Top 10 of 2011
CN&R editors select the biggest local stories of the year
The most significant phenomenon of 2011—the continuing recession—is not on the CN&R’s list of its Top 10 stories. That’s because, after three years, it’s become like aggravating background noise to the problems it’s created. Depleted local governments, laid-off teachers and professors, skyrocketing college fees, increased unemployment, closed state parks, the crash of the housing market, the Occupy movement—all had their genesis in the recession. It wasn’t a story, per se; it was all the stories—or many of them, anyway.
There were other controversies and clashes that weren’t immediately connected to the recession. The year began, for example, with the exciting battle over who was going to fill Larry Wahl’s seat on the Chico City Council and the sudden appearance of newcomer Sor Lo. Who can forget the sight of council chambers packed to the rafters with people from the local Hmong community?
That was a great Chico story, and it was followed by another, the electoral tussle over Measure A, the effort to change City Council elections from November to June. Let’s hear it for Stephanie Taber, the 74-year-old grandmother who led the charge for the measure against a phalanx of local progressives determined to hold the line. She lost big time, but she put up a good fight.
And then there was medical marijuana, the story that wouldn’t go away—until the feds decided to intervene. And the threat to close Bidwell Mansion, and problems in the charter schools, and …
Enough prelude. Here are the top 10 stories of 2011, according to the CN&R editors.
1: The battle for Wahl’s seat
One of the unanswered local political questions as 2011 began was: Who’s going to take Larry Wahl’s place on the Chico City Council?
In a June 2010 upset, Wahl had narrowly defeated longtime Butte County District 2 Supervisor Jane Dolan, and on Monday, Jan. 3, 2011, he assumed his new job. But he had two years left in his council term, so his seat needed filling.
At their meeting the following day, Jan. 4, the six remaining council members took up the issue of how to replace Wahl, and a major controversy broke out.
Council chambers were packed with people who supported the fourth-place finisher in the Nov. 2 council elections, retired business executive Bob Evans. In the month since the elections, Evans had been campaigning vigorously to be appointed, arguing that his receipt of more than 10,000 votes showed that voters knew and supported him.
Council members had only 30 days to fill the post or they would be required to hold an expensive special election. Newly elected Councilman Mark Sorensen and Vice Mayor Jim Walker wanted to appoint Evans right then and there, but Mayor Ann Schwab and Councilmembers Scott Gruendl, Mary Flynn and Andy Holcombe wanted to open up the process because, they said, they wanted to see what their options were. They voted to set up a selection process designed to enable them to pick someone by their Feb. 1 meeting.
By the time of the council’s next meeting, on Jan. 18, 20 people had applied for the job. After several rounds of voting, the panel whittled down the candidates to two, Evans and Sor Lo, a little-known but influential member of the Hmong community. But the council became hopelessly deadlocked, 3-3, when Flynn decided to support Evans.
On Feb. 1, council chambers were packed to overflowing with supporters of both men, including the largest contingent of Hmong ever to attend a council meeting. It was a vivid indication of the degree of polarization the issue had generated.
The council debate took two main directions, with Evans’ supporters citing his qualifications and Lo’s stressing the need for Chico to be more welcoming to its Hmong residents. In the end, Holcombe switched his vote to Evans, saying the candidate was qualified and that he hoped to “set aside some of the political rancor” the conflict had fostered.
2: Pot on the brain
Medical marijuana has been much on the minds of Butte County residents the past few years, but it came to a head in 2011, when both the Board of Supervisors and Chico City Council discussed ordinances regulating cultivation and dispensaries.
In the end, that’s about all it was—discussion—since both ordinances passed by the county were successfully blocked by referendum, and the City Council passed and then quickly repealed its ordinance regulating dispensaries. (Blame the latter on pressure from the feds, which dominated medi-pot news in the second half of the year.)
The supervisors took up discussion of a cultivation ordinance early in the year, at their Feb. 22 meeting, and immediately attracted attention. In a hurry-up move to get ahead of the planting season, county staff introduced an ordinance flush with fees and confusing setback requirements. Hundreds of growers flooded the supervisors’ chambers for a 5 1/2-hour meeting that would set the tone for several meetings to come over the next few months. Anticipating high constituent turnout, those meetings were held in the Elks Lodge in Chico and at the county fairgrounds in Gridley.
At the same time, the city of Chico was discussing a dispensary ordinance. Confusion abounded. In a bizarre discussion in early March, the council flip-flopped several times over the concept of a “closed-loop” or “open-looped” dispensary system. In the end, Councilman Mark Sorensen got so fed up he said, “We might as well take the whole ordinance and set it on fire.” They then proceeded to vote on allowing just two dispensaries, adding a layer of discretion (and extra work) on the part of city employees.
