What’s at stake with Measure A?

Both sides agree it could change Chico City Council elections dramatically

Photo illustration By Ty gorton

We know what Measure A will do if Chico voters approve it on June 7: It will switch City Council contests from the general election in November to the primary election in June. But what’s really at stake? Why have advocates put up more than $100,000 for and against it?

Depending on which side of the issue you stand, Measure A is either an effort to shine a light on local City Council elections by removing them from the distractions of the general election, or a way to unseat the current progressive council majority by holding the vote when most college students are gone and more conservatives than liberals vote.

But it’s more complex than that, of course. To understand what it really means, you need to know its history.

The genesis of Measure A was in July 2009, when a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Chico conducted an unscientific—and highly controversial—survey by mailing a questionnaire to 6,000 Chico-area residents. Of those, 870 were filled out and returned.

In October 2009 a leader of the group, businesswoman Karen Zinniel, gave the City Council a PowerPoint presentation on the results of the survey.

Included in the survey questions was this one: “Should only permanent residents be able to vote on issues facing the city?” A resounding 76.8 percent of the respondents said yes, 12.6 percent said no, and 5.1 percent had no opinion.

The next question asked: “Should the City Council elections be held in June rather than November?” Here the answer was murkier, with 40.8 percent saying yes, 36.9 having no opinion and 22 percent saying no.

The survey was sent to those 18 and older, but responses were collected only from those 24 and older. Because it went out in July, few college students were consulted.

When Zinniel’s presentation was over and the public was allowed to speak, the first person to do so was Ann Marie Robinson. She told the council that even though she had lived in Chico 21 years, she was not able to vote in a Chico election until 2008, when the city annexed her neighborhood.

“I am a homeowner and a taxpayer,” she said. “Students are transients but allowed to vote. It’s time to do something about this. Move the election from November to June.” Many in the audience greeted her statement with applause.

The survey results were posted on a website, along with two letters. One was from Mike Pelsk, owner of North State Auto Parts Inc. “I would love to see the elections held when the college students could not affect the outcome. A city council made of people who know what a budget means and who could live within their means would be great.”

Another came from William W. Keen of Chico: “The many thousands of college students in Chico have little, none or at best only temporary interest in Chico—and should not be allowed to vote city issues. By catering to students, our council members can win election to office and, with student support, decide long lasting issues for Chico … A big YES on moving the council election to June!”

Zinniel posted this message: “Chico’s Political Machine is broken down. Oiling and greasing the whiny/creaky/noisy joints and tightening the loose nuts, bolts and wheels just won’t cut it anymore. Parts need to be replaced to get this machine safely back on the road and on the way to recovery … ASAP! Thank goodness 2010 is just around the corner and three of the broken parts can be replaced.”

Those three broken parts, it’s assumed, were the three liberal council members whose terms were up: Mary Flynn, Scott Gruendl and Tom Nickell. As it turned out, Nickell chose not to run again and Flynn and Gruendl were re-elected, along with conservative Mark Sorensen. That gave liberals a 5-2 majority on the council.

One of the two conservatives, however, was Larry Wahl, who in June had successfully challenged long-time county Supervisor Jane Dolan for her job. He left the council in December; after a contentious replacement process, another conservative, Bob Evans, was chosen to replace Wahl.

Still, the progressive council majority had held, 5-2. By then, however, the effort to place Measure A on the ballot had been launched.

“Just walking around and talking with people, you find out they don’t know who is running, and you’re gonna have an election? That doesn’t make any sense.” —Stephanie Taber

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Spearheading it is Stephanie Taber, who in the last few years has become a regular attendee at council meetings, often criticizing the council for what she believes is reckless spending that benefits the few.

Taber is not only the organizer of the campaign to put the measure on the ballot, she is also the lone signatory to the arguments and rebuttals supporting it on the sample ballot.

The qualification drive easily gained the necessary 8,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify the measure, though not without controversy. Opponents complained that signature gatherers pitched the measure as an opportunity to “make City Council elections fair,” a debatable result.

More recently, critics have pointed to the $31,500 local business owner Thomas Dauterman paid to a Hollywood, Fla., company that ran the signature-gathering campaign.

