Year in review: 10 top stories of 2008

Obama made history—woo-hoo! Otherwise it was the year things fell apart

It’s been a rough-and-tumble year, with the high of a historic presidential contest being offset almost immediately by the low of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Most everyone is glad to see the Bush administration go, but also worried about whether the Obama administration will be up to dealing with the multitude of difficult problems the country faces.

All in all, there hasn’t been a lot of good news. The state of California is increasingly dysfunctional and facing a budget deficit of monstrous proportions; cities, counties, school districts, universities and every other agency that depends on the state for its revenues is in the red. It’s a mess.

As if to add injury to insult, Mother Nature did her best to make the year difficult, from fierce winter storms in January to horrific wildfires in the summer. It doesn’t help that California is well into the third year of drought.

As the old Chinese blessing (or was it a curse?) goes, “May you be born in interesting times.” Here are the stories CN&R editors thought were the biggest of the year. We can’t say they make uplifting reading, but they’re certainly interesting.

PARTY ON<br>Chico Democrats cheer for America’s president-elect, Barack Obama.

CN&R file photo

A year of elections
California had not one, not two, but three elections in 2008, finishing up with the general election on Nov. 4, when Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected president following one of the most remarkable campaigns in history.

Nine months earlier in California, he had to compete in the state’s first-ever “presidential primary” on Feb. 5. That special election was the result of a deal among Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the two top leaders in the Legislature: then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and then-Senate President pro-tem Don Perata.

The public was told that California would get more attention from the candidates and have more impact if the presidential primaries were moved from the traditional June ballot to a special election in early February. But the real purpose of the deal was to put two initiatives on the ballot: one Nuñez and Perata wanted that would have changed term limits and let them run for office again, the other the governor’s pet project of taking redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature.

As it turned out, more than two-dozen other states moved their primaries to Feb. 5, which diluted California’s influence greatly, and both initiatives failed. By the way, Hillary Clinton trounced Obama in California.

The June 3 state primary election had a number of interesting races, but without the glamour of the presidential contest, it had abysmally low turnout.

In a bitterly fought race to replace termed-out 3rd District Assemblyman Rick Keene, Yuba County Supervisor Dan Logue defeated Nevada County Supervisor Sue Horne in the Republican primary, while former state Sen. Jim Nielsen handily defeated Charlie Schaupp in the 2nd District Republican contest to replace termed-out Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, despite controversy over Nielsen’s legal residence. Both districts lean heavily Republican, so both men easily defeated their Democratic opponents in November.

In local races, incumbent county Supervisors Bill Connelly (District 1, Oroville) and Kim Yamaguchi (District 5, Paradise) easily won re-election, while Steve Lambert, a former Paradise mayor, avoided a runoff by winning a clear majority to replace retiring Curt Josiassen, of Richvale, in the District 4 (Durham-Richvale-Gridley) seat.

One of the liveliest races was for the Democratic nomination to face long-time Republican incumbent Wally Herger for the District 2 congressional seat. Jeff Morris, a Trinity County supervisor, edged out Yuba City physician A.J. Sekhon and Siskiyou County businessman John Jacobson.

Morris was the strongest Democratic candidate in many years, and he gave Herger a run in the November election, but the district is too Republican and Herger is too well known after 22 years in office and too bankrolled to beat. He won easily, with 58 percent of the vote, though Morris narrowly carried Butte County.

The big race on Nov. 4 was of course the presidential contest. Chico Democrats threw their grandest election-night party ever—hundreds at the Sierra Nevada Big Room—to watch the announcement, right at 8 p.m. on a giant TV screen, that Obama had won. Near pandemonium broke out, though the crowd calmed down when the president-elect appeared with his family in Chicago’s Grant Park and gave his remarkable victory speech.

Local Democrats were also happy that liberals had solidified their hold on the Chico City Council, returning two incumbents (Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab) to office and electing a fresh liberal face, Park Commissioner Jim Walker, to replace erstwhile conservative Steve Bertagna, who retired after 12 years. Coming in fourth was the only conservative remaining on the council, Larry Wahl, who secured his third term.

