Top 10 stories of 2015
CN&R editors select the biggest local stories of the year
Still on the streets
Homelessness continued to be a front-burner issue that exposed political and ideological divides in the community.
Case in point: the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property Initiative was introduced to the Chico City Council at the beginning of September. It prohibits the storage of personal property on public land; establishes City Hall and the surrounding area as a “Civic Center” and prohibits a host of activities there; extends the city’s existing civil-sidewalks ordinance to building entrances; and allows police officers to more easily cite homeless people for camping along Chico’s creeks and tributaries.
And those camps do contribute to degradation of the creeks. During Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Park & Chico Creeks Cleanup on Sept. 19, about 21,500 pounds of garbage and recyclables were removed from the city’s waterways—down from some 30 tons of material in 2014.
But advocates said the law compounds problems for the unsheltered by effectively criminalizing homelessness, with some suggesting that laws targeting vulnerable populations violate constitutional rights. In any case, on Sept. 15, the council approved the ordinance on a 6-to-1 vote.
Meanwhile, organizations providing services to homeless people underwent major changes. In October, the Esplanade House, a transitional facility for homelessness, disability and addiction, lost eligibility for a $150,000 federal grant due to its sobriety requirements. Right around the same time, Bill Such, longtime executive director of the Jesus Center, abruptly left the nonprofit organization. It was announced shortly after that local consultant Laura Cootsona would replace Such.
Other services providers, including Stairways Programming and the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), made great efforts to take homeless people directly off the streets. Both organizations embrace the Housing First model, which attempts to remove barriers (such as sobriety and mental health requirements) to place homeless people directly into their own independent living situation.
Not acting can have tragic consequences, as was demonstrated by three deaths during the winter’s first cold snap. On Nov. 2, Edward Louis Doran, 42, was found dead at Depot Park. On Nov. 4, Colma Roy Youpee, 59, died while bundled in his sleeping bag at the parking lot on the northwest corner of Eighth and Main streets. Then, on Nov. 10, a security guard discovered the body of Sharon Ann Gray, 59, near Evans Furniture and Highway 99.Violent cops
Butte County contributed its share to the national collection of disturbing videos of law enforcement officers committing acts of violence in 2015, fueling growing national concern over the policies, tactics and accountability of American police departments. One video that people likely will review and talk about for a long time was captured by the dashcam of Paradise Police Officer Patrick Feaster on Nov. 25.
The video shows Feaster pursuing a recklessly driven SUV until the vehicle rolls, ejecting a passenger onto the roadway. As the driver appears and attempts to climb out of the vehicle, Feaster draws his weapon and fires, and the man drops. The video is shocking, and further details were equally so. Feaster claims to have not known he fired his weapon, though he’s seen searching for shell casings rather than attending to the woman in the road, Darien Ehorn, who died at the scene. He also didn’t tell anyone about the shooting until 11 minutes later, to which a commanding officer incredulously replied—as heard in lapel cam footage released later—“Oh my fucking god, are you serious?”
That was also the collective response from people in Butte County and well beyond on Dec. 10, when Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared the shooting “not justified, but not criminal.” Feaster accidentally pulled the trigger, Ramsey concluded, and because Thomas, whose blood alcohol content registered 0.15, had survived the incident, it wasn’t a homicide and therefore there were no criminal charges to file.
All that changed Dec. 19, however, when Thomas, who already was paralyzed, died of multiple organ failure. Ramsey, who’s waiting on results of an autopsy, said his office will now consider a charge of negligent manslaughter.
That’s not the only local video of police violence that surfaced this year.
In February, footage of a Chico police officer delivering a brutal beating to another DUI suspect—Sean Reardon—went viral when the story was covered by news website TMZ.City debt handled
The biggest news to come out of the city in 2015 came near the end of the year. In December, City Manager Mark Orme announced during a City Council meeting that the coffers were flush enough for the city to transfer $4 million from its operating budget to help pay down the deficit fund, and that the effort would bring the municipality’s debt down to about $519,000. He also told the panel that the rest of that debt would be wiped out by end of the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Orme’s good news marked the first time in seven years that the city’s financial state appeared to be on the upswing. It was delivered after two straight years of work to pay down a deficit fund that at one point exceeded $15 million. Those efforts included sweeping layoffs at City Hall by former City Manager Brian Nakamura back in 2013. When Nakamura departed Chico the next year, Orme, who promoted Administrative Services Director Chris Constantin to assistant city manager, moved the organization forward with a conservative outlook on finances.
