Who to watch in 2003

These people are destined to have an impact in the year ahead

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Every year at this time, the News & Review takes a look at what’s going on in the community with an eye to anticipating who the movers and shakers will be in the coming year—the people who will be in the news or, at least, exerting significant influence behind the scenes.

This year’s list is especially interesting, in part because of the changes on the Chico City Council and in such important offices as the Chico police chief and the county sheriff. But, as you’ll read, there are others on the list whose contributions will be less immediately visible but very important, we believe—people such as DNA, who now that he’s made a down payment on the Senator Theatre (with help from the city) must lead the effort to make the downtown arts center work, or Maureen Pierce, who is working to build up the Boys and Girls Club’s downtown facility for kids.

We look forward to watching their work during the coming year, and hope you enjoy our profiles of them.

Top cop
Who will sit in the Chico chief’s chair?

The field in the search for a new Chico chief of police has been narrowed from six to three: Capt. Mike Maloney, who is currently serving as interim chief; Capt. Gary Hampton of the Tracy Police Department; and Bruce Hagerty, former Los Angeles cop and current chief of the Ridgecrest Police Department in Kern County.

According to sources within the city, all three candidates are still in the running, but Hampton may be the frontrunner at this point. Conventional wisdom holds that Maloney would have been named by now if he were the person for the job. Maloney is a sentimental favorite because he is local and a cancer survivor.

Hagerty’s past with the LAPD, the CN&R has heard, makes some folks nervous, though we’ve also heard he’d be City Manager Tom Lando’s choice. On the other hand, Assistant City Manager Trish Dunlap, we hear, is leaning toward Hampton. Lando makes the decision, which is then approved by the Chico City Council. (For more on these candidates, see Newslines , page 9.)

The city is gathering more background on Hampton and Hagerty, and an announcement is expected the second week of February.

Whoever the chief is, he’ll have a big job to do. Chico’s department is in fundamentally sound shape, but morale hasn’t been good during the three-year tenure of outgoing Chief Mike Efford. And the new chief, like other department heads, will have to deal with a constrained city budget because of the likelihood that the state will cut back on funding to alleviate its horrendous shortfall.

The first year on the job is always the most important one for a new chief of police, and we’ll all be closely watching whoever’s chosen during the coming months.

Maureen Kirk

Photo By Tom Angel

The catbird seat
Maureen Kirk has a rare opportunity as mayor

The mayoralty of Chico is ordinarily a figurehead and ceremonial job. But every now and then the City Council lines up in a way that gives the mayor much more authority than usual. Such is the situation facing Chico’s new mayor, Maureen Kirk.

For the past quarter-century, two principal groups have vied for control of the council: a loose coalition of so-called “progressives” organized around environmental and social-justice issues and allied with the Democratic and Green parties, and a “conservative” group organized around business and development interests and allied with the Republican Party.

Control of the council has bounced back and forth between the groups, with the conservatives holding power by a slim majority, 4-3, for the past eight years. All that changed in November, when Scott Gruendl, a liberal, was elected to fill the spot vacated by the ideological leader of the conservative faction, Rick Keene, who moved on to the state Assembly.

That left the council split 3-3 between the groups and with the one unaligned moderate, Kirk, as mayor. For the first time in a long time, Chico has a balanced council, one that reflects its residents’ shared recognition that, one, the town is going to continue growing and, two, the council’s job is to enable it to grow in the best way possible.

Kirk is in the catbird seat. Not only will she run the council meetings and set their agendas, she’s also destined to be the swing vote on virtually every controversial issue, giving her an almost unprecedented ability to direct the council.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer person. A dental hygienist by profession, a wife and mother in her private life, Kirk is a gregarious woman who seems to love serving on the council. She is able to disagree without disliking the person she disagrees with and is universally respected. And, as vice-mayor last year, she had opportunities to show she can handle the most contentious of meetings with authority.

She’s excited about the year ahead. “I think we’ve got a really good council and are going to get a lot done,” she says, despite the state’s probable yanking of some of the city’s funding.

Kirk may hold the power, but her impetus is toward consensus. She won’t push something through—how to handle the toxic Humboldt Road burn dump, for example—without getting members of the community to work on it first. Similarly, she wants to figure out how to pay for getting more neighborhood parks up and running, but she knows it may mean passage of a city-wide bond measure.