Almost as quickly as these ordinances were passed they were un-passed.
The county, which came to a final vote on a much-changed cultivation ordinance in May, was challenged by a group of impassioned opponents calling themselves Citizens for Compassionate Use. The group organized a petition drive and gathered enough signatures to block the ordinance—it will come before voters in June 2012. A few months later, after the supervisors voted to extend a moratorium on dispensaries, the same group once again gathered enough signatures to halt the action. They were verified earlier this month.
The city, just days before voting to approve an ordinance allowing for two open-looped dispensaries in July, received a threat letter from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. If the city passed the ordinance, it would open itself—and its employees—up to federal prosecution. Almost immediately, shaking in their boots, the council members opted to back out of their decision and repealed the ordinance.
The feds had a farther reach, spurring the closure of dispensaries across the state, including North Valley Holistic Health—the last one remaining in Butte County—by way of threatening landlords.
3: Dirty construction on 99
“This freeway expansion project is degrading the quality of life in Chico from the beginning.”
“How did this horrible project ever get approved for our beautiful city of Chico? Where were our local leaders and what were they thinking?”
Those were a couple of the comments made by CN&R readers regarding our Oct. 6 Newslines piece (“What happened on the creek?”) that focused on the then-recently launched Caltrans upgrade of Highway 99—the SR 99 Auxiliary Lane project. Specifically, the piece investigated an oil spill into Big Chico Creek, caused by construction-equipment malfunction, that occurred mere weeks into the three-year project.
Here’s the ugly recap: On a warm day in late September, visitors wanting to cool off in Sycamore Pool in Lower Bidwell Park’s One-Mile Recreation Area were instead greeted by signs reading, “Pool closed—Stay out.” Turns out the problem (which was not advertised on the signs) was an indeterminate amount of oil that had spilled into Big Chico Creek—caused by a malfunctioning excavator run by Rancho Cordova-based outfit Viking Construction Co. Inc.
Going from bad to worse, conflicting accounts emerged of what happened and when. Possible times of the spill ranged from the early morning of Sept. 27, according to one eyewitness; to “just before 3 p.m.” that same day, as the city of Chico’s parks and natural resources manager Dan Efseaff was quoted as saying; to “about 3:30 p.m.” that day, as Viking’s project manager put it. The amount of fluid released was also in question—anywhere from a gallon to who-knows-how-much; it was impossible to determine the amount of toxic fluid spilled because Viking had the excavator’s 50-gallon hydraulic system flushed immediately after the accident.
Add to that the fact that Viking’s preparedness for and response to the accident was woefully inadequate: The company had none of the necessary oil-absorbent booms on hand to deal with the spill, and did not follow established protocol in calling for emergency-services backup to help clean up the mess.
The idea of ripping out Bidwell Park’s beautiful creekside trees to make room for huge pilings to support a concrete behemoth of additional freeway lanes cordoned off by an unsightly (and, according to a number of local citizens, unnecessary) sound wall was a bitter enough pill to swallow. But an oil spill into a beloved creek so early into the project, and with no real clarity as to what actually happened, is an even more distasteful insult.
4: Taking the measure of Measure A
The debate over Measure A, the initiative effort to move City Council elections from November to June, was a classic Chico political battle, much like those that have come before—Rancho Arroyo, Otterson Bridge and the canyon condos. It was a bitter campaign filled with finger-pointing and accusations of false claims, ulterior motives and elitist attitudes.
“We want to remove the council election from the clutter and shadow of the general election so voters can make informed decisions,” said the pro-A folks. “You want to hold elections when there are fewer voters around, including the thousands of students who are out of town in June,” the anti-A folks shot back.
The measure had its genesis in July 2009, when a group called Concerned Citizens of Chico conducted an unscientific survey by mailing a questionnaire to 6,000 Chico-area residents. Of those, 870 were filled out and returned.
In October of that year CCC member Karen Zinniel gave the City Council a PowerPoint presentation on the results of the survey. The responses to two of its questions suggested, one, that most respondents believed only year-round residents should be allowed to vote on city issues and, two, that City Council elections should be held in June.
Fast forward to 2010, when supporters armed with card tables and petitions gathered the 8,000 signatures needed to place the matter on the ballot. Two faces emerged on each side to personify the respective causes. Stephanie Taber, an energetic political gadfly who chides the City Council on a regular basis, headed up the Yes on A squad. A Tea Party patriot and executive assistant to county Supervisor Larry Wahl, Taber was accused of using Wahl’s office to run the pro-A campaign.
