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“Disorderly events” became the buzzword of the year when an ordinance geared toward wild parties mushroomed into a far-reaching, fear-inducing piece of legislation.
Controversy began to brew in early summer, when club owners and local musicians banded together after discovering that Chico police had proposed an ordinance that would allow officers to shut down any party deemed “disorderly” (including music events where “slamming” and “moshing” were taking place).
The ordinance, which got a first reading before the City Council on July 3, was modeled after a similar one in Santa Barbara. It stated that officers could disperse a gathering if they saw three misdemeanors or one felony being committed.
Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty said the ordinance would give officers “more leverage to shut down an out-of-control party,” explaining that officers didn’t have the ability to do so unless it was a second-response call, an event violated a noise ordinance, or if it became a crime scene.
Many weren’t buying that rationale, and a huge backlash came in regard to the ordinance’s “moshing” and “slamming” language, which was quickly stricken after a horde of protesters flooded into the City Council chambers.
But the drama was far from over.
Some members of the community thought the language was still much too broad and infringed on their civil rights. Acknowledging those concerns, as well as the fact that it would be unfair to Chico State students to approve it during the summer when they weren’t there to speak on it, the City Council opted to revisit the matter in the fall.
Protesters packed the chambers again, prompting a special two-hour meeting devoted to the ordinance. At the end of that Oct. 15 meeting, the ordinance passed 6-1, with only Councilman Scott Gruendl voting no, due to concerns with the wording.
Brent Blacklisted, who books shows at Monstros Pizza, said he was “skeptical, but I don’t feel like this is the end of the world. I think if police use it sparingly and for what its intent is, it can be helpful.”
Not everyone was so charitable. A local ad hoc group called Chico Citizens for Civil Rights gathered nearly 5,000 signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot. The entire ordeal seemed to amplify distrust of the police, and with signatures for the referendum still being verified, the ordinance will be a rowdy issue into 2008.
Chico’s $56 million question
Retired journalism professor Richard Ek has a nose for news. It’s so sensitive that it only takes a whiff of something fishy to get him onto a story—like, say, potholes going unpatched when the city gets tax money for such things. So after then-City Manager Greg Jones discussed Chico’s budget in a 2006 newsletter, Ek began looking into the state of city finances.
Five months later, he submitted an investigative report to the CN&R, which got published as the March cover story “Breaking the bank.”
He found that compensation packages for city employees—particularly firefighters and police officers—are so generous that the city has to skimp on infrastructure needs like road repair and maintaining Bidwell Park. He took flak for the story, but he stuck to his guns and continued to speak his mind at city Finance Committee meetings.
Then a funny thing happened: People found out he was right.
In June, Jones formally presented city staff’s 10-year budget projections to the City Council, which had embraced the idea of long-range financial planning. The calculations showed a gap of $56 million between the city’s revenue and expenses over that span. Factor in growth and the need for additional public-safety employees, and that figure more than doubles.
The council charged its Finance Committee with addressing the shortfall. Jones gave councilmembers a list of 59 options for cutting costs and increasing revenues, though many line items carried no dollar amount and he elected not to prioritize any of them.
Later in the summer, Jones unexpectedly resigned to take a city manager position in the East Bay, closer to his grandchildren. The council appointed Assistant City Manager Dave Burkland as interim city manager, and a couple months later he gave something in return: a deficit-reduction list containing amounts and analysis.
The Finance Committee held three night sessions, explaining the challenges and accepting input from a variety of citizens (Ek included). Subjected to intense scrutiny: the firefighters’ contract, quietly approved by the council, with raises totaling 27 percent over the six years of the deal. Some of the terms will carry over to the police officers’ next contract because of a “me too” clause in the current pact.
The Finance Committee instructed Fire Chief Steve Brown to cut $400,000 from his department’s budget—part of a short-term solution expected to save the city $2.1 million a year. The full council approved the plan Dec. 18 at its final meeting of the year.
