Validated argument

Tensions rise over CSM after City Council talks arts funding, appoints new fire chief

What had been a fast-moving and drama-free Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 16) got tense right before the panel went into closed session.

Earlier that day, Butte County Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger made a major decision in the ongoing saga of Chico Scrap Metal—a final ruling that validated the citizens group Move the Junkyard’s referendum challenging the council-adopted Ordinance 2490. The ordinance was created to allow the controversial recycling business to stay at its East 20th Street location in perpetuity despite a long-planned amortization process (see “The scrap continues,” Newslines, page 9).

During the business from the floor period, a few members of the public spoke in support of Mosbarger’s ruling and urged the city to rescind its ordinance or allow the voters of Chico to have the final say by placing the issue on an upcoming ballot.

“Either rescind the action that would allow the junkyard to remain where it is or allow us, the citizens—9,000 citizens signed that referendum—to vote on the issue,” said Grace Marvin.

Ory, a founding member of Move the Junkyard, said he wouldn’t participate in the closed session and made an emotional statement about being a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the city he’d been elected to serve.

“If I was in closed session, I’d ask how much this lawsuit has cost the city and how much more is being requested. I’d ask if the city has been unnecessarily exposed to damages by arguing in favor of [Chico Scrap Metal].” He then requested city staff to live-stream the closed session for the sake of transparency.

“OK. You finished?” asked Mayor Sean Morgan. Ory didn’t reply, but Morgan appeared to goad him with a head gesture between a nod and a shake, which Ory returned with a sneer.

“OK. Thank you for that,” Morgan said, and recessed the meeting to closed session to discuss the pending litigation. Following closed session, City Attorney Vince Ewing announced that the council had voted 4-2, with Ory absent, to appeal Mosbarger’s ruling. Councilmembers Ann Schwab and Randall Stone voted “nay.”

Prior to that exchange, at Councilman Andrew Coolidge’s request, the council discussed increasing funding for the city’s arts organizations and public art projects.

Last month, the city’s Arts Commission submitted a letter urging the council to boost such funding and to tweak its approach to dispersing money through the Community Grant Program.

Through the program, which is overseen by the North Valley Community Foundation, the city matches a percentage of funds raised by selected nonprofit groups. Last year, participating organizations raised more than $174,000, and the city of Chico contributed about $53,000, according to the CN&R’s archives. Along with a handful of social service providers, two arts organizations—the Museum of Northern California Art and Slow Theatre—received the maximum contribution of $5,319.

Stephen Cummins, chair of the Arts Commission, told the council that the system puts arts organizations in direct competition with nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club.

“It seems like it would be more beneficial to the arts—and possibly social services—if they were managed as two separate pots,” he said.

Coolidge made a motion to direct city staff to look at restructuring the Community Grant Program and form an ad-hoc committee to study how to direct more money toward the city’s “cultural infrastructure.” His motion passed with a unanimous vote.

The five-member panel will include two council members—Coolidge and Ann Schwab—as well as two arts commissioners and a member of the public.

The council also voted unanimously to confirm incoming Fire Chief Steven Standridge, who was hired following a national search and a rigorous vetting process, according to City Manager Mark Orme.

“This department has seen much turnover in the chief’s position over the last several years,” Orme said. “That needs to be remedied. … We came up with some amazing candidates that came through, and we had a community panel and a professional panel that grinded these candidates down to the nub. I’m proud to tell you that Chief Standridge is the right person to move our city’s fire department forward.”

Standridge will come to Chico by way of Colorado and will step in for Interim Fire Chief Aaron Lowe, who had held down the department’s top spot since former Fire Chief Bill Hack resigned last summer. Standridge’s annual salary is $150,000 and his first day at Fire Station 1 is Jan. 24.

And finally, the City Council chambers will be closed at least through the first week of March. The space is set to undergo major technology upgrades and renovations, and all city-related meetings will be held in the Old Municipal Building (441 Main St.) until they are completed.