That campaign was heavily funded by businessman Thomas Dauterman, a regular contributor to local conservative campaigns and candidates, who paid a Florida signature-gathering company $31,500 to do its thing in Chico.
The No side was represented by Jessica Allen, a protégé of political activist and financier Kelly Meagher, who, along with donations from the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association, helped fund this campaign by handing it $25,000.
As the one-issue June 2011 special election drew near, billboards and yard signs sprouted across town. And on June 7 the voters, at least the 34 percent who bothered to go to the polls, resoundingly turned down the measure, with nearly 70 percent voting no.
5: An interesting occupation, or two
Following in the steps of Occupy Wall Street and the many city occupations across the nation, Occupy Chico began with a bang on Saturday, Oct. 8, when a cross-section of people, age-wise at least, gathered at the farmers’ market parking lot at Second and Wall streets. Some held signs, some wore masks. A few spoke, and the rest listened with enthusiasm. Spontaneous chanting erupted with the message that the gathered were part of “the 99 percent!”
With general consent, they began their march, some drumming and more chanting, down Wall to Fifth Street, west to and around the downtown City Plaza, finally landing near the “Our Hands” sculpture outside City Hall. Soon a canopy on metal poles was set up in the downtown plaza. Canvas walls were added. The occupation had begun.
Critics said the participants were violating city codes by camping in the park all night. The city asked the Occupiers to move to a spot off the plaza on the sidewalk along Broadway where they would not impede foot traffic. The Occupiers obliged.
There were Saturday demonstrations in front of Bank of America and Chase Bank. And the Occupiers promoted and took part in the Nov. 5 National Transfer Day, when big-bank customers were urged to move their accounts to smaller, locally owned banks or credit unions.
There were some run-ins with the police, perpetrated, the Occupiers said, by a few troublemakers who were not part of the movement.
As the weather turned cold, the occupation became a daytime occurrence. The tents were taken down and the canopy came back, with at least two Occupiers on hand to hold signs for passing traffic, answer questions and hand out literature.
On Dec. 1 a group called Occupy Chico State set up an encampment in front of Kendall Hall. On the orders of university President Paul Zingg, the building’s main entrance was locked. Zingg was there the first night of the occupation for about three hours, telling the students, who were protesting, among other things, a $498-per-year tuition increase, that their beef was with the Legislature, where continued budget cuts were triggering the increases. Zingg said he supported the students’ effort.
After one night, the camp moved from the front to the west end of the building, which remained in semi-lockdown. And as finals rolled around and winter break drew near, the camp broke up. But, according to the group’s Facebook page, the effort is not over and the movement is about more than sleeping overnight in a tent.
6: Welcome to ‘county prison’
On Oct. 1, Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith and other county officials began implementing the most comprehensive changes to the state’s criminal-justice system in a generation.
As county Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn put it, the changes represented “a complete new paradigm shift on … dealing with corrections.”
County officials said they were fully prepared to implement AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown and passed by the Legislature this year. They had a well-developed plan in place and believed that, if all went well, the plan could improve public safety while decreasing prison time for an entire class of felons and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Two factors, the state budget crisis and a court order mandating that the state reduce its prison-inmate population by 34,000 in the next two years, led to passage of AB 109. The bill mandates that counties stop sending offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes (drug dealing, for instance, or burglary) to state prison and instead put them in jail—or, as it’s being called, “county prison.” (Offenders currently in state prison will finish their terms there.)
It also mandates that, when these “nons” are released, they be supervised by county probation officers, not state parole officers. (Violent and sex offenders released from state prison will continue to be supervised by state parole officers.)
Offenders who violate the terms of their probation will, except in rare cases, not be sent back to prison, as previously occured, but instead will be dealt with on the county level through a variety of sanctions, including “flash incarceration” for up to 10 days.
Smith’s biggest worry is that his jail doesn’t have sufficient room for all these new inmates. To avoid running out of room, the county will institute a pretrial-release program with enhanced supervision; an alternative-custody program (using ankle bracelets and GPS monitoring) with a day reporting center located at a renovated wing of the juvenile hall; and a “recidivism reduction” program providing such services as job training, GED studies, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental-health services and counseling. This will be done through partnerships with other county departments and community-based organizations.
Smith and Hahn’s biggest concern is long-term funding, which has not yet been authorized. They’re confident in the county’s exceptional experience in creating and operating innovative alternatives to incarceration, but they can’t do it without money.
