Who to watch in 2011

Eight Chico area people who are likely to make news in the coming year

Mark Sorensen

Mark Sorensen

photo by meredith j. cooper

Last week the CN&R looked back at the significant events of 2010, as we always do in the final issue of the year. And in this first issue of the new year, we take a look at some of the people who are likely to be newsmakers in the coming year—or at least contribute significantly to the community.

As always, we’ve tried to select people with diverse interests and occupations, which is why we spotlight the owner of a new nightclub and the new brewmaster at a local casino along with the new Butte County chief administrative officer and the new mayor of Oroville. What they have in common is that they’re having an impact, which is why we think readers should watch them in 2011.

If you’d like to nominate someone as a person to watch this year, please feel free to write us a letter. We’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here are our selections.

Man on the right
Mark Sorensen

During an endorsement interview several weeks before the November election, Mark Sorensen seemed confident he would win over voters in his bid for a seat on the Chico City Council.

“The third time will be the charm,” he quipped.

He was right. Sorensen, a conservative who had waged unsuccessful campaigns for the post in 2006 and 2008, trounced the other candidates in 2010, coming in 2,500-plus votes ahead of his nearest competitor.

The determined native Chicoan and longtime businessman and owner of ACC Satellite, ran on a platform stressing job creation and fiscal responsibility. His touted experience in those realms hasn’t emerged in his brief tenure, but there will be plenty of opportunity for that, since he’ll be seated on both the Finance Committee and Economic Development Committee.

Sorensen, a former member of the Planning Commission, took his seat on the dais Dec. 7 and appeared comfortable in his new position. He seemed most interested in discussions on proposed changes to the way the city appoints people to its boards and commissions. That’s because he has his own idea on refining the process. His vision is for each council member to appoint one member of each group. It’s not an unusual process, he pointed out, noting that the Butte County Board of Supervisors employs this method.

He cited a number of benefits: The process would increase the diversity of viewpoints in the groups, and allow council members to work with their representative more closely, he said. Additionally, each council member would spend more time vetting their selection, and would thus be much more aware of the skills they would bring to the table. “I think we would each do more due diligence in the selection process,” he said during a recent interview.

As it stands, while the appointees fill out an application, their communication with the council members generally boils down to spending three minutes in front of the panel at a council meeting, selling themselves as a qualified candidate.

Sorensen’s idea didn’t fly with the panel, but the issue wasn’t put to rest for good. There was talk of discussing it again in the future.

Reflecting on his first couple of meetings, Sorensen, who referred to himself as a “hardcore watcher” of city government proceedings during the past decade, said he didn’t see many surprises. Perhaps the biggest was when outgoing Councilman Tom Nickell endorsed conservative council candidate Bob Evans as a replacement for outgoing Councilman Larry Wahl.

Sorensen, now the only self-identified conservative on the panel, is favorable to that plan. He said it makes sense not only because Evans was the fourth-highest vote-getter, but also because he’s well-qualified.

If that doesn’t fly with the other council members and he remains the sole conservative, Sorensen insists he will not feel obliged to vote a certain way.

“I’ll just feel the pressure to do a good, rational, reasonable job, which I think I’m already well-known for doing,” he said.

—Melissa Daugherty

New voice on the school board
Eileen Robinson

Eileen Robinson

photo by christine g.k. lapado

As the only newcomer on the Chico Unified School District’s Board of Trustees (she was elected Nov. 2), Eileen Robinson has got her work cut out for her.

“What’s facing the district is very complex,” she acknowledged recently during an interview. Robinson is realistic about the looming budget problems facing the state of California—and, by extension, the CUSD—and how those problems have the potential to affect local school children.

“All [the state] did was borrow to pass the [most recent] budget,” offered the warm, astute 64-year-old. “There was no real reduction in spending. We’re still going to face another huge hit, I think. … I think 2012 is going to be particularly harsh on K through 12.”

Besides taking a hard look at how the district spends its money in the future, Robinson—who is primary caretaker of her 9-year-old grandson, a student in the autism program at Chapman Elementary School—wants to look at the impact of recent budget-induced program cuts, such as the elimination of foundational computer-science courses at the secondary level, and much of the physical-education, fine-arts and music instruction at the elementary and junior-high-school levels.

“I want to take a look at the impact of the cuts over the recent years, and see whether or not there’s been a financial savings,” she said. “I want to take a look at the reality versus the projection of savings from cutting all these programs.”

She also wants to assess the effect of the cuts on students, “and if the impact on the kids is so huge, and the savings not so much, can we restore some of the programs that shouldn’t be gone? I’d really like to see music and the fine arts—that and the computer science and technology—come back. … We’re really hurting [students’] ability to get employment and function at the secondary level.”

Another of Robinson’s priorities is “involving the entire community in focusing on the nutrition and health of the student body.

