Top 10 of 2013
CN&R’s editors break down the biggest local stories of the year
City Hall cut to the bone
Last week, the Chico City Council voted on a plan that is expected to take certain city funds out of a $15.2 million deficit position—losses that occurred over many years, in part from state take-backs of redevelopment and vehicle-license funding, and largely as a result of the recession, as the city borrowed from the funds to pay for operational costs, rather than eliminating jobs and city services.
The so-called “fund deficit mitigation plan,” which makes repayment the top priority among all other city expenditures, will take a decade to accomplish. Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin unveiled that plan during the council’s last meeting of the year, Dec. 17, and the panel voted 6-1, with Councilman Sean Morgan dissenting, to approve it.
Aside from the city’s ongoing negotiations with employee bargaining units, including the contentious negotiations with the Chico Police Officers’ Association, approval of the plan was the council’s last budget-correcting decision in a year of sweeping cuts at City Hall. Those reductions have come under the recommendation of a whole new management team, following the council’s hiring of City Manager Brian Nakamura, former city manager of Hemet, and the subsequent sudden departures of several managerial staff, including Assistant City Manager John Rucker and Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy.
Shortly after the first of the year, just weeks after Rucker disappeared, Nakamura revealed that the city was operating with a $3.2 million structural deficit (a figure that later ballooned significantly). He also unveiled during a City Council meeting, to the surprise of almost everyone in attendance, including city employees, a wholesale reorganization of city staffing—from 11 departments to five—a move that ultimately led to the demotion of many department heads and the dismissal of others.
Constantin, from San Diego, and Assistant City Manager Mark Orme, who worked under Nakamura in Hemet, were both hired in March. By May, the new management team estimated the city was operating with a $4.8 million structural deficit and Nakamura recommended the implementation of $7 million in cuts.
In early June, calling the financial problems “the darkest time for the city of Chico,” Nakamura released a 333-page draft budget that recommended dozens of layoffs of city personnel. Later that month, the council adopted a 2013-14 fiscal-year budget that eliminated 55 jobs, a figure that included a number of vacancies. Most of the casualties were at City Hall. Included among them were the elimination of the three park workers and the city’s four-person tree crew—a move that led to a temporary four-day-a-week closure of Caper Acres (a public-private partnership reopened the playground, and a new Butte County Sheriff’s Office collaboration, in which convicts clean the facility, looks to keep Caper Acres open indefinitely, or at least until the city’s fiscal state improves).
In September, following news that the capital-projects fund had a greater-than-anticipated deficit, city management announced that additional cuts of $1.2 million were needed to keep the 2013-14 budget on target. The next month, during a second round of layoffs, the city cut loose 11 employees, several of whom had vast institutional knowledge after working there for decades.
The issue of homelessness raised its head locally this year more than ever before, and the city and community members responded with both aggression and compassion. The end result, in November, was the City Council’s passage of a civil-sidewalks ordinance—also known as a sit/lie law—targeting those who recline on sidewalks.
Pressure from some downtown business owners and their supporters led to the ordinance. Some merchants said customers were afraid to come downtown to shop because of the homeless people they found sleeping—and sometimes defecating or doing drugs—in the alcoves and doorways of storefronts.
Prior to the council taking that action, a group called Clean and Safe Chico developed programs like the Downtown Ambassadors, which, according to its website, was formed to address community issues in the downtown area including “business stress, ‘homeless issues,’ and ‘college-town’ alcohol problems that our community experiences…” Clean and Safe Chico also created a program called Redirect Generosity to discourage direct handouts to the homeless and instead steer the generosity toward local service providers such as the Jesus Center, the Torres Community Shelter and local food banks.
In October, a local group of business owners formed the R-Town Coalition, whose draft mission statement included the short-term goal of “removing drug offenders, transients, loiterers, vagrants and individuals exhibiting anti-social behavior from private property in the downtown area.”
The coalition is headquartered at 325 Main St., in an office next to the now-closed Towne Lounge. With $60,000 raised through donations of certain downtown business owners, the coalition hired a firm called Armed Guard Private Protection, and in early November, private armed guards began walking the streets and policing the nonpublic property downtown, which amounts to certain parking lots and storefront alcoves that offer shelter to the homeless.
At about the same time, the coalition also teamed up with the Jesus Center to create and fund the Cleanup Brigade for which Jesus Center clients were hired to work two hours a day, six days a week, sweeping and cleaning the downtown sidewalks, trash bins and large concrete planters. The pilot program was scheduled to last until the end of the year, as was the employment of the private guards. The effectiveness of each will be evaluated to determine if either or both programs will continue.