Tops on her agenda is sound, big-vision planning. No more piecemeal projects, she says. In the areas slated for development—Bell-Muir/Mud Creek and Eaton Road, particularly—she wants to develop regional plans that conform, as much as possible, with the city’s General Plan.

The list goes on and on. Kirk knows she’s going to be busy. “My life’s already busier,” she says. “I’ve gotten a lot more calls since I became mayor. But there are still dishes to wash when I come home.”

Perry Reniff

Photo By Tom Angel

His turn now
New Sheriff Reniff picks up the reins

He lost five years ago in his first try, but last spring Perry Reniff got sweet revenge on the man who beat him, outgoing Sheriff Scott McKenzie. Of course you’d never hear Reniff say such a thing. He’s too reserved—and smart—to make such a statement. He’s also witty, a trait we wags in the reporting business welcome.

“Wait a second,” he responds when we tell him he’s one of our “Who to Watch” picks. “It’s not your job to watch me. It’s my job to watch you.”

Reniff, who chooses not to criticize his predecessor, even though one of Mackenzie’s first acts when he became sheriff in 1998 was to demote Reniff, says among the changes he sees coming are the removal of deputy patrol on Lake Oroville, a practice Mackenzie initiated.

Reniff, a 30-plus-year veteran with the Sheriff’s Office, says the state Parks Department already patrols the lake and that the deputies’ time would be better spent patrolling the Feather and Sacramento rivers as well as the Oroville Dam Afterbay.

“One of my biggest concerns is duplicating services,” he says. “In this case they are already being rendered by the state.”

He adds that his department will not lose any state boating and waterways money by transferring the deputies’ patrols.

He also wants to cut by at least half the 30 vacant positions his department now has at any given time. “That is one of my highest priorities, and I’d like to cut that to 15 in the first year,” Reniff explains. “That is a big, big priority.”

The great unknown facing all department heads across California, of course, is how the budget ax now being sharpened in Sacramento is going to fall. “We are baffled as to what is going to happen,” Reniff says.

“We hear that COPS [a state law enforcement funding device] money is on the chopping block, as is money for rural counties,” Reniff warns. “All together that could add up to $600,000. We really have to fight for this money.”

Reniff says he will eliminate the public information officer position. That duty will be taken over by deputies and sergeants. “Those who perform the work should be talking to the media,” he explains. “I have only limited amounts of money, so do I chose a PIO or a crime prevention coordinator? I have to try to get more bang for the buck.

Maureen Pierce

Photo By Tom Angel

“If we have a major case going down, we’ll appoint someone to be the PIO on the case. My whole philosophy is going to be geared toward serving the public, and the media are part of the public. And I will try to do what I can without impacting the county budget.”

When Mackenzie took over, he restructured the department’s chain of command, replacing the assistant sheriffs, including Reniff, with two captains and an undersheriff. Reniff says he will call for a POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) study.

“The last one was in 1977,” he says. “I think another one is overdue; don’t you?”

Room for kids
Expansion of Boys & Girls Club to benefit all Chico youngsters

In the few years Maureen Pierce has been running the show at the local Boys & Girls Club, she’s already made major improvements to the program. But don’t count on her to be satisfied with a mere upgrade of services. This year, Pierce is poised to do the impossible—transforming a rundown complex of cinderblock buildings, portable trailers and vacant warehouses into a state-of-the-art, kids-only recreation supercomplex.

The plan is ambitious and pricey to say the least, calling for a $2.5 million upgrade that will close off a portion of Wall Street, anchor the southern end of downtown, and create affordable programs for thousands of kids.

“It’s been a long, long road,” Pierce acknowledges, adding that her fund-raising work—she’s come up with more than $2 million already—would have been impossible were it not for the huge amount of support the community has invested in the project.

“The way the Boys & Girls Club works is that each local chapter is its own organization,” she explains. “If you’re not raising [money] locally, then you don’t exist.”

Pierce says that’s a good thing, because it makes each local club accountable to the community it serves. “I really see the club as a microcosm of Chico,” she says. “If the community didn’t have a say, then they wouldn’t support it, and then it wouldn’t reflect the values of the community.”

Luckily, the community has seen the value of having a safe place for kids to go after school. The need for new facilities is painfully obvious at the present Boys & Girls Club, which has seen exponential increases in participation over the last few years. When Pierce joined up in 1997, she said, the program served 20-30 kids per day. Now, as many as 120 kids show up every day to play games, study and take part in supervised activities. Because of the lack of space, about 300 kids had to be put on a waiting list.