Among the statewide propositions, the most noteworthy were Proposition 8, outlawing gay marriage, which passed with 52 percent of the vote, and Proposition 11, another redistricting measure. This one passed, finally giving the governor the change he long had wanted.

The good news is that, after three elections in 2008, none is scheduled for 2009. Yet (see: Circling the disc).

Budget blues heard everywhere
These days, it’s hard to find a city, county or state that isn’t having financial difficulties, and Chico, Butte County and California aren’t exceptions. It’s been bad, and it’s getting worse. In a declining economy, tax revenues are dropping, and at current tax rates there simply isn’t enough money for governmental agencies to pay their bills.

As the year began, the Chico Unified School District was looking at an $8.5 million shortfall, had been placed on financial probation by the county Office of Education, and had to start cutting positions. Through a series of reductions—including the controversial closing of elementary schools in Forest Ranch and Cohasset—it narrowed the gap to around $1 million by the start of the 2008-09 school year.

But now that the state faces an incredible $42 billion deficit over the next 18 months, who knows how much of the education budget will be snagged? Republicans in the Legislature, stonewalling on new taxes of any kind, have proposed $10 billion.

By April, Chico State University was looking at its share of $386 million to be cut from the state university budget, and the city of Chico was trying to figure out how to cut an additional $4.6 million from its budget.

The city ended up cutting each department by 7.5 percent, a controversial move because some thought public-safety budgets should be left alone. The city’s unions, recognizing the gravity of the situation, agreed to significant reductions in raises over the next few years.

By the end of the year, Butte County was also looking at a nasty shortfall and needing to cut $10 million from its budget, which it did in December by moving funds around, using up its contingency fund and laying off some employees.

The biggest problem is state government, because its budget difficulties have a trickle-down effect. Gov. Schwarzenegger, elected on a promise to solve the state’s fiscal woes, couldn’t get the Legislature to cooperate, so instead he used gimmicks and loans to pay the bills. That caught up with him and the state this year, when the recession resulted in drop-offs in revenues of monstrous proportions.

Not only was the Legislature more than two months late with a budget, it had to return in December to deal with a sudden shortfall in this year’s budget of more than $11 billion. Worse, the figure kept growing, and in no time it was $15 billion, with an additional $27 billion shortfall predicted for 2009-10—so much money that even closing the University of California and the state universities couldn’t cover it. That didn’t faze Republican lawmakers, however; they continued to refuse to consider any tax hikes.

In response, Democrats in the Senate, led by President pro-tem Darrel Steinberg, came up with a complex end-run plan that would raise $9.3 billion in revenues without technically raising taxes, thereby avoiding the two-thirds rule. It would be combined with $7.3 billion in cuts to bring the current fiscal year into balance. At press time, it was still bottled up in the Legislature.

CHARRED REMAINS<br>All the homes surrounding Concow resident Melissa Hill’s house burned down in the Butte Lightning Complex fires.

CN&R file photo

First storms, then fires
The year began with a series of fierce storms that hit Northern California shortly after New Year’s Day, sending tree limbs and entire trees crashing down onto the ground, cars and houses, and knocking out power to almost 2.5 million people—half of PG&E’s customers—some for more than a week.

The use of power generators and candles was common for days in many Chico neighborhoods. Some unfortunate homeowners had to cover huge holes left in their roofs by fallen trees with plastic to keep the relentless, wind-driven rain from wrecking their homes’ interiors as well.

PG&E repair crews, supplemented by contracted crews from as far away as Utah, worked 18- to 36-hour shifts removing downed trees from power lines and replacing fallen power poles.

In the case of the foothill community of Cohasset, which has a single access road, downed phone and power lines resulted in PG&E repair crews closing the road for 12 hours. Residents expressed irritation at PG&E management for leaving them effectively stranded for that period of time, unable to make the drive into Chico for health care if someone had an emergency. Cohasset was without power for almost a week.

