Who to watch in 2010

Nine people who are likely to make waves this year

Last week the CN&R looked back at the year that was, reviewing the major stories of 2009. This week, as is our tradition, we look ahead by noting some of the people—a total of nine this time around—we think will be in the news or otherwise have an impact in the coming year.

As usual, it’s a varied group—a couple of politicians, a new sheriff, an Olympics hopeful, a new head librarian, the owner of an impressive new café-cum-music-venue, a cutting-edge scientist, a medical-marijuana advocate, and a dynamic environmental-film maker.

As you’ll see, each of these nominees is deeply engaged in his or her work, and their excitement about what they’re doing is contagious.

Enjoy! And Happy New Year!

Up from the ranks

J.W. Smith

Wednesday, Dec. 30, was an emotional day at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office. It was retiring Sheriff Perry Reniff’s final shift, and in mid-afternoon his staff threw him a party.

As soon as the cake was cut, the man selected to fill out the year left in Reniff’s term, Capt. J.W. Smith, ducked out to be interviewed by the CN&R. About 15 minutes into the interview, Reniff came to Smith’s office.

“J.W., can you step out for a minute?” he asked.

Smith excused himself. A moment later he returned, holding Reniff’s badge and the keys to his office.

Smith, who also goes by “Jerry,” knows he’s stepping into big shoes. Reniff is all lawman, but he has a heart as big as Texas and is held in high regard by everyone who knows him.

Smith has worked with Reniff for more than three decades. “When I was a lieutenant, he pulled me into his office—he was assistant sheriff then—and asked me, ‘Have you done something positive for your people today?’

“ ‘Not yet,’ I told him, ‘but the day is young.’ That’s the kind of guy he is, very passionate about the golden rule.”

Smith said he’s “grown up” in the Sheriff’s Office. The late, legendary Sheriff Larry Gillick hired him when he was just 20—he’s 52 now—and he’s worked his way up the ranks ever since. He’s eligible to retire but has no desire to do so, and in fact said he will be running for a full four-year term in the 2010 election.

As a kid he’d always wanted to be a deputy sheriff, he said, and becoming sheriff is the pinnacle of what he calls his “calling.” He grew up in Chico, graduated Chico High in 1975, and attended the Police Academy at Butte College. He and his wife now live in Butte Valley. They have four grown sons.

He said he and Reniff are on the same track when it comes to priorities, though he has a particular interest in protecting the elderly, especially on the Ridge, from abuse. An Eagle Scout, he’s also concerned about Mexican cartel-sponsored marijuana grows in the national forests and the threat they pose to hikers and campers.

He also anticipates dealing with the ever-shifting legal landscape surrounding medical marijuana. There’s a “215 grow next door to my mother-in-law’s house,” he said, “and she’s worried about the violence that might occur if somebody tries to steal it. You can understand my concerns about that.”

But it’s the budget that worries him most. The department “dodged a bullet” last year when Reniff cut a $3.5 million deal with the U.S. Marshals Office to house federal prisoners in the jail, and he expects the arrangement to continue, but who knows?

The department has roughly 300 employees, including 104 sworn officers, and a budget of $34 million, which is $3 million less than it was just two years ago.

Money is tight and could get tighter, so Smith’s holding off on hiring a new captain, divvying up the responsibilities of running the Services Division among several upper-level employees. “We’re constantly looking for ways to offer a better level of service with less money,” he explained.

He’s worked under six sheriffs, he said, and has “learned something positive from each and every one of them. Hopefully I can put it to good use and continue serving the community.”

—Robert Speer

Chico’s Olympics hopeful

Emily Azevedo

The 26-year-old former Chico High (and UC Davis) track-star-turned-bobsledder made headlines last fall (“Ice queen,” CN&R, Sept. 24) as she was getting ready to leave Chico for Lake Placid, N.Y., to begin her grueling quest for a spot on the USA Olympic Bobsled Team, which will represent the United States at the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, in February 2010.

