About 90 minutes into the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday night (Nov. 16), after a presentation on homelessness by Butte County Behavioral Health Director Scott Kennelly and half-hour pause to address a malfunctioning internet livestream, Councilman Sean Morgan moved to adjourn the meeting.
City Clerk Debbie Presson told the council that streaming has worked every night of the 20 years she’s been clerk, and that, since the TV feed was still broadcasting, the meeting complied with the Brown Act open-meetings law.
Morgan emphasized that he wasn’t joking. Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds seconded the motion, which went straight to a vote and passed 4-3, with Councilwomen Alex Brown and Deepika Tandon joining Mayor Andrew Coolidge in dissent.
That left the matter of rescheduling. Would the council reconvene the next night (Nov. 17)? The following Tuesday? Add the rest of the agenda to the next meeting, Dec. 7? The latter appealed to Morgan, and that’s when Coolidge brought City Manager Mark Orme into the discussion. Orme mentioned that the just-adjourned meeting had a time-sensitive item on the agenda: a memorandum of understanding with Butte County regarding homelessness funding that the Board of Supervisors is set to authorize Thursday (Nov. 18).
Talk turned to reopening the meeting for that item. Then, for that item and public comments (Business from the Floor). Then, also for interviewing Climate Action Commission candidates who took the time to attend.
“If we do that much, we might as well do the whole thing,” Morgan said—which the council ultimately did, voting unanimously to “unadjourn” and continue with the full meeting after the eight-minute detour. In relatively short order, they heard about a redevelopment proposal for the Lost Park area downtown, heard from potential climate commissioners, approved the MOU and clarified language in the city’s building codes related to emergency housing.
Afterward, Morgan told the CN&R his rationale for adjournment, saying, “How important is the stuff that we’re talking about? … If we can’t get it out to the public and it’s not that important, let’s just stop.
“Then the city manager made a good point: He said the MOU with the county is going to help us move to somewhere we hope we can get this injunction [in the Warren v. City of Chico federal lawsuit] lifted, so we should probably deal with this time-sensitive thing. Then they started adding more things—by the time they did that, well, then we might as well just take all the flack from the people who couldn’t watch the meeting [online].”
Kennelly, Behavioral Health director since Feb. 2020 after 2½ years as interim director, spoke to the council on a request by Morgan (put forth in his absence by Coolidge at the previous meeting, Nov. 2). He titled his presentation “Homeless & Mentally Ill: Where do we go from here?” and chronicled deinstitutionalization of California’s mental health system.
His thesis was that 50-year-old legislation shuttered state-run mental hospitals, put the onus for care on counties, and turned many people suffering from mental illnesses onto the streets. Kennelly used the life story of a local man, “John,” to illustrate the challenges of getting treatment—particularly when an individual does not feel they need treatment, such as John because of schizophrenia.
“As a society, we have normalized drug use and protected the rights of the mentally ill at the expense of allowing many of them to ultimately die homeless and on the streets,” Kennelly said. “Compelling the seriously mentally ill into treatment is not oppressive but rather humane. The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction since the sixties’ deinstitutionalization.”
He encouraged the council, which previously planned to write state and federal officials to request more resources for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, to join county supervisors in a letter requesting broader reforms.
Several speakers in the public comment period criticized the report—most pointedly, Patrick Newman, founder of Chico Friends on the Street. He told the council that Kennelly’s view was not universally supported by behavioral health directors statewide and only partially told the story, both of the systemic issues and people such as “John.”
“It seems to me we are adapting to failure,” Newman told the CN&R by email this morning. “We never developed a good supportive housing program for all who need it. So our answer is to remove [legal] protections and impound the incorrigible. It’s an adaptation that involves undermining civil liberties, but not fixing a system that’s been broken for 50 years. A system that produces many ‘Johns’….
“It’s surreal to sit there and listen to this description of ‘John’ when so many people on our council have supported an approach to homelessness that actually drives the Johns off the edge: demonization, criminalization, deprivation, incarceration.”
Morgan, who’d seen the presentation previously, honed in on a particular point.
“Too many think there’s a silver bullet—‘Oh, we need more housing’—and Scott Kennelly went up there and said, ‘That won’t do it,’” Morgan told the CN&R. “No one ever says that side. ‘Affordable housing, affordable housing’—you can’t build affordable housing in the state of California, and it has nothing to do with the City Council, it has to do with the Legislature down in Sacramento … but even if you did more affordable housing, it’s not enough.
“The guy he talked about, John, you give an apartment and he’s been on so many drugs for so long and now he’s mentally ill and he’s looking for the microchips in the wall. You have to have services with it … . And until the laws of conservatorship change, you will see no change in the homelessness problem in California.”
Chico, faced with a legal challenge to its homelessness policies, moved ahead with an emergency noncongregate housing site under terms of the MOU with the county. The agreement, modified by the Board of Supervisors, calls for 177 pallet shelters on a city-owned property at 2352 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, funded out of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
Orme told the council he couldn’t go into much detail due to the judge’s order; when Coolidge asked colleagues for questions of the city manager, Brown quipped, “He can’t answer them!” The revised MOU passed unanimously.
Under the same restriction, Coolidge told the CN&R that “by the city approving this, by the county proposing this, it helps us make progress, which is important to the forward movement.”
Earlier Tuesday, the group Chico Voters served recall notices to Coolidge and Morgan