When Michael O’Brien retired as Chico police chief last June, he fielded calls from people encouraging him to run for City Council. The timing wasn’t right, he told the CN&R last Tuesday (July 27): After three decades in law enforcement, the last five leading Chico PD, he felt he owed his family his undivided attention.
A year later, following the back-to-back resignations of Councilman Scott Huber and Councilwoman Kami Denlay, O’Brien changed his mind. When approached to seek one of the replacement spots—by appointment—he put his name into a pool of 14 applicants for Huber’s at-large seat, alongside seven for Denlay’s District 3.
O’Brien made it to the final round last Tuesday over the likes of former Councilman and Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl, a current city planning commissioner, and former Vice Mayor Tom Nickell, a current board director of the Chico Area Recreation and Park District (CARD). After some pointed questioning of finalists, the four conservatives voted to fill the vacancies with the former chief and Dale Bennett, an architectural review board member and former planning commissioner who works in property management.
O’Brien and Bennett were slated to be sworn in Tuesday (Aug. 3—after the CN&R’s print deadline), expanding the conservative majority to 6-1. Immediately after the appointments last week, Bennett declined to speak to the media, but O’Brien told the CN&R that he was excited to start serving on the council.
“I need to kind of let this sink in, because I did not have a lot of time to prepare, did not have a lot of time to think about it, other than we knew it was the right decision,” he said, referring to the support of his wife and family. “It’s a somewhat daunting task because of what’s going on in this community, but I think my experiences—particularly as chief, in crisis—will hopefully serve this council well, serve this community well, because I understand crisis leadership.
“I learned some tough lessons: some good things, some bad things. I think that experience, given our current dynamic, will lend itself to this position.”
Huber, a progressive whose term would have ended next year, resigned June 21 citing politically motivated harassment. Denlay, a conservative elected in November, stepped down June 27 amid questions about her residency (see “Out of bounds?”).
By city charter, the council has 30 days to fill a vacancy by calling a special election or by appointment. The conservative majority decided on the latter process July 6. Both O’Brien and Bennett would need to run for re-election in 2022 to retain the seats, though O’Brien doesn’t intend to do so.
“It’s a limited commitment; I have no aspirations of running for council again, I truly do not,” he said. “But if I can come in and lend whatever skills and leadership I’ve developed over the years, particularly my time as chief—we had a few things going on then as well—I was willing to take that step.”
After interviewing at the July 20 meeting, O’Brien and Bennett received four nominations each, the most of any applicants, with support from all the conservative council members. Alex Brown, the council’s lone progressive, nominated Planning Commissioner Bryce Goldstein for the at-large position and no one for the District 3 slot. City Clerk Debbie Presson confirmed that the appointment votes mirrored these nominations.
Finalists also included Jeffrey Glatz, chair of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (at-large); Amber Howard-Brown, a Blue Oak School board member (District 3); and Sandra Husband, a program analyst and community volunteer (District 3).
Brown questioned candidates about homelessness, affordable housing and police training. Mayor Andrew Coolidge also had questions, including an exchange with Goldstein, a transportation planner, about parking requirements.
Coolidge told the CN&R that he had a harder time narrowing down the nominees than with the final vote.
“I said at the onset of this process that I was looking for people who were calm, come to it with an idea of just serving and not have necessarily thoughts about pushing forward with a political future, who seemed to be here for the city and not for themselves,” he said. “I think they both fit that bill … . I think we have some calm, sensible people up there [already], and I think these choices were calm, sensible choices that’ll help move us through the issues we’re facing and hopefully calm the tenor of the conversation, calm the environment for Chico.”
Goldstein expressed disappointment. She told the CN&R that she didn’t anticipate getting appointed, based on the nomination totals, though embraced the opportunity to speak to the council on substantive issues.
“I think our community could definitely be represented better on City Council,” Goldstein said, adding: “They should have tried to make sure the people they appointed have similar backgrounds and viewpoints to the people who were serving [previously]. They don’t have to be exactly the same, but similar.”
Of the two appointees, O’Brien is the more prominent, having served as police chief during a string of Butte County emergencies collaterally impacting the city—most notably the Camp Fire—and the fatal shootings of Desmond Phillips, Tyler Rushing and Stephen Vest by Chico PD officers. Five days ahead of the council appointment, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey announced O’Brien as head of the Butte Inter-agency Narcotics Task Force.
Bennett is an industrial and commercial property manager who, along with his city service, has been on the boards of the Chico Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Chico Business Association.
In their appointment applications (available via chico.ca.us/city-council within the July 20 agenda), O’Brien and Bennett listed similar priorities: primarily, addressing homelessness and safety. O’Brien, citing his work with the Jesus Center board as well as Chico PD, discussed his “unique perspective” toward homelessness that “involves both compassion and accountability,” which he reiterated at last Tuesday’s meeting. Bennett wrote of the city’s need to resolve the Warren v. Chico federal lawsuit (see “Court order: Stay” on chico.newsreview.com) and told the council last Tuesday that “people are moving to Chico for their minimal survival,” echoing a conservative talking point of homeless people as transients.
Former Planning Commissioner John Howlett, who served with Bennett, said the architectural review board “seemed to me to be a very good fit for him. I don’t necessarily see him as someone who’s ever [been] perceived as being very interested to be on the council, so I think he was hand-picked to kind of go along with how the conservative majority is going to vote.”