The city had gotten deep into the red thanks to years of contracting sales tax revenues in the face of the Great Recession, a time that also led to state take-backs of redevelopment and vehicle-license funding, and drops in property tax revenues. In response, 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 big time; the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy back in 2013.Crime response
The staffing levels of the Chico Police Department have long been blamed for everything from slow response times to the inability to effectively patrol downtown. In 2015, all that came to a head, with citizens stepping up in record numbers to take control of public safety.
In the early part of the year, the department was led by Interim Chief Mike Dunbaugh, a former chief who came back following the early retirement of Kirk Trostle, the second chief in a row to retire on his 50th birthday.
In March, 2014’s crime statistics were released and the Chico Police Department—and most local media—highlighted the dramatic increase in crime reports. But then-police Capt. Mike O’Brien told the CN&R that a new online reporting system called CopLogic may have created the uptick.
That same month, the Downtown Chico Business Association launched the Beautiful, Clean & Safe Community Campaign, an effort to crowdfund $130,000 mostly to fund private security but also the Downtown Ambassador and Cleanup Brigade programs. The private guards who patrol downtown had been employed for a few holiday seasons, but the group wanted to extend their service year-round.
In April, the City Council approved a new contract for the Chico Police Officers’ Association, the largest and most powerful city union. The three-year agreement includes raises and will cost the taxpayers an additional $1.5 million over its term. It was passed by all of the self-described conservatives on the panel and Councilwoman Ann Schwab, despite the fact that it didn’t put any more officers on the street. What it did was silence the rhetoric from the CPOA, which for years had been bleating about how the city had become a cesspool of crime.
The next month, a group of concerned citizens banded together to start a Facebook page called Chico Stolen Bike. It was in direct response to the increase in bicycle thefts, which had been acknowledged by the Chico Police Department but not addressed by its officers. The page led to several success stories of citizens getting back their stolen rides and is still active.
When O’Brien was appointed chief in June, he finished a reorganization of the department started by the interim chief that adopted a “community-oriented” policing strategy. He brought back the TARGET team, which focuses on crime-prone areas of Chico and works with residents and neighborhood leaders, and also introduced the Nextdoor app, which allows citizens to submit comments via cellphone. The department also began doing stings with so-called bait bikes to finally help staunch Chico’s rampant bicycle-theft problem.Academic unrest
It was a truly tumultuous year at Chico State—particularly for the university’s top executives.
In February, hundreds of Chico State staff and faculty members rallied outside the Bell Memorial Union to decry longstanding issues such as salary inequity, bullying and intimidation on the part of university officials, and a lack of transparency from upper management. The protesters marched with picket signs past Kendall Hall, the red-brick building that houses the university’s administration.
Later in the spring semester, longtime university President Paul Zingg took a lengthy medical leave as he recuperated from a series of complications related to heart bypass surgery. He returned in June and announced that, due to his ongoing health concerns, this academic year would be his last before retirement.
It didn’t start smoothly. Members of the campus community raised the alarm in late August, when Zingg appointed Susan Elrod provost, the chief academic officer and university’s second-in-command. Faculty and staff weren’t consulted in the appointment, they said, thereby violating the university’s principle of shared governance. Zingg backtracked days later by announcing that Elrod had declined the permanent provost position but would continue serving as interim through the end of the academic year.
Around the same time, the results of the Campus Climate Survey were released, including responses from 55 percent of the university’s employees. The survey reflected the grievances expressed by protesters in February, namely that there’s widespread dissatisfaction among Chico State’s rank-and-file.
But the biggest mess came just before Thanksgiving break, when faculty members were informed that unexpected cuts to the Academic Affairs budget might cancel some classes next semester. Then it emerged that departments across campus were unexpectedly short on funding heading into spring 2016, despite the fact that the spring budget had increased by $5.1 million compared with last year.
At the Academic Senate meeting on Dec. 3, Elrod explained that rising personnel costs had eaten up the $5.1 million, and then some. At that same meeting, the Academic Senate introduced a resolution to deliver a vote of no confidence in Zingg, Elrod and Lorraine Hoffman, vice president for business and finance. Despite significant resistance from some constituencies on campus, that vote was delivered by a tally of 24-8 during the senate’s next meeting, on Dec. 10, sending a definitive message to the CSU Office of the Chancellor that something is broken at Chico State—and that the university’s next president will have a lot of work to do.Drought-stricken
Among the biggest stories of 2015 was the (ongoing) record-breaking drought here in Butte County and throughout California and the Southwest. For the fourth year in a row, snowfall was scarce and the “rainy season” was anything but. So, forecasts for the summer months—when water levels historically reach their lowest—were dismal at best.
