Top 10 stories of 2014

CN&R’s editors look back at the biggest local stories of 2014

New conservative Councilmembers Andrew Coolidge (left) and Reanette Fillmer are sworn in with re-elected Mark Sorensen at the first meeting of December.

New conservative Councilmembers Andrew Coolidge (left) and Reanette Fillmer are sworn in with re-elected Mark Sorensen at the first meeting of December.

CN&R file photo by Robert Speer

Top 10 stories of 2014

Conservative takeover

The few Chico voters who made their way to the polls spoke loud and clear in November about the city’s leadership. The conservatives swept the midterm election, and earlier this month, newcomers Reanette Fillmer and Andrew Coolidge joined re-elected Councilman Mark Sorensen, now the mayor, on the seven-member City Council.

And the conservatives didn’t eke out those wins, either. They trounced the other candidates, then-Mayor Scott Gruendl and first-timers Lupe Arim-Law, Forough Molina and Rodney Willis. Fillmer—who came in third, behind Coolidge and Sorensen, first- and second-place finishers, respectively—ended up ahead of fourth-place finisher Arim-Law by more than 1,600 votes.

For local right-wingers, the result was a long time coming, since liberals had held a council majority since 2002. It said a lot that Gruendl, who was first elected in 2002, placed sixth out of the seven candidates, especially considering that he and Sorensen were the only ones who’d held public office.

To their credit, the conservatives worked hard over the past couple of years to secure the wins. Their supporters blamed the entirety of the city’s fiscal problems on the liberal majority, despite the effects of the Great Recession that were beyond the control of any member—conservative or liberal—and despite the fact that both liberal and conservative members of the panel approved the city’s budgets over those recessionary years.

The conservative candidates and their backers raised much more cash than their liberal opponents. Public action committees dumped a lot of dough into their campaigns. One called Chico Citizens for Accountable Government raised $30,000, mostly from industrial and construction firms—paying for things like mailers. And the candidates themselves raked in the dough. Coolidge’s contributions totaled $41,085; Sorensen took in $25,540; and Fillmer’s coffers wound up at about $42,000, according to campaign disclosures filed shortly before the Nov. 4 election.

The results of the local contest seemed to mirror national races, where Republicans gained seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Election turnout was abysmal: 54 percent countywide, according to the Butte County Clerk/Recorder’s Office. That’s down by more than 10 percent from the 2010 midterms, when nearly 67 percent of the county voted.

Budget on the brain

Chico’s financial outlook started out bleak at the beginning of the year, but is ending on a high note considering the context of the past couple of years. At the end of 2013, the City Council approved a plan by then-Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin to close the general fund deficit of $15.2 million by repaying $1.52 million each year through 2021-22, with an additional payment of $700,000 the next year.

Instituting the so-called “fund deficit mitigation plan” was the result of many factors, including overly generous employee compensation packages approved by multiple former city managers and councils. But what compounded the situation and brought it to crisis level was the Great Recession, which resulted in state take-backs of redevelopment and vehicle-license funding, and drops in property tax revenues. During that time, the city borrowed from several special funds to pay for operational costs, rather than eliminating jobs and city services. It caught up with the organization.

At the helm in 2014 was City Manager Brian Nakamura, who’d been hired in 2012 to “right-size” the budget. In 2013, Nakamura’s most notable actions to accomplish that included laying off dozens of employees, merging departments and reducing the hours of Bidwell Park.

The cost-cutting continued in early 2014, when the City Council voted to outsource legal services to a firm following the retirement of City Attorney Lori Barker. By March, an audit of city finances pegged the city’s net losses at $13.1 million. The city’s emergency reserves covered about $5.3 million of the deficit, leaving a remaining $7.7 million hole.

City leadership was shaken up a few months later, when Nakamura announced he was resigning. Assistant City Manager Mark Orme was then bumped to the top spot. He appointed Constantin as assistant city manager.