Even more upsetting—devastating, as far as the community of Concow was concerned—was summer’s spate of fires that ripped through Butte County, causing much damage and upheaval, along with health warnings and problems due to what seemed like endlessly smoke-filled air. Shelters were set up in churches and fitness centers to take in evacuees, and outdoor events, such as baseball games and the Thursday Night Market, were cancelled due to unhealthful, sometimes hazardous, air quality.

Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for the county in June because of the fires. He toured the Paradise area on July 7, after June’s Humboldt Fire—which followed immediately on the heels of the Ophir Fire—burned over 23,000 acres and destroyed 74 homes. The following day, Concow had its first disastrous fire experience of the summer when the Camp Fire, whipped up by winds, burned down 40 homes.

The Butte Lightning Complex—a series of fires caused by dry-lightning storms—burned almost 60,000 acres and 202 homes in Butte County beginning June 21. Full containment was not reached until July 29, more than a month later.

Poor Concow got hit once again—the Butte Lightning Complex caused one death, and hundreds of Concow residents to become homeless after their homes were burned to the ground as flames raged through in the very early hours of the morning. Controversy over possible harm done by a CalFire-lit backfire raged among some residents. Huge areas of Concow’s forested basin became nothing more than a graveyard of charred trees, carpeted by a choking ash six inches deep.

It is predicted that it will take two or three generations for Concow’s forests to return. Residents, some who are returned evacuees, hope that the coming winter is kind to Concow—bringing no flooding to a fragile area hoping to rebuild and regrow.

Does Chico have enough cops?
If budget woes were the No. 1 undercurrent locally, public safety was No. 1 1/2. That’s because talk of police funding, contracts and staffing levels played off crime statistics and headlines.

May 5: Chico police respond to three stabbings and a shooting over the weekend.

Sept. 27: A 19-year-old gets shot in broad daylight at 20th Street and Park Avenue.

Oct. 8: After an apparent drug deal goes awry, three men shoot at a vehicle near the Chico Mall.

Oct. 26: City Council candidate Joe Valente reports getting beaten up late Saturday night after getting out of a cab with a friend near Fourth and Warner streets.

Are these isolated incidents or a trend? And what’s the connection to the Chico Police Department being down (at last count) 17 positions from last year?

Police management and the officers’ union see a direct correlation. The department is short seven employees because of the citywide budget cuts, and it also has lost officers to attrition faster than it can replace them. The Chico Police Officers Association—in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the city—produced a video (posted on YouTube just before the City Council election) making the case that crime is up because staffing is down.

“Is the answer increasing the size of the Police Department? The short answer is absolutely not,” Capt. Mike Maloney told the CN&R, “but that is absolutely a component of an acceptable level of pubic safety: having a police department that can manage things that are going on in the community…. There are going to have to be some difficult discussions about what services a municipality can provide for its citizens.”

DRIED UP<br>Just three years ago, water in the Lake Oroville marina reached the treeline.


More natural disaster: drought
As if horrendous winter storms and the worst summertime fires in decades weren’t enough in the way of natural disasters, Butte County and the Sacramento Valley are also in what may turn out to be the third straight year of drought, depending on how much precipitation occurs this winter. So far, it’s not looking good.

With the state’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake, at their lowest levels in more than 30 years, water officials are drawing up plans to ensure that Southern Californians who depend on Northern California water will have enough to meet household needs. Gov. Schwarzenegger last summer declared the Central Valley to be officially in drought, and he has called for creation of the first Drought Water Bank since the last major dry spell, in 1991-92.

Water is the lifeblood of California, but here in the Sacramento Valley it is also the fuel of our foundation industry, agriculture. Butte County water officials don’t anticipate being required to put water into the water bank, but they are concerned about the amount of groundwater pumping that may occur if irrigation allocations are slashed dramatically.