Long term, some councilmembers see a sales-tax increase as a necessary means for funding city services. They may have a tough time getting voters to bite. The Chico Chamber of Commerce commissioned an independent analysis of the budget that concluded the city has not kept its expenditures in line with revenues and the economy—"We can’t have confidence it will handle additional money any better.”
The main culprit: employee compensation.
Incoming chamber chairman Mark Sorensen e-mailed the CN&R a copy of the report. His message included this, followed by a smiley-face emoticon:
Richard Ek was right.
Rebuilding at Enloe
When Debi Yancer officially began her new job as Enloe Medical Center’s CEO on April 2, she’d already been doing it for several weeks, long distance from her home in Maryland. The hospital had so many problems that it couldn’t wait for her to get to Chico.
The previous year had been tumultuous, wrenching and filled with controversy over Enloe’s proposed expansion project and conflict between its medical staff and CEO Dan Neumeister that eventually forced him out.
Then, as 2007 began, the hospital laid off 105 people, most of them nursing aides. That sparked a protest strike by the aides’ union, the SEIU, which had been trying for three years to get the hospital to recognize it. In addition, three recent deaths during surgery were under investigation and the anesthesia staff was in disarray.
Yancer, a former nurse, waded right in, ordering a full review of surgery and anesthesiology, placing a new emphasis on quality and insisting on restoring the public’s confidence in the hospital from the inside out.
Right away, she rehired 60 of the laid-off employees and opened negotiations with the SEIU. She also was forthright when a medical-review team found problems with the hospital, saying such criticism was important for improving patient care.
By late April, the hospital’s anesthesiologists had regrouped and attracted several new doctors to the hospital.
By June the hospital’s trustees had passed resolutions stating their commitment to Yancer’s effort to achieving full regulatory compliance and giving her a blank check to make any changes she deemed necessary.
Then, in early August, Yancer suffered a serious neck injury while on vacation in San Diego, and newly hired Chief Operating Officer Mike Wiltermood had to take over daily operations. No sooner had he done so then another medical review team showed up to scrutinize the hospital. The result: several new violations and a $25,000 fine. Again, the hospital welcomed the review.
As the year ended, Yancer was still recovering but active in running the hospital. Construction on the expansion project had begun, and the hospital was embracing a new, patient-centered model of health care called Planetree. Some workers remained skeptical, but for many people, Yancer’s changes bred anticipation about the future.
Superintendent bails on CUSD
The Chico Unified School District thought it hit the jackpot when Chet Francisco accepted the offer to become superintendent in September 2005. “He’s focused, he’s all about kids, he’s real, he’s approachable, he communicates well and he’s a leader,” then-school board member Anthony Watts raved at the time.
Those qualities were particularly important for the successor to Scott Brown, who resigned in the aftermath of his controversial firing of former Marsh Junior High principal Jeff Sloan.
Chico lured Francisco away from the Southern California community of Murrieta, where he headed a district 50 percent larger than CUSD. He took over that October, and for the 2006-07 school year, he rolled out a lofty goal: “Individual student academic success via a K-12 sequence of teaching, learning, assessment and support.” In practical terms, that meant a coordinated curriculum, more teacher collaboration, a rigorous pre-college program and clean, colorful campuses.
It all sounded good—perhaps too good, because June 11, after just 21 months on the job, Francisco resigned. Apart from a press-release statement, in which he said he needed “a change of pace,” he did not offer a public explanation.
The school board promoted Kelly Staley from assistant superintendent to interim superintendent, with a one-year contract and the knowledge the district planned to conduct a nationwide search for a permanent successor.
Staley inherited two prime problems: test scores and the budget. Yet almost immediately, she struck a positive chord by working with teachers to implement the concept of professional learning communities—collaborative groups of teachers in a common academic area. The week before school started, she held CUSD’s first convocation in years; 800 teachers and administrators came.
Her support extends to the school board, which decided in early December to extend her contract a year and not hire a recruitment consultant.