When the new facility is completed—hopefully by fall 2004—it will include a gymnasium, a new teen center and a new clubhouse, all linked by a pedestrian and bike-friendly promenade. The project will be constructed in phases, beginning with the clubhouse, which could be started as early as February.

Scott Gruendl

Photo By Tom Angel

For Pierce, the effort isn’t about having a place merely to store kids while they are waiting for their parents to get off work. It’s about creating a stabilizing environment that can sustain kids through good times and bad, keeping them out of trouble and giving them the skills they will need to succeed as adults.

“The buildings don’t really matter,” she explains. “It’s the people and the opportunities. Some of our kids end up moving around, they change schools. We can be that constant thread in their lives.”

The planning guru
New Councilmember Gruendl will take on land use

After several tries, Scott Gruendl has finally made it to the Chico City Council, where he predicts his biggest role will be in land-use issues, far more than anything else.

“I have a grave concern for land-use issues,” he says in an interview. “Not that the rest of the council does not have an interest, but I have a real good understanding of them.”

Gruendl served as a planning commissioner from 1990 to 1994, an experience he says will serve him well on the council. He is also a land-use planner by profession.

“I’m going to push a greater level of detail when it comes to land-use compatibility,” he promises. “My primary focus is growth. I’ve had some discussion with the council on what to do with the General Plan, and I’m thinking about recalling the General Plan Task Force for a special session. My goal is to codify the General Plan.”

The council adopted the current General Plan in 1994 after years of study and discussion and countless meetings of the task force. Then, under pressure from the local development industry, the then-conservative majority tweaked the plan in areas of minimum densities and for language.

“Now it is less of a document than it was,” Gruendl says. “My goal is to take it back to where it was before, put some teeth into it.”

Gruendl also mentions taking a look at the city’s building codes, “which are based on 1950s design.” He says he wants to see Titles 19 and 18, the backbone behind the General Plan, adjusted.

“The General Plan must be codified with these two titles,” he says, “so that the rules are in sync with the General Plan. Until we do that, dealing with the General Plan will continue to be a political process.


Photo By Tom Angel

“In my four or eight years in office, I want to turn the guidelines into the rules. None of our previous councils have thought that way. To make a vision stick the law has to make that vision. What makes the world tick is the engineering department, not the building department. Engineering is the center of the universe, when it comes to building.”

Gruendl, who is HIV positive, says his health is fine and that a bout with meningitis a couple of years ago may have been a positive thing in that he gets his blood tested every 60 days now.

Senatorial designs
DNA and the future of the Chico Community Art Center at the Senator

This could be a make-or-break year for the Senator Theatre and the hopes of a Chico Community Arts Center situated therein.

At the heart of the project is local entrepreneur DNA, who also stands to lose or gain, depending on the final outcome. The City Council recently allocated a $200,000 grant toward purchasing the old Senator Theatre building, but DNA and company must raise something in the neighborhood of $550,000 to procure full ownership of the space.

“Eric Hart bought the whole building for $500,000 two years ago,” DNA explains. “Now we’re buying just half of it for $750,000, and he’s keeping his retail, the apartments, and the parking lot [which, altogether, occupy the space from mid-block back to the corner of Main and East Fifth Streets]. So really he’s making a million dollars on this deal. Now we’re paying mortgage instead of rent.

"'Make or break'?” DNA asks, weighing that assessment of his situation. “I mean … sure. Every business has a ‘make-or-break.’ Either you make it or you don’t.”

DNA cites the success of Redding’s Cascade Theater, a community arts venue, as an inspiring precedent. “They’re making it,” he says. “They’ve got the grant money to do all the renovations, the same grant money we’re going after. Another thing that makes us similar to Redding is the community is 100 percent behind the Redding theater. There’s a great outpouring from community people. I would rephrase it—it isn’t make or break for us; it’s make or break for Chico.”

After a thoughtful pause, he continues. “Two years ago, no one ever thought that we would get to this point. Now, here we are. We’re about to buy [the Senator]. My feeling has always been that it’s a Catch-22: We could never have got to this point without help. But a lot of people don’t want to help us until we actually own the building, because they don’t want to make the rich guy richer. But now the community has to step up. That’s all there is to it.