As early as March, the state issued regulations including not watering lawns more than twice a week and not at all for 48 hours after a substantial rain; not serving water at restaurants unless requested; and hotels giving guests the option of reusing their linens. Some people balked at the lawn-watering restrictions and complained about neighbors who let their grass die. That would all soon change.
By April, Lake Oroville was at 51 percent of capacity, rainfall was slightly higher than the previous year, but snowpack, which recharges rivers and reservoirs in the spring, was at a mere 6 percent of normal.
By the first of June, things were looking especially dire. California Water Service Co. implemented further water usage restrictions, setting monthly water budgets for each household that were equal to a 32 percent reduction from 2013. In addition, any lawn watering that caused runoff was prohibited and could result in a fine. Washing sidewalks and driveways was likewise banned.
The summer, especially those water cutback requirements, pushed the majority of local residents to embrace the seriousness of the drought and begin to take real measures to curb usage. More and more landscape companies began offering drought-tolerant plants and native species in lieu of the lush, green lawn. There was grumbling at first, but it mostly died down.
That didn’t stop the state from declaring a drought emergency on July 22, due to the fact that an alarming number of wells had been reported going dry. Rain started to fall this winter, and the potentially strong El Niño year is keeping everyone hopeful for 2016.Culture shift
The conservative-majority council was sworn in at the end of 2014, and the four members who have the final say in city deliberations—Mark Sorensen, Sean Morgan, Andrew Coolidge and Reanette Fillmer—immediately gave us a taste their style. They broke from the bipartisan leadership—a liberal as mayor and a conservative as vice mayor—that had steered the city through the previous tumultuous 16 months. Sorensen was voted mayor unanimously and Morgan, who made headlines for dropping an F-bomb from the dais, was voted in as vice mayor on a split vote down party lines.
And that partisan moment has foreshadowed many of the panel’s votes on controversial items in 2015.
As their tenure got started, the conservatives voted to undo some weighty decisions the progressives voted on over the course of their 12 years of power. First, newbie Councilman Andrew Coolidge agendized discussion of Chico Scrap Metal, the polluted scrap metal yard in south Chico that was supposed to move from its home on E. 20th Street, near Chapman Elementary School and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., by the end of 2014 (see more on this move in “What were they thinking?” page 23).
Another polarizing issue the four-person majority brought back was an effort to install banners year-round on utility poles along East Avenue honoring Chico residents now serving in the military. A group called Chico Military Heroes brought the project forward in 2014 and was shot down by the then-liberal majority. To their credit, that majority attempted a compromise that would have allowed the flags to fly for 30 days, but that plan did not mollify the military group, whose organizers wanted all or nothing. No matter. The conservatives gave the project the green light this year.
As far as the council’s tone goes, we’ve seen a lot of bickering this year among the progressives and conservatives. While Sorsensen, who as mayor leads the meetings, deserves credit for keeping the gatherings running efficiently, capping them at 10 p.m. on most occasions, he’s also let his temper get away from him to score political points. And junior conservatives Morgan, Coolidge and Fillmer—who whisper to each other regularly—don’t even feign attention when members of the public address them on issues they aren’t interested in or don’t agree with them on.
In other words, this council is as partisan as ever.Goodbye 'islands'
After decades of remaining the last “urban islands” of county land surrounded by greater Chico, two residential neighborhoods—Chapmantown and the Mulberry District—are set to become part of the city in the next five years.
Chapmantown lies between Little Chico Creek to the north and East 16th Street to the south, while Mulberry is a smaller area east of Fair Street and north of the fairgrounds. Together, they comprise 138 acres and about 1,300 residents, and many people who live in the semi-rural settings like things just the way they are. Unlike most of Chico, Chapmantown doesn’t have sidewalks, curbs and gutters, street lights are few, and most homes aren’t connected to the sewer system. Residents there also can’t vote in city elections, despite being affected by the Chico City Council’s decisions.