While the number of downtown homeless seems to have dwindled, it’s not clear if that’s because of the efforts made to address the issue, or due to the recent cold weather, or a combination of both.
Crowdfunding Chico’s soul
When it came to preserving the cherished institutions that give our little city its charm, Chicoans put their money where their hearts were in 2013. Two longstanding local favorites—downtown’s The Bookstore and Chico’s intimate art-house cinema, the Pageant Theatre—turned to online crowdfunding to raise enough money to keep from closing their doors.
The Pageant’s Go Digital or Go Dark campaign on Indiegogo is actually still underway (it doesn’t officially close until Dec. 31), but the theater met the $51,000 goal with weeks to spare and thus ensured that the theater’s old 35mm film projector will be replaced with a new high-definition digital projector in time for the movie industry’s 2014 phase-out of film distribution.
And, back in February, Josh Mills, a longtime employee of The Bookstore, and his wife, Muir Hughes, were able to raise the $35,000 necessary to purchase the store from its previous owner—and keep it from closing—thanks to crowdfunding via Indiegogo as well as community fundraising events.
The city may be facing serious growing pains, but Chicoans were willing to literally pay the price to preserve its funky identity.
There was, however, one local institution’s online crowdfunding campaign that did not meet its goal. In September and October, the Chico Creek Nature Center used the site FundRazr to try to raise $3,000 and replace some of the funding lost due to cutbacks in contributions from the city of Chico.
The center raised only $755 of its goal by the end of its campaign, but according to CCNC Executive Director Caitlin Reilly, thanks to an “unexpected side effect,” the effort was still a success. She said that media coverage of the crowdfunding plan sparked public interest, and that a flood of donations came in via other outlets—through the North Valley Community Foundation-sponsored Annie B’s Community Drive, as well as directly to the nature center itself. “Overall, fundraising for the fall came out about $1,000 ahead of our target,” she said.
Reilly also said that the CCNC likely will go the crowdfunding route again at a later date, but with a more “focused campaign,” such as raising money to build new enclosures for the center’s goats.
Police shoot, kill 19-year-old woman
A small stretch of East Eighth Street at Vista Verde Way was the scene of a horrible and still-controversial tragedy in the early morning hours of Sept. 22, when Chico Police Department officers shot and killed Breanne Sharpe, a 19-year-old Magalia woman driving a stolen car.
Officers responding to a report of a person breaking into cars on Coit Tower Way at about 2 a.m. that morning followed a dark-colored Honda leaving the area, and pursued it as the driver led them on a short chase along side streets and through the parking lot of an apartment complex.
The Honda, driven by Sharpe, struck a telephone pole and began to reverse toward Sgt. Scott Zuschin, who fired twice, reportedly fearing the car would strike him. One of the shots hit Sharpe in the back of the skull, and several more shots were fired as the car made a sweeping U-turn, colliding with two police cars and a tree before coming to rest in the middle of the street.
Police pulled the woman from the wreckage and began to administer life-saving procedures that continued all the way to Enloe Medical Center, where Sharpe was pronounced dead.
Eight officers were present at the scene and five of them—Zuschin and Officers Damon Selland, Jared Cumber, David Quigley and Nick Vega—fired a total of 19 shots. Sharpe was hit twice, once by Zuschin’s initial shot and once in the shoulder by Vega. Thirteen bullets hit the car she was driving, while four stray bullets hit unintended targets, including a bus stop and a garage.
The five officers who fired were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by an interagency Critical Incident Protocol Team headed up by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, and the CPD also conducted an internal investigation. Both investigations were concluded with an Oct. 3 press conference—attended by many of Sharpe’s friends and family, who suffered through a harrowing recount of her last seconds, complete with computer-generated animations—at which Ramsey declared, “The shootings, individually and jointly, were justified under the circumstances.”
At the press conference and in CPD press releases, Sharpe was portrayed as a troubled young woman who struggled with homelessness and drug use. She had an extensive criminal record, including a February arrest for fleeing from police in another stolen vehicle. A toxicology report released Oct. 22 revealed Sharpe had methamphetamine and amphetamine in her blood at the time of the incident.
The department’s negative portrayal of Sharpe attracted criticism, and the circumstances of the shooting prompted many citizens to question the department’s use of force and its critical-incident-oversight policies.