Locally, most irrigation water goes to rice farmers (orchardists use groundwater), and with rice fetching high prices these days, it’s likely growers would choose to pump groundwater, even though it’s expensive, rather than fallow the land. One estimate is that as much as 400,000 acre-feet of water could be pumped.

Local farmers vividly remember what happened in 1994, when a local water district used groundwater to replace surface water it had sold and transferred south. The intense pumping lowered the water table, causing wells in the Durham area to “suck air.” This year, they are urging farmers to collaborate on pumping to avoid a repeat of that event.

Even without the drought, water as usual was a big issue. The governor’s controversial Delta Vision plan for saving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including its pitch for two more reservoirs and building a peripheral canal around the Delta, was made official in December. And earlier in the year a federal judge ordered cutbacks in use of Delta pumps—and thus its water sent south—because they were harming endangered fish.

Locally, the Butte Environmental Council continued its effort to force full environmental review of local agencies’ participation in a regional water plan for the Sacramento Valley, first suing (unsuccessfully) the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District over its aquifer-study program, then suing Butte County on the same basis.

County water officials charged the lawsuit was unnecessary and obstructionist, arguing that it would be impossible to measure the environmental impacts of the plan without having basic scientific knowledge of how the aquifer works.

‘CLOSED’<br>Vacancies are high as local businesses like the Market Café feel the economic pinch.

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

Economy turns sour
Wall Street and Main Street—how many times have we heard those names in the same sentence this year? Wall Street implodes under the weight of its own greed and incompetence, aided and abetted by the failures of government regulators and the bond rating agencies, and folks on Main Streets all over the world feel the pain.

The country is now officially in recession—has been since December 2007, apparently—and struggling to stave off outright depression. Money is tight, stocks are falling, the government is spending trillions to salvage the big financial institutions, the Big Three American automakers are on the verge of collapse, unemployment is high, and there’s no end in sight.

Blame it on the housing bubble—that is, rampant speculation on the El Dorado of ever-rising property values, the use of complex and risky new financial products (credit default swaps, anyone?), and the failure of institutions and agencies up and down the line to see the disaster they were creating.

California was one of the fast-growing states where the bubble was biggest—and, when it popped, created the most damage. Suddenly new homeowners with subprime or other questionable loans found themselves facing rising mortgage payments on houses that were losing value every day—turning “upside down,” in the lingo. So they simply walked away, and whole neighborhoods in cities like Stockton and Modesto became filled with empty houses in foreclosure.

Fortunately, in Butte County, the number of foreclosure and short-sale houses on the market has been relatively small. Housing prices have dropped, but not as far as in, say, Sacramento, where the median house price is now less than $200,000, a decline of nearly 50 percent from 2005.

And, while money is tight locally, people with good credit, jobs and the ability to make a down payment can easily finance a new home—just like in the old days.

Butte County is blessed to have a base in agriculture, which has continued to enjoy good sales and profits even in the midst of the decline. High fuel costs hurt farmers during the growing months, but—in the one bright spot in the darkness—they have come down dramatically.

Still, folks are nervous, and when they’re nervous they don’t spend. The result is a widening circle of cutbacks and layoffs in the retail sector, which only spreads the misery. Chico has seen several large stores close, and auto dealers are turning to deep discounts to get customers in the door, but so far the local economy is hanging on.

Any good news in sight? Well, Obama will become president in a month, and that offers hope, at least. Don’t underestimate the importance of hope. Prosperity won’t return unless and until people’s confidence in the economic system is restored, and nothing bolsters confidence like knowing someone competent is working on the problem.

INFLAMED TENSIONS<br>Chico police have invoked the disorderly events ordinance once: during the Oct. 11 riot near Chico State.

video capture

Ordinance and the ACLU
As predicted, one of the top stories from 2007 continued into 2008: Chico’s disorderly events ordinance.

Revisiting a decision that prompted a public outcry, the City Council (on a 6-1 vote) modified its addition to the municipal code that gave the police authority to break up unruly events without reading the riot act. The changes didn’t go far enough for a group called Chico Citizens for Civil Rights, which mounted a drive to get the vote overturned.