In November 2014, the City Council—then made up of a liberal majority—voted 4-3 not to sign an agreement with the Butte County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to annex the neighborhoods within five years. But in February, at Councilman Randall Stone’s request, the current conservative-majority council revisited the issue.
At the time, the council faced the threat of a lawsuit from LAFCo, which was demanding full payment for some 60 sewer connections—about half of which are in Champman/Mulberry—the city had allowed without the agency’s approval, as required by state law. LAFCo offered to settle the issue of the unauthorized sewer hookups separately from annexation, but that likely would have led to piecemeal and faster incorporation of the neighborhoods.
“If we don’t sign the agreement, LAFCo will move within a year,” Stone said during the Feb. 17 council meeting. “This way we have five years to make sense of the process and establish our finances [and] satisfy the public safety needs” of Chapman/Mulberry. As for the annual cost of providing city services to the neighborhoods, estimates vary from minimal to somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-2 in favor of annexation, thereby ensuring that Chapman/Mulberry will be welcomed into the city.Tree troubles
The greatest threat to Chico’s urban forest in recent years has been internal, with the city failing to hire a new urban forester since the departure of the last person to fill that position in 2013, and the gutting of the crew responsible for the upkeep of the area’s trees during massive budget slashes that same year. This year, Chico’s trees and the people who love them dealt with the same issues, as well as external threats.
PG&E’s Pipelines Pathways project is an effort to remove trees, vegetation and structures along 6,750 miles of natural gas pipelines throughout the state. It started after a 2010 gas line explosion killed eight people in San Bruno, though tree advocates near and abroad have argued trees didn’t play a role in that explosion. Still, the utility claims the goal is to allow better access to safety workers in the event of an accident.
To that end, the company removed more than 200 trees in Oroville in 2014 before the public took notice, and tree advocates rallied early in 2015 to save a row of century-old Sycamores with sit-ins that led to the arrest of some protesters. The trees were still felled.
In order to avoid the same scenario happening at a spot in south Chico, Butte Environmental Council began communicating with PG&E and the city to lessen the damage. The organization was able to broker a deal that meant fewer trees will be cut. Additionally, the utility is giving money to the city to plant new trees and maintain them for three years. A similar deal is in the works for another batch of trees located on county property south of Chico on the Midway.
The internal struggles continue. There is still no new urban forester, and a draft Urban Forest Management Plan remains in the limbo where it has languished for years. According to the city’s most recent Sustainability Indicators Report, published last May, 209 trees were removed by city workers in 2014, while only 14 were planted.Record-breakers?
As overused and misused as it may be, the word “epic” is just about the perfect way to encapsulate what transpired last April at the Tackle Box Bar & Grill. From the evening of April 1 through the afternoon of May 5, the stage of the south Chico nightclub/restaurant/tackle-and-gun shop hosted live music nonstop, for 24 hours every single day, in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record of Longest Concert by Multiple Artists. Dubbed Chico Breaks the Record, the attempt lasted nearly 35 days, more than twice as long as the previous record of 15 1/2.
The event was the brainchild of local musician Julian Ruck who, along with partner Emily Rose, organized a rag-tag crew of committed volunteers to keep time, do sound and bear “official” witness to the proceedings. Though the event started off a bit shaky, with big holes in the performing schedule and anxious early morning calls for more bodies in the audience (the rules dictated that 10 spectators had to be in attendance at all times), a power outage the morning of April 6 seemed to galvanize the city. With fears that the brief interruption in the required audio/video recordings and subsequent resetting of the record clock would mean that Guinness wouldn’t recognize those first five days, a wide swath of Chico’s musicians and fresh batches of volunteers started pouring in.
“[The outage] was sort of a blessing in disguise,” said Ruck in the weeks after the attempt.
In all, roughly 300 individual acts (900-plus musicians) would take part, playing more than 11,000 songs. When the attempt ended, Ruck and Rose drove the evidence—70 pounds’ worth—across the country and hand-delivered it to Guinness headquarters in New York in June.
Unfortunately, after more than four months of waiting, the initial response from Guinness wasn’t good. At this point the company is saying that the way the evidence was organized doesn’t meet its standards (even though specific methods were not outlined in the guidelines) and that it won’t recognize the record. Ruck says they’re still in conversation, but he’ll stop short of engaging in a big, ugly battle. “We want Chico Breaks the Record to remain a beautiful experience,” he said.
Whatever the final verdict, Chico did come together to create one beautiful, and epic, experience.