“My association with this project,” he admits, “as much as I am [currently] the face on it, is temporary. I’m just the guy who started it. My goal is to see this thing become steady. And until it’s steady, I won’t back out. So if it goes down, I go down with the ship. Either way, I’m involved with it.

“If Chico wants this theater to happen,” he concludes, “it’s gonna happen.”

Debra and Colleen with Cannon

Photo By Tom Angel

Business bigshots
Cannons shoot to top of downtown retail scene

When mother-daughter team Debra and Colleen Cannon started a retail clothing shop in downtown Chico six years ago, “we had zero expectations,” Colleen says.

Now, LuLu’s Fashion Lounge has grown to include a sister shop (the classy GiGi Shoe Parlor around the corner) plus a holiday-season-only kiosk in the Chico Mall, designed to get the LuLu’s name out to the shoppers (we can’t imagine who) who had yet to hear of the shop at 212 Main St.

In 1996, Colleen, now 32, had graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in urban planning. She knew she wanted to move back to her hometown, but she also knew how funky the job market was in Chico. The solution, they figured, was to become their own bosses by starting a small business.

“We were trying to think about what we could do together that would be successful,” remembers Debra. “We wanted to be in downtown Chico. That, we knew.”

Realizing that Colleen was a veteran shopper and thrift store junkie, they decided to go with clothes.

Their initial investment was small (they wince to think what they pay in overhead and development now), and their friends helped them set up the shop at its original location on Third Street near Main.

The shop at that time featured used as well as new clothing. These days, part of the upstairs is reserved for resale stuff, while the rest of the store is dedicated to new goods. LuLu’s has consistently been News & Review readers’ top pick for best used-clothing store and best women’s clothing store.

Debra, a librarian by training, had dabbled in business before, including serving as floor manager for the old version of LaSalles in the 1980s.

LuLu’s continues to draw 16- to 24-year-olds in droves, while 8-month-old GiGi carries pricier lines geared toward the older demographic—the types of shoes, purses and accessories that Chicoans previously had to trek out of town to Nordstrom or Macy’s to buy. “We think of it as LuLu’s older sister,” Debra says. The ambiance there is “mellow,” compared to LuLu’s, where hip-hop plays over the sound system.

The accessory-heavy mall setup, in front of Gottschalks, has done well but closed for the season on Dec. 29. (Disclosure: News & Review Publisher Kathy Barrett invested in that venture.)

Stephanie Starmer

Photo By Tom Angel

Colleen’s 3-year-old son Cannon Johnson has the run of place, and now he comes tearing through the shop with his shirt off, yelling, “Mommy, I saw a spider in the bathroom.” As Colleen goes to check out the intriguing arachnid, her mother reiterates the reason they started this type of business, in this town: “We’re very family-oriented.”

Colleen is seen as the “visionary” of the place. “Every year, we try to improve in some way,” she says. “And it has nothing to do with making more money. It’s a project.” Glancing around LuLu’s, Colleen tallies several things she’s thinking of doing.

“I have huge plans for Chico,” she says. “I’ve got many business ventures planned, some of them in the next year.”

Colleen mentions she’d love to try her hand at a bar, which elicits a look from her mother that’s hard not to call disapproving. “With Colleen, it’s all about creating environments,” Debra says.

Real-life drama
A budget ax hangs over Stephanie Starmer’s new Performing Arts Academy at Chico High

Last year, Chico High students did something many thought impossible.

They successfully staged the huge Broadway musical Les Misàrables, a massive undertaking usually considered at least a college-level production—and one hardly ever attempted by a high school in California.

Their success was due in part to enthusiasm generated by a recently funded new Chico High program, The Performing Arts Academy, a “school within a school” (similar to the existing West and ACT academies) that is currently on the drawing board and scheduled to begin in the fall of 2003. The innovative program is aimed at working jointly with Chico State University arts departments (Chico High used the college’s Harlen Adams Theater for Les Miz) and allowing Chico High students access to diverse mini-seminars around their normal class schedules.

Unfortunately, the coordinator of the Performing Arts Academy, Stephanie Starmer, faces a dilemma. The Academy is being made possible due to a four-year grant worth about $350,000 from State Department of Education. But after Governor Davis’ recently unveiled plan for budget cuts, the funding could get the ax. If so, Starmer will have to find ways to rechannel the growing student enthusiasm for drama and music at Chico High until funding can be restored.

