Whom to watch in 2017

Five locals likely to make an impact in the new year

Bill Hack

Bill Hack

Photo by Howard Hardee

With the tumultuous year of 2016 leaving such a bad taste in so many mouths, the CN&R understands the sentiment of wanting to throw it out and start fresh.

As we look forward to a new year, we interviewed five locals from a wide range of disciplines—public safety, the arts, local politics, environmentalism and Chico State administration—who likely will influence how 2017 will play out for Chico. Here’s hoping it’s a lot more civil than 2016, with more beauty, cooperation, good health and peace.

Fire projection

Bill Hack

Too often, change happens after a catastrophe like the Dec. 2 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland that killed 36 people, says Chico Fire Chief Bill Hack. In recent years, Chico firefighters have found similar spaces that weren’t designed for occupancy and posed a real danger to the people living inside.

“Every time we see that, we address it aggressively and immediately,” he said, “but we don’t always know where those places are.”

The chief says his department’s new operating model, known as “community risk reduction,” is a proactive approach that will fundamentally reform the city’s fire protection without impetus from a major loss of life. Not only does it emphasize a ground-up approach—such as encouraging developers to install sprinkler and fire alarm systems in new buildings—but it will also make more efficient use of firefighters’ time, allowing them to spend more of it scanning the community for hazardous risks.

Hack, 46, only recently assumed official leadership of the Chico Fire Department. He had served as interim chief since Jan. 1 of last year, before the Chico City Council unanimously voted to appoint him to the role permanently on Nov. 15. A true product of the department, Hack started as a firefighter in 1995 and slowly worked his way up the ranks.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I picture becoming chief,” he said. “I have the skill set, and they kept asking me to step up for the department and the city, but it was never something I strived for.”

His first full year on the job looks like a tough one. At the beginning on November, it appeared that a closure of at least one of Chico’s six fire stations was imminent after a $4.1 million federal grant that would have continued paying for 15 firefighters was rejected. However, the council voted to maintain daily staffing of the stations until March 7.

Past that point, without additional funding, the department will make layoffs, Hack said.

Regarding the long-term outlook, staffing levels will hinge on the Standards of Response Coverage Plan, a data-based report pinpointing inefficiencies in the city’s fire protection strategies and the department’s guide for the next 30 to 50 years. City Council members were presented with the 150-page document in late December and a discussion of the report—along with how to staff the city’s fire stations—will be on the council’s agenda at the beginning of February, Hack said.

Whatever the council members decide, Hack is anticipating fundamental changes to daily operations and a disruption of the status quo that might not sit well with the department’s rank and file. “I don’t know whether the firefighters will be supportive of it,” he said. “They’re passionate about the level of service they provide.”

For example, the council will consider what types of emergencies firefighters should respond to. Nearly two-thirds of the department’s calls are medical, and Hack estimates that more than half of those aren’t life-threatening. In other words, dispatch doesn’t differentiate between a kid with a sprained ankle and someone who needs immediate CPR—firefighters respond to every call.

“It would be beneficial to evaluate not going to some of those medical calls, but our dispatch center needs to have the software and training to do that,” he said. “I need to prioritize our resources to be a good steward of public funds.”

Joshua Hegg

Photo by Daniel Taylor

—Howard Hardee

Come Together

Joshua Hegg

An accomplished pianist, composer, music teacher, accompanist and member of local jazz band Bogg, Joshua Hegg has been a fixture in the Chico music scene for most of the last decade. But over the last few years, Hegg has been flexing an entirely new set of muscles, organizing and producing elaborate and entertaining shows at some of Chico’s biggest venues as managing director of Uncle Dad’s Art Collective.

Uncle Dad’s, a collaboration of local musicians, writers, actors, dancers and visual artists founded in 2013, is known for its annual Small Town, Big Sound shows at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Big Room and its ongoing series of cover shows at Chico State. The next installment in that series, Abbey Road, Feb. 3-4 at Laxson Auditorium, will apply the Uncle Dad’s treatment to the music of The Beatles, with a lineup of local bands and solo artists performing with the backing of Uncle Dad’s wide-ranging cast of collaborators. Between the bands and the Uncle Dad’s crew, the show has nearly 100 people involved, all of whom are looking to Hegg for direction.

“Everyone needs the information in a slightly different way,” Hegg said. “The dancers need to understand the show in this context, the musicians need to understand it in this context; the tech side needs to hear it a certain way; the lighting guys need to hear it a certain way. So I have, in my Google Drive folder, literally five scripts. It feels redundant almost, but then you realize that musical cues need to be written in a way that a lighting person would understand. I’ve had to kind of learn the language that people speak in the arts.”

