heads over how the Tellesens—Hilary and Dylan—were linked.

The raids on medi-pot collectives this year were big news. But we’re still scratching our heads over how the Tellesens—Hilary and Dylan—were linked.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Some stories are so big they dominate the news from year to year. Certainly that’s the case with the economic downturn that is heading into its third year and with California’s budget problems, which have been going on for nearly a decade.

But every year new, surprising stories appear that grab everyone’s attention. That was certainly true this year in the case of Eri Yoshida, the so-called “knuckleball princess” who joined the Chico Outlaws and proceeded to charm baseball fans everywhere. And, flipping to the dark side, it was true in the case of Tony Symmes, the well-liked and successful Chico homebuilder who let greed ensnare him in a tangled web of deception to sell houses at inflated prices to buyers with phony mortgages.

Picking the top stories of the year isn’t easy. The CN&R’s editors spent several hours going over back issues and debating with each other about their recommendations before coming up with the following list. We hope it helps you remember what happened locally in 2010, because many of these stories will still be in the news in 2011.

Pot on the mind

Dude, no doubt about it! Medical marijuana has been a hot topic in 2010. If you include Proposition 19, the measure that would have legalized marijuana in California, pot was very much on people’s minds this year.

While the city of Chico worked quietly throughout the year to draft an ordinance regarding the growing and distribution of medical marijuana, more than half a dozen collectives popped up around Chico—most in unincorporated pockets—to serve a growing number of patients who needed a safe place to get their medicine. These collectives operated like dispensaries, where people who could not grow on their own could offer monetary reimbursement for medical cannabis.

This did not go over well with local law enforcement or District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who took a hard-line approach to the matter, declaring any and all selling of marijuana to be illegal.

In late June, after months of surveillance and undercover investigations by members of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, the eight collectives and the homes of their owners were raided by officers from more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies. Computers, cell phones, paperwork—anything that could be deemed part of an illegal selling operation—was taken into evidence. All the medical marijuana, whether ready to ingest or smoke or in plant form, was confiscated. And bank accounts were frozen and, in at least one instance, seized.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of all the raids was on local artist and Butte College instructor Dylan Tellesen, who has plans to open a collective but has been outspoken about wanting to wait for an ordinance to do so. He was wrongly matched with one of the collectives already running, his house raided, his wife and children frightened.

Ramsey’s position that any selling of marijuana is illegal didn’t seem to pan out too well for him, as no arrests have been made related to selling pot. One of his statements was so over-the-top it landed him on our list for What Were They Thinking? (See page 20.)

Hundreds of man-hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars later, law enforcement made just one arrest—of a security guard, for something totally unrelated to the selling of marijuana.

The CN&R has been keeping an eye on what’s going on with the collectives, the city’s ordinance—which will be coming back to the City Council in February—and especially the raids, as new information becomes available. We anticipate even more in 2011, because this issue is anything but dead. So, stay tuned.

Logue’s big deal tanks

One of the biggest and most contentious issues of the year was Proposition 23 on the November ballot. At stake was the future of the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, aka AB 32. Had the measure passed, the act most likely would not have been implemented for years.

Written by local Assemblyman Dan Logue, the measure would have postponed implementation of AB 32 until the state experienced an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent for a full year, something that was not likely to happen for a very long time.

Proponents of the measure, which they dubbed the California Jobs Initiative, argued that AB 32’s mandates to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would put an undue burden on businesses and cost jobs at a time when the economy was in a tailspin. Opponents, who referred to it as the Dirty Energy Proposition, charged that it would stifle the state’s growing clean-energy industry, increase air pollution and reduce incentives to find alternatives to oil.

Petitions for the proposed initiative had just begun circulating when the campaign got a big financial boost, an infusion of millions of dollars from two big Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, with refineries in California.

This gave the pro-Proposition 23 campaign the funds to pay petition gatherers and qualify the measure for the ballot, but it also associated the initiative in voters’ minds with major polluters—at a time when the nation’s attention was on British Petroleum and the Gulf oil spill.

Then the right-wing Koch brothers, ultra-rich oil men from Wichita, Kan., donated $1 million to the pro-Proposition 23 campaign, further associating it with the industry.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Prop 23, including many of California’s most famous and productive high-tech firms, not to mention environmental and health-advocacy groups, was coalescing and raising money of its own. By early October polls were showing that voters were definitely tilting away from Proposition 23. Not long afterward the oil companies, apparently deciding not to throw good money after bad, stopped funding the pro-Proposition 23 campaign.