The other major financial backer of Measure A is the Butte Taxpayer Association, which describes itself as “Educating the citizens of Butte County on issues of government spending and local government actions.” The association has dumped $49,990 into the campaign to pay for direct mailers.

The No on Measure A campaign has been financed by local longtime political activist Kelly Meagher, who put $25,000 into the effort. That money has gone to billboards, yard signs and staff salary.

Taber worked for the losing 2010 campaign of council candidate Bob Kromer and walked precincts for Larry Wahl’s campaign for supervisor. She now serves as a paid assistant to Wahl, working in his district office on Nord Avenue.

A few weeks back, when Taber was approached in the office and asked for an interview, she politely said she couldn’t do it on county time and agreed to meet after work at the Thursday Night Market, where she was manning a pro-Measure A booth.

Nevertheless, Measure A opponents have accused Taber of running the Measure A campaign out of that office, a possible conflict of interest. They point to a series of e-mails sent to Chico City Clerk Deborah Presson showing that Taber used her Butte County e-mail account to resolve issues related to Measure A.

And recently a hand-written sign on a side door of Wahl’s taxpayer-financed office read: “Measure A yard signs here.”

Just this week, when asked about accusations that she is using Wahl’s office to run the Yes on Measure A campaign, Taber said, “Well, anybody and say anything, can't they? But you know what? You’re on my company’s dime right now.”

She said she wouldn’t be able to discuss the matter until later in the evening because she was taking her dog to the groomer during lunch.

“I guess you’ll have to catch me at home tonight sometime after 8,” she said. When that call was made, however, nobody answered.

In person, Taber is a petite woman with a warm smile, pale blue eyes and a grandmotherly air about her. This is quite a contrast from the gadfly who angrily chides the City Council on a regular basis. She is an unabashed conservative and member of the local Tea Party Patriots who says that her boss, Wahl, who for years was the most conservative member of the council, is more moderate politically than she is.

Taber was born and raised in Cleveland and lived for a time in Chicago before moving to Chico in 2000 with her husband, who had suffered a stroke. He died in 2007.

“This was the prettiest place I could find that was reasonably priced that is still close to my grandchildren, who live in San Ramon with my daughter,” she explained.

While she hasn’t always been politically active, she said she has worked for city government. According to a résumé she gave to the city of Chico when the council was looking to replace Wahl, Taber worked as a purchasing/operations manager for the village of Schaumburg, Ill. This would explain her keeping a close eye on how the Chico City Council spends money.

She said that, for the first seven years she lived in Chico, she spent most of her time tending to her ailing husband. After he died she started paying more attention to local government and soon became a regular at the council meetings.

“I started to attend City Council meetings because there were some things about financing that struck me, and they were things that didn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “So I started to go to the Finance Committee meetings, and I started going to the City Council meetings, and I’ve attended some of the Sustainability [Task Force] meetings and others.

“By attending City Council meetings I was more in tune with Larry Wahl than I was with anybody else on the council. Larry’s a little more moderate than I am, but I love him. And then all of a sudden we were starting the campaign for new City Council members. I had met Mr. Kromer, and he’s a really smart guy, really fast on the uptake, and he has a really great sense of humor, and so we just clicked. And he asked me to be his treasurer, and I said, ‘Yay!’ ”

She said the idea to move the council elections came from walking precincts for Kromer and Wahl.

“We found out that a lot of people didn’t even know who was running. That bothered me. I mean, you’d walk up to somebody—and we’d been campaigning for how many months already?—and you’d ask them, ‘Who are you gonna vote for,’ and they didn’t even know the names of the candidates. So it was obvious to me that we were missing something, and that is we’re not talking about local issues at a time when people can hear what we’re saying.

“So that kind of started it. We have county elections in June, so it just seemed like a natural thing to do. If we combine the two we’re in better shape, I think.”

If the City Council didn’t have a liberal majority, would she still be doing this?

“I think I would do it anyway,” Taber replied. “Just walking around and talking with people, you find out they don’t know who is running, and you’re gonna have an election? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“If there is nobody voting in June, how is it more accountability with fewer voters?” —Jessica Allen

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

The No on Measure A campaign is run by Jessica Allen out of the Chico Conservation Voters headquarters located above Duffy’s Tavern at Fourth and Main streets. The group is headed by Meagher and former Councilman David Guzzetti.