Next thing we knew, push athlete/brakewoman Azevedo and Washington native Bree Schaaf, Azevedo’s longtime sledding partner and sled driver, were selected to the U.S. World Cup team (“Olympic team contender,” CN&R, Oct. 29).

After making the World Cup team, Azevedo and Schaaf—who together placed first at the USA Women’s Nationals at Lake Placid in January 2009—spent time in Whistler, British Columbia, training on the Olympic track before heading to Park City, Utah, for the World Cup season.

The CN&R caught up with Azevedo when she was in Istanbul, Turkey, where she was taking a break midway through the 2009-10 bobsled season (even though she still had to train) to spend Christmas with “an old teammate and friend” who lives there.

“The first half of the 2009-10 bobsled season has officially come to an end,” wrote Azevedo by e-mail. “I am happy with the chances I have had up to this point and feel I have made the best of every opportunity I have been given.

“We have had five races so far, and I have placed ninth in Park City, Utah; ninth in Lake Placid, New York; sixth in Cesana, Italy; and 13th in Altenberg, Germany. I have raced all these races except the first race with Bree Schaaf, who is currently ranked eighth in the world. …

“We have two more races until the Olympic team is selected on Jan. 17, 2010. I am sure I will be tested many more times in the next few weeks so the coaching staff feels they have enough numbers and data on each athlete to make the right selection for each sled [the U.S. will have three sleds at the Olympics].

“I never had anticipated how stressful and intense an Olympic year would be, but I have learned that surrounding yourself with positive people who are as confident (or more) in your abilities is the only way to stay determined and focused.”

We’re sending you lots of positive energy and good wishes, Emily, and we hope to see you and Bree barreling down that ice track in Vancouver in February!

—Christine G.K. LaPado

High on wind

Cristina Archer

An assistant professor of meteorology, energy and environmental science at Chico State, Cristina Archer is an absolute dynamo. The petite 39-year-old academic is articulate and engaging, a ball of energy who is so completely wound up about her area of study that she nearly bounces off the walls with enthusiasm when talking about it.

“You can’t tell I’m excited about this stuff, can you?” she asked facetiously during an interview in her Holt Hall office a few days after the semester’s end.

Archer enjoys teaching (mostly general-education classes) in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, but her passion clearly is her research into wind energy. She is co-author of a groundbreaking survey of wind power at high altitudes—a global study that is lending credibility to cutting-edge companies working to capture this as-yet untapped resource.

Inventors have been working on high-altitude wind projects for many years—some models go back as far back as the 1970s—but they largely have been viewed simply as hobbyists. That’s starting to change, though, due to the world’s increasing demand for energy and a piqued interest in green technology, and, of course, by the research of academics like Archer.

She’s a native of Italy who is also a consulting assistant professor with Stanford University, where she received her doctorate in environmental fluid mechanics and hydrology.

Archer says that high-altitude wind energy isn’t the stuff of science fiction. Companies already have conducted simulations and built prototypes of their super-futuristic-looking contraptions designed to fly thousands of feet in the air. The tethered kite-like inventions range from waffle- to balloon-shaped devices that generate energy and send it back to earth via a cable.

In November, Archer organized the world’s first conference on high-altitude wind power in Oroville, bringing together entrepreneurs from different reaches of this super-secretive and burgeoning industry. For many of the companies, it was the first time sharing any information. She said they all have a vested interest in working together, since strength in numbers only will help them with the obstacles they face, such as getting a green light from government agencies to deploy the machines in restricted airspace.

Chico State sponsored the conference, along with the BayTEC Alliance, a local nonprofit green-business-development group, and its Cleantech Innovation Center, a multi-use facility focused on sustainable enterprise recently constructed at the Oroville airport.

Archer sees the region’s potential as a leader in the renewable-energy market, especially in the area of high-altitude wind power. She also sees unlimited potential for research. The technology may sound out of this world, but then she points out that many of today’s advances, such as cell phones, once seemed like fantasy.

“You never know if something this crazy is going to take off, but if it does it’s huge,” she said.