On Nov. 2, voters sent a strong message of support for AB 32, defeating Proposition 23 by a resounding 62 percent to 38 percent.

By mid-December, the California Air Resources Board had passed a cap-and-trade measure that establishes limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted and sets up a system by which businesses can buy and sell pollution credits. As the first state to do so since the 1990s, when a cap-and-trade system was successfully used on the East Coast to cut sulfur-dioxide emissions that caused acid rain, California is again leading the way when it comes to confronting climate change.

Newly elected school-board member Eileen Robinson vows to get CUSD’s deficit spending under control.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

Schoolhouse rocked

Chico’s K-12 public-school landscape was rocked in 2010 by massive budget problems and loss of per-student revenue, as a number of students left traditional Chico Unified School District campuses for charter schools.

In addition to the charter schools already in existence—Blue Oak Charter School, Chico Country Day, Forest Ranch Charter School and Nord Country School—new charters came on board in 2010: Chico Green School, Sherwood Montessori and Inspire School of Arts and Sciences (an internal charter within CUSD).

Both Sherwood Montessori and Chico Green School experienced some new-school growing pains, such as parent complaints about a particular teacher in the case of Sherwood Montessori, and Chico Green School’s firing of its principal before the first day of the school year.

Nothing was as big, though, as the ongoing problems plaguing the district, which also included controversy surrounding Chico High School Principal Jim Hanlon’s handling of the closing of Chico High’s long-running West program and the transfers of Chico High teachers Kevin Dolan and Kevin Payne, as well as the opening of a new, $11-million performing arts center at Pleasant Valley High School.

After decisions to make such budgetary cuts as the elimination of certain administrative, custodial, special-education and counseling services, and to increase class size in alternative-ed programs, among other things, CUSD’s 2009-10 budget moved from a “negative” to a less-precarious “qualified” status. Questions remain, however, as the district’s 2010-11 projected budget forecasts a $4.7 million shortfall, and the budget for 2011-12 looks even gloomier, with a projected shortfall of $9.3 million.

Additionally, CUSD officials expressed concern over its growing special-education budget commitments; special-ed programs currently cost the district $9.6 million more than what is paid for by federal funding.

With the district facing possible state takeover, November’s election saw voters choosing experience over new blood when they voted to reelect incumbent school-board members Andrea Lerner Thompson and Kathy Kaiser, and to elect longtime former school employee Eileen Robinson—who is dedicated to getting CUSD’s deficit spending under control—to the CUSD Board of Trustees.

Scandal of the year

Tony Symmes fell a long way in 2010.

When the year began he was a prominent home builder—the largest in Chico—widely known and respected for his charitable contributions to the community. By June, he’d become infamous as one of the biggest scam artists in the town’s history, a man who by his own admission let greed lead him into a multimillion-dollar fraud unlike any seen here before.

As Tom Gascoyne recounts in his exhaustive July 1 CN&R cover story, “Web of deception,” Symmes’ downfall began with a problem: The recession had left him with too many unsold houses on his hands. Enter Garrett Griffith Gililland III, a 29-year-old unlicensed mortgage broker and tattooed body builder who allegedly convinced Symmes he could find straw buyers, falsely inflate their incomes and credit records, and have them buy Symmes’ houses at prices inflated by $40,000 to $60,000.

When the sales were completed, Symmes allegedly gave Gililland the $40,000 to $60,000 as a kickback. Total sales added up to more than $21 million.

One consequence of the scam: inflated home prices throughout Chico, as Symmes’ sales were used as comparables in the purchases of other houses.

Most of the houses were rented. Some of them were used for growing marijuana. When police busted them, they and folks at the District Attorney’s Office noted the connection to Symmes and became suspicious. The U.S. Department of Justice started looking into the case. That’s when the scam began to unravel.

Ultimately lenders began foreclosing on the houses, leading to debasement of the Chico housing market.

The story is full of twists and turns. When the feds began turning up the heat in 2008, Gililland and his wife, Nicole Magpusao, fled to Colombia, where they opened a nightclub. When it failed, they went to Barcelona, where in September 2009 they were arrested by Spanish police and extradited back to the States.