And this is not a good time for anyone coming out of prison. Even people with no criminal record and a good employment history are having trouble finding work. If funding is inadequate and recidivism stays high, the program is likely to fail.
On the other hand, Hahn said, there’s no turning back: “The genie is out of the bottle.”
7: City’s fiscal high-wire act
The impact of the recession on city finances was felt from Jan. 1, when the city laid off six police officers, its first-ever layoffs, because of failure to reach agreement with the officers’ labor union on pay cuts.
By the end of the month, fortunately, they’d been able to work out a deal that enabled the city to hire back the officers.
And so it went through the year, with the city struggling to make adjustments in the face of declining revenues without destroying the effectiveness of city government. It was a tightrope act, but it worked—mostly.
Seven of the city’s eight bargaining units took across-the-board cuts in order not to lay people off. Only the small trades and crafts workers’ union refused to do so, so two of its workers were let go. That brought to 63 the number of positions eliminated since 2007, most through attrition and early retirement, City Manager Dave Burkland reported.
By February the city was facing yet another fiscal challenge: Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies. In 2010 the state had yanked some $11 million from the city’s RDA coffers, and now it wanted to disband the agency altogether.
By March city leaders were acting as fast as possible to finalize action on several affordable-housing projects before the RDA was axed. Conservatives, including Councilmen Bob Evans and Mark Sorensen, questioned the cost of the projects, but the council majority noted that the projects cost more up front because they were meant to sustain subsidized affordable rents for 55 years.
On June 21 the council adopted a balanced operating budget, despite the failure of the state to do the same. By the end of the month, however, the Legislature had passed a bill that gave local agencies a choice: Either fold up their RDAs, or sign up for a new redevelopment system that turns $1.7 billion over the state.
Chico opted for the latter, but in August the state Supreme Court put the brakes on, saying it would decide by mid-January 2012 whether the state’s plan to eliminate RDAs was legal, and allowed them to continue to exist while the case was pending. But it also barred agencies from starting any new projects, issuing bonds or purchasing or transferring any property until the suit is resolved.
In November, the city faced a new dilemma: the loss of some $500,000 in vehicle-license fees garnered by the state. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it was enough to throw the budget out of balance. In response, the council voted to ask 24 employees to take early retirement and not promote or hire others to take their places.
8: Too many murders
Of the many violent crimes that occurred in Chico this year, including four murders, none was more shocking and unfathomable than the bizarre shooting death of David Yang.
Unlike the other victims, Yang appears to have been a random target. Chico police investigators believe that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he stopped at the intersection of Bruce Road and Highway 32 during the wee hours of the weekday morning of Sept. 21.
Yang was a respected member of the Chico Hmong community, an aspiring pastor and young husband. He was killed on his way to his nightshift job in east Chico. The 26-year-old’s death may never make sense, and police officials have been tight-lipped about the case against the alleged shooter, Jeffrey Menzies.
What they have revealed is that the shooter likely hid himself somewhere in an adjacent field and used a high-powered rifle to shoot Yang. They linked the killing to Menzies, the 27-year-old Richvale native and Chico resident, through his car, found near the crime scene. Days later, they discovered a rifle hidden nearby.
Other details in this strange case will play out as soon as Jan. 30 at a preliminary hearing. That’s the same date as the jury trial Jacqueline Bolf faces for the death of her boyfriend, Robert Henry Bauman, owner of Durham-based Bob’s Concrete Pumping. Bolf faces a murder charge for allegedly shooting Bauman inside his home on Sega Lane in south Chico back in April.
The other two shooting deaths in Chico took place in early 2011, setting an ominous start to the year. Both are believed to be gang related. The first victim, 23-year-old Randy Mark Brass Jr., was shot during a gun battle near Chico State on Jan. 22. He succumbed to his injuries days later at Enloe Medical Center. The other victim, 21-year-old José Barajas Sánchez, was found shot and burned near Chico River Road days after his Jan. 27 murder. Suspect Antonio Montes Linares, of Chico, pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in March. Brass’s murder remains unsolved.
The year came to a close with the strange death of Judith Mae Nathan, a 66-year-old woman whose body was found in her septic tank Dec. 23, a day after her son, Anthony Yee, was arrested in connection with her disappearance. Details are still forthcoming regarding Yee, who was recently paroled from San Quentin State Prison, according to the Chico Police Department. He was booked into Butte County Jail on a count of murder.
The other notable violent crimes in Chico include the death of a Yuba City man, William Dennis Collinsworth, who was punched and fell to the sidewalk, hitting his head, outside of a downtown bar on Halloween night. Chicoan Allen Paul Peters faces a manslaughter charge in the case. A preliminary hearing is set for early 2012.