The trustees may not have done her a favor.
Money is tight despite cutbacks, and Staley expects budget woes to get worse before they get better. The teachers’ contract (negotiated on Francisco’s watch) expires next year. The facilities master plan needs updating, an endeavor that dovetails with the district’s decision to use money from Measure A—the so-called “new high school bond"—to improve existing schools.
For Staley, ‘08 could be the year of repercussions. Maybe Francisco’s departure isn’t so mysterious after all …
Down on the mine
The controversy over a sand and gravel mine proposed for 235 acres of farmland on the M&T Ranch five miles west of Chico, off River Road, has been on-again, off-again since it was first proposed in 1996. It began heating up anew in late 2006, when Baldwin Contracting Co., the county’s largest road-building firm, sought approval for an updated plan, and it stayed hot through 2007.
The mine as articulated in the new plan would generate some 16,500 truckloads of gravel per year (or 33,000 truck trips, an average of 90 per day) for 20 to 30 years, or until the gravel is gone. At that point, the land would be reclaimed “to high-quality, open-water, wetland wildlife habitat and agriculture,” according to the project’s environmental-impact report.
Opponents, including neighbors and Chico residents, objected to the loss of good farm land, the potential noise pollution and, most of all, the impact of all those trucks on local roads not built for such use. Baldwin’s plant is on the lower Skyway, just past the Butte Creek bridge, and many of the trucks would use city streets to get there and to construction sites.
Many groups have come out against the project, including the Butte County Farm Bureau and the Altacal Audubon Society. The city of Chico has expressed concerns about trucks on city streets. Opponents argue the site is wrong and that Baldwin has other sources of gravel.
For its part, Baldwin said the project was environmentally sound not only because of the small lake it eventually would create, but also because it would provide a closer source of gravel (it now gets most of its rock from Glenn County), lessening fuel use.
In November 2006, the Butte County Planning Commission began a public-hearing process that stretched into three meetings because so many people wanted to speak. It wasn’t until Jan. 25, 2007, that the commission finally voted 3-2 to approve a use permit for the project. Chico-area Commissioners Nina Lambert and Chuck Nelson, concerned about truck impacts, dissented. Opponents quickly appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors.
They won a victory on April 24, when the supervisors voted unanimously not to release the land from its Williamson Act contract. That means, even if they subsequently approve the project, Baldwin could not begin construction until December 2014.
Board hearings on the appeal of the Planning Commission approval have twice been delayed; the matter will be taken up again on Tuesday, Jan. 8.
Much ado about planning
Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl is no fan of Jon Luvaas, the chairman of the city Planning Commission. Twice, once in 2006 and again in 2007, he tried to get Luvaas bounced from the commission, without success. His efforts have made for entertaining political theater, but little else.
Wahl is not alone in his feelings. His fellow council conservative, Steve Bertagna, has weighed in against the “smart-growth” advocate from time to time, as have various developers and the Chico Enterprise-Record, which this year went so far as to blame him for “bad morale” in the city Planning Services Department that had resulted in employees quitting.
Bertagna was convinced the entire commission was a mess. It’s “chaos,” he told the CN&R in late June. “I’ve never in my 11 years on the council seen anything like this.”
It was hard to know what he was talking about. True, the commission had disagreed with the council on occasion, and the presence of two new commissioners—John Merz and Susan Minasian—meant that meetings sometimes dragged on as they learned on the job … but “chaos"? As one Chicoan told the council, it was “much ado about nothing.”
The local daily piled on. The commission’s discussion of the Meriam Park project took so long it was “torture,” the paper whined, conveniently ignoring the fact that Meriam Park was the largest local project in a quarter-century. “The commission has a no-growth bent and tries to find any way it can to deny a project,” the editorialist continued, even though the commission had approved the project.
In fact, the commission approved most of the projects it considered. It was the council that often seemed confused and dysfunctional, on several occasions practicing “planning at the podium” and sending projects back to the commission for tweaking.