The good news on the financial front in 2014 is that the $7.7 million figure already has been reduced to $2.8 million. Last month, Administrative Services Director Frank Fields, the former accounting manager who was recently promoted, told the City Council that optimistic estimates have the city dissolving the deficit entirely within one or two years.

Still, administrators have warned that the city’s largest expense—its employee payroll—is still a significant barrier to fiscal solvency. In February, a CN&R cover story on the subject revealed that the average employee earned $99,585 in salary and benefits, based on 2012 data from the state Controller’s Office. That pegs Chico as the 25th highest-paying city in the state. Moreover, it showed that police and fire personnel consumed more than 80 percent of the city’s entire operating budget.

As of deadline, the largest employee union, the Chico Police Officers’ Association, had not come to an agreement with the city on a new contract.

Homelessness still hot-button issue

The community continued to struggle in myriad ways with a homeless population that has grown noticeably over the last few years.

Past surveys indicate there are 600 to 700 homeless people in Chico, but trends reported by service organizations suggest that number may be on the rise. (For instance, a record number of guests, including an unprecedented number of whole families, checked into the Torres Community Shelter over the last few months.)

Gerald Wieland cleans up a homeless camp along Lindo Channel on Sept. 20, the day Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Park & Chico Creeks Cleanup pulled an estimated 40,000 pounds of trash from Chico’s waterways.

CN&R file photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Where to house the homeless who, for one reason another, don’t find overnight refuge at the Torres Shelter is an ongoing concern. The Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) once again enlisted local churches to provide shelter on a rotating basis, but the group needs more donations and volunteers to keep the needy housed and fed through the winter.

Speaking of downtown businesses, 2014 was the first full year since the controversial civil-sidewalks ordinance went into effect last December, making it illegal to sit or lie in pedestrian paths of travel adjacent to commercial properties from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The citywide ordinance was voted into law by the City Council mostly as a means to move homeless people away from storefronts downtown. As of Nov. 30, about a year after going into effect, police had issued 162 warnings and 39 citations related to sit/lie violations.

Homelessness also presented a greater environmental concern than ever before as encampments played a major role in an unprecedented trashing of Chico’s waterways. During the Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Park & Chico Creeks Cleanup in September, about 450 volunteers pulled an estimated 40,000 pounds, or 20 tons, of waste from the creeks—compared with 16,900 pounds last year and 5,164 pounds in 2012. BEC has been recording the trash totals since 1987; the previous record was set in 2002, when 23,000 pounds of garbage was collected.

Drought takes over

Headlines in 2014 were dominated by the drought almost from the get-go. On Jan. 17, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California and asked residents to voluntarily cut their water usage by 20 percent. Local farmers and officials scrambled to come up with backup plans in case allocations were cut—they ultimately weren’t—and many municipalities began self-governing the use of water for nonessential activities (Chico was not one of them).

Locally, the drought was apparent whenever we looked to our waterways. The creeks that run through town were low at best and Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California, dipped to just above the lowest level on record, which came in 1977.

As summer—the dry season in the third-driest year on record—pressed on, some on the outskirts of Chico started to feel the drought in their own backyards. Wells ran dry, giving pump companies some good business lowering pumps and drilling farther into the groundwater basin. Residents of Chico, who are served by the California Water Service Co., however, felt little impact. Nonetheless, Chicoans took Brown’s challenge and met it, reaching the goal of 20 percent reduction in use. Unfortunately, the rest of the state wasn’t up to it and, in July, the state Water Resources Control Board threatened fines of up to $500 for wasting water outdoors.

Chico anti-fracking activist Dave Garcia.

CN&R File Photo by Howard Hardee

Eyes turned to the south this year as well, as plans to ship water out of the region once again took center stage. First, Brown proposed building massive tunnels to divert water to the Central Valley and farther south, though that plan was shunned by the Environmental Protection Agency and lost backing (i.e., funding) in Washington. Then, in June, local water advocates AquAlliance, along with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hadn’t adequately assessed the environmental impacts of delivering water from the Sacramento River to farms in the San Joaquin Valley. They succeeded, at least, in requiring the bureau to include “temporary” transfers in its overall environmental review process.