They failed to get enough certifiable signatures for a referendum. However, swayed by the thousands of signatures that did count, then-Mayor Andy Holcombe decided to bring the ordinance back for another reconsideration. The council sent it to the Internal Affairs Committee, which held a special two-hour hearing for public input. The re-revised ordinance passed 5-2, with Mary Flynn joining Scott Gruendl on the dissenting side.

Since that April 17 vote, the Chico Police Department has invoked the ordinance just once. That instance, according to Capt. John Rucker, came during the Oct. 11 riot in the South Campus neighborhood, after a crowd of around 1,000 gathered at the intersection of Sixth and Ivy streets.

“That night had all the makings of a total disaster,” Rucker said. He credits the ordinance for allowing the police a moderated response that led to relatively quick containment and no injuries. “When you surround a crowd and get on PAs and order the crowd to disperse, that tends to further escalate a mob mentality.”

More pervasive than the ordinance has been the distrust of police that surfaced during its adoption. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote the city expressing concern about the second incarnation of the ordinance, and out of Chico Citizens for Civil Rights sprang a Chico chapter of the ACLU.

The group’s Event Watch team monitors marches, protests, elections and other events, in the words of board member Rocio Guido Ferns, “at which misconduct on the part of police or law enforcement may become an issue.” In addition, she said, ACLU Chico’s Police Practices team is working with the city to establish a citizens review board.

WASTE NOT<br>Chico State student and CN&R contributor Ryan Laine challenged himself to carry around all of his non-recyclable waste.

Photo By Brittni Zacher

Sustainability groundswell
Despite being one of the youngest committees in Chico, the City Council-appointed Sustainability Task Force has taken great strides to improve the environmental health of the community.

Perhaps nothing shows that more than the support the group has received from former City Councilman Steve Bertagna. In September, the veteran conservative voted with the liberal majority in support of the STF’s recommended climate-change commitment—establishing a goal of reducing the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020.

Meeting that target will be a significant challenge, especially considering a majority of emissions (54 percent) is attributed to vehicles. Chico State students, under the supervision of a professor, found that out after conducting a city-sponsored survey.

Last year, Bertagna reluctantly voted to allocate the $30,000 needed to fund the research, but the three-term councilman’s final approval, and his ensuing decision to back the climate commitment, is in many ways indicative of the environmental movement’s hitting the mainstream.

Elsewhere around the community, many eco-friendly businesses have sprung up. Within the last six months, for example, two car dealerships specializing in electric vehicles opened up shop in Chico, sparked by $4-a-gallon gas prices last summer. (Prices are down now, but they’ll go back up before long.)

At the university, the Institute for Sustainable Development continues to sponsor visits from expert environmental speakers, and hasn’t shied away from controversial topics, such as population control. The institute, in cooperation with Butte College, and the Associated Students of both institutions, also continues to grow and improve its annual This Way to Sustainability conference.

Chico State is used to accolades when it comes to sustainable enterprises. But Butte College was the star of 2008, earning a grand prize in the National Wildlife Federation’s competition Chill Out: Campus Solutions to Global Warming. More than 175 schools participated, but just eight received the award, bestowed the previous year to Chico State.

In the Chico Unified School District, dedicated volunteers and teachers are teaching their students hands-on food lessons by planting educational gardens on campus grounds. Nonprofit GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) was established in 2007, and its model of community-supported agriculture has been widely embraced and the organization was honored with a Greenie award at the 2008 This Way to Sustainability event.

Meanwhile, the Chico News & Review has made progress this year. GreenWays, the weekly section on sustainability, grew in 2008, adding “Sustainable Space,” a new column written by Chico State professors Lori Brown and Greg Kallio, local green-building experts who are helping readers navigate the growing market.