Starmer moved to Chico when she was 17 years old and graduated from Chico High herself. After high school, she attended Chico State, where she majored in theater. Then, after working a couple of years with costumes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, she came back to Chico, got her teaching credential and wound up teaching English and drama back at Chico High, where she has taught for the last 13 years (directing musicals in 12 of those years).

About five years ago, Lynn Bankhead was hired as a choral music teacher at Chico High. Starmer immediately saw an opportunity to team together and improve the school’s ability to perform musicals.

Rick Rees, center, flanked by fellow new school board members Scott Huber, left, and Anthony Watts.

Photo By Tom Angel

“The kids … were coming to us saying they really needed a musical-theater class,” says Starmer. Since the students have so many other requirements, Starmer knew it would be difficult to add another class.

The Performing Arts Academy was born as a means to work in “mini-courses"—some taught by Chico State students or teachers—featuring a wide range of topics such as juggling, improvisation or tap dance. These classes are taught throughout the year at Chico High both before and after normal school classes (working around different student schedules). Also, Chico High students are able to go to Chico State and “job shadow” different people in their own fields of interest.

Starmer says she plans to start next year taking roughly 70 freshmen, 35 sophomores and 20-30 juniors and seniors and working them through the program.

“We’re really excited about the before-school class or the Performing Arts Class—these kids get to put a performance twist on some of the things everyone else is studying in history and English,” Starmer explains.

The date of the next Chico High musical will likely be pushed back to January 2004, thanks to the renovation of the Chico High theater space, which starts this June, Starmer says.

“The reason we like this program so much is that we’re finally able to take something we do really well and put it together in a more meaningful way for the kids,” Starmer says. She says that working together in smaller learning communities will allow students to get to know each other better and feel like they belong.

“I am looking forward to being able to work with Lynn and capture that feeling of rehearsals, that excitement, and bring it back during the school day,” she says.

Radar on Rees
New CUSD trustee, board face tremendous challenges

Rick Rees, one of three new members elected to the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees, doesn’t expect the honeymoon to last long. “The money thing is going to get real bad real fast.”

By unseating two incumbents, voters signaled their frustration with the lack of significant progress on the acquisition of a site for a bond-funded new high school and the bitter squabble with the Chico teachers’ union that almost led to a strike.

Last year at this time, the News & Review “watched” then-new Trustee Steve O’Bryan, who didn’t prove to be a very vocal member of the board. Now, we’re wondering if his hands were tied by a majority and whether this will be the year Chico sees a shift in its school board.

“Any time you replace three people on a five-member board, things are going to change,” Rees said.

Rees is quick to say that the previous board members can’t be held totally to blame for the lagging school site and disharmonious relationship with teachers. “Some of what happened with the old board was circumstantial,” he said. “The last board really got stuck with some very difficult situations.”

A difficult situation is exactly what Rees and his board mates will be facing as they deal with not only the continuing high-school site and union issues, but also the dismal state budget that will certainly spell massive cuts for the CUSD. “The ship’s got a big hole in it,” Rees said.

Nearly 90 percent of the CUSD’s $99 million budget is committed to salaries and benefits, with little increase in enrollment foreseen, and that makes it very likely that not only favored programs will be dropped, but also people. There’s no way the 13,000-plus students in the district won’t be affected.

Rees and the other new board members, Anthony Watts and Scott Huber, have already been to a trustee “boot camp” of sorts to get a handle on what their roles are—a lot more bureaucratic than they might have thought.

With all the rules in the state Education Code, the union contract, the Brown Act that governs open meetings, and so on, Rees said, “You pretty quickly figure out, ‘Hey, what can I do?'”

A criticism of the previous board has been that its members deferred too readily and frequently to Superintendent Scott Brown. Rees said that while he trusts the CUSD staff members, he plans to ask more questions before going with their recommendations.

Another reason people might have their eye on Rees specifically is because his wife, Jackie Faris-Rees, was a longtime CUSD trustee when she died in office from breast cancer in April 2000.

“I think Jackie and I are pretty similar in terms of the values that we bring to the school board," Rees said. Their relationship may have made the Chico Unified Teachers’ Association—whose leadership at the time had come to feel antagonistic toward Faris-Rees—to equate the two. Rees, who failed to get the union’s endorsement, said, "That’s all water under the bridge. I think there’s a new era here."