“And it’s not just changing the menu in the cafeterias,” she said. “What I would like to see is more of the garden programs that we have at many of our schools now [and] bringing more local produce into our cafeterias.”

Robinson would also like to see a “food curriculum” in the schools whereby students are taught to cook simple, healthful dishes that they can then go home and make with their families.

Other ideas on Robinson’s ambitious list: Look at whether textbooks should be replaced by a more cost-effective, digital method of instruction, and reach out to baby boomers “who are close to retiring” to share their varied expertise with students by volunteering in the classroom.

—Christine G.K. LaPado

Beer man gets a big brewery
Roland Allen

Roland Allen

photo by vic cantu

Roland Allen is the brewmaster at the new Feather Falls Casino Brewing Co., the only tribal-owned brewery in the United States. It’s part of a major, $8.5 million expansion of the casino that also houses a live concert stage and restaurant.

The widely known Chico resident has a stellar track record locally as a brewer. He was assistant brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. through the early 1990s and later co-founded the small but highly touted Butte Creek Brewing Co., in Chico, where he produced several beers and ales from 1996 to 2004. They included his popular signature brew, “Roland’s Red,” which he hopes to resurrect at Feather Falls.

Interviewed at the new brewery, Allen said the lineup will feature seven new beers, and he hopes to produce the equivalent of 2,000 kegs’ worth in 2011. Five will be permanent ales chosen by the tribal council, such as “Feather Falls Thunder,” an apricot wheat beer, and the strongest, “Naughty Native,” which has a 6.5 percent alcohol content. Two other beers will change seasonally and will be created by Allen every three or four months.

Allen said he will be solely responsible for producing the casino’s seven ales, which, if licensing goes as planned, will go on sale at a grand opening tentatively planned for the end of January. He explained his excitement at beating out 50 other finalists for the position.

“I’ve always loved brewing beer, since I started at home in 1983,” Allen said. “On my first day of brewing here I realized how much I missed it.”

Allen is a colorful character who moved to Chico in 1983 as part of a comedy team from Red Bluff called the Allen-Standish Comedy Review. He still occasionally appears with its current incarnation, Merry Standish Comedy. After his tenure with Sierra Nevada and Butte Creek, Roland became owner of Limey Tees screenprint shop on Ninth Street, which he ran until recently.

The brews will be available only to lucky casino-goers on tap and in 64-ounce, to-go bottles. However, Allen hopes word of the beers will catch on with the wider public and would like to see them eventually being sold in stores and at other casinos.

“Besides serving our beers here, we’ll be showing them off at dozens of brew festivals and will host our own Beer Fest this summer at a date yet to be determined,” he said.

—Vic Cantu

Chico’s conservative icon goes to Oroville
Larry Wahl

Larry Wahl

photo by robert speer

The man who will replace 32-year veteran Jane Dolan on the Butte County Board of Supervisors says he knows he’ll have to do “some quick learning” and plans to be “low-key at first,” but he’s excited about his new job and confident in his ability to do it well.

Larry Wahl, who narrowly defeated Dolan on June 8, was sworn in Monday (Jan. 3).

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said during a recent interview at the CN&R offices. “I look on it as another challenge.”

A successful businessman (he owns the UPS stores in Chico), the former longtime Chico City Council member served as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, so he’s not unfamiliar with challenges. And he knows the county faces several of them.

One is money, of course. Although the county’s budget currently is balanced, he said that next year, “unless we see a dramatic spike in revenues, which I don’t expect to see, we’re going to have to make changes in the way things have been done.”

He knows, too, that much of this year will be spent drafting a countywide zoning ordinance. “The challenge will be to get the new general plan and the zoning ordinance to complement each other,” he said. A zoning ordinance tells property owners what they can do with their land, so creating one tends to cause conflicts.

He also says there is “a potential to revisit” some parts of the general plan. He’s made no secret of his desire to see a large area south of The Skyway currently designated for agriculture be zoned for development of some kind (possibly including a research park). “I’d like to allow it to be useful in some way or another,” he said, “rather than just goat feeding.”

He has no immediate intention to change the Greenline, Dolan’s signature zoning barrier protecting Chico’s westside agriculture, “but if someone comes forward with a proposal, we’ll have to consider it.”

One of Wahl’s major campaign promises was about jobs. “My goal is to create an atmosphere where those who can create jobs can get through the [development] process efficiently, predictably and cost-effectively,” he said. From what he’s heard, that’s not always the case.

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to Jan. 25, when CAO Paul Hahn is scheduled to unveil a draft of the county’s economic-development plan.

With the exception of his fellow Chico-area supervisor, Maureen Kirk, the supervisors are generally more conservative than their counterparts on the City Council, where Wahl was a lone conservative voice. He said he looks forward to working with all the supervisors but is pleased that the group is “generally more compatible, more like-minded” than his council colleagues were.