—Melissa Daugherty

Proactive pot pioneer

Dylan Tellesen

Medical marijuana was a hot topic in 2009 and promises to get even hotter this year. In that respect (and a few others), Dylan Tellesen, executive director of the Citizen Collective, has a busy couple months ahead of him.

The Citizen Collective is a promising project sure to hit the Chico spotlight in early 2010, when Tellesen expects it to come before the Chico City Council’s Internal Affairs Committee.

Tellesen decided to start a collective, which will primarily dispense medical marijuana to recommendation-holding members, because of his own health. He started using marijuana for migraines. That and yoga have helped immensely, he said in a previous interview.

In the past few months, Tellesen and crew have thoroughly researched and planned out the medical-marijuana collective—the next steps are finding a location and getting past all the hurdles of permits and zoning that will have to be addressed by the city or the county—or both.

“We met with [District Attorney] Mike Ramsey a few weeks ago,” Tellesen said during a recent interview. “His main take was cautionary—the law will need to be upheld—but he also offered direction on how to be lawful.”

One idea Tellesen and his partners took from the discussion was that of having a controlled grow site, either where the collective is located or in its own secure spot—rather than, for example, having individual members grow in their yards.

The Citizen Collective is serious about creating a safe place for medical-marijuana patients to get their medicine. The organization will be nonprofit, Tellesen said, and will hopefully eventually include access to local health-care practitioners as well as yoga classes.

“We want it to be a community resource versus a fringe group,” he said. To achieve that goal, he has spoken not only with Ramsey, but also with Chico law enforcement and City Council members to ensure it’s a group effort, unlike in other cities where collectives end up fighting the laws.

“I think we have a lot of the same goals,” Tellesen said of the collective and law enforcement. “We’re taking a conservative but proactive approach.”

Aside from kicking the effort to start Citizen Collective up a notch, Tellesen also will be busy moving his art studio, 46, downtown from its current location north of town along Highway 32.

“The space is much smaller, but I like being downtown,” he said. His partners in that venture, Andrew Tennel and Matt Barber, who share his current space, and Kyle Delmar, a fine-arts photographer, will move into the storefront left vacant by GreenDot Design Studio on Broadway.

“I can’t really think about how I’m going to do it all,” said Tellesen, who also teaches two classes at Butte College and is a husband and father of two. “It’ll just have to happen.”

—Meredith J. Cooper

Strong leader for stronger libraries

Linda Mielke

“It’s a wonderful system, but I can make it better,” new Butte County Library Director Linda Mielke said with confidence.

Mielke took over the post about two months ago, coming to California from Montgomery County, Maryland. She was familiar with this area from when she served as interim library director in Shasta County from 2007 through 2008. She brings to her new job an extensive background in library work.

“I have a lot of years of experience, and I’ve worked with many different sizes of libraries and budgets,” she explained. “I’ve been ‘rich’ and I’ve been ‘poor’ in libraries. I’ve learned how to stretch a budget.”

Talking by phone from her Oroville office, Mielke painted a portrait of a strong individual who has the reins of the library firmly in her hand. She answered questions briskly and succinctly, obviously eager to get on with the next task at her office.

Like many other county department heads, Mielke will have to struggle with a lean budget. “It’s as with our whole country,” she said. “We’re all struggling to keep check on our spending and keep our budget at status quo.” Mielke noted “budget time” is coming up soon.

In the face of current financial problems, Mielke said she wants to establish new community partnerships with various entities, such as colleges and jobs programs. It is important for the library system to find and create new revenue sources, and, Mielke stressed, “We need to work better, faster and cheaper—with technology.”

When it comes to making the library system better, Mielke has a number of changes in mind. She already has plans under way for increasing access to electronic books and said that fairly soon, visitors to the library will have access to about 20,000 electronic books, which they will be able to download onto iPods or mp3 players.

Mielke said her staff has been very cooperative and supportive, but the challenge is just to “keep that going.” She wants to restore the books and materials budget that was “axed” last year.