Also caught in Gililland’s web of deception and indicted were local builder William Baker, who allegedly sold six of his houses at inflated prices to straw buyers created by Gililland, and the following people who allegedly worked with Baker: Shane Burreson, of Orland and president of the aptly named NorCal Innovative Investments; Chicoans Christopher Chiavola and Brandon Resendez; Kesha Haynie, a local real-estate agent, and her brother, Niche Fortune.

Gililland and Magpusao sit in jail, awaiting trial. Symmes is awaiting sentencing, which has been postponed at least once. He faces up to 20 years but has been cooperating with authorities and is expected to get a much lighter sentence; he’s already paid $4 million in restitution.

James Cox was one of a number of local residents who lost their job and became homeless in the faltering economy. Cox moved into the Torres Shelter after losing his CalFire job and his home in Magalia.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

The Great Recession hits hard

We predicted last year that the dismal state of the local economy would likely be one of the top stories of 2010 as well. And, here we are, telling a story that’s starting to sound all too depressingly familiar.

Sure enough, the new year began same as the old year, as the Great Recession continued to cause lay-offs and more misery in the local economy. By year’s end, The Associated Press’ Economic Stress Index—which measures the financial strain that a particular area is under, based on the combined factors of unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcy—showed that Butte County is indeed under continuing economic stress.

Butte County’s overall ESI rate creeped up 15.75 percentage points over the course of 2010, from 15.33 in late 2009. Bankruptcy filings rose to 1.83 (from 2009’s 1.28), the number of foreclosures went up (from 1.65 percent in 2009 to 1.83 for 2010), and unemployment continued to hover at a depressing 12.8 percent—above the national average of 9.8 percent. This figure does not include the growing number of people who are no longer eligible for unemployment insurance, including those “discouraged workers” who have given up looking for work because of a scarcity of jobs.

More locals lost jobs as businesses and agencies continued to downsize, with some joining the increasing number of homeless after becoming unable to afford to keep a roof over their heads. Some got creative and became self-employed—selling pies, raising alpacas, and starting up other new small businesses.

Others got behind Republican State Assemblyman Dan Logue’s unsuccessful push to suspend AB 32—The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006—in the hopes that it would increase the number of jobs in the state of California.

It was truly a sign of the times that the new Staples office-supply store (which opened in December 2010 in the Forest Avenue location left vacant by the exit of Linens ’N Things) was inundated with 1,800 applicants vying for 33 positions.

Animal advocates endure hardships

Three local animal-welfare organizations made significant strides in 2010, despite the sagging economy.

Back in March, the CN&R chronicled the adventures of Tawnee Preisner, founder of NorCal Equine Rescue, a nonprofit that has since changed its name to Horse Plus Humane Society. Back then, the organization was based out of her home on the outskirts of Oroville. The place was pretty packed with animals—most of them casualties of a wrecked economy.

A dearth of buyers in the horse world had left many owners desperate to find homes for their beloved animals, and Preisner, along with her husband, Jason, and volunteers were determined to take in the unwanted—sometimes starving—horses, mules, donkeys and sometimes other creatures. The goal is to find them permanent homes and keep them out of the slaughter pipeline.

Thanks to the vision of the Preisners and the funding from their dedicated supporters, the rescue was able to purchase land in Palermo to expand the operation. Today, they are working constantly to fix up the 20-acre site.

Another organization with a lot on its plate is the Butte Humane Society in Chico, which takes in small animals, mainly dogs and cats, both strays and surrenders. In January, the Board of Directors opted to fire young Executive Director Heather Schoeppach and placed Christine Fixico, former hospital manager at an emergency vet clinic, in her place.

In the spring, more turmoil seemed evident as leaders of the organization went so far as to say the shelter was an embarrassment to the city. The Board of Directors wanted to move the entire operation to another, more suitable location, but the city so far has balked at that plan. Meanwhile, the economy forced increasing numbers of owners to surrender their pets.

There is some good news: In August, BHS opened an off-site cattery and spay-and-neuter clinic. The clean and bright site is a far cry from the dingy, grim confines the felines had endured at the main facility. Determined volunteers, especially Armeda Ferrini, who paid thousands of dollars out of her own pocket, made the vision of the clinic a reality.

