Whom to watch in 2020

A few names to look for in the new year

Danette York

Danette York

Photo courtesy of Butte County Public Health

As has become tradition at the CN&R around this time, when the days begin to get longer, we start looking to the future. In doing so, we focus on some of the people we think are likely to make headlines in the coming year.

When our staff sat down to share nominees for 2020, we ended up with what is probably a first for this newspaper: an all-women Whom to Watch list. It includes the director of Butte County Public Health, the city of Chico’s vice mayor and a councilwoman, a county supervisor, the executive director of the local fire safe council, and three faces behind an up-and-coming theater company.

They all share a deep connection to Butte County, but each has a different vision about how to contribute to and shape the future of our region.

Prime communicator
Danette York

Danette York found herself at a controversial crossroads around the same time she was hired as the director of Butte County Public Health.

This past summer, the Chico-based Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (NVHRC) submitted an application to the state Public Health Department to distribute free syringes in Chico. The issue quickly became heated locally: Would such a service be helpful or harmful, compassionate or enabling?

Public Health was asked to make presentations on the topic. York told the CN&R she assembled key members of her team beforehand and they shared their thoughts, but she made it clear how the department would respond.

“Whether it’s syringe access or any hot topic or political topics, I will always provide the recommendation based on the data,” she said. “And that’s just being transparent and honest.”

So, York’s team recommended syringe access programs to the Chico City Council and the Butte County Board of Supervisors, presenting data showing that they are effective in reducing transmission of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users. Shortly after, the state granted NVHRC a license to provide the service.

This response exemplifies York’s approach to all issues of public health concern: She told the CN&R that she sees open communication as a critical part of her role as director. In 2020, she says she’ll also focus on strengthening the department’s preventative health efforts.

When a staff position opened up recently, York seized the opportunity to create a new division and division director position focused on prevention, education and health promotion. It’s her hope this will streamline the county’s preventative education work.

“They can work together, they can learn from each other and they can cross-train,” she said. “That director can focus on more opportunities—learning from things like the Community Health Assessment [CHA] what Butte County needs … and then be able to look for funding opportunities that could help create a program or a policy that would help address that.”

This year also marks the development of a community health improvement plan in response to the CHA, which analyzes data to paint a picture of the overall well-being of Butte County every four years. York is looking forward to working alongside her colleagues to home in on potential solutions to three of the county’s primary issues: mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.

York told the CN&R she plans on advocating for solutions to those issues on a larger scale this year as well. She is part of the County Health Executives Association of California, a statewide organization made up of county and city health department and agency directors, and plans on expanding the scope of her involvement to “make sure that Butte County is represented and not forgotten.”

“For public health as a system, we will be watching closely [in 2020] and trying to help wherever we can on building access to care,” she said.

—Ashiah Scharaga

Alex Brown

Agent of action
Alex Brown

Running for Chico City Council wasn’t what Vice Mayor Alex Brown had in mind. Brown, who has a master’s in social work from Chico State, planned to pursue a doctoral degree in that field at the University of Washington. She had been accepted and was ready to go—but she felt the timing wasn’t right. When she asked herself what drove her to stay, the answer became clear.

“It was to do good. To do more in my community, and I realized that I could do that here,” Brown told the CN&R. “And so while the immediate thought wasn’t, Oh, I should run for office, it was, What can I do here that would allow me to be challenged every day? To be learning every day? And to do good?

Elected in November 2018, Brown ran on a platform of expanding the scope of public safety policies to include service providers; addressing housing availability and costs; eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness; and pursuing regulated cannabis sales. Last year, in the wake of the Camp Fire, she also prioritized addressing climate change locally.

“I think 2020 is the year of climate action,” said Brown, who co-authored the Chico Green New Deal. “I think [the City Council] really set the stage in the year 2019. … That work has set us up to be looking at every single policy decision that we make in the year 2020 through the lens of climate action.”

That aforementioned work included the declaration of a climate emergency, the establishment of the Climate Action Commission and the formation of the Butte Choice Energy Authority (BCEA), a joint venture between the city and county to procure and sell power as an alternative to PG&E.

Brown sits on the BCEA’s board, a position she lobbied the council for. Her presence there, she said, represents a younger demographic than might otherwise be expected for such a body.

“There are a lot of younger voices that are ready to have us make bolder decisions around energy and clean energy,” Brown said.

The BCEA could play a significant role in enabling climate-related action long-term, such as incentivizing local energy projects, Brown said. The board’s work this year—including considerations regarding the renewable and carbon-free energy supply options it will offer customers—will set the stage for a 2021 launch.

Additionally, Brown said policies surrounding homelessness likely will be addressed early this year. Long-term solutions must focus on housing, she said, but the council in the short-term needs to take a closer look at city laws such as the sit/lie and Offenses Against Public Property ordinances, which are “disproportionately impacting people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Brown believes the city should allow “safe, clean camping,” and leadership must be taken to create such spaces so people are not afraid of being cited or ordered to move by police.

There is no perfect solution, Brown said, but “I want to be a part of the council who enables sheltering and housing projects for people experiencing homelessness.”