Then along came Proposition 1 on the November ballot. The $7.1 billion water bond calls for some arguably good things—increased storage capacity, recycling, protection of drinking water and creation of emergency water supplies. But it also calls for “conveyance,” aka the selling of water from north to south. This had many local and statewide environmentalists up in arms, but ultimately the proposition passed.

City manager switch-up

Less than two years after taking the job, Chico City Manager Brian Nakamura announced in May that he was heading south to Rancho Cordova to take a similar position with a $14,000 salary increase. He had arrived in Chico in August 2012 surrounded by a cloud of controversy that never quite dissipated during his 20-month tenure.

Nakamura came to Chico from Hemet, where he served a similarly short amount of time in the same job. In Chico, he was hired at a yearly salary of $217,000, which was $32,000 more than that of his predecessor, Dave Burkland. That naturally raised concerns among city skeptics and watchdogs.

During his time on the job, Nakamura made deep budget cuts of $4.8 million, reducing city staff from 450 to 375, earning him the nickname “hatchet man.” He was subsequently on the receiving end of a substantial amount of public criticism, including a few racial slurs.

In his letter informing the council of his decision to move on, Nakamura wrote, “My tenure here in Chico has been the most challenging, difficult and rewarding in my career to date and I wish to formally thank the City Council for its full support, personally and professionally.”

Friends of the Farmers’ Market members Karl Ory and Cheryl King present more than 9,000 signatures on May 12 in front of Chico’s City Hall.

CN&R File Photo by Meredith J. Graham

In July, Nakamura was replaced by Assistant City Manager Mark Orme, who had worked for Nakamura as the assistant city manager in Hemet. Orme moved to Chico in April 2013 for the assistant city manager job. In an interview a few months ago, he told the CN&R he had no idea he’d become the city manager in such a short time.

From fringe to frontlines

Until midway through 2014, the local debate regarding hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—had been relatively one-sided. Footwork in the form of early action and outreach by activist group Frack-Free Butte County ensured that those opposed to the controversial fossil-fuel extraction method dominated the conversation in Butte County.

That group seemingly had the support of the members of Butte County’s Board of Supervisors, a majority of whom at one point voted to consider a moratorium. Meanwhile, public support was strong as the fractivists gathered more than 10,000 signatures to get a ban on the practice on the November 2014 ballot.

Opposition reared its head in a big way in June, however, when an oil-industry-funded legal challenge over “facial defects” on the fracking ban petition—specifically the accidental exclusion of a six-word phrase and lack of some boldface type—caused County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs to reject the petition.

A judge decided to waive the defects, but county supervisors opted for a 30-day study rather than eleventh-hour approval, delaying the initiative sufficiently to keep it off the 2014 ballot. Frack-Free Butte County has vowed to keep the fight alive, and if the supervisors don’t adopt their own ordinance, the initiative is set to go before voters in June 2016.

Nationally, awareness about fracking—and the fight over it—followed similar trends this year, transforming the issue from a fringe to a front-line environmental and economic topic in mainstream media, politics and the public discourse. With Big Oil dollars contributing largely to the success of November’s conservative coup and America’s persistent and voracious fossil-fuel habit, the debate is likely to become even more prominent.

More than 100 people marched from the avenues to the Chico City Plaza protesting police brutality and the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

CN&R file photo by Tom Gascoyne

Farmers' market stays put

During the spring and summer months, if people weren’t talking about the drought in Chico, they likely were talking about the fate of the Saturday Chico Certified Farmers’ Market. That’s because, with the market’s lease set to expire at the end of 2014 and relations a bit soured with the city, its future was uncertain.