Another significant story of the year was the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation’s struggles to move to a bigger property in Butte Valley. County officials mandated that the organization vacate its tucked-away home in Durham, because the facility attracted too much traffic. It was a daunting task with a strict deadline. The work to construct a new home for the foundation, which takes in exotic breeds such as tigers and other large cats, would be extremely expensive for a nonprofit that is reliant on support from the public.

The move required the construction of new enclosures, design, grading, and other work to meet county regulations. It was a monumental task. Under the guidance of Director Roberta Kirshner, countless local businesses, animal lovers and other generous souls donated time and materials to make the move a possibility. All of the permit-requiring exotics made it in by deadline, safe and sound.

These days, the foundation is working hard to meet further guidelines to open to the public. That effort is vital to its operation, since the facility is reliant on the small donations through tours to care for the animals. No one at the nonprofit, not even Kirshner, is paid for his or her work.

Eri Yoshida throws one against the Tijuana Cimarrones during 18-year-old Japanese knuckleball pitcher’s debuted with the Chico Outlaws back in May.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

Hall of Fame dame

Japan’s Eri Yoshida took Chico by storm before even throwing a ball for the Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. The excitement began as soon as the team signed the young Yokohama native back in April. By spring training a month later, the anticipation had risen to great heights.

When she took the mound in May during the Outlaws’ home opener at Nettleton Stadium, Chico fans were joined by baseball enthusiasts from afar.

The pint-sized knuckleball pitcher’s performance was a big deal not only for the GBL, but also for baseball in general, since Yoshida was to become the first woman to play professional baseball in a decade. In addition, she would be the first woman to play professionally in two countries.

As a kid, Yoshida was inspired by MLB knuckleballer Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. She had the opportunity to train with her hero during the off-season, and she was ready to show off her skills.

Media outlets from across the country—from the San Francisco Chronicle to The New York Times—turned up for the debut of the “knuckle princess.” The 18-year-old did not disappoint. She kept former big-leaguers on the Tijuana Cimarrones guessing in a scoreless first inning. She also managed to smack in an RBI single that helped the team achieve its 8-6 victory that game.

Yoshida had by that time herself become a hero to countless people, fans of baseball or not, around the globe.

A month later, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., requested her No. 3 jersey and the bat she used during that debut performance.

“Eri Yoshida’s achievements have been remarkable and represent a historic moment for professional baseball,” said National Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. The donation of Yoshida’s jersey and bat, he added, “enables us to further tell the story of how women continue to influence … the game of baseball today.”

It was a magical year for Yoshida and the rest of the Outlaws, who took the 2010 GBL championship.

At the end of July, the city of Chico honored Yoshida with a proclamation—and a standing ovation—honoring the young athlete’s achievements in professional baseball. Yoshida speaks very little English, but she was able to manage a couple of words indicating how she felt about her temporary home.

“I love Chico,” she said.

In a shocking upset, longtime Supervisor Jane Dolan lost her seat in June to Chico Councilman Larry Wahl.

Photo By Robert Speer

Goodbye, Jane Dolan

On June 8, 2010, the unthinkable happened. Jane Dolan, who had represented Butte County’s 2nd District for more than 31 years on the Board of Supervisors, lost her bid for re-election to Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl.

Perhaps Dolan didn’t take the election that seriously, assuming she’d win because, well, she’d always won before. The fact that Wahl, a conservative, would be taking over her historically liberal district, which includes the Chapman neighborhood in Chico, drove the knife a little deeper.

“Every campaign is different,” Dolan told the CN&R on election night. “I think that one of the final factors in this [election] was the incredibly low turnout. You always try to get the vote out, and ultimately that isn’t something you can control or even expect or not expect.”

Dolan took to the dais for her final meeting as supervisor Dec. 14, and she and others offered a bit of a retrospective. She’d been extremely successful during her decades in service, championing the Greenline and the Chapman neighborhood. She’d been instrumental in helping the libraries, boosting county services and agriculture.

The changing of the guard won’t officially happen until the new year, but the exit of a politician with such heart and knowledge behind her has been much on the mind of Chicoans these past six months.

We don’t expect Dolan to escape our radar any time soon—she recently announced she’s taken a position as executive director of the Sacramento River Conservation Area Forum. Best of luck, Jane.

Chico City Manager Dave Burkland and his staff have spent a good chunk of 2010 working to reduce the city’s general-fund deficit.

photo courtesy of city of chico

Budget crunching and belt tightening

Who hasn’t been hurt by the anemic economy?