—Robert Speer

Plans for the park
Dan Efseaff

Dan Efseaff

photo by christine g.k. lapado

Dan Efseaff took the reins in February 2010 as the city of Chico’s new park and natural resource manager, a job newly created after the city divided the former position of general services and park director into two positions.

While Efseaff (pronounced “Efseff”) is new to a new job, he is an old hand when it comes to Chico. An avid kayaker, hiker and mountain biker, he came to Chico in 1994 to attend Chico State, where he got his master’s degree in biology with a focus on river ecology.

“I chose Chico State because there’s a lot of activity on the rivers up here—a lot of restoration going on,” the friendly Efseaff said recently. “It’s a hotbed for good training.”

He made Chico his home after graduation. Efseaff lives here with his wife and their four children, a 15-year-old and a set of 10-year-old triplets.

Efseaff commuted to the Woodland-Davis area for his previous job as executive director of the Yolo County Resource Conservation District, so it’s good news for him and his family that he now has work close to home, especially overseeing his beloved 3,670-acre Bidwell Park.

“One thing that has kept me in Chico is Bidwell Park,” offered Efseaff. “[This job] seemed like a rare, good opportunity to do something for something I love.”

Since coming on board, Efseaff has had what he calls “a pretty aggressive agenda.”

High on Efseaff’s to-do list is controlling invasive plant species, such as Japanese privet and yellow star thistle.

In the case of pesky star thistle, Efseaff favors “a nuanced approach” to eradication. He removes it systematically, a little at a time, by cleaning up trails and making use of grazing animals and prescribed burns in particularly thick areas. Recently he oversaw a burn of a sizable patch of star thistle just inside the entrance to Upper Park.

Besides ridding Bidwell Park of what he playfully terms “the bad guys,” Efseaff also wants to increase the good guys. Areas from which star thistle has been removed are being replanted with native grasses that, once established, are fairly resistant to fire as well as invasive species.

Another of Efseaff’s goals is to improve the park’s trail system by increasing markers, naming some unnamed trails, rerouting some trails—such as on the top of Monkey Face—and providing more maps. Some trails may become closed in bad weather, said Efseaff—“as the population increases, we need to use trails in a safe, sustainable way.”

He has also implemented a newsletter—“Bidwell Park Pulse”—and a quarterly in-park event called Park Talk to inform the public and address any questions they may have.

—Christine G.K. LaPado

The mayor as Mom
Linda Dahlmeier

Linda Dahlmeier

photo by evan tuchinsky

Linda Dahlmeier has developed quite a résumé. At age 23, she opened a business. She then spent a quarter-century working in commercial real estate in California and Nevada. She made a segue to commercial and residential lending before taking on a management role in the Dahlmeier Insurance Agency, the family business of her second husband, John Dahlmeier.

She’s a past president of the Oroville Chamber of Commerce and a Butte County master gardener. She’s actively involved in the Enloe Foundation, Rotary Club of Oroville and other nonprofits. Oh, and she’s an accredited facilitation coach, helping organizations resolve internal conflicts.

All these experiences should come to bear in her newest position: mayor of Oroville. Yet it’s a title not on her résumé—Mom—that may prove the most impactful as she assumes elected office for the first time.

In running for mayor, Dahlmeier decried “political games and petty grandstanding” on the City Council. She pledged to reshape the culture at City Hall by fostering an environment that’s goal-driven, “collaborative, productive and trustworthy.” She won with 51.7 percent of the vote, edging out Victoria Coots, who garnered 48 percent.

Ahead of taking office, Dahlmeier met with council members across the political divide. She hopes they understand that the woman who will wield the gavel has no patience for bickering or bad behavior. She won’t tolerate in council chambers what she wouldn’t tolerate at home.

“Being a mom—and now a grandmother—will always be my highest, best calling,” said Dahlmeier, a former foster child who has four adult daughters and six grandchildren. “You aren’t born being a mother or a mayor or another public official; you don’t have all the answers. I certainly don’t have all the answers.

“We shouldn’t be able to sit up there [on the council dais] rolling our eyes at people and their remarks. We shouldn’t be able to sit up there talking smack in the microphone. It’s going to stop; it has to stop. Fight nicely. We don’t have to agree, but if you have something to say, say it nicely.”

The maternal mayor is particularly concerned about Oroville’s youth. Dahlmeier intends to establish a “junior council”—a panel of students to advise the City Council. Her plans for economic development aim not only to revitalize the city but also to provide viable futures for graduates of Oroville and Las Plumas high schools.

“If we don’t do something with this younger generation now and bring something for them to this community, then we’re going to lose a whole generation [to relocation elsewhere],” Dahlmeier said. “That’s going to be hard to replace in this community.”