The issue was whether the market should stay where it’s been for 21 years or move to an alternate location. Those in favor of the latter said the market—and shoppers taking up all the parking—detracts from their downtown businesses. Those who wanted it to stay put argued the lot was the most appropriate location and many people head downtown and spend money at the brick-and-mortars after doing their market shopping.

A dedicated group of supporters, dubbed the Friends of the Farmers’ Market, created a petition that called for the city to either extend the market’s franchise agreement for use of the parking lot at Second and Wall streets on Saturdays for six years or put it to the vote in November. It also would expand the space allowed for vendors, set an earlier opening time (5:30 a.m. vs. 7 a.m.) and implement a $5,000 annual fee to the city—up from just $284 previously.

The whole thing heated up when then-City Attorney Lori Barker questioned the legality of the petition if put before voters. She said it violated the state Constitution because it involved the voters approving a city contract with a private entity.

An April Fool’s joke that the market had been canceled really ignited the fervor among supporters, and a few weeks later the City Council moved to create a subcommittee to address the issue.

On May 12, the Friends of the Farmers’ Market turned in their signatures—more than 9,000 of them—and after being stalled by the city attorney they were ultimately verified by the county. The city, apparently still not satisfied with the petition, decided to offer the market options, which included moving days and the location. The farmers’ market folks were having none of it and held the city to the wording of the petition: Accept this agreement or put it to a vote of the people.

Former City Manager Brian Nakamura (left) and current City Manager Mark Orme.

CN&R file photo by Tom Gascoyne

In the end, the City Council caved and adopted the initiative as written by the Friends of the Farmers’ Market on June 17. Adding the matter to the November ballot would have cost the cash-strapped city between $5,000 and $10,000. According to then-Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen, it was “clear that the initiative would be successful on the ballot.”

Cops under fire

On Dec. 13, more than a hundred people marched through the streets of downtown Chico, their arms raised above their heads as they chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The event, a protest spurred by a rash of high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers around the country, likely was the largest local demonstration since the Occupy movement’s protests in 2011. Locally and nationwide, public scrutiny of questionable law enforcement policies, tactics, use of military equipment, race relations, compensation and overall conduct rose to an unprecedented pitch in the latter half of 2014.

In Butte County, the families of two men killed by law enforcement officers this year have raised questions about their deaths and subsequent investigations. On April 28, Oroville police shot 53-year-old Bakersfield construction worker Victor Coleman, who they claim was suicidal, in a motel room. On May 18, a Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed 24-year-old Cory Bush in Palermo. All of the officers’ actions in both incidents were declared justified, prompting further questions about why the multi-agency investigations are overseen by the county’s top lawman, District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

(On deadline, the CN&R learned that a third Butte County citizen, a Paradise man, was shot and killed by local law enforcement. Details were scant, however, it has been confirmed that BCSO is the agency tied to the officer-involved death.)

The heavy-handed police response to what were originally peaceful protests in Ferguson, Mo., pushed long-simmering concerns about police militarization into the mainstream, and in August The New York Times released a list, acquired from the Pentagon through public records requests, of military surplus received by counties in recent years through a controversial Department of Defense program. Among Butte County’s recent acquisitions were 20 assault rifles by the Chico Police Department, as well as 105 assault rifles, 20 handguns and—most spectacularly—a 15-ton M1220 Caiman mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle for the BCSO.

Much of the ire against police tactics has been fueled by viral Internet videos of questionable interactions between police and the public. Two local civilian-filmed videos garnered millions of views nationwide. On June 10, CPD officer David Bailey was filmed twisting the arm of an elderly man involved in a rollover crash while trying to extricate the man from his vehicle. A video uploaded to YouTube in August had viewers debating—and the BCSO investigating—whether a deputy kicked a man, who was already sitting down, in the face or in the shoulder. Incidents like these have increased public pressure for all law enforcers to be equipped with dash and lapel cameras, which local agencies say they’d be glad to do if not for prohibitive costs.