—Andre Byik

Debra Lucero

Collaborative vision
Debra Lucero

In her art-filled office in downtown Chico, Butte County Supervisor Debra Lucero reached for a map outlining the burn scar of the Camp Fire and other previous local wildfires. Like the rest of the community, she worries about future natural disasters.

Flooding is at the top of her mind this winter when it comes to her own district 2—a region that stretches from the city center northward through bucolic west Chico to the Tehama County line. Lucero is encyclopedic about the issue, ticking off facts such as the increased percentage of run-off last year and its effects on rural neighborhoods that have sprung up without flood mitigation measures. Moreover, she thinks ahead to what would happen should the nearby foothills catch fire.

“If Cohasset and Forest Ranch burn—I should say when—there’s going to be such issues in Chico,” she said. “There will be a lot of flooding.”

Lucero had to get up to speed quickly on that and many other concerns considering she was sworn in a year ago this month—her first time in elected office—just a few months after the Camp Fire. She’s since been delving into the potential for other disasters, as well as a seemingly endless list of other issues, including those related to the county’s already high rate of poverty.

Looking forward, because the entire North State is grappling with some of the same crises—take homelessness as an example—Lucero believes joining forces with other counties to represent a larger and thus more powerful constituency would better address them. She pointed to Iowa’s statewide effort to tackle the opioid crisis by basically ignoring county jurisdictional lines and locating crisis intake centers, low-barrier shelters and other facilities strategically based on distance and need.

Lucero, who has spent decades working in the arts, tourism and economic development sectors—locally and in surrounding counties—already has connections throughout the North State. She’s made new ones through involvement with the California State Association of Counties and the Latino Caucus of California Counties.

From her perspective, collaboration is needed broadly at the local level as well. Lucero mentioned all five Butte County municipalities, but also pointed to some of the county’s own departments, namely Public Health, Behavioral Health, and Employment and Social Services. Toward that end, she thinks working in close cooperation with each other would benefit the community. In Shasta County, the Health and Human Services Agency comprises those departments, she noted.

Lucero approaches her own work with the public with that collaborative mindset. One of her goals for 2020 on that front is for the county to host a series of regional workshops on such issues as homelessness, water, health issues and disaster preparedness.

It also extends to her vision for Camp Fire relief efforts that she believes will need to continue for at least a decade or two.

“You can’t just carve out a huge chunk of your county with devastation and then just keep going like everything is normal—it’s not,” she said. “That means you have to think differently, you have to operate differently, you have to be more creative, you have to be more collaborative.”

—Melissa Daugherty

Kasey Reynolds

Forging connections
Kasey Reynolds

Kasey Reynolds is always busy, either working at Shubert’s Ice Cream & Candy, which she co-owns with her brother, serving the city as a councilwoman, being a mom or volunteering.

Take a recent afternoon: Reynolds was knuckle-deep in chocolate, creating dozens of cashew and almond clusters amid a bustling shop prepping for the holiday season while she discussed her plans for 2020 with the CN&R.

For Reynolds, public safety is still a No. 1 priority, which means supporting the police department, holding criminals accountable and discouraging vagrancy. But she’s also been focused on another project as of late: opening a treatment facility for people with mental illness and substance use disorders.

The plan is still in its infancy, so she wasn’t ready to divulge many details, but she said it will be a 50-bed facility in Chico, with a nine-month clean and sober program operated by licensed clinical staff. Reynolds added that the clients will be selected through a combination of jail release, police referral and street outreach.

“We want to lift them up and make sure they are a part of our community,” she said.

Reynolds, one of two conservative Chico City Council members, has caught flack for her comments on homelessness and social service programs, however.

“I feel like there’s this narrative that I’m this … ice cream fascist and I’m a white supremacist,” she said. “I’m not a supremacist against anything. I’m a business owner that loves my family, that loves my community ….”

She told the CN&R that she is passionate about addressing homelessness, and that she also plans to help community organizations open a 24-hour shelter this year in a similar capacity to the treatment center project—by bringing partners together and helping them streamline the process. But she added that accountability would have to be part of the operation.

Housing is another concern she said she’ll continue to work on in 2020. This past November, Reynolds was nominated by Assemblyman James Gallagher to attend a White House round table discussion on housing affordability and regulatory barriers. She attended alongside dozens of other city leaders across the U.S., and met Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, as well as other federal officials and policymakers. Reynolds said she spoke about the impacts of the Camp Fire, the region’s workforce exodus and high cost of housing.

In Reynolds’ view, the city needs to prioritize public infrastructure improvements, such as roads and sewage connections, to encourage new development. She expressed frustration with state regulations, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, which she said is being used as a “sword” rather than a “shield,” halting subdivisions like Epick Homes’ planned Stonegate project that would create hundreds of new homes in east Chico, which Reynolds said could really help the region, especially post-Camp Fire.

“The more we can help Paradise succeed, the more it puts people back up on the hill [and] it opens up things down here,” she said. “The more things are open down here and the more housing we have down here—it’s supply and demand. The prices are going to go down because there’s more available.”

