Whom to Watch in 2019

Camp Fire aftermath links mayors, fire chief, service provider

Laura Cootsona

Laura Cootsona

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Each year around this time, we switch gears from looking back at what’s come before to looking forward at what we think might be ahead. We all can agree that 2018 was rough—especially the last few months of it. So what might the future hold? Here’s a look at the people we expect to make waves—or at least headlines—in 2019. They include three local mayors, a fire chief and homeless services provider. All of them stand to shape the future of Butte County—both long-term and short.

Multitasking on homelessness

Laura Cootsona

When Laura Cootsona became the Jesus Center’s executive director a little over three years ago, one of her first tasks was shoring up the organization’s internal operations, including building a strong, trusted team. It freed up more time for her to spend outside the office, working with the leaders of other nonprofits and local governments to figure out how to tackle homelessness in the region.

“I really see my role is to build our capacity and my colleagues’ capacity so that ultimately every person experiencing homelessness can have their best opportunity,” she said. “If I just stay in my silo and just do Jesus Center, that’s not enough.”

Cootsona spent much of 2018 preparing for big plans in 2019. In addition to continuing to run the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations, she spearheaded the center’s latest, and arguably most controversial, project: the Renewal Center. Of course, that was before the Camp Fire—an event that has added more to her full plate.

The Renewal Center, a consolidated services hub, is in the planning stages. The goal is to build a day center, a low-barrier shelter and transitional housing near the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. On-site medical and behavioral health services are in the plan, too. As of press time, the Jesus Center was in the final stages of purchasing a 3.5-acre, city-owned property for those facilities.

Though the project was unanimously approved by the Chico City Council, critics have charged that the location near the Torres Community Shelter and the concept of service consolidation would segregate homeless people from the rest of the community. Cootsona said she’s determined to make sure this doesn’t happen. The organization is focused on the dignity and health of its clients, she said, and helping them secure stable housing and live independently is a key component.

“I think in general as we work with folks experiencing homelessness, particularly in the light of the Camp Fire, we’ve got to be more concerned that we’re not setting them up just to get stuck in a system,” she said.

In 2019, Cootsona expects the nonprofit to make progress on infrastructure at the site, including a road for ingress/egress. If the Jesus Center receives a portion of Homeless Emergency Aid Program funding—$4.9 million in one-time state money available for agencies and nonprofits in Butte County—Cootsona sees the Renewal Center’s mobile medical unit (two exam rooms staffed with health professionals) going live over the summer.

Additionally, she’ll be working with the Torres Shelter and Safe Space Winter Shelter on a plan for a separate low-barrier shelter. With $1 million from the Walmart Foundation and assistance from Chico city staff, the groups plan on acquiring land and opening a year-round, staffed facility with 100 to 200 beds as soon as possible. Cootsona said it will provide them with a great opportunity to figure out how three agencies can smoothly operate a single site.

Meanwhile, because the Camp Fire further constricted an already tight housing market, Cootsona is considering taking the nonprofit in yet another direction. Its guests will be hard-pressed to find any homes to move into, she said, even as new residences are built. This means that the Jesus Center may shift in the direction of permanent housing, Cootsona said, because “we just can’t afford not to.”

“Everyone else is going to be worrying about workforce housing or student housing or whatever their niche is. This is our flag,” she continued. “These folks are still not housed and now it’s harder for them to get housed. …

“After the fire, too, I just feel even more committed to raising my flag: ‘Let’s not forget these people. They are no less valued in our community than anyone else.’”

—Ashiah Scharaga

A man with a plan

Chuck Reynolds

Growing up in Oroville, where his family has a history going back nearly 150 years, Chuck Reynolds never thought he’d be mayor. “Never even crossed my mind,” he said, even though his father, Ernie, was a prominent business owner known for serving the community.

Chuck Reynolds

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

At least, it didn’t until Reynolds turned 18. That’s when he says neighbors approached him about running for mayor. It happened several other times, with overtures from friends and associates. On each occasion, the timing wasn’t right.

“At certain points in your life, you’re either young, doing young man things, or you’re building a business and taking care of your family and there isn’t time,” he said. “But once all of those things are established, then it’s a proper time.”

For Reynolds, who’s 54, that meant the 2018 election. Linda Dahlmeier opted not to seek a third term as mayor; Reynolds—who shares her opposition to commercial cannabis, a litmus-test issue for Oroville last year—threw his hat in the ring against Vice Mayor Janet Goodson.

Reynolds won decisively, with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Goodson remains on the council with two years left in her term, but two of her allies lost their seats to challengers aligned with Reynolds. The majority she led approved commercial cannabis; the newly constituted council, which took office Wednesday (Jan. 2), has a conservative majority with power to change direction.

Not only power, but a perceived mandate.