The youth and children’s services providers are doing a good job, Mielke said. They have strong story times in the various Butte County branches, and there’s a literacy coach, and a mobile unit that goes to different neighborhoods. Mielke commended Cari Gross, who drives the literacy coach out into the neighborhoods. “She’s a superstar—she’s really good at her job and has a robust literacy program going.”

Mielke said she’s happy to be living in California. “It’s December, and I’m not wearing a coat!” She resides in Chico, which she described as “a charming town.” When she’s not working on the library system, Mielke enjoys running for exercise and stress reduction. She wants to run to the top of Table Mountain and swim across Lake Oroville, she said.

—Shannon Rooney

Rick Keene (left) and Doug LaMalfa.

Dueling Republicans

Rick Keene and Doug LaMalfa

They’re both conservative Republicans who served in the state Assembly for three terms, one (Keene) representing District 3 and the other (LaMalfa) neighboring District 2. Termed out in 2008, after six years, they’re now running against each other to fill the District 4 Senate seat being vacated by the termed-out Sam Aanestad, who’s running for lieutenant governor.

District 4 is huge, sprawling over much of inland Northern California from Crescent City in the northwest all the way down to Grass Valley and Auburn in the southeast. It includes Redding, Chico, Yuba City and Marysville.

The Keene-LaMalfa contest is a rare phenomenon: two experienced legislators of the same party, with similar philosophies, duking it out to advance to higher office. It’s likely to be one of the most interesting North State political brawls in the coming election year. And, in a district whose voter registration leans Republican, whichever man wins the June 8 primary will be well positioned to win the general election in November.

Keene is an attorney who grew up in Hayfork but stayed in Chico after attending college here. He spent eight years on the Chico City Council (1992-2000), two as mayor, before being elected to the Assembly.

LaMalfa is a member of a rice-farming family that has been in the Richvale area for nearly 80 years. He’d held no office before being elected to the Assembly, but had been active in ag circles. He touts his deep roots in that community and his commitment to constituent service ahead of Sacramento politics. “I spent six years not worrying about my next race,” he said in a phone interview, focusing on serving his district instead.

Keene, also reached by phone, said he’s committed to running a positive campaign based on his record and his vision of what he wants to accomplish. Republicans need to stick to their basic principles of limited government and low taxes, he said, but in California they also need to break away from their image as the “party of no” always reacting to the Democrats and become proactive.

“We need to have our own vision and ideas if we want the right to govern,” he said.

He said he thought his record was better than LaMalfa’s “or I wouldn’t be running. Your past performance is the best predictor of your future performance.”

For his part, LaMalfa intends to be active on water, forestry and agricultural issues. He also wants to reform the way the Legislature does business by getting rid of all-night sessions and requiring lawmakers to read any bill they vote on.

Both men have Web sites. Keene’s is www.rickkeene.com; LaMalfa’s is www.douglamalfa.com.

—Robert Speer

Green visionary

Gerard Ungerman

He’s been in town for only a little over a year, but French documentary filmmaker Gerard Ungerman has already become one of the more visible players in the local sustainability movement. Combining forces with Chico State’s Environmental Action Resource Center and Mark Stemen, coordinator of the Environmental Studies program, Ungerman curated the Chico Green Films & Solutions Series, a popular 10-week film and discussion series that took place on campus.

“On average we had over 100 people [each week],” said the very relaxed Ungerman about the success of the weekly series. “[It’s] proven there’s a need for coming together and brainstorming on solutions and how to implement them.”

And Ungerman is definitely someone you want on board if you’re bringing people together to come up with solutions. The documentaries he’s made and distributed independently around the world through his Free-Will Productions are on the cutting edge of the sustainability movement.

For his 2005 film The Oil Factor, Ungerman traveled to the Middle East and questioned the United States’ motives for the war and the connection to the country’s addiction to oil, and in 2008’s Belonging (narrated by Dustin Hoffman), he makes “a comprehensive, multi-perspective case for reduction and conservation.” (Both films were shown as part of the Green Films series.)

When Ungerman moved to the United States in 1991—landing first in New York City—he was shocked at how the reality in this country did not match the vision he’d created after years of following American films (especially those featuring John Wayne, he said).