—Evan Tuchinsky

Party on the south side
Richard Peeples

Richard Peeples (with bar manager Kelli Brown)

photo by jason cassidy

Richard Peeples is likely to interact with more people than all the politicians and community leaders on this year’s Who to Watch list combined.

As the owner of the Tackle Box—the unlikely business emporium on East Park Avenue in south Chico that combines under one roof a hunting-supply/bait-and-tackle store with a deli/grill and an increasingly popular nightclub/bar— Peeples has grabbed Chico’s attention.

Opened in 2010, the Tackle Box has quickly become one of the most talked-about new businesses in Chico—the nightclub for its quick rise as one of the more popular nightlife destinations in town, and the grill for its no-nonsense yet somewhat exotic (fried alligator, anyone?) pub fare.

“We were going to put in an indoor shooting range,” Peeples said matter-of-factly, explaining the beginnings of his new ventures. He and his family first opened the Tackle Box fishing/hunting retail storefront 18 years ago (today, he runs the business with his son, C.J., and his father, Phil Peeples). Sitting at a picnic table at the entrance to the grill, he explained how 10 years ago they bought the rest of the attached building. After they’d leased it to other businesses for a few years, they got the shooting-range idea. But then the price of ammo spiked and the economy tanked, so they had to think of something else.

“A buddy of mine had a liquor license, and we decided, ‘What the hell? Let’s open a bar,” he said.

Problem was, they had no experience in the restaurant business. But they’d been in construction (running Peeples Brothers Plumbing in town from the early ’70s until about four years ago), and they knew how to build kitchens.

It took only 61 days before the bar was open for business. “We opened on Fourth of July to probably 150 or 200 people that night,” Peeples said. “We were like, ‘Holy crap!’ ”

That quick turnaround might be a clue as to why the place has been so successful. The Tackle Box is simply a large warehouse with concrete floors, a long bar, and large wooden barrels turned on their sides and made into tables. Throw in plenty of booze, some pool tables, a kitchen cranking out fried treats and a truckload of sawdust on the floor, and you’ve got a no-nonsense venue for cutting loose. It’s a modern-day saloon—a rough-edged watering hole frequented by people from all walks of life.

“We have a huge, mixed crowd—from motorcycle [riders], to working class, to suit-and-tie and a handful of college guys,” Peeples said, adding that they are “swamped most of the time. … Our lunch times are insane.”

Peeples says that in 2011 he hopes to be able to open another bar/restaurant on the north end of Chico. He also has ideas about adding to the current bar: “[We’re] looking at putting in a mechanical alligator,” he said with a smile.

—Jason Cassidy

New chief at the county
Paul Hahn

Paul Hahn

photo by robert speer

Butte County’s new chief administrative officer (he took office Sept. 13) originally intended to be a college professor. But while finishing his doctorate in public administration at UC Davis, he went to work for Sacramento County on a proposal that would have consolidated it with the city of Sacramento.

Hahn figured city-county consolidation would make a good dissertation topic, but two things happened: Voters turned down the proposed consolidation, and he “got hooked on local government” and never looked back.

He liked local government’s “hands on” nature and the fact that a person can have a real impact on people’s lives and “can actually implement something better. I am one of those strange believers that government can do good.”

He worked for Sacramento County for 20 years, ending his career there as administrator of the Municipal Services Agency, which meant he managed 10 departments with 2,000 employees and a $1 billion budget.

He wasn’t looking for another job, but Sacramento County was facing horrific budget problems and laying off thousands of employees, so when he learned the CAO job was open, he decided to apply. He and his wife, Lisa, sold their home and moved to Chico. For her, it meant giving up her job as assistant director of photography at the Sacramento Bee, a tough decision.

Still, “so far it’s been good,” Hahn said, smiling. He’s a friendly man, quick to engage, with thinning reddish-blond hair and a goatee.

Hahn said he has several goals for the coming year. For one, he wants to improve the relationship between the counties and cities, and to that end has been meeting regularly with city managers and other officials.

Another goal is to create the land-use zoning ordinance that must accompany the county’s new general plan. “It should take the better part of the calendar year to go through that process,” he said.

“If we do it right,” he continued, “it will speed up the process” for vetting development projects, which is good for all parties. Having the new general plan makes everything much easier, he added.

His biggest concern is the state budget. Counties are the agencies that implement state-funded social services, and any cuts made “wash back through us. … When you have cutbacks in mental-health services, the mental-health problems don’t go away.”

At this point, he can’t imagine how the state is going to cut $28 billion from spending, when that amount is about one-third of all discretionary spending.

He thinks the county will be OK this year, but could face a $5 million deficit next year. “We’re in better shape than many counties, but we still face challenges,” he said. “The county will be in a strong position in a few years, when the economy turns around, if we do the right things now.”

—Robert Speer