“These people, this [previous] council, there were things the voters had decided on for our town and how we wanted to live,” Reynolds said, referring to Butte County Measure L that failed in 2016. “They overrode the voters at the council level and said these decisions are too big for the voters to decide … which I don’t believe in. Why were the voters smart enough to elect these people if they weren’t smart enough to know how they want to live?

“Public citizens, or the majority of them, didn’t trust the council,” he added. “So a big thing is to re-establish trust…. People know what I stand for.”

The new mayor says he shares his father’s civic commitment. Ernie Reynolds has served as a sewer commissioner and board member for the Thermalito Irrigation District. After taking over and renaming his father’s masonry business, the younger Reynolds has been an Oroville Rotarian for 10 years. This Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), as mayor-elect, he was one of 143 Californians granted clemency by Gov. Jerry Brown, pardoned of drug charges from the 1990s that got publicized ahead of the election.

Along with opposing cannabis, Reynolds focused his campaign on support for business and public safety. Oroville’s city government faces insolvency in the next few years without significant changes. His approach centers on growth.

Reynolds cited 8,500 people who commute to town for work, including busloads of medical professionals from the Sacramento area to Oroville Hospital. “Housing is a top priority,” he said, particularly for middle- to upper-middle income families.

“We’ve absorbed our share of low-income affordable housing—our blight and burden is at our share level,” Reynolds continued. “So now we need to balance it out with contribution.”

Within a year, he said, people in Oroville will see “a lot of construction here, a lot of city planning going on.” In City Hall, “you’re going to see a lot of people working together. Who knows, we’ll see if we have one or two holdouts [on the council], but that’s not the majority; the majority of this staff and council all wants to work together, and that’s what it takes to move things forward.”

—Evan Tuchinsky

Mayor of nowhere

Jody Jones

Jody Jones

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

When Jody Jones, the mayor of Paradise, began to realize on the morning of Nov. 8 that her town was on fire and she needed to flee, she was at her sister’s house in the Apple Tree Village mobile home park.

Her sister was out of town, and Jones had been deputized to feed her cat. But the skittish feline was having none of it and refused to come out from under a bed.

After 20 minutes of anxious coaxing—the fire was getting closer by the minute—Jones gave up on the cat and headed for home. A house two doors down was in flames. Jones and her husband, Ron, quickly packed up their RV and joined the caravan of refugees headed for Chico. The trip took 3 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, their house burned to the ground.

All things considered, the Joneses were fortunate. After living out of their RV for a month, they were able to purchase a house in a north Chico subdivision.

During a recent interview, Jones said they have every intention of rebuilding in Paradise. How could it be otherwise? She’s the mayor, after all, having been re-elected to the post by council colleagues just last month. It’s her job to help her town thrive—even if that town is now mostly ash and debris.

Besides, Jones is uniquely qualified to bring Paradise back from the brink. Now 62, she retired three years ago as director of Caltrans’ District 3, which encompasses 11 counties, from Butte in the north to Sacramento in the south. She was responsible for 1,600 employees, a $200 million operating budget and a $1.4 billion construction program.

In addition, she’s served four years on the Paradise Town Council, including two terms as mayor, and three years on the Planning Commission.

Her job has gotten immeasurably harder since the fire. “It’s a much bigger responsibility than it was six months ago, that’s for sure,” she said, shaking her head.

Why do it, then? “It’s not the money, I can tell you that,” she replied, noting that council members earn only $300 a month.

Right now she’s waiting for the ash and debris to be removed. In the coming days she and her four fellow council members will begin planning for the future of Paradise. Town Hall is expected to reopen by mid- January, and PG&E has promised that electricity will be restored fully by then. Gas will take longer, as will potable water.

The sooner these fixes are made, the sooner people will start rebuilding, Jones says. As mayor, she’s the town’s cheerleader-in-chief, and she’s eager to point out the positives.

For one, 1,500 to 1,800 homes survived the fire, according to PG&E. A mini-mart gas station is open, and so are five or six restaurants, as well as a Walgreens and the post office. Two markets also are open, and Safeway has told Jones it’s going ahead with plans to build a supermarket on the lower Skyway. “That was very encouraging to me,” Jones said.

The planning process needs to move much faster than usual, however, or people will start moving away. “Public workshops, council meetings, hiring experts—all of that takes time, and we really don’t have that time,” Jones said.

“We have six months. Maybe.”

—Robert Speer

Fire chief charges forward

Steve Standridge

Steve Standridge took the position as fire chief for the city of Chico in early 2018. Immediately, the veteran firefighter identified some key issues that could be improved upon. Keep in mind, he inherited a department that had, within the past year, lost 15 positions that had been paid for by the SAFER grant, which was not renewed. With them went two fire stations.

Steve Standridge

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

After almost a year at the helm, Standridge is decidedly more comfortable and confident in his role. The Camp Fire has elevated him to a position of both authority and reverence. He was outspoken about his lack of resources as his staff worked around the clock on that blaze. The Fire Department was understaffed when he took over; during a time of great stress, he said, it was dangerously so.