—Ashiah Scharaga

Calli-Jane DeAnda

Staffing up
Calli-Jane DeAnda

Calli-Jane DeAnda is no stranger to fire. After all, she’s executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council. Still, like it was for everyone else, the Camp Fire was a wake-up call.

On a personal level, DeAnda and her family were forced to relocate—not because their home burned down, but because the blaze took out their water source, the Miocene Canal. They found a house in Paradise and have been settling in.

From a professional perspective, she recognized that the work she and her organization had done to that point was helpful, but clearly it wasn’t enough.

“This fire was unlike any other in its magnitude and devastation,” she told the CN&R. “It’s forced us to have a creativity level we’ve never had before.”

Thanks to a couple of grants, the council was able to boost its staff from four to 11 this past year. Add to that the state and national attention on the region and its fire vulnerability and 2019 turned out to be a year of growth, DeAnda said. The coming year looks to build on that momentum.

“Now that we have more staff, what can we do over the next year that’s really going to help people’s consciousness grow, as far as how to be good stewards?” she said.

In answer, she pointed to the busy calendar she already has scheduled for 2020. In addition to the regular events the fire safe council holds each year—forest health tours and community meetings—she’s added a slew of other activities to the list. Among them: firescaping classes.

“We realized after the fire that we talk a lot about defensible space, but it’s really boring,” she said. “So, let’s talk about plants—let’s talk about lavender and aloe and peach trees, and let’s go into the yard and talk to people about their passion with plants. And then we can look at structures and the other aspects of fire safety.”

Other events include separate meetings for north and south county fire safe councils, “coffee/tea for the WUI” the second Thursday of each month (WUI is short for wildland-urban interface) at the council’s office in Paradise, and a wildfire building construction fair in October. One of the organization’s more creative new ideas is to hold a meeting of wood-crafters, with the goal of making art from the scorched Camp Fire trees as a way to both use the wood coming out of the burn zone and generate funding.

In all, DeAnda said she’s optimistic for 2020 because she foresees it as a year for healing and for progress on the forest management front. The fire safe council has projects underway in Bangor, Berry Creek, Forbestown, Forest Ranch, Magalia and Paradise. Plus, it recently put in grant proposals for projects in Cohasset, Feather Falls and the Oroville foothills.

“Because of the fire, because of the state’s attention, everything that we’ve been doing all along now has more encouragement and support,” she said. “So, this is year one post-fire. What will year two look like?”

—Meredith J. Cooper

From left: Jami Witt Miller, Erin Horst and Laura Tenckhoff

Producing a legacy
Jami Witt Miller, Erin Horst and Lara Tenckhoff

Erin Horst’s mother still has the notebooks that her daughter filled with theater designs.

“I’ve been sketching out a theater company since I was a little kid,” said Horst, now a mother of two. “I was very convicted from an early age that this is what I’m doing with my life.”

This fall, Horst began to make her designs on creating a theater come true. The actress/director and drama instructor (at both Chico State and Inspire School of Arts & Sciences) teamed up with two friends—actress/director Lara Tenckhoff and actress/director and fellow Chico State instructor Jami Witt Miller—to produce Macbeth in Bidwell Park, the first production for their newly founded Legacy Stage theater company.

The collective dream is to produce high-quality theater that also can provide an income for the those involved—in other words, a professional company.

“We are three strong women who have creative careers that find ourselves together in Chico,” explained Witt Miller. “All three of us are mothers who are committed to have a legacy in the community, and want to be able to have careers in theater outside of teaching. And so we are creating that opportunity.”

So far, the only way the women have been able to utilize their years of theater experience to make money in the production/performance realm has been to leave town. Both Tenckhoff and Witt Miller travel to tiny Clinton, Iowa, to work with the professional Clinton Area Showboat Theatre.

“I’ve been spending my last four summers having to leave this community that I love, that I’ve lived in for 20 years, to be able to work professionally somewhere and continue to build my professional résumé,” said Tenckhoff. “And as a mother and a wife, that’s not the most sustainable model.”

“We find ourselves pouring into these communities that we go into, and we want to pour that energy into our community,” added Witt Miller. “[We] want to create opportunities for artists to have careers and professional experiences in this community. It’s something that we really think Chico can support and sustain and deserves.”

That ambitious mission had a promising start in the company’s Macbeth debut. Staged among the trees, creek and creepy shadows of Bidwell Park at night, the roving outdoor production was impressive and well-received, selling out five weekends of performances by week two.

The follow-up was a holiday cabaret called Give My Regards to Christmas, which was written by Witt Miller’s husband, Matthew Teague Miller. The holiday show was staged at Apollo School of Music, and while the three say they want to work toward establishing a permanent home, Legacy’s productions will rotate among existing venues for the time being.

The 2020-21 season is still in the works, including the first show of the new year—a big spring production—that will be announced as soon as rights have been secured.

Horst says that the ultimate goal is to establish “a fully staffed theater with a full year of programming,” but added that it’s most important to develop a deeper relationship with Chico and create “a cultural centerpiece of the community where people go to connect in relationship to each other.”

—Jason Cassidy