The commission was also the first city board to come up with a two-year work plan, as directed by then-City Manager Greg Jones. It went to great lengths to streamline the development process, make it more predictable and dependable for developers, update city zoning codes and otherwise make the process more responsive. Predictably, perhaps, the E-R dinged the commission for taking six months to do the work.
In any event, by year’s end two commissioners, Steve O’Bryan and Kirk Monfort, had resigned, the latter to take a seat on the General Plan Advisory Committee. The council appointed Kathy Barrett, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Tom Hayes, a retired city planner, to fill the terms, which are up in a year.
Meriam Park sails through
Despite the fact that Meriam Park is the largest local development in decades—some 2,300 residences and a commercial core on 272 acres—it had no trouble getting the City Council’s approval June 19.
There were two main reasons for that: It’s just the kind of compact, mixed-use, neighborhood-focused project the city’s general plan calls for, and the firm behind it, New Urban Builders, did a masterful job of selling it to the community.
“This is the future of Chico and a model for the country,” one speaker enthused at the council meeting.
The city bent over backward to accommodate NUB, even creating a new, “parallel” zoning district—"traditional neighborhood development,” or TND—for it (and any future project like it). Helping matters was a field trip to Hercules, a Bay Area town that is building a major TND project, so some councilmembers and city staff could see how the zone works.
Only Councilman Larry Wahl dissented, decrying the project as overly dense. “We’re asked to take what’s normally in 1,700 acres and jam it into 210 acres,” he charged, adding it was “totally out of character for Chico.”
Meriam Park’s success seems to be having a spillover effect. The next major project the council took up was the Mountain Vista/Sycamore Glen subdivision in north Chico, 679 units on 178 acres. Originally designed as a fairly typical suburban development, it had recently been reshaped to reflect the TND zone and style. Councilmembers liked what they saw and approved it.
NUB’s president, Tom DiGiovanni, says infrastructure work should begin by next summer. Because of the slow housing market, the first buildings will be commercial, but he expects housing construction to begin in 2009. As he points out, it’s got a 12-year build-out timeline, which allows for flexibility.
Basketball star leaves
Amber Simmons is a hometown heroine. She grew up in Chico, excelled in sports at Chico High and gave an early commitment to play college basketball at Chico State, a Division II school without the facilities, national TV contracts and full-ride scholarships enjoyed by Division I players.
She drew new fans to Acker Gym and the Wildcats’ athletic program. Humble, understated and unfazed, Simmons was a favorite of her teammates, some of whom played against her previously.
In 2006, her sophomore season, she led Chico State to the national semifinals for the first time and received first-team All-American honors—another school first. She and the team were the toast of the town. With most of her teammates coming back, talk of a national title swirled.
Coach Lynne Roberts dealt the Wildcats a blow by taking the head-coaching job at University of the Pacific (Division I). Brought in to replace her was Molly Goodenbour, a Division I champion at Stanford and a former WNBA player who’d been a successful junior college coach and D-I assistant.
Goodenbour didn’t know much about the players she inherited, but she expected success. Her style is more intense than Roberts', and she didn’t water it down to ease the transition. She went full force.
In early December, she suspended two players, then kicked them off the team. Soon complaints about her—including allegations of intimidation and verbal abuse—began to surface in the media. Standout player Haley Ford quit, but a university investigation cleared Goodenbour, and her team marched through 2007 to the NCAA Tournament.
In the Sweet 16, however, their championship hopes were suddenly squashed. The Wildcats finished with a 24-5 record but also two games short of the Final Four.
True to form, Simmons excelled throughout the season with no comment criticizing the program. Yet a few weeks later, she requested that Chico State release her from her commitment so she could transfer.
Athletic Director Anita Barker set conditions on a release and encouraged her to reconsider. That prompted Simmons’ family to go public. She wouldn’t elaborate on why she wanted to go until the first Sunday in April, when she gave the CN&R an exclusive interview confirming—and expanding—the allegations against Goodenbour.