“I was living in this imagination where people were all heroes driven by passion, [but] I found a culture that is completely obsessed with materialism; with safety.”

But, he adds, “At the same time I felt a strong wind of possibility.”

A year ago those winds brought him to Chico, when Ungerman made the move to be near his girlfriend of three years, KZFR music director Stacey Wear. “I couldn’t stand to be far from her anymore,” he said.

“[Chico] has been a blessing,” he added. “It’s a very good place on many levels. There’s a sense of community here. There’s a broad variety of brilliant minds [and] committed groups and individuals.”

For his part, in the coming year Ungerman would appear to be setting the bar for involvement in the green movement.

He’s been working with a couple of partners (Web designer Mojohito Richerson von Tchudi and artist Max Infeld) on www.greentransitionchico.org, a Web site (now in Beta stage) that aims to bring together all facets of the local green community in one location. And, he’s trying to pull together local green organizations to put on a comprehensive Green Faire during Earth Month in April.

And Ungerman’s already begun filming what will be the second installment of a planned three-part series that began with Belonging. No. 2 is being filmed in Chico, with part of it following an average local family as its members try to make big changes in their lives and find “practical ways to save money and resources.” The family’s story will be interspersed with “wow examples,” by way of interviews with innovators like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. owner Ken Grossman. Ungerman also hopes to start part three of the series—“A much broader film, a little in the style of What the #$*! Do We Know?”—by the end of 2010.

“I have a strong sense of wanting to contribute something to this world,” he said. “I am very concerned with creating a local world for yourself.”

—Jason Cassidy

World-music impresario

Greg Fletcher

“We offer eclectic performances by bands from around the world that you’re not getting to see anywhere else in town.”

That is a pretty bold statement by Café Culture owner Greg Fletcher, one that might get some valid argument from Dan DeWayne of Chico State’s Chico Performances. But there’s no denying Fletcher’s giant café on Fifth Street by the railroad tracks has hosted an impressive string of shows during its first year in business.

Chico Performances may have brought Malian singer/songwriter Habib Koité to the Laxson stage, but Café Culture featured his compatriot Mamadou Sidibe this year … twice. There’s also been zydeco from the Pacific Northwest, reggae from St. Croix, plus a wide variety of local artists—from local world and rock musicians to regular poetry slams.

Like DeWayne, Fletcher has traveled the world and made connections along the way with a variety of musicians in places like Senegal and Mali. It’s his connection to the music, as well as the digital connections made as more and more artists from around the world take advantage of the access provided by the Internet.

“Bands are calling all the time,” he says.

In addition to its performance calendar, the 6,000-square-foot facility that used to house Gold’s Gym is home to a vegetarian/vegan café, a gift shop stocked with imported clothing and musical instruments, and several rooms (including an impressive 1,800 square foot wood-floor dance studio) devoted to a variety of dance, exercise and music classes and rehearsals.

That’s a lot to squeeze under one roof, but Fletcher says that it’s taken the combined income from all of the venue’s activities to get through this first year.

“We’re kind of just at subsistence level,” he admits, adding, “but our connections and momentum are growing.”

Fletcher’s plan in the new year is to build upon the café’s menu and selection of classes offered and, probably most crucially, obtain a license to sell beer and wine.

“It does look promising,” Fletcher says about the ongoing process. “We’re going to get it.”

While he’s frustrated at having to jump through bureaucratic hoops (including likely having to install a sprinkler system), he knows the reality is that keeping a big crowd in place for the duration means providing the requisite adult beverages.

“We’re caught in the void between classy old people and young people who want to party,” he says.

To bridge that void, Fletcher has improved the café’s live sound with a new, larger p.a. system; he is making the venue more comfortable by sprucing up the underutilized large mezzanine area; and, of course he’s attempting to lure as many music fans as possible by selling alcohol.

“God willing, if we get all the right elements here, I’ll be bringing in some really amazing acts from around the world.”

—Jason Cassidy