While Standridge is hesitant to use the Camp Fire as a bargaining chip, he says it has “opened a door to more robust discussion.”

It’s prompted people in Chico to think more critically about “what level of service do we want in the city?” And, for Standridge, that’s a good thing.

He acknowledges that many people in the community “don’t understand what the fire department does.” Beyond fighting fires, his staff responds to calls from people who need help with their fire alarms as well as to medical calls; they are, as he calls it, a “social safety net.”

“We are truly the catch-all agency,” he said during a recent interview.

Standridge says he’s asked constantly why his staff responds to medical calls, or to calls about people sleeping on the street. In his eyes, that’s a huge part of the department’s job: “Who else is going to respond to those calls?”

Therein lies the bulk of what Standridge hopes to accomplish as chief. One of his main goals is to lead the department through a national accreditation process, which not only offers an outside perspective of how it’s performing, but also provides an opportunity for the community to weigh in on priorities. Additionally, it offers a level of transparency that Standridge sees as key to running a successful department.

Over the next year, in an attempt to reach that goal, Standridge hopes to give the community a thorough picture of what his department does, which will serve as a foundation for future discussions.

Currently, he’s facing an unexpected loss of five firefighters since September, most of them to retirement. He’s hired replacements, but they won’t be able to join the team until March, after a two-month training.

Standridge says he strategically used the $200,000 the City Council added to the department’s budget in June to pay for more overtime. That allowed him to provide one extra firefighter per shift while also accommodating for holiday time off. It also made it possible for him to put another engine on the streets, something he sees as critical.

He plans to make the case again in 2019 for funding for additional staff. Ultimately, he’d like at least 17 firefighters on duty at any one time—currently the number is 15, thanks to added overtime. He’ll also implement new interactive software that will aid in training firefighters for various scenarios. His department also plans to add a drone to its arsenal as a way to scout landscapes for fire preparation, as well as to spot precise locations of fires in hard-to-reach areas.

—Meredith J. Cooper

Ready to build

Randall Stone

Randall Stone

Photo by Rachel Bush

Randall Stone is nothing if not efficient. During a recent interview in his home, Chico’s newly elected mayor cradled and fed his 8-month-old son, Karden, while monitoring the barrage of phone and email notifications that chirped for his attention. “Can I call you back shortly? I’m about to do an interview,” he told one of several callers.

In addition to serving as mayor, Stone works a day job as a financial manager and real estate developer, teaches real estate and finance at Chico State, sits on several boards and committees, cares for two sons with his wife, Krista, and runs marathons. He can’t afford not to be smart about scheduling.

“I ride an electric unicycle to work. I didn’t get it to save on gas; I got it to save time. And my mandated work day ends at 1 p.m., so I have a large chunk of the afternoon I can appropriate.” Much of that extra time goes to his community and political engagements.

Stone developed his interest in politics at an early age. His father, a Sunnyvale city councilman of 16 years and Santa Clara County’s assessor since 1995, would relay the day’s happenings to Stone, who eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Chico’s City Council in 2012. On Dec. 6, Sean Morgan passed the mayoral gavel to him.

While he was once adamantly opposed to taking the leadership role, things changed for Stone after the Camp Fire. “I knew I had to get serious about it, and I nominated myself,” he said. “This disaster involved my skillset.”

His “skillset,” among other things, includes knowledge of affordable housing, which comes from his educational and work background in economics, finance and real estate. “On the development side, I don’t swing a hammer, but I grab federal tax credits and marry those with state bonds,” he explained. Once secured, “we use that equity to build a project and subsidize developments.”

With his younger brother, and help from the city, he built Bidwell Park Apartments, an affordable housing complex on East Eighth Street.

This experience and knowledge is more important now than ever, he says. In the wake of the Camp Fire, Stone said Chico “needs to house 2,300 households. We already had a housing disaster here, but now, it’s one of the worst in the country.

“What we need now is gap financing [mortgage and property loans]. I’ve been barking about that at all levels of government. There’s an opportunity in the amount of resources that are being focused our way, to address that. The more people who know about that, the more likely we can get legislation passed for tax credits and noncompetitive housing.”

Stone contends that if it’s not addressed properly, Chico could be facing “great economic devastation.” He supported FEMA’s proposal to set up 250 trailer homes off of Eaton Road, a project that was highly controversial and ultimately was abandoned after the property owner backed out.

“We have so many people to place, we can’t be nit-picking the low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Other projects on Stone’s agenda include “fixing The Esplanade,” meaning increasing pedestrian safety and traffic mitigations, among other things. The council also will discuss legalizing commercial cannabis.

Stone will have a lot on his plate during his tenure as mayor. While he says he wasn’t destined for this role, he finds the timing, especially with the fire, to be “strange and interesting.”

“It’s remarkable that someone with my background is facing this,” he said.

—Rachel Bush