SkyWest Airlines ceased operations at the Chico airport in early December, leaving the city with no commercial air service.

CN&R File Photo by Ken Smith

On another financial front, Chico police, their union (the Chico Police Officers’ Association) and portions of the public remain concerned about understaffing, while others have decried the fact that the city’s police are paid exorbitant amounts in salary and benefits—an average of $136,000 a year in a city where the median household income is only $43,000.

With all of these issues still gaining steam, it’s likely that law enforcement will continue to dominate headlines, locally and nationally, into 2015. The CPD will kick off what’s likely to be a difficult year sans a permanent leader, as Chief Kirk Trostle recently announced his retirement, effective Dec. 30.

Annexation debates

To annex or not to annex—that certainly is the question. The answer, yet again in 2014, was no—at least when it came to Chico’s urban islands of Chapmantown and the Mulberry district.

The debate over annexation certainly did grow legs, though. Starting early in the year, discussion about hooking residents who live in those two unincorporated pockets of Chico up to city sewer lines prompted outcry from the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees such matters between the county and city. LAFCo charged that the city had allowed 62 illegal hookups—and Chico officials conceded—and, under threat of a lawsuit, demanded that the city discuss annexing the two neighborhoods.

The city did discuss the issue. In August, after LAFCo approved an annexation agreement, the City Council deliberated over whether to follow suit—calling for annexation in five years’ time—or stick with the status quo. About 10 people spoke at that Aug. 19 meeting, and every one of them was against becoming part of the city. Most cited lack of city money for improvements, as well as a desire to maintain the region’s more rural identity, even though the Chapman/Mulberry neighborhoods are surrounded on all sides by Chico. They also expressed a desire for a vote of the people—there are some 1,300 residents among them—to take place before any decision was made.

Then in November, at the last meeting presided over by then-Mayor Scott Gruendl, the City Council came to a decision. The meeting was somewhat bizarre and the question was not an easy one: agree to annex the two areas, or reject the plan and face a potential lawsuit from LAFCo? With the council members evenly split, Gruendl became the deciding vote. He decided against annexation, meaning the issue likely will resurface in 2015.

Annexation: This map outlines the Chapman/Mulberry neighborhoods.

Map illustration by Sandy Peters

In other annexation news, after four decades of discussion, Butte County and Oroville came to a historic agreement in October to annex Southside Oroville—the densest neighborhood in the area—into the city. The county made the deal pretty sweet, too, offering to foot up to $20,000 of the LAFCo application fee.

“When we cast our first ballot for city elections in 2016, we will be so thankful,” said Southside pastor Kevin Thompson after the county vote.

SkyWest takes flight

On Dec. 2, the last commercial flight scheduled to arrive and depart from the Chico airport was canceled.

The cancellation was due to poor weather rather than poor sales, though both problems had long-plagued the SkyWest’s Chico connection to its hub in San Francisco. SkyWest, which contracted with United Airlines to provide United Express service, made the announcement in August that service would cease in December, citing maintenance and fuel costs, government regulations and the lack of tickets sold in Chico as reasons.

Following the airline’s announcement, then-Mayor Scott Gruendl said city officials had anticipated the move due to SkyWest’s overall financial solvency and the fact they’d cut other routes. He also said a plan was in place to attract new carriers to the city as early as spring 2015.

Greundl’s prediction may be a bit optimistic. The Chico Chamber of Commerce formed an Airport Task Force that is helping city staff gather information and market the city to other airlines, but no announcements for new service options have been made.

Discussing the issue after SkyWest’s announcement, Airport Commissioner (and former Chico Mayor) Karl Ory made a peculiar, enigmatic statement, the implications of which city officials, the business community and residents will be pondering until the clouds of uncertainty about Chico’s air service become clear: “There are two types of cities: those that have commercial air service, and those that don’t.”