Who(m) to watch

Five local folks who are bound to be newsmakers in 2015

Katie Simmons

Katie Simmons

photo by michelle camy

Who(m) to watch

Last week, the CN&R took a look back at the noteworthy events of 2014 in our annual year-in-review issue. And for our first cover package of the new year, we're making predictions for what's to come by profiling some of the folks we believe will make headlines in 2015.

Last year was an election year, so we have the usual suspects—those newly sworn in as Chico City Council members. This cycle includes Andrew Coolidge and Reanette Fillmer. The other successful council candidate, Mark Sorensen, was featured four years ago in our annual “Who(m) to watch” issue when he first gained a seat at the dais, so you won't find him in this cover package, though we are certain he'll be a newsmaker.

The other three Chicoans featured here have diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, but what they have in common is a commitment to the community and a desire to contribute to it in significant ways.

Community leader

Katie Simmons

“My role feels challenging anyway, but when I think of it in the context of the changes in the city’s leadership …” Katie Simmons began during a recent interview. She went on to explain how she’s worked with three city managers and responded to myriad crises since becoming the president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce right before news broke about the city’s financial crisis, back in the spring of 2012.

Indeed, Simmons’ tenure as the city’s leading advocate for the business community has taken place during the most strained financial times for the city and unprecedented turnover in administrators at City Hall. In that time, less than three years, she’s been on the front lines as it relates to Chico’s many challenges, and that’s required a deeper level of community engagement on her and the chamber’s part.

It’s been quite a departure from a role that traditionally opposes or endorses local initiatives and proposals. That was patently clear this past fall when Simmons spoke openly about her daughter’s near-abduction over the summer. She was leading a press conference outside of City Hall, the intention of which was to, as she put it, “roll out the red carpet for shoppers” during the holidays. Simmons and representatives of the Downtown Chico Business Association had wrangled together a number of community leaders to announce that the Chico Police Department was adding foot and bicycle patrols in the downtown business district.

Simmons hadn’t planned to talk about how a man had stolen a car with then-9-year-old Adela inside (her quick-thinking daughter jumped out of the vehicle). But she had a feeling something was awry at the event on the steps of the City Council chambers, and she felt compelled to give a personal narrative to the vagrancy issues facing the city.

Her instincts proved correct. After making the announcement, a member of the police union, the Chico Police Officers’ Association, attempted to deflate the event by telling those in attendance that police officers were already overworked and weren’t going to pick up the voluntary shifts in the city center.

“I left feeling exhausted and devastated,” Simmons said. But there was a positive side, too, and that was that the media and community at large started asking the right questions, she said. And in short order, the police patrols started taking place downtown.

That, of course, is just one of the controversies the chamber has worked to resolve over the past couple of years. Conversations continue about the police department’s policy regarding alarms, following an announcement last spring from then-Police Chief Kirk Trostle that the city would no longer respond to automated systems. More recently, the chamber is taking the lead on efforts to secure commercial air service following the exit of United Airlines’ SkyWest last month.

In short, big challenges lie ahead. However, Simmons seems undeterred. She said she takes her role as a community leader very seriously and, though she’s lived here for a relatively short time (about seven years), is deeply connected to the city.

Simmons grew up in the Bay Area. Her brother came here for college and her parents subsequently moved to the region. At the time, Simmons, a sociology major who attended UC San Diego, traveled around the world extensively for her job as the director of operations for the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. She made the move in 2008 with her then-toddler in tow; her first job in the area was as executive director of the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

Her professional life has evolved greatly since then, as has her personal life. It’s here that she met her husband, Rodney Cox. The couple are now parents of a 2-year-old, Heidi. Looking back, Simmons says she realized early on Chico was the place she needed to be.

“When I visited on the weekends, I thought, ‘that’s my home,’” she said.

—Melissa Daugherty

Arts advocate

Monica McDaniel

As founder and president of the nonprofit Chico Arts Foundation, Monica McDaniel will most assuredly be at the center of any arts advocacy efforts taking place in Chico in 2015. And the city’s arts community is in dire need of advocacy. With the City Council’s recent decision to limit city Arts Commission meetings to twice a year (down from six), and the nearly nonexistent funding allocated for public art and local arts organizations, the relationship between the city and its oft-celebrated arts community is fractured at best.

Monica McDaniel

photo by Brittany waterstradt

The Chico Arts Foundation was officially formed (with the North Valley Community Foundation) on Jan. 6, 2011, said McDaniel, explaining that it had always been a goal of the Arts Commission, which was founded in 1990, to create “a fundraising mechanism so that it would become [self]-sustainable in the future.

“I didn’t think they’d actually cut [the arts] the way they have, but I knew that it would have to be self-sustaining,” McDaniel said. “And I know that [the arts are] a thing that people want.”

The uncertainty of the commission and city finances would seem to make an entity like the foundation crucial to the local arts scene.