Ultimately, Chico State gave her the release, but not before forwarding her file to the CSU system’s legal counsel and charging that Roberts had recruited her violating NCAA rules.
Simmons is redshirting this season at Pacific, where another ex-Wildcat, Amy VanHollebeke, made the ‘07-08 starting lineup. Goodenbour’s team, meanwhile, came into Christmas week 7-2 and ranked 12th nationally.
Whose water is it?
With California entering into its second year of drought and scientists predicting long-term declines in rain- and snowfall because of global warming, water is certain to be a top story indefinitely.
Locally in 2007, the focus was on the Lower Tuscan Aquifer, the underground reservoir that is estimated to hold as many as 30 million acre-feet of water—though nobody knows the quantity for sure.
That was part of the reason why, on May 8, after numerous contentious public meetings, Butte County supervisors unanimously voted to sign the Sacramento Valley Integrated Water Management Plan, a controversial agreement with seven other counties. The plan comes with a state funding allocation of $12.5 million that will pay to install several production wells designed to study the aquifer by measuring the impacts of pumping.
To the Butte Environmental Council and others, the deal was a con job, a water grab in the guise of scientific study. To the supervisors, however, a regional compact seemed to offer power in numbers to resist Southern California incursions. The compact does not allow the pumped water to be used to replace surface water sold to south state water districts, they noted.
BEC remained skeptical, and on Sept. 10 it filed a lawsuit against the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District. The district planned to drill some new wells and had argued that the project was exempt from environmental review because it was “research.” Not so, BEC argued, the purpose is to allow the district to expand its role in water marketing.
By year’s end several Southern California water districts were sniffing around locally, looking to buy water. Some area districts are interested, and the county has some 27,000 acre-feet of Lake Oroville water it needs to sell, but there’s a problem: A federal judge has cut water transfers through the Delta by 30 percent to protect endangered fish, so even if the North State wanted to sell water, it’s hard to move it south through the Delta bottleneck.
Besides, local reservoirs are half-empty because of the dry fall, and the Lower Tuscan is showing signs of depletion as well, though a series of mid-December storms no doubt helped the situation.
Some advice on how to end the water wars in Northern California was provided in November, when Carol Patterson, secretary of the Edwards Aquifer Authority in south-central Texas, spoke at a county general-plan meeting on water. A veteran of 25 years of contentious water politics, Patterson said hostilities ended when two things happened: solid, unbiased scientific data was obtained and shared among all stakeholders, and the responsible authorities were made accountable to voters. Fifteen of the 17 members of the EAA board, she said, are elected.
With seemingly everyone owning a cell phone nowadays, sites for more antennas are in demand. Plenty of people don’t want unsightly cell towers installed in parks or near residential areas, which has been the stumbling block for projects at two sites: ball fields at Hooker Oak Recreation Area, and the Chico Elks Lodge.
The council put the kibosh on the tower proposed for the Elks property, voting it down 4-1 at the Sept. 4 meeting. One of the principal reasons cited was it would have been within 500 feet of neighboring residences. The decision was welcome by concerned residents who say the antennas give off “microwave-style” radiation.
The irony is many of the cell-phone antennas already up in Chico are well within 500 feet of houses, some of them as close as 100 feet. That’s because the ordinance requiring a clearance of 500 feet applies only to new towers, not to existing facilities such as the town’s water towers, all of which carry antennas.
Five-hundred feet is “the guideline I’ve been given,” Councilwoman Mary Flynn said at the meeting. “I haven’t been here to consider any of these other sites, and I’m going to take responsibility for this one and vote no.”
The councilmembers also cited the fact that they had already approved the installation of antennas on top of light poles in the Hooker Oak area of Bidwell Park back in November 2006. However, the Hooker Oak installment was held up in litigation until just a few weeks ago, when a settlement was reached.