Meanwhile, two young local men are lucky to be alive heading into the New Year. Isam “Sam” Smith was shot repeatedly inside of LaSalles last July along with a female bystander. Shane Michael Warner, a local hip-hop artist, is the alleged gunman. The other gunshot survivor is Khalil Abdulkarin, a former Butte College football player who was gunned down last spring outside of Café Culture. That case has been resolved: Convicted shooter Anchalla Zeigler was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison.
9: Chico tries to save its mansion
This last year saw California’s budget crisis prompt legislators to cut funding from the state park system and schedule 21 of California’s 47 historic state parks for closure. Most of the parks set to close are in Northern California and tend to draw fewer visitors than their southern counterparts.
Chico’s most iconic and historic building, Bidwell Mansion, is no exception. The mansion’s hours were cut to three days a week on Oct. 1, a schedule that will be maintained until the mansion’s expected closure next April, when the home will be shuttered and its roughly 5,500 artifacts boxed and stored at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County.
The mansion, which has stood as a beautiful testament to the accomplishments of the trail-blazing John Bidwell since its construction in 1868, has benefited from an outpouring of community support. A “Save the Mansion” fund was created in an effort to keep the park operating during the next fiscal year, and state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, organized a town gathering at the City Council Chambers on Nov. 2, giving hundreds of citizens an opportunity to express their concern and pitch ideas.
Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, flew out from Washington, D.C., for the meeting and said, “We are looking at the systematic annihilation of our state heritage.”
The criteria considered for closing the state’s parks included “statewide significance,” fiscal strength, visitation and ability to physically close. The mansion is the most visible link to Bidwell’s legacy, which includes blazing the California Trail, participating in the Bear Flag Revolt, founding the city of Chico, pioneering agriculture in the state, donating land for the normal school that would become Chico State University, and bringing back California’s statehood papers from Washington, D.C., in 1850. Chicoans have made strong arguments as to the mansion’s significance to California.
“If you wanted to teach children, or adults even, about California history and you were to make up a fictitious character who would be in the right place at the right time for all these significant events, you really couldn’t do better than John Bidwell,” said Amber Drake, guide supervisor at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. “I’m sad to think that we don’t get to keep telling these kids about the story of their state.”
Most recently, about 20 downtown businesses donated a portion of their Dec. 18 sales to the Save the Mansion fundraiser, which estimates it needs about $100,000 to keep the mansion open after its expected closure date. And students at March Junior High School mounted a “fill the bucket” campaign at the corner of East 20th Street and Forest Avenue to raise $10,000.
10: Charters put up a fight
It was a year of change in the realm of local charter schools. Though many would argue that change is a good thing, the parents, teachers and administrators of two local charters—Blue Oak Charter School and Chico Green School, Chico’s first charter high school—might not agree.
While Chico Green School’s situation actually turned out to be much more dire than that of Blue Oak, both schools were under close scrutiny by local school officials this year.
Blue Oak’s troubles began in January, when the Butte County Board of Education refused to renew the Waldorf-method K-8 school’s charter, which was due to expire in June. “I don’t feel the school is being successful,” county Superintendent Don McNelis was quoted as saying at the time; McNelis and the Board of Education expressed dismay at Blue Oak’s state-test-score ranking, among other things.
Blue Oak next sought charter approval from the CUSD Board of Trustees, which on April 6 granted the school a two-year charter on the condition that it raise test scores to a level comparable with schools with similar demographics, such as Neal Dow and Little Chico Creek elementary schools.
Chico Green School wasn’t so lucky. Students attending the Waldorf-inspired high school were sent scrambling to find spots at other city high schools (and newly hired teachers and administrators lost their jobs) shortly after the 2011-12 school year began in mid-August, after the school board voted to revoke the school’s charter, citing alleged Brown Act violations and a failure to become accredited.
Green School board chairman David Orneallas expressed hope that the school would make a comeback at some point, however. “We do plan to rise like a phoenix from the ashes,” he said.
Bright spots in the changing world of local charters: The announcement back in February that the CUSD’s “internal-charter” high school, Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, will be moving out of its portable digs on the Chico High campus to a permanent home on the Chapman Elementary School campus in the fall of 2012, and the Aug. 31 opening of new K-8 public charter school Wildflower Open Classroom on the McManus Elementary School campus.
“Ultimately, the best fit for a school like this is on a farm,” offered Wildflower’s director, Tom Hicks, of the innovative, open-structured school, “but you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re just fortunate to have a place to start our school.”