From small communities to the metro municipalities, 2010 was a year of serious budget-crunching for public agencies.

The city of Chico spent a lot of time and effort trying to wipe out its estimated $4.3 million budget deficit for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

At an all-day budget session back in June, City Manager Dave Burkland, Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy and others unveiled the options for keeping the city fiscally solvent. Staffing reductions through attrition and an early-retirement program would take care of about $1.9 million.

To avoid layoffs, however, the city asked for concessions from its employees in the form of a 5 percent pay cut. In addition, they were asked to pay a greater percentage of their health insurance. Neither measure was met with enthusiasm. In fact, the Chico Police Officers Association and a couple of other unions pushed back in October, by packing into a City Council meeting during an update on the negotiations.

“We’re not interested in agreeing to a pay cut or benefit cut,” CPOA representative Steve Allen told the panel.

City management had repeatedly noted that the wage concessions, which would save the city more than $2 million, were the only options to avoid layoffs. That’s because 80 percent of the budget is spent on the city’s 423 employees’ salaries. Early on, just three unions (management, confidential and public-safety management) agreed to the terms.

A few weeks ago, the bargaining units agreed to go with the California State Association of Counties (CSAC)—a joint-powers authority—and change health-insurance providers to Anthem Blue Cross. The move eliminated the need for health-care concessions.

Recently, the city reached tentative agreements with three more bargaining groups: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representing clerical, technical and professional employees, the Chico Public Safety Association, and the International Firefighters Association (the only unit with a contract that didn’t expire at the end of December). Those groups will no longer face layoffs.

The holdouts in the negotiations process are the CPOA and the SEIU representing trades and crafts. As of press time, the city was waiting on word from both units.

Chico’s bargaining efforts were in the news in 2010 more than ever thanks to a policy the Chico City Council adopted a couple of years ago requiring greater transparency.

Meanwhile, during negotiations, there was worry about the projected impacts to the city’s coffers due to a loss of college students. Faced with a reduction in state funding, Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, mandated that each CSU campus decrease enrollment. At Chico State, that translated to 1,000 fewer students in the fall semester.

Frederica Shockley, an economics professor at Chico State, predicted catastrophic losses in revenues and job supply for the city. By her estimation, the decrease in students would cause a loss of 828 local jobs, more than $44 million in labor and property income, and more than $2 million in property and sales tax.

Making matters worse, in July, while waiting for the Legislature to adopt a state budget, the CSU announced it would not accept applications for the spring semester (with very few exceptions). Fortunately, the CSU reversed course in September, after receiving $106 million in one-time federal stimulus monies. The following month, when the record-long state-budget stalemate finally ended, the Legislature agreed to provide the CSU with an additional $60.6 million for enrollment growth.

Those who end up enrolling will do so at a greater financial cost. To buoy the CSU’s coffers, its Board of Trustees voted last month to increase tuition for all 23 campuses by 15 percent. The fee hike goes into effect during the spring 2011 semester. It will bring a full year’s undergraduate tuition to $4,884. Other campus fees bring the total cost per Chico State pupil to $6,264.

Tea Party rises—sort of

The Tea Party movement, which had a powerful influence on the November mid-term elections, sending dozens of new members to Congress, was highly visible in Chico and Butte County this year, but to less effect.

The reality is that California is a Democratic state and Chico a (relatively) liberal town. The Chico Patriots Group’s enthusiasm, especially early in the year, may have played a role in Councilman Larry Wahl’s June 8 victory over iconic longtime Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan. And it may have helped Mark Sorensen come in first in the Nov. 2 Chico City Council election.

But otherwise the Tea Partiers had little impact, despite their high visibility. They were most visible on Tax Day, April 15, when several hundred gathered at City Plaza for what turned out to be part demonstration, part speech-fest and part party, given all the bright signs and colorful outfits the members wore.

As Tom Gascoyne reported in his April 29 CN&R cover story, “Tea(d) off and talking about it,” the group appeared to be most concerned about the rising national debt and the abundance of costly governmental programs that are causing it. To many of them, this was a kind of creeping socialism, and they blamed the Obama administration most of all.

They were also upset about everything from the national health-care overhaul and what they saw as rising taxes (most weren’t aware President Obama had lowered taxes) to the bank bailouts and their conviction that the president wasn’t really an American citizen.