There was much ado this year surrounding the fate of the popular Saturday-morning Chico Certified Farmers’ Market (CCFM), which has been held for the last 21 years at the parking lot at East Second and Wall streets.
In May, after the city of Chico’s Finance Committee gave the thumbs-up to a two-year franchise agreement (instead of the usual year-to-year contract) for the CCFM, based on its offer to pay $16,000 for power and sewer lines to be extended to the market’s lot, the City Council deadlocked in a surprising 3-to-3 vote (with Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused because she is a downtown business owner) that killed the infrastructure project and threw the future of the market into limbo.
And, despite the results of a 2009 study showing that the farmers’ market brings thousands of shoppers to the downtown area, claims by certain downtown business owners that the CCFM negatively affects their business grew louder. Some of them said they wanted to see the CCFM relocated to the parking lot in front of City Hall, an area that many market vendors believe is too small to accommodate them properly. Some critics suggested the day of the market move to Sundays.
In June, the council extended the CCFM’s franchise agreement to Dec. 31, 2014, and an offer was made by the city to the CCFM to take part in a group put together to address issues surrounding the farmers’ market, but the CCFM declined.
In October, a buzz surfaced indicating that CCFM supporters—including members of Friends of the Farmers’ Market (FFM)—might be considering drafting a ballot initiative so that voters could have their say as to the long-term fate of the market. This followed a July CN&R guest commentary by former Chico Mayor Karl Ory, a member of FFM, in which he noted that the CCFM’s “franchise agreement was terminated effective next year.”
When asked recently for an update, FFM spokeswoman Cheryl King offered these words in regard to the current situation of the CCFM: “The farmers and the people of Chico will make sure we stay at the present site. … The FFM will be making an announcement soon in regards to moving forward to protect this invaluable weekly Chico community event,” she said.
Plight of the urban forest
It was a tumultuous year for trees, specifically those—valley oaks, claro walnut trees, California sycamores and so on—that make up Chico’s “urban forest.”
In June, the Chico City Council passed a budget that eliminated the city’s tree-maintenance crew, and in July, Denice Britton—the city’s urban-forest manager—departed from her job. She still has not been replaced.
Add to that shake-up the fact that the city’s Urban Forest Management Plan has languished in the draft stage for months (go to www.tinyurl.com/treeecomment to read the current draft) and a gloomy picture is painted as far as the future of the urban forest goes.
In fact, bits and pieces of the urban forest have already been taken out as a result of what is perceived by a number of local tree advocates as rash moves on the part of a cash-strapped city lacking adequate urban-tree oversight.
In August, in response to the looming removal of a number of 75-foot-tall walnut trees at Third and Chestnut streets, local heritage-tree advocate Charles Withuhn formed the Chico Heritage Tree Committee—later renamed Chico Tree Advocates. He also tied yellow ribbons around four of the trees in an attempt to save them by calling attention to their plight, but the trees were chopped down anyway.
A similar story is playing out with the stately valley oak tree that resides in the parking lot at the corner of West Eighth and Salem streets. It (along with the other, smaller trees in the lot) is slated for removal to make way for two duplexes that will serve as transitional housing for Salvation Army clients. A Butte Environmental Council appeal of the tree’s removal was withdrawn; BEC board chairman Mark Stemen explained at an early-December City Council meeting that BEC doesn’t “want to fight tree-by-tree battles with our fellow nonprofits.”
For his part, Withuhn—who was recognized by the CN&R in the 2013 Local Heroes issue (see “Local Heroes 2013,” Nov. 28) for his tree-advocacy work—called for more members of the public to become involved in advocating for the survival of healthy historic trees.
“We need to have more tree advocates show up for these meetings,” he said, referring to the twice-monthly meetings of the city’s Architectural Review & Historic Preservation Board. “We need more citizen involvement.”
Deaths shock cycling community
Two cyclists—college students Kristina Chesterman, 21, and Janee Nickerson, 20—died following collisions with motorists in September and November, respectively.
Chesterman, a Chico State nursing student was struck by an allegedly drunken driver on the night of Sept. 22 as she was biking home on Nord Avenue near the Big Chico Creek bridge. She died at Enloe Medical Center days later.
