What were they thinking?

An arm-chair quarterback’s look at some of the year’s more interesting developments and decisions

Taking bold chances and making risky decisions is often what sets leaders apart from followers and cuts true genius from the cloth of the masses. On the other hand, sometimes those choices aren’t so great, and with the passage of a few months wiseacres like us can dance around and gleefully point our poisoned pens at the guilty. For instance …

Tanks a lot
Despite that fact that the presence of an underground oil tank at Chico State’s corporation yard had been rumored for decades, the university waited until contractors were about to dig into the ground as part of a technology project to investigate. Sure enough, a 32-foot-long behemoth was uncovered, and then covered back up to be removed later. A test of the surrounding soil found no carcinogenic polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs), but workers are still worried about potential diesel and other contamination on the site.

Oh, wait … we don’t need those fairy shrimp
Months of public meetings and staff time went down the drain in August when the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to override its Sacramento-based staff’s decision to add another layer of protection for 11 vernal pool plants and four fairy shrimp species, setting aside 1.7 million acres, including 69,000 in Butte, which would have mapped out already-existing development restrictions.

The only thing that had changed was the administration in Washington, which determined that dealing with the critical habitat designation would cost businesses too much. The Butte Environmental Council quickly rebounded with a lawsuit against the federal government.

Who needs basic government services?
The vehicle license fee increase. We rallied en masse against it, claiming it to be the worst act of government since Prohibition. Everybody got on the anti-VLF bandwagon, including the man who would become governor and who promised to and did rescind the increase. Never mind that the tax was merely being returned to its pre-1998 rate, having been lowered because the darn state economy was doing so swell at the time.

Local governments, which rely on the tax to pay for such things as fire and police protection, warned at the time that the revenue had better be backfilled or bad things could happen. And it was backfilled for a while because the darn state economy continued to do so swell.

But then, when the economy began to sputter, cough and choke, the full tax was reinstated. We pointed fingers at the unpopular governor and it was all his fault. In a press release Assemblyman Rick Keene, R-Chico, went to bat for the poor and pointed out how the less fortunate would be especially hard hit by the tax increase. But if you did the math on the figures provided by Keene, you’d learn that that poor family had just purchased a $45,000 vehicle. Still, a new governor was elected, the tax was lowered and local governments had to be bailed out at the last second by an emergency declaration. Welcome to the new economy—hey, that’s a nice new car you got there. Hope it doesn’t get stolen or catch on fire.

Photo by: Tom Angel
Palms down, luau rages
On a Saturday night in early September, seven members of a Gamma Phi Beta sorority, hoping to lend a touch of authenticity to their big luau planned for the next day, hacked off the fronds from as many as a dozen palm trees on private property. The fronds don’t grow back. The palms that suffered the sisters’ attack included those in front of the Body Shop health club, St. John’s Catholic Church, the old Sin of Cortez building on Nord Avenue and the Matador Hotel on The Esplanade.

The seven sisters who admitted to the late-night harvest faced possible charges of felony vandalism, at least until none of the victims filed a complaint. Instead the young women found themselves helping to replant trees as part of the Butte Creek restoration project.

Train kept a-rollin’
At the beginning of the year, Union Pacific Railroad raised the speed limit on its trains that run through Chico, meaning that in less than four years the limit increased from 25 mph to 70. And this in a city notorious in the minds of train engineers for objects laying across the tracks, including inebriated people.

Photo by: Tom Angel

At a March City Council meeting held nearly four months after the limit was increased, UPRR officials told the council the increase was needed if trains were to continue to compete with the trucking industry and carry America’s goods to where they needed to go. The council learned it had absolutely no say in the matter, and since the company operates under the protection of the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, the state has no jurisdiction over the trains, either. Even the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has limited powers when dealing with train companies.

It would take an act of Congress, the council was told, to even hope to slow down the speeding locomotives. But the mental image of Rep. Wally Herger serving as Chico’s Superman elicited a collective and spontaneous chuckle from both the council dais and the audience that night. Mike Fedora, a deputy regional administrator for the FRA, more or less shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the councilmembers with open palms to indicate the matter was out of his agency’s hands. “We don’t tell the railroads how to run their business,” he offered as an explanation.

There were at least two pedestrian deaths on the tracks in the Chico area this year.

Here, I’ll take care of it
County Emergency Services Officer Mike Madden likely made a career-killing mistake when he allegedly ignored protocol and accepted, transported and ordered the detonation of a box of highly lethal sodium cyanide. According to county prosecutors, Madden tried to sidestep procedure and ensure immunity for a ham radio buddy, who told Madden he had some hazardous material, though he apparently didn’t know exactly what it was or how much he had. Madden, who should have known better, left the old-timer’s box of cyanide by Highway 70 and told the bomb squad to blow it up. Madden even went so far as to intimate to officers on the scene that the box was being sought by “the wrong people.”

Madden now faces six misdemeanor counts for lying to cops, illegally transporting hazardous material and withholding information. If convicted, he could spend four years in jail.

DA’s T&A bust DOA
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey must have been thinking with something other than his brain when he decided to prosecute a bunch of strippers from the now-closed First Amendment Gentleman’s Club for prostitution. First he failed to get a pandering conviction against the club’s owner. Then he insisted of charging nine strippers with prostitution under the strictest imaginable definition of the law—any “lewd act” performed for money.

The lewd acts generally amounted to allegations of strippers using their ta-tas to take money from the mouths of men in the front row. The strippers claimed in court that they never actually made any face-to-boob contact, and what’s more, an undercover sheriff’s deputy admitted that he, for “tactical” reasons, entered a private room with a club employee named “Mercedes” whom he paid $50 for her to remove her top and mount him while he lay on a mattress. Defense attorneys used the admission to question the prosecution’s case and called the raid “botched.”

One of the strippers was acquitted; one was dismissed; two took plea bargains and admitted to indecent exposure and five more are yet to be tried. The strip club manager is now facing probation violation for leaving the state without permission to go on the Jerry Springer television show.