What were they thinking?

A look at the more bizarre happenings of 2011

Every year stories appear in the news that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how the events they describe could have happened and asking ourselves: What in the world were they thinking? Here are some of them from 2011.

Harold Camping’s Rapture came and went.

CN&R file photo

The end is …er, was near

In the spring, billboards around town began featuring apocalyptic warnings that “Judgment Day is coming!” The day of this onset of the Rapture was May 21, the signs stated. Christians then would be gathered in the air to meet Christ. Five months later, on Oct. 21, God would destroy the Earth and the universe.

The man behind the billboards—and 2,000 like them around the country—was an 89-year-old fundamentalist and radio and TV host from Oakland named Harold Camping, owner of a chain of religious stations called Family Radio that includes KHAP in Chico.

This was the third time Camping predicted the Apocalypse. When the Rapture didn’t begin as prophesied, Camping insisted it would happen on Oct. 21. He’s since stated he doesn’t think anyone can know when the world will end. But, c’mon, Harold, everyone knows that—just as the Mayans predicted—that this is the year we all will perish: Dec. 21, 2012. And if that date too passes, we can just redo the math several more times.

Herger votes to privatize Medicare

Rep. Wally Herger took a lot of flak from constituents a few years ago when he supported President George W. Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security, but then he’s always been a party-line guy.

That was evident again this summer, when he joined fellow Republicans in the House in voting for the budget plan being advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Included was a provision to privatize Medicare.

Herger represents a lot of seniors, and they like their Medicare just the way it is, thank you. It’s little wonder Herger’s made few public appearances since then. He knows what it’s like to have a bunch of angry old-timers yelling in his face.

Don Bird: Take that, Nielsen!

Photo by Howard Hardee

The word on Bird

Rancho-Tehama activist Don Bird has long been a thorn in the side of state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, continually accusing the politician of fraud and threatening citizen’s arrest on the basis that he has lied about his claimed residence inside Assembly District 2. After years of futility, Bird was prepared to drop his pursuit, but Nielsen breathed life into the cause in early September when he filed a restraining order that claimed the 76-year old gadfly was “stalking” him.

The ensuing court hearings and local media buzz gave Bird exactly what he wanted—a platform to publicly argue his case. While Bird was ordered to stay clear of Nielsen following a Tehama County Superior Court hearing on Oct. 21, the ordeal made for bad publicity, prompting Bird and his attorney to declare victory.

City Council’s about-face

Over the summer, after months of deliberation and staff time spent working up an ordinance allowing two medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits—we won’t get into the silliness of the ordinance itself—the City Council called for a “do-over.”

A letter from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner addressed to Mayor Ann Schwab, threatening federal prosecution if the city passed the ordinance, successfully scared the council into repealing it—just two weeks after giving it the green light in the first place. Despite level-headed discussion from Councilman Andy Holcombe (also a lawyer), who said, “I don’t understand how a conspiracy charge could be held up,” in the end, the council cowered, its tail between its legs.

Campaign conflicts on Wahl’s watch

In January, shortly after Larry Wahl took his seat as the District 2 county supervisor, he hired Stephanie Taber to be his executive assistant. Taber was an activist in the Chico Tea Party group and also the driving force behind Measure A, a local initiative that would have changed City Council elections from November to June (see our “Top 10 in 2011” feature for more on Measure A).

It wasn’t long before opponents of Measure A noticed that Taber’s county duties and her campaigning were starting to overlap. For one thing, she was distributing yard signs on county time out of a storage room next door to the office. She was also sending out campaign-related emails using county computers.

Taber was a political neophyte and can be excused for not understanding she was crossing the line, but Wahl was a veteran politico—and one who once was fined $12,000 for violations of the state’s Political Reform Act. He should have seen the danger in having a campaign organizer working in his taxpayer-financed office.

Peeping Robert

Late last year, hidden cameras found in Panamas Bar & Café and the University Bar restrooms prompted a criminal investigation into the businesses’ owner, Robert Mowry. He claimed the devices were set up only to catch vandals, but the fact that they’d been installed more than five years ago and he’d not filed charges against anyone caught on tape were awfully suspicious. In March, he was charged with several counts of misdemeanor disorderly conduct and, after pleading not guilty, a trial was set for November.

For reasons unknown, Mowry decided to switch his plea at the last minute, avoiding a jury trial and lessening the charges. He was slapped with a day in jail, three years’ probation, 200 hours of community service and a fine. Perhaps the harsher sentence is that he’ll always be known as that guy who installed video cameras in his bar bathrooms.

The tone-deaf trustees

When the trustees of the California State University system met on July 12, they approved a student-tuition hike for the third time this year—an increase of $498 annually to take effect in the 2012-13 school year.

It was bad enough that tuition was going up yet again, but the trustees really rubbed it in when, at the same meeting, they approved a salary increase of $100,000 for the new president of San Diego State.

ChicoBag vs. Big Plastic

Early in 2011, three major plastic-bag manufacturers—Hilex Poly Co., Superbag Co. and Advance Polybag Inc.—filed a lawsuit against ChicoBag Co., arguing that the reusable bag maker falsely advertised against their products and therefore was competing unfairly. The lawsuit, which alleged that ChicoBag had irreparably harmed the three companies’ business, also requested damages be paid.

The false-advertising claim was linked to information posted on ChicoBag’s website about the environmental dangers associated with plastic bags. As soon as the facts were called into question, CEO Andy Keller took them down. He strives for accuracy, he said.

By September, after two of the plastic-bag companies backed out of the suit, ChicoBag and the remaining plaintiff, Hilex Poly, settled. If it hadn’t been a major money- and time-waster, the lawsuit would have been funny—isn’t irreparably harming the plastic-bag industry what ChicoBag is all about?

Paula Carr learns the difference between borrowing and stealing.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Scandal in Orland

Paula Carr made big news by becoming Orland’s first female police chief back in early 2010. A year and a half later she made big news again when she was accused of taking money from a police fund to make a personal purchase.

Carr never intended to steal. In fact, she repaid the fund within a day of using the cash to buy a horse (Carr borrowed the $1,300 to have someone bid on a horse during an auction taking place at the same time as a fundraiser she was attending). Still, it was a costly mistake. After an investigation the local district attorney decided not to pursue charges against her, allowing her to retain her post. But Carr’s staff at the police department was less forgiving. In September she resigned from her post.

Garden, be gone!

It’s the sort of thing one might expect from a much less enlightened community than sustainability-savvy Chico: School district authorities facilitating the destruction of a large, thriving, school vegetable garden, with little or no notice to affected parties, and installing a private-sector business in its place.

Yet that is exactly what happened at Parkview Elementary School this past summer, when Parkview after-school gardening instructor Karen Altier discovered, almost by accident, that the veggie-and-flower garden she and students had been working in for 10 years was to be torn out in favor of installing a play area for the incoming Super Luper Kids preschool.

School-district officials acknowledged the decision was “rushed,” while Altier and neighbors lamented the loss of the beautiful garden that used to grace the front of the school.