With an established track record of shows, Hegg said he is looking forward to 2017 as being a year of pushing boundaries. Although the collective has found a successful formula for its cover shows, Uncle Dad’s isn’t interested in resting on its laurels. Instead, Hegg said, the group wants to use the infrastructure that the collective has built to promote music that is a little more on the adventurous side.

“I appreciate the success, and I appreciate people being enthusiastic,” Hegg said. “But I want to play it a little less safe. I want to see how we can not only inspire but also challenge audiences, and challenge ourselves.”

To that end, the next round of shows on the Uncle Dad’s itinerary after Abbey Road are a collaboration with the North State Symphony, April 7-8 in Redding and Chico for the symphony’s new NSS POPS! concert series. As opposed to the mixed-media performance art spectacle of Abbey Road, these concerts, titled A Splash of Favorites, are focused purely on music.

Uncle Dad’s lineup for 2017 also includes Listen Up, a series of shows at the Naked Lounge focused on the idea of critical listening, giving local music aficionados the opportunity to enjoy music in a setting free of conversations, cellphones lighting up and the other distractions endemic to the casual setting of the majority of music venues in Chico. Hegg described these shows as a “work in progress,” but they are just one more step in the collective’s long-term goal of elevating both the artistic conversation in Chico and their own creative output.

“The goal of Uncle Dad’s Art Collective is always to push ourselves,” Hegg said. “If a show flops, it flops. But if we’ve learned something about music and art and production, it’s still a success.”

—Daniel Taylor

Don't call it a comeback

Karl Ory

Karl Ory

Photo by Ken Smith

This year marks Karl Ory’s second appearance in the CN&R’s annual rundown of people to watch in the upcoming year; he was first featured three decades ago, in 1986.

Back then, Ory was coming off two terms on the Chico City Council, where he’d spent his final two years as mayor before losing his seat in a conservative coup. Fast forward 30 years, and he’s won a place at the dais once again.

Ory’s remained politically active during the interim. The CN&R reported in ’86 that, immediately following his council exit, he was publishing a newsletter called City Watch and fighting with Butte County and California Water Service Co. officials to install a water filtration system to reduce toxic emissions, an effort that eventually succeeded. He’s since continued with political and social justice work at the local and state levels, most notably in the affordable housing and environmental arenas.

Ory said his involvement in a series of more recent actions inspired him to run for council again: “I’ve been a lead community organizer with one grassroots effort after another, fighting City Hall,” he said. “You eventually realize the only thing to do is to change City Hall.”

He was speaking specifically of successful referendum/initiative efforts he’s participated in to halt or roll back controversial council decisions. Those include stopping construction of a five-story parking structure at Second and Wall streets in 2005; stopping a scheme to change local elections to June (thus limiting student participation) in 2011; and stopping the cancellation of the city’s franchise agreement with the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market in 2014.

“After being involved with five or six referendums and initiatives, I’ve found it’s a powerful third voice,” he said. “It’s a good way to show City Hall we always have the vote of the people.”

Most recently, Ory’s been working with environmental group Move the Junkyard, which gathered signatures in November to make the current council review its decision to let Chico Scrap Metal stay at its East 20th Street location. Moving the recycler was a key plank in Ory’s campaign platform, and now he plans to back away from his leadership role in the group to negotiate with CSM’s owners to help make the move possible.

Other issues Ory plans to focus on are growing the city’s sales tax base, improving infrastructure and re-establishing commercial air service. Ory would also like to address what he sees as systemic issues with city decision-making; he said the traditional process of vetting items and issues through committees and public input is sometimes circumvented and has been supplanted by “stakeholders meetings.”

“I want to go back to where we have a series of public meetings that anyone can show up to and have their say, because when it comes to city decisions, everyone is a stakeholder.”

As Ory opens the next chapter of his storied political career, he remains a staunch—and sometimes feisty—progressive, but said he hopes to work across the aisle to make Chico a better place.

“Most of my conservative colleagues have reached out and made me feel very welcome,” he said. “So much that we need to work on—like the airport, the junkyard, public safety—these things shouldn’t be partisan issues.”

—Ken Smith

Winds of change

Gayle Hutchinson

Gayle Hutchinson

Photo courtesy of CSU, Channel Islands

When Gayle Hutchinson took over as president of Chico State on July 1, she embarked on a “100-day listening tour” to engage with the campus and community.

But her first semester wasn’t purely an academic exercise: Hutchinson barely had warmed the chair in her temporary office before moving to replace a vilified vice president and launch nationwide searches for that job and the provost.

The departed administrator, VP of business and finance Lori Hoffman, had been listed on the vote of no confidence issued by the Chico State Academic Senate against Hutchinson’s predecessor, Paul Zingg, who retired in June. (The faculty also condemned Interim Provost Susan Elrod, who left well before Hutchinson arrived.) The turnover validated expectations that Hutchinson would reinvigorate the college’s climate, and the president was embraced—often literally—by students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Just last week, the university announced that Debra Larson, who most recently served as the dean of the College of Engineering at Cal Poly—San Luis Obispo, had accepted the provost post.