The driver, 19-year-old Riley Dean Hoover, was reportedly so drunk that, after striking Chesterman, he proceeded to crash into several vehicles in the parking lot of his apartment complex on Nord Avenue. Police found him passed out on the floor of his apartment and estimated that his blood-alcohol level was 0.30—nearly four times the legal limit—based on a measurement taken about 10 hours after the hit-and-run.
On Sept. 25, he was charged in Butte County Superior Court with felony vehicular manslaughter, a felony count of transporting marijuana for sale (a search of Hoover’s vehicle reportedly turned up about two ounces of hashish ready to mail) and a special allegation of fleeing the scene after causing serious injury or death.
On Nov. 1, Nickerson was struck by a vehicle near the intersection of East First and Oleander avenues by driver Amanda McClintock, 21, who was arrested for driving on a suspended license. Nickerson died at Enloe Medical Center two days later.
As a response to the tragedies, members of the community set up “ghost bikes” in the areas where Chesterman and Nickerson were struck. The bikes, painted ashy-white and surrounded by flowers, messages and special trinkets, serve both as memorials for the dead and a reminder to drive safely.
Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo Cycling Club and a bike-safety advocate, wrote a guest commentary in the CN&R on Oct. 10 urging a broad discussion of how Chico’s infrastructure could be improved to avoid more cyclist deaths.
“We should consider how the outcome for Kristina Chesterman might have changed if there was a safer route for her commute,” Rood wrote. “If we had separated bike lanes on Nord Avenue (such as on Warner Street), or if the railroad bike path were made safe for late-night cyclists, perhaps she would be alive today.”
Booze battle rages on
In January, Chico State President Paul Zingg released “A Call for Community Action,” signed by 28 officials from the university, the city of Chico and Butte County, which urged the community to address its “serious alcohol problem.” A meeting on Feb. 22 drew 400 Chicoans who provided their input on everything from use of fake IDs to personal responsibility.
That effort stemmed, in part, from the death of Chico State student and fraternity pledge Mason Sumnicht, whose Nov. 4, 2012, binge-drinking episode left him brain-damaged and on a respirator. His death 12 days later—the fourth alcohol-related student death toward the end of 2012—prompted outcry that reverberated throughout 2013.
Zingg acted first, temporarily suspending all Greek activity late in 2012. (At the time, 10 of Chico’s 26 Greek organizations were tied up with the university’s Student Judicial Affairs for violating alcohol and hazing policies.)
Around the same time, the university’s Greek community was given a list of guidelines for reinstatement that spelled out tighter rules for hosting events, and stricter punishment for violations, including permanent disaffiliation from campus. Greek chapters in compliance with the new rules were allowed to resume activity on March 1. (In May, Sigma Chi fraternity was suspended over allegations of brewing beer in its Chico annex and subsequently cut ties with the university.)
With the community hyper-aware of alcohol issues, it became much more difficult for downtown businesses to apply for liquor licenses. In May, Police Chief Kirk Trostle “drew a line in the sand,” publicly stating the city should stop granting licenses. Several businesses—the Mangrove Mini Mart, the Winchester Goose, and the yet-to-be-opened B Street Oyster Co. bar on Broadway—encountered varying degrees of difficulty with applying for licenses.
In July, Trostle released his now-infamous “Chico Conditions,” a set of 32 proposed rules for new alcohol licenses that included such items as prohibiting “happy hours” and other cheap-drink promotions, requiring security for entertainment at some establishments and banning entertainment outright at others.
The last item drew the ire of the music community, which has been mostly absent from the alcohol debate. During a July 30 meeting to discuss the conditions, local musician and record-label owner Josh Indar asked, “What does live music and entertainment have to do with kids dying?”
The police department has since maintained that the conditions—based on a 400-plus-page report of how other communities have dealt with similar alcohol issues—were intended as examples, not recommendations.
As the year draws to a close, the city’s policy on alcohol sales remains in flux; Brendan Vieg, a Chico city planner, recently told the CN&R that the city is “making some changes to the [municipal] code.”
There’s pot in them foothills
On May 7, a letter signed by Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly was sent to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board asking that it step in to help enforce the federal Clean Water Act, which was being threatened by the large pot-growing operations taking place in the foothills.
“Butte County has its share of large marijuana grow sites,” the letter reads. “The development of these sites ha[s], in many cases, disturbed over one acre of soil and include[s] buildings and other improvements that support these large marijuana-growing operations without proper local and state permits.”