Allen, who’s lived in Chico since 1997, said she first got into local politics when the City Council adopted a disorderly-events ordinance back in 2007. That ordinance, which was designed to help police deal with large parties and gatherings, also banned slam dancing and stage diving. Local promoters caught wind of the law and cried foul, as did civil-rights activists, including Allen. Eventually the law was rewritten.

Last year Allen worked locally to help defeat Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state’s greenhouse-gas-reduction law.

The first thing you notice about Allen is her thick hair tumbling over her shoulders. Until recently that hair was in the form of four-foot-long dreadlocks.

The second thing you notice is Allen’s intense energy when talking about the subject at hand. She speaks in winding, spirited sentences that give no space for pause.

“I’m against Measure A because not only is it undemocratic, but it is an undemocratic process that has gotten us here,” she said. “The initiative process is being abused not only here in Chico, but also in the state.”

She points to Prop. 23 last November and Proposition 16 last June. Prop. 16, which lost, would have made it illegal for cities to form municipal-power companies without gaining a two-thirds vote. It was funded by Pacific Gas & Electric.

“The initiative process is the way for people to redress their government for change,” Allen said. “However, now it is being used more by people who would like to change the government through the use of money and manipulation of voters.”

The pro-A people say Measure A is for accountability. Allen doesn’t buy that.

“If there is nobody voting in June, how is it more accountability with fewer voters? If people want to vote for [Measure A] and then nobody wants to vote for City Council in June, then the people will get what they deserve.

“More conservatives vote in June,” Allen said. “A lot of these people are retired, and they probably don’t go anywhere in the summer, so they have a lot of time to sit around and write letters and lobby for things.”

She did give the Measure A supporters some kudos.

“These people are being very honest,” she said. “They think more conservatives should be elected to the City Council. They’re unhappy that they don’t have a majority on the City Council, and they look at Measure A as a way to get that majority.”

She said her job is basically to let people know there is a special election coming up next month.

“We also have to make sure they are aware of exactly what the ramifications of the ballot measure are,” she said. “We have to make sure they have the facts and not a bunch of lies in front of them about the effects of it, such as the cost.”

This sign, reading “Measure A yard signs here,” was posted on the side of county Supervisor Larry Wahl’s office, where Stephanie Taber works.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Numbers show that more people vote in November than in June. In 2008, 80.9 percent of Butte County’s registered voters cast ballots in the November election, compared to only 36.7 percent in June. Of course that was a presidential election year.

Last year 67 percent voted in November, while 45 percent voted in June.

Taber says the anti-A folks’ argument about voter turnout is misleading.

“They’ve been talking about how many more people vote in November than vote in June, but what they are not saying is how many people who go to the polls to vote in November don’t vote for anybody on the City Council. There are thousands of people who don’t vote because they don’t know the candidates.

“We don’t think that they’ve heard about Chico issues, and we want to be able to talk about Chico issues. We want to be able to talk about the things that concern people: our police force, our fire department and our infrastructure. We aren’t happy.”

The anti-A camp also points to the cost of the special election—$151,000, and if it passes it will cost $73,000 more every primary election than it would in November. November elections are cheaper because there are more contests to spread the cost.

“Proponents of the measure claim the ideology is pretty conservative,” said Bob Linscheid, a local businessman who, along with Mayor Ann Schwab, Councilmen Jim Walker and Scott Gruendl and Realtor Peter Tichinin, signed the official ballot argument against Measure A. “But why would a conservative group of people want to pay the equivalent of a couple of cops’ salaries just to move an election date?”

Taber argues the cost of the election is a moot point.

“It really makes me mad,” she said. “Elections are based on sales tax, property tax, whatever it happens to be. … It is up to the city to budget appropriately for all the things we need. So it is not costing any more money. You’re not going to pay more sales tax. You’re not going to pay any more property tax.

“What we are saying is there were 8,000 people that wanted to move this election, that’s why they signed the petition. And they want to move it. We’re gonna move it, because that’s what they want.”

The No on A folks aren’t so sure.

“We are talking to people. We are going door to door,” Allen said. “We are phone banking and calling people up until the election and just urging people to look into the matter more. We are not doing it in a partisan way, but trying to bring more information to people and encourage them to vote. I think if people vote, Measure A will not pass.”