Wahl drops a bomb

Conservative councilman is lone dissenter at State of the City love-in

FORWARD OR BACKWARD?<br> Chico City Manager Greg Jones had a mostly positive assessment of the future of Chico, but Councilman Larry Wahl (behind Jones) was more interested in pointing out the mistakes of the past.

Chico City Manager Greg Jones had a mostly positive assessment of the future of Chico, but Councilman Larry Wahl (behind Jones) was more interested in pointing out the mistakes of the past.

Photo By Robert Speer

What do you think?
The city of Chico wants to know how residents feel about its customer service. To that end, it has put a short survey on its Web site (www.chico.ca.us) that attempts to gauge how well it’s doing.

What shape is Chico’s city government in?

In the minds of the first seven speakers at the State of the City forum held last Friday (Jan. 12), including City Manager Greg Jones and six of the seven members of the City Council, it’s making significant strides forward, dealing with challenges in a positive way and planning for the future. Their talks were upbeat and often ebullient.

Then City Councilman Larry Wahl rose to speak—and the former Navy fighter pilot dropped a cold-water bomb all over the love-in. Offering a laundry list of criticisms, he took the council to task for being wasteful, foolish and hostile to business. Like him or not, you had to give the guy credit for moxie.

Until then, the annual morning event, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce at the CARD Center, had been a parade of paeans to Chico’s quality of life and calls for making it even better.

Jones started it off by detailing how he responded to one of the biggest challenges of 2006, the loss of several highly experienced managers to retirement. He reorganized the monolithic Community Services Department into four smaller, leaner departments and hired “quality staff” as managers. He’d also created five internal task forces to tackle such issues as “mission and values,” “outcome budgeting” and “customer service.”

The city also had focused anew on fostering economic vitality in Chico, developing long-range (10-year) budgeting plans, and meeting a variety of public-safety and infrastructure needs.

Chico is a town transitioning into a city, Jones said, so naturally it’s seeing an increase in urban problems. One response has been to create a full-time graffiti abatement program, he said.

In addition, the city is taking a more collaborative approach with neighborhoods by creating neighborhood service programs and beginning neighborhood planning, as occurred in November, when it held a planning charrette with residents of the Avenues neighborhood. This collaborative approach will continue when the city begins to update its general plan later this year, Jones said.

Finally, Jones sounded a lone negative note when he pointed out that 10-year budgeting has shown that, long-range, the city faces some tough financial decisions. Even here, though, he was optimistic. There are “some structural deficit issues that we need to deal with,” he said, “and I know we will.”

Overall, the city has a “commitment to effectiveness,” Jones said, “so we can say we’re going the best job we can with the resources we have.”

Because councilmembers spoke in alphabetical order, Steve Bertagna went next. Noting he was in his 11th year on the council, he spoke of the “completely different style” Jones was bringing to city management. “It’s amazing the level of professionalism Greg has brought to this job,” he effused.

Bertagna focused on the need for a new police facility, saying the current 17,000-square-foot building is entirely inadequate and pledging to work to build a new, 80,000-square-foot building “in the next few years.”

Mary Flynn, a newcomer to the council, noted she’d already “been to more meetings than I can count,” and the one thing she’d heard “over and over was this love for Chico that we all have.” Saying she was fortunate to live in the Avenues neighborhood, she said she was committed to bringing its quality of life into new Chico neighborhoods. (Can anyone say “Meriam Park"?)

Scott Gruendl, who during his term as mayor initiated the Mayor’s Business Advisory Council, stressed the importance of the partnership between the city and business community in fostering economic growth. He noted that the city’s new economic-development manager, Martha Westcoat-Andes, was “working hard with business and education to create a vision and strategy.”

Mayor Andy Holcombe spoke about the “sense of place” Chicoans feel. “We all know intuitively that we have something special here,” he said, “and we need to have the good sense, the common sense to keep it, not lose it.”

Key to that, he said, will be the kind of long-range budgeting Jones has implemented and the upcoming general plan update.

Tom Nickell, a Highway Patrol officer when not wearing his councilmember hat, spoke of the need for more traffic officers and said he would seek out grants to pay for them. He also called for more park-n-rides, ride sharing and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets.

Perhaps most controversial was his call for entertaining the idea of installing red-light cameras at certain intersections as deterrents, an idea the council has nixed once.

Vice Mayor Ann Schwab made a series of proposals to preserve what she called “the heart of Chico,” including more neighborhood parks, additional resources for Bidwell Park maintenance, a stronger city tree ordinance, putting any change in the Greenline to a vote, and establishment of a “Goldline” to protect the foothills from development.

She also iterated the steps she intends to take as chairwoman of the new Sustainability Task Force, which the council created “to ensure the heart of Chico continues to beat strong for this generation and those that follow.”

Then it was Larry Wahl’s turn.

It’s fair to say Wahl is not pleased with the direction the council is taking, and Friday’s forum was a chance for him to say so before a sympathetic audience. Where the others looked forward, into the mist of the future, Wahl looked back, recycling a number of the complaints raised by the (losing) conservative slate before the Nov. 7 election.

He offered what he saw as a litany of errors that make Chico less business- and job-friendly: the Comanche Creek purchase, $1.5 million for 14 acres “that we don’t know what to do with"; increased development fees; a “flip-flop” on the Oak Valley subdivision against counsel’s advice that led to an expensive lawsuit; putting up $250,000 for venture capital, something best left to entrepreneurs; a downtown parking structure “halted by a few vocal special-interest groups"; and so forth.

Oh, and the vaunted Sustainability Task Force—that, too, is “better left to the private sector.”

Then he challenged the council to take steps to make the city more business-friendly, by: filling the city’s budget reserve account; hiring more cops; fixing the roads; and streamlining the planning and permit process.

Get involved, he told the businesspeople in the audience. “I ask you, I beg you, I plead with you” to make Chico business-, job- and employee-friendly.

He got the heartiest applause of the day.