The letter also says the state regulates mining, industrial and construction operations with strict guidelines, and that the same should be done for large marijuana gardens. But Ken Landau, the assistant executive officer for the RWQCB, said in a phone interview three weeks later that the board would not be getting directly involved in policing pot farms.
“Yes, there is a real issue with these marijuana operations,” he said. “However, our staff are not armed peace officers, and we cannot be sending them into places where their lives will be at risk. We will provide technical support on evaluating things, but they simply can’t be out on the front lines going into these places.”
And thus began a season in which the Board of Supervisors got updates on the continuing saga of foothill pot farms and their associated soil-grading violations, as well as the pesticides and fertilizers contaminating the waterways that lead to Lake Oroville.
In July, a team made up of members of the county’s Code Enforcement department, the Public Health Department’s Environmental Health Division and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the foothill pot gardens.
“We are verifying the facts,” Mike Crump, director of the county’s Department of Public Works, explained at the time.
“It’s not illegal in our county to grow medical marijuana,” Crump said, referring to a fairly restrictive county medical-marijuana ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier in the year.
On Dec. 10, the supervisors adopted three amendments to the pot-growing rules. The amendments require that grow sites have an occupied and permanent residence as well as permitted plumbing and sewage systems. Fines for violating the ordinance will jump to $500 a day for a first offense, from the earlier range of $25 to $100, and $1,000 a day for second violations, up from $100 to $200.
The supervisors also made it more restrictive to move about soil, an activity in the foothills that first brought the pot gardens to the attention of county officials.
Specter of crimes past
In February, a spate of stabbings, including five separate incidents in 24 hours involving eight victims, grabbed headlines in Chico and made for an ominous start to the new year. But in terms of crime, the most interesting and high-profile cases involved the arrest of an alleged kidnapper and rapist, and a number of murders, several of which didn’t happen in 2013 but resurfaced years, even decades, after they took place.
In late January, Chico police detectives arrested 40-year-old Lonnie Scott Keith, a physician assistant and family man who authorities allege is responsible for kidnapping and raping three women in the neighborhoods near Chico State, beginning in the spring of 2012. Prosecutors say Keith injected his victims with drugs and bound their feet and hands with zip ties.
The detectives were on a stakeout when they pulled Keith over for a traffic violation. In his car, they found a combination stun gun/flashlight, syringes, latex gloves, several nylon stockings, and strips of adhesive tape. He is in Butte County Jail awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin in March. He faces 32 years to life in prison.
In May, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office announced that DNA samples had matched a missing woman, Victorene “Vicki” Pyrskalla, to a body found 17 years earlier in the Sacramento River, in Yolo County.
Pyrskalla went missing Jan. 3, 1996, under suspicious circumstances. She’d been staying in a trailer at her father’s farm near Chico River Road, and though no body was recovered at the scene, a large pool of blood was found just outside. A man named Gary Otto Meyer, who was imprisoned on a third-strike burglary conviction in 1996, is reportedly the last person to have seen her alive. No one has been charged with her murder.
In October, a federal judge ordered a new trial for former Chico State student Steven Crittenden, who was convicted in 1989 of the murder two years earlier of Dr. William and Katherine Chiapella. Evidence showed the couple had been bound, gagged, stabbed and bludgeoned.
The couple was white and Crittenden is black, which led to some racial tension in town at the time. An all-white jury in Placer County found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Gerald Flanagan, the prosecuting attorney, had dismissed the only black jury-pool member because she opposed the death penalty. The case was appealed many times before reaching the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010, which sent the case back to district court for review based on the dismissed juror. Judge Kimberly Mueller ruled in October that racism was a factor in the juror’s removal and ordered a new trial.
In June, Butte County Sheriff’s deputies and CalFire firefighters responded to a report of a vehicle fire on the outskirts of Magalia, and found three bodies—two in the trunk and one in the back seat—once they extinguished the flames. The victims, all from Sacramento, were eventually identified as Richard Jones, 17, his friend Roland Lowe, 15, and Lowe’s 46-year-old mother, Colleen Lowe.
A man named Don Clark, a 72-year-old Centerville resident who reportedly accused Jones of theft at his residence, is charged with their murders. For a couple of summers, the teenager had lived on the same property as Clark, which is actually owned by a neighbor of Jones’ family in Sacramento. Clark allegedly warned the three victims to stay away, then shot them, put their bodies in their car and drove to a spot on the Skyway near Hupp-Coutelenc Road in Magalia, where he doused the car with gas and set it on fire. A trial date has not been set.