PLANNING AHEAD<br>Council members agreed to include the Bell/Muir area—but not Mud Creek—among future growth areas.

map courtesy of the city of chico

General planning for growth
In an intentional bit of synchronicity, Chico and Butte County entered the key point in updating their general plans at roughly the same time. Both the City Council and Board of Supervisors mapped out preferred growth areas in their spheres of influence, and they came to roughly the same conclusion: Coordinated urban development is better than sprawl.

Current events played a role in shaping the county’s vision. Its Planning Commission met at the height of the wildfires and cited proximity to municipal services as a key criterion for assessing growth areas. The board shared that perspective and in late July designated a range of preferred growth sites neighboring the cities but none distant from them.

The guiding force for the Chico City Council, meanwhile, was preserving prime agriculture land—in other words, sticking to the venerable Greenline.

The question for the council was how much it would support its Planning Commission’s recommendation for severely limiting outward growth and protecting the Greenline while it also allowed for sufficient new growth areas to meet projected housing needs.

The result was that council members voted to include the mixed-use Bell/Muir Special Planning Area just north of East Avenue, which is outside the Greenline but has always been considered appropriate for possible growth. But they also determined that orchard land closer to Mud Creek to the north and an orchard parcel in south Chico along Estes Road were not suitable for development.

Other favorable areas: the old Diamond Match site, certain areas in north Chico, the South Entler Special Planning Area, and the 1,450-acre Doe Mill/Honey Run Special Planning Area in southwest Chico.

As the year ended, both the county and the city were moving on to the next stages in the general-plan processes, the development of general-plan policy documents leading to an environmental-impact reports. The city is also looking at potential costs of the new general plan. Look for lots more meetings in the coming months.

DISC-USSION<br>Golfers were given the boot from Upper Bidwell Park. A new course location is in the works.

CN&R file photo

Circling the disc
Chicoans are nothing if not passionate about their recreation. But the issues raised by the longstanding controversy over whether to maintain or close the two disc-golf courses in Upper Bidwell Park are not a game.

The conflict has been building for years. Golfers built the two current courses—one long, one short—on a bluff off Highway 32 about five miles east of town nearly 20 years ago, before the city owned the land.

About five years ago, after the city authorized more than $200,000 to improve the course, environmentalists challenged the decision and insisted that the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan be updated first. The city agreed and used the money to pay for the plan.

Some of the arguments against the courses are that they are contrary to Annie Bidwell’s original requirement that the land remain wild, that they would further tax an already overburdened park maintenance staff, that the mitigation measures in the recent environmental-impact report are inadequate to protect the blue oaks and sensitive wildflowers on the site, and that the courses are reachable only by car.

Supporters, on the other hand, have extolled the site, with its varied terrain and magnificent vistas, as a valuable play area. Disc golf, they argue, is no more harmful to the environs than mountain biking, horseback riding and other activities allowed in Upper Park.

In August, at a packed meeting full of passionate advocates on both sides of the issue, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission was faced with deciding between four proposed options for the disc-golf site. Options A, B and C called for building new courses in varying configurations, while Option D—the “restoration option"—would remove the existing courses. The commission voted 4-3 in favor of recommending Option A to the City Council. (Option A called for constructing two 18-hole courses.)

But at the Nov. 16 council meeting, with another sizeable public contingent on hand, the commission’s recommendation was rejected. By a 4-3 vote, the council opted for Option D, calling for the removal of the bootleg courses and the restoration of the area’s environment.

Almost immediately, disc-golf supporters started a referendum campaign to have the fate of the courses put to voters. With longtime proponent Lon Glazner leading a highly organized effort, and with support from Councilman Larry Wahl, the referendum campaign quickly collected well more than the required 4,761 valid signatures (close to 6,000, Glazner estimated).

The referendum could end up being moot. Even if voters decide that the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan be tossed out, that might not necessarily be applicable to the council’s decision on the disc-golf site.

Nonetheless, the drive has forced movement. On Dec. 16, the council approved a motion to bring the four options back to the table for reconsideration at the Jan. 6 council meeting, ahead of the county clerk’s announcement on whether the referendum qualifies for a vote. Stay tuned.