Whom to watch in 2016

Six local folks likely to make an impact in the new year

Sean Morgan

Sean Morgan

Photo by Robert Speer

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Last week, as has become tradition for CN&R’s final issue of the year, we curated lists of the significant events of 2015. It’s now time to look forward, and in this case, we’re focusing on some of the people we think are likely to be newsmakers in the coming year—or at least contribute significantly to the community.

Because it’s an election year, we chose to interview the two sitting members of the City Council who’ve announced their bids for re-election. The other folks we sat down with include the new leader of one of Chico’s highest-profile social service providers, the Jesus Center; the movers and shakers behind the cameras at Butte Community Access Channel, the promising new Chico-based community TV station; and then there’s Chico State President Paul Zingg who, on the run-up to his retirement, gives us his thoughts on his post in advance of the appointment of his successor—a person to watch, for sure.

We hope you enjoy these insights into the lives and work of these newsworthy community members.

In line to be mayor

Sean Morgan

Sean Morgan gives new meaning to the phrase “putting down roots.” He and his wife, Amber, and their two teenage sons live right next door to the house he grew up in. His mother still lives there, and every evening, she passes through a gate in the fence and joins them for dinner.

The Morgans are grounded in family life even as they lead busy lives outside the home. They own a marketing business that Amber mostly manages; he’s a partner in a consulting firm that advises on business dynamics; he teaches project and strategy management at his alma mater, Chico State; and, oh yeah, he’s vice mayor of the city of Chico.

That may end later this year, when the current mayor, Mark Sorensen, completes his two-year term. Traditionally, the gavel has passed to the vice mayor, but Morgan isn’t holding his breath.

“I purposely try not to think about that,” he said during a recent interview in his comfortable north Chico home. “Mark’s a great mayor. He runs a great meeting.”

Besides, in order to become mayor, Morgan, who is 46, must first win re-election in November. He admits he doesn’t much like campaigning, though he does enjoy going door to door. “I love setting policy,” he said. “Campaigning is what I have to do to set policy.”

His campaign got off to a good start in July, when a kick-off barbecue and fundraiser attracted several A-list Republican politicians, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa. “It went well by any measure,” Morgan said, including financially. He added that he was flattered that so many big-wigs attended.

He expects 2016 to be an eventful year for the council. One area in which it has been active lately is public safety, particularly in student neighborhoods. Recent passage of an updated noise ordinance, the Unruly Gatherings Ordinance and an ordinance banning stuffed couches—potential bonfire fuel—on porches are all part of the effort.

The city is now working with the university and the Associated Students to develop a memorandum of understanding under which the University Police Department will extend its coverage into student neighborhoods, freeing up city police to patrol other areas in the city.

“That could be a big deal,” said Morgan, who initiated the effort when he became chairman of the city-sponsored Town-Gown Committee. “We’re going to get there. We’re going to have the safest campus in the CSU system.”

One controversial issue that will come before the council this year is Walmart’s proposal to expand its Forest Avenue store. The council narrowly nixed an expansion proposal in 2009, following a heated public battle over the issue, but this year “it’s not going to be so contentious,” Morgan said. That’s because four council members, a majority, are free-market conservatives.

Morgan is less sanguine about homelessness. “It’s a dynamic issue,” he said, one that burdens just about every California city. There are no easy solutions, and “it’s not going away.”

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the city. It nearly went bankrupt, he said, and “it took everybody” to bring it back from the brink. “We got in a bad spot because we didn’t respond quickly enough, but that’s behind us now.”

—Robert Speer

It’s in his blood

Randall Stone

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Randall Stone

Randall Stone is no stranger to politics. Having been reared by a father who is a powerful, well-connected Bay Area assessor, he grew up talking shop around the dinner table. And one only has to look at Stone’s Facebook page, which he updates regularly, to see he’s passionate about his role as city councilman.

“I’ve never been one to sit and collect a check,” he said during a recent interview. “I’m like my father—when he’s in office, you know he’s in office.”

Stone is one of two city councilmen in Chico to announce his candidacy for 2016—over a year before the election. He’s anticipating an ugly one—election, that is—mostly because of all the money involved. And money is something Stone, a financial planner, knows a thing or two about. In fact, to hear him talk about the big issues—homelessness, public safety, the city’s bottom line—fiscal solvency is the single most important thing facing the council. He’s worried about city spending, particularly when it comes to the Police Department, and he believes everyone should be bracing for another recession in the next couple of years.

“We shaved $4 million through employee concessions in June 2014,” he said. “But by April 2015, we gave back $1.5 million to a single group [the Chico Police Officers’ Association]. And that didn’t bring a single person to staff; it didn’t put a single police officer on the streets.”

Aside from the money, Stone is most concerned about homelessness, an issue he thinks some of his fellow council members hope to solve by moving it out of town rather than addressing its underlying factors. That’s why, when the council recently was asked to appoint a member to the Chico Homeless Task Force, he may not have volunteered, but he didn’t back down either.

“We had three deaths recently [of homeless people] in Chico, and nobody batted an eye,” Stone said, adding, “We’re still fighting over whether these people live here.”

He said that, in that regard, he plans to ask City Manager Mark Orme to work on getting more accurate demographic information about the homeless population in Chico. He also believes that the city should take a multipronged approach when dealing with the issue.

“We shouldn’t be beholden to a single silver bullet to fix this,” he said.

Stone hopes to look to other local governments to see how they have tackled homelessness and ensure Chico adopts a model with a proven track record. In that vein, he joined the League of California Cities, for which he’s serving as vice president for 2015-16. That group has allowed him to network with and learn from people in similar positions in cities throughout the state, he said.

When it comes to political aspirations, Stone said the City Council is the end of the line. It’s where he feels he can make the biggest impact. For sure, he’s banking on his family’s history in politics to keep him going.

“I’m not a genius with this stuff. I just have lived and breathed it my entire life.”

—Meredith J. Cooper

Lights, camera, action!

Skyler Sabine and Debra Lucero

Photo by Ken Smith

Debra Lucero and Skyler Sabine

Citizens can watch public figures and members of the community on Butte Community Access Channel, or BCAC TV, on Channel 11, thanks to the hard work of two longtime arts advocates. The cable access station was formerly operated by North Valley Community Access until stewardship was acquired by Friends of the Arts in late 2014. The group has been overhauling the studio at Fifth and Main streets and acquiring equipment to run a modern digital-television studio.

The station is overseen by Friends of the Arts Executive Director Debra Lucero and Skyler Sabine, the station’s program director, who spoke about some of the programs in production during a recent tour of the studio.

The station will focus on local, community-oriented programming. Since June, members have been learning how to use all of the equipment through the hands-on production of shows. They have run a few previews of upcoming programs and also took over the duties of airing live video of Chico City Council meetings. The station began broadcasting local material full time at the beginning of 2016.

Original programs include a news-magazine-style comedy show made by a group of jokers led by Jeff Anderson; a Bob Ross-style painting show in which local artist Christine Mac Shane walks audiences through an entire painting in 28 minutes; a talk show featuring local personalities hosted by Muir Hughes; and much more.

Another focus of the station is professional training. Fifty dollars buys membership and training in all aspects of production. That fee, and a possible future per-episode fee, will help cover the station’s operating costs and regular equipment upgrades.

BCAC TV held a camp-style workshop for a group of at-risk youth from Fair View High School last summer. The program was funded by a grant from PG&E and entailed that the students pick a local nonprofit to make a video about.

“The kids chose the [Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation], a great fit because they got to work with animals,” Lucero said. “It was originally supposed to be an interview piece, but the kids decided to move in a new direction and be on camera. The result is a four-minute kind of Disney-like piece that’s really fun and entirely their work.”

The grant enabled BCAC TV to gift each of the students an iPad Mini at the end. More important, the students learned how to shoot and edit their own videos with them. Additional instructional programs are planned, and the studio space includes a classroom area that doubles as a meeting room.

A similar endeavor is also happening with the Redding-based Shasta Community Access Channels. Lucero is also head of the Shasta County Arts Council, which is overseeing that project, and plans are for the stations to share programming.

“The two cities are so close together, but people don’t think of them as being so related,” Sabine said. “Redding has always done its thing, and Chico does its thing, and this is a way we can bridge that gap and share our regional identity.”

—Ken Smith

Here to serve

Laura Cootsona

Photo courtesy of the jesus center

Laura Cootsona

“The holidays are by far our busiest season … the whole building is just filled with energy,” said Laura Cootsona, executive director of the Jesus Center, during a recent interview at a downtown coffee shop.

For weeks, a steady stream of churches and service groups visited the south Chico facility daily, delivering clothes, toys and food to distribute to the homeless and impoverished people the center serves.

This was Cootsona’s first holiday season leading the center, having assumed the position in late October. Cootsona said she’d learned a lot about “the complexity of running a robust social service agency” in just two months.

“Between personnel and strategy, there are so many opportunities, great ideas, people to meet and so many groups to attend to,” she said. “My daily challenge is really just having the discernment to say what needs to be done first, what’s next, when to say, ‘I’m not sure yet,’ and when to say, ‘Let’s go.’”

Cootsona said the organization will focus on a few major objectives in 2016, the foremost being better advertising the range of services it offers.

“We really want to clarify what we do and have been doing,” Cootsona said. “We have great entry-level opportunities like eating, showering and getting mail. We also have mid-range services to get people off the streets, putting them up in our women’s shelter, getting a driver’s license and getting benefits in order. Then we have programs that work on independent living and getting jobs.”

The center also will work on its employment services, particularly by reaching out to employers: “Some of our folks honestly don’t have the best record,” she said, “so employers that work with them need to be special folks. It’s not just a matter of skill-building; we need to work both sides.”

Cootsona said the most difficult part of her job is weighing the immediate and long-term benefits—and consequences—of any action the organization takes.

“We’re the last stop and the last step for a lot of people,” she said. “If we exclude those people and stop providing certain services in a certain kind of way, there’s nowhere else for them to go. It makes my decision- making much slower and much more painful. Something may seem like a perfectly great idea, but the ramifications can be huge.”

As an example, Cootsona explained security at the shelter is a concern. “It’s no mystery our population is vulnerable and volatile. Some people on the streets might carry a weapon and that’s understandable; I’d probably carry a weapon, too, if I lived on the streets. We don’t have metal detectors or any other system in place to ensure safety, and that’s an issue for staff.

“We have to decide how to keep the organization safe and sound so we can continue to do the good work we do. We have to consider the long-term good of folks we serve, and it can make today’s decisions a little different and more difficult.”

—Ken Smith

Big shoes to fill

Chico State President Paul Zingg’s vacant office.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Chico State’s next president

This one’s a mystery. We don’t yet know whom to watch, only where to look: the office in Kendall Hall, long occupied by Chico State President Paul Zingg.

Considering that Zingg has been at the helm of the university—arguably Chico’s most vital institution—for about a dozen years, selecting his successor is a big deal. With a national search in full swing, Chico State’s chief sat down with the CN&R to discuss the future of the university’s leadership.

Zingg, 70, is resigned to retirement. After facing a string of serious health issues since undergoing heart bypass surgery last spring, the strain on his family became too much. The upcoming spring semester, then, represents his final act as president. Throughout, he’ll be conscious of his responsibility “not to make decisions that would be hard for [the next president] to live with.” For example, despite the importance of stability among the university’s top administrators, he won’t hire a permanent provost—Interim Provost Susan Elrod is committed to the position only through spring.

“The new president may have a different notion of what the provost should be,” Zingg said. “You don’t want to commit them to a decision I make at the eleventh hour.”

As for Zingg’s own replacement, the search “follows a formula,” he said. An advisory committee, made up of representatives from Chico State, other California State University campuses and the broader Chico community, is whittling the pool of candidates down to three or four people and will provide those recommendations to the CSU board of trustees. The trustees, in turn, will appoint Chico State’s next leader during its two-day meeting March 8 and 9. The new president likely will make an appearance on Chico State’s campus within days of the appointment, Zingg said, but won’t step into the role until mid-summer.

First and foremost, that person will set about attracting donations. That’s out of necessity. When Zingg first became president, the state provided 90 percent of funding for operations; now, the state provides 49 percent, he said. Student fees have risen, but they don’t completely cover the loss of state support.

“Even more so than what I’ve done, fundraising is going to be a major responsibility of the new president,” he said.

The timing is right for Zingg’s successor to immediately implement a fresh vision. Both the university’s Strategic Plan and the Master Plan, which pertain to academic programming and campus facilities, respectively, are overdue for revision, Zingg said. On the other hand, recent turmoil at Chico State might be unappealing to some candidates. During its final meeting of the fall semester, the university’s Academic Senate delivered votes of no confidence in Zingg, Elrod and Lorraine Hoffman, vice president for Business and Finance.

“If candidates think the campus is in chaos, yeah, that could hurt the search,” Zingg said. “But some candidates will also be attracted to the challenge that represents. It’s a mixed bag.”

Only time will reveal who, exactly, will be sitting in the president’s office in Kendall Hall next fall, but Zingg hopes it’s someone who appreciates the job.

“It’s got to be somebody who really loves both the university and community and is able to express that genuinely,” he said. “The person’s got to have a sense of delight, not just obligation, in being involved.”

—Howard Hardee