That’s one of the major decisions during Hutchinson’s more than 100 days at the helm. Today, she’s occupying her permanent office—more modern and open than the bookcase-adorned configuration from Zingg’s era—and fully in charge.

How’s the honeymoon going?

“The honeymoon’s going really well,” Hutchinson replied. “Folks have been warm, receptive, enthusiastic; that, coupled with the 100-day listening tour, has been really positive.”

Whether what she called “a very good fall” proves the new norm or just a grace period could hinge on developments in the coming year: a new budget cycle and Hutchinson’s new executives, to name a few.

The search committee for finance VP has identified the semifinalists, she said, with a hire targeted for late February or early March—which would coincide with Larson’s start date as provost, March 1.

Both these high-profile administrators will play major roles in shaping how the campus functions, as evidenced by the scope of the no-confidence declaration.

Interestingly, when the CN&R suggested that the finance VP “makes some of the hard decisions that potentially can make people bristle,” Hutchinson interjected: “I get to make all those hard decisions.”

Asked if that means she’s a “buck stops here” president, she responded that each division head has his/her authority and she expects their decisions will align with her values for Chico State, such as transparency and shared governance. “That said,” she continued, “they will be accountable … and at the end of the day, the buck stops here; at the end of the day, I am the one who is held most accountable.”

Another potential source of divisiveness is the budget, every president’s bugaboo. Assessments of the state’s financial health vary, mostly along partisan lines, but Hutchinson’s quarter-century working in higher education—most at Chico State, also at CSU Channel Islands—taught her to prepare for the “ebb and flow of resources” annually.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen an incremental increase [in CSU system funding],” she said. “Going into this year, I know the Board of Trustees asked for additional funding … but I am bracing for a year that’s flat….

“I think we’re realists here on campus,” she added. She said she hopes her push for transparency and collaboration, which extends to budgeting, will forestall disputes over financials. “Having people understand that process, know what the thinking is going forward and be able to provide input into that, is really essential.”

—Evan Tuchinsky

Greening Chico

Bryce Goldstein

Bryce Godstein

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Bryce Goldstein graduated from Humboldt State in May and quickly put her environmental sciences degree into action. At 22 years old, Goldstein says her passions are climate change and energy, two areas she focused on in school and continues to work on through a CivicSpark fellowship, which brought her to Chico in September.

“I’m focused on increasing the community’s awareness of climate change, and on promoting energy efficiency,” Goldstein said during a recent interview at City Hall, where she hangs her hat these days.

CivicSpark, part of the AmeriCorps program, names 68 fellows throughout California each year—48 who work on climate action and 20 who work on water action. Goldstein is one of the former. The program lasts one year—it started in September—and generally includes a community assessment and a project completed in conjunction with local government. The overarching goal is to offer support to local communities in furthering their climate goals.

In Chico, that means Goldstein is working with nonprofits like Butte Environmental Council and GRID Alternatives as well as city staff and the Sustainability Task Force to implement the city’s Climate Action Plan. That plan calls for a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases over 2005 levels by the year 2020. Among her first items of business was updating the city’s sustainability website (chicosustainability.org) and Facebook page (@SustainableChico).

Goldstein hopes to pass along ideas on how people can be more green, but her main project will be a sustainability challenge that she’s currently brainstorming with the Sustainability Task Force. Initially, that looks like it could take the form of an LED challenge.

“Dates and numerical goals are uncertain at this point, but we discussed potentially installing 1 million LEDs in Chico,” Goldstein said. “This would include residences, businesses, schools, etc.”

Goldstein said the task force also hopes to get more people involved in the National Bike Challenge, which takes place from May through September. In addition to the community challenges, she plans to continue educating the public about climate change and increasing local engagement through volunteerism.

“My personal goals are to contribute to positive change, as well as develop professionally and personally,” Goldstein said of her wishes for 2017. “More specifically, when the year is done, I want to have contributed to a noticeable increase in public awareness and action regarding climate change. At the same time, I hope to become a better leader and solidify my own career goals.”

From the city’s perspective, she’s already making her mark.

“Through the CivicSpark program, Bryce is connected to resources that are being developed at the state level to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions and combat and adapt to climate change,” said Brendan Vieg, principal planner for the city of Chico who works with the Sustainability Task Force. “Her youth and optimism are energizing the Sustainability Task Force’s ongoing efforts to engage and educate the community on climate action.

“She’s in a unique position to connect local residents and businesses to resources, rebates and giveaways that in turn will save them money and help the environment.”

—Meredith J. Cooper