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City Council interviews 21 applicants for two empty seats

Former Police Chief Michael O’Brien interviews for the vacant at-large seat during the Chico City Council meeting on July 20. (Photo by Ken Smith)

With the Chico City Council on a fast track to appoint two new members to begin serving Aug. 3, the regular meeting on Tuesday (July 20) took the form of a group job interview. The sole item on the night’s agenda was for the currently diminished, five-member council to interview all 21 hopefuls for the seats left vacant in the wake of the resignations of Scott Huber and Kami Denlay.

The process kicked off with City Clerk Debbie Presson offering a brief rundown of what the new council members’ duties will be, as well as the benefits of the position (a $600 monthly stipend, a $75 cellphone allowance each month, and the option to buy into the city’s health care plan).

Mayor Andrew Coolidge warned the applicants about the time commitment related to committee meetings and other council member obligations in addition to regular council meetings, and quipped about the scarce perks and abundant perils of the position.

“We do not have fancy offices and obviously we don’t have a ton of pay,” he said. “We do get an iPad and some sodas and that’s about the extent of it.

“You’ll receive your share of nasty emails, as we all have,” he added. “Just so you’re forewarned, there is a heavy lift here.”

The council agreed that each applicant could speak for three minutes before answering questions from the sitting members. Each of the candidates—14 vying for Huber’s vacant at-large council seat and seven for Denlay’s District 3 position—submitted applications with extensive information about their background, what they believe the main issues are and their vision for the city. Council members encouraged them to forego reiterating those points and instead focus on introducing themselves.

Coolidge asked every applicant if they intended to serve only the time left before their seats would be open again for the November 2022 election, or if they intend to run for a regular four-year term then.

Former City Council and Board of Supervisors member Larry Wahl and former Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien—both vying for the at-large seat, and the two applicants with perhaps the most name recognition—both said they were urged to run by others, and that they have no further political aspirations beyond serving the 17-month appointment to council. O’Brien said District Attorney Mike Ramsey and unspecified other individuals urged him to run, while Wahl cited former Chico mayors Mark Sorenson and Maureen Kirk as his impetus for seeking the position.

During the appointment process, some city council members have called for civility at a time when local politics have reached an abysmal state of vitriol and partisanship. Most of the candidates were respectful of that, though a few got fiery while speaking about arguably the most divisive issue in local politics, homelessness—which along with public safety was the most common response on the council applications to the question of: “What do you view as the three most significant issues facing the City?”

While most applicants recognized the need for compromise and some compassion—even if only to appease Judge Morrison England Jr. in the city’s ongoing federal court case over enforcing ordinances that criminalize homelessness without providing adequate reasonable shelter (Warren v. Chico)—a few called for a more hard-line approach.

For example, former City Council member and one-time Vice Mayor Tom Nickell—up for the at-large seat—touted his support of the successful effort to arm park rangers and convert them to sworn officers in 2017. “We need to get the handcuffs off our police officers and start enforcing laws,” he said.

Local businessman Jon Scott—also up for the at-large vacancy—was less reserved: “Chico is in crisis and using soft words is not going to change the reality,” he said. “We have hordes of transients and it’s getting worse, not better.”

After the interviews, Presson explained that each council member will nominate up to two candidates for each open position. Those nominations are due to her office by 5 p.m., Thursday. Then, the council will vote on the nominees at another meeting scheduled for next Tuesday (July 27). The finalists for the at-large and District 3 seats will be sworn in and begin serving Aug. 3.

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