“The foundation can operate a little differently than the commission” when it comes to rules for public meetings, McDaniel said. “But for the foundation, we wanted the transparency and the public inclusion also. Therefore, that link to the commission is important.”

McDaniel is a recently termed-out member of the Arts Commission, having served since 2009. She has put her name in the ring to rejoin for another term (the City Council hasn’t made its selections yet).

It’s hoped that upcoming results of the recently completed Arts Commission-coordinated Arts and Economic Prosperity survey—which McDaniel helped administer—will be able to further underline the connection between arts and culture and the local economy.

But with or without that link to the commission, the foundation is continuing with its arts advocacy, most visibly in its public-art tour collaboration with Tehama Group Communications, a student-run public relations firm at Chico State. The interactive walking tour will be a guide to the many stand-alone public art pieces in Chico. Participants will be able to click on QR codes in a brochure and pull up YouTube videos filmed with McDaniel and Mary Gardner, former city arts coordinator and current CAF board member, explaining the history and significance of each piece.

“Our intention is to launch this tour in April of 2015,” McDaniel said.

The aim of the videos is to increase understanding of what went into bringing all the public art into being as well as give an up-close look at the condition of the pieces, some of which are in dire need of repair.

Born and raised in Upland, McDaniel came to Chico for school in 1993, graduated Chico State with a degree in art history and currently works as the outreach coordinator and capital-development coordinator at Blue Oak Charter School. She’s also an artist herself, creating assemblage pieces when she can find time and helping her fellow Burning Man camp members weld together a mutant vehicle for the playa.

“Part of why I stayed here is because it was a community I could get involved with,” McDaniel said. “This current climate is surprising. It’s just shocking to me.” She said she hopes the current events will serve as a wake-up call to locals who didn’t turn out at the polls in recent elections. “I don’t think that people really realize [the power] that our City Council has to make or break our local culture. … It would be my hope that the city recognizes what it’s lost.”

—Jason Cassidy

The fiscal conservative

Andrew Coolidge

In 2012, Andrew Coolidge found himself just 222 votes shy of a seat on the Chico City Council. Rather than letting his political aspirations die, the self-described fiscal conservative kept his eye on the prize, further educating himself about city issues, including attending council meetings and preparing himself for a second bid in November 2014.

This time around, Coolidge was the top vote-getter for three open seats on the dais. He also raised about $41,000 in campaign donations, though he credits his success more with hands shaken than dollars spent.

Andrew Coolidge

photo courtesy of facebook

“As a virtual unknown in town in 2012, I think the thing that benefited me the most was going out and talking to people door-to-door,” said Coolidge, explaining he visited about 7,000 random Chico residents on foot during that race. This year, he focused on 3,000 of those most likely to vote for him and accomplished his outreach on a bicycle.

“When you’re talking to thousands of people at their door, you find out real quick what their concerns are,” Coolidge said. “It’s a little surprising, and I think that some candidates who don’t do the door-to-door, who just go to the public meetings and debates, they don’t get a real grasp on what the issues are that people really care about.”

What voters care about, Coolidge believes, is fiscal oversight and responsibility, and he promises to “be informed about all of the issues and ask the tough questions.” Coolidge paints a bleak—but improving—picture of the city’s finances, noting Chico needs to focus spending on essentials and programs with a payout instead of quality-of-life issues.

“I’d love to do more bike lanes, I’d love to do all that other stuff, but right now I just want to get the city moving ahead,” he said.

Some planks in Coolidge’s campaign he wants to tackle in 2015 are the city’s adoption of the Chico Green Growth Program, a 30-year program (designed by Chevron) to update old infrastructure with more modern technology. He also wants the city to take another look at its tax-sharing agreement with the North Valley Plaza, and streamline its planning and permitting process, which he said suffers from a 10-week backlog that keeps local workers from doing their jobs.

Coolidge said addressing these systemic problems can leave more money for important things like public safety, which he said is the No. 1 issue in Chico: “I hope, obviously, our transient problem and law enforcement levels are solved, or at least moving toward that,” he said of his vision for 2015. “I hope within a year we’re talking about putting [resources] back into our traffic [enforcement], about restoring our participation on the local regional drug enforcement. There are things the police office needs to bring back online like a school resource officer. They’re all really important to the community.”

Coolidge is a native of Loma Rica, a small community outside of Marysville, and moved to Chico 20 years ago to attend Chico State. He said he passed on the typical student experience, instead marrying and starting a public relations firm that eventually led him to drop out of school as the business became successful, though he returned in 2005 to receive a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He still runs the same business, though he’s moved out of PR to focus on events, and currently produces annual home and garden and bridal shows in Chico and Yuba City.

Reanette Fillmer

photo by michelle camy

The new councilman said developing the thick skin necessary for public service has been one of his biggest challenges, but said he thinks he’s up to the task.

—Ken Smith

Outside-the-box thinker

Reanette Fillmer

It would be easy to type Reanette Fillmer as a political ingénue. After all, the newly elected City Council member, a Chico native, has never served on a city board or commission or worked on a political campaign other than her own.

But it would be a mistake to think Fillmer doesn’t know what she’s doing, especially when it comes to human relations. Now 44 years old, she’s been in that field since she became HR manager in a Sacramento Target store at the tender age of 22. Later, she worked in HR for Butte Community Bank, for the Sacramento Superior Court for three years, and as HR director for Tehama County beginning in 2008 and ending when she left in 2012 to form her own business in Chico, Argus HR Solutions.

Along the way, while employed full time, she managed to graduate from Sacramento City College and then Chico State. She’s never married and has no children, however. “I was too career-driven, I guess,” she said during a recent interview.

This varied background—in business, government and the courts—no doubt will serve her well during her tenure on the City Council. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s an articulate woman whose drive is balanced by a warm presence and a disarming smile. And she has a curious mind, as evidenced by the fact that she is currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book about social change, The Tipping Point.

She intends to put her HR background to good use on the council, beginning with an effort to increase police staffing by developing a recruitment plan. What people don’t realize, she says, is that several funded positions remain open, but recruitment lags. Qualified candidates are looking elsewhere because they doubt Chico’s financial stability.

“We have to market Chico as a recovering city,” she insisted.

Fillmer also wants to develop a comprehensive compensation study of police staffing, one that “compares apples to apples, not apples to oranges. … When I look at average salaries [in other cities], we are not as high as people say we are.”

In the meantime, the city needs to help Interim Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh with recruitment. She said Chico can’t afford to hold off on hiring for the six months it will take to find a replacement for retired Chief Kirk Trostle.

She also wants to maintain a police presence downtown and develop a plan for handling the traveling homeless who will be returning in the spring. A collaborative approach is needed, one involving the county as well as current programs such as the Downtown Ambassadors.

As a business owner, she knows how important it is for the council to support local businesses. She’s eager to do what she can to speed up the city’s permitting process. “It’s a productivity issue,” she said. “Employees need to be more empowered to be more responsive.”

She hopes that the redirection of the City Council following the recent elections indicates that Chico has reached its own tipping point, and she promises to be “an innovative, outside-the-box thinker” on the council.

Natalie Carter

photo by tom gascoyne

—Robert Speer

New market manager

Natalie Carter

In November, Natalie Carter was named general manager of the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, which is best known for its Saturday setup in the city parking lot at Second and Wall streets, and where for the past 21 years local growers have sold their produce and other handmade items to thousands of customers.

Prior to taking that post, she served in various other roles at CCFM, including business manager.

For the past couple of years, Carter—who’s a farmer herself—has been witness to the uncertainty of the event’s future, as it faced pressure to move from the city-owned parking lot. Critics said its location in downtown was inappropriate, taking up too many parking spaces and thus discouraging shopping at nearby businesses.

That pressure eased in June when the Chico City Council, after years of debate and political wrangling, voted to give the market an initial six-year franchise agreement that began on Jan. 1. The council also voted to allow the market to expand on-site. After that deal expires, a new eight-year contract will be put before the voters in the general election.

As new general manager, Carter will be front and center during this new era for the longtime event.

“I think, obviously, the market is going through a big change right now and so a lot of my focus is on trying to find new ways for us to get involved with our community,” she said. “The expansion is probably going to happen in spring.”

The new franchise agreement gives the market control over the entire lot, from sidewalk to sidewalk. Even so, she said, initial plans call for expansion only into the parking aisle that runs along Third Street.

“One of the main reasons [for the expansion] is because we have a lot of vendors at the market currently who want more space,” she said. “We are really at capacity with the footprint we’ve been using and so that will give vendors who are using maybe one stall space to be able to use 1 1/2 or maybe two spaces.”

Among her responsibilities is communicating with the market’s 150 members.

Carter, who moved to Chico while she was in kindergarten, attended both Chico Junior High and Chico High School before earning a degree in biology from Chico State. She is also a member of the Chico Natural Foods Co-op’s board of directors.

She and her mother, Cheri Wolf, have a produce farm in southwest Chico, where they grow crops such as popcorn, arava melons, edamame, multicolored bell peppers and fingerling potatoes. There, and at the CCFM’s downtown office or at the market itself, Carter is regularly accompanied by her 1-year-old daughter, Aria.

“Local food is my thing, I guess,” she said. “I’m pretty dedicated to the Chico community and I look for as many ways as I can to get involved.”

Carter said new vendors will be brought in and a community area with tables and chairs will be established to allow customers to eat food prepared at the market.

“We don’t want to see a mom and her kid sitting on the curb eating tamales,” she said. “We’re also hoping to have local restaurants with guest chef demonstrations and other community-themed booths. I’m really looking forward to improving our connection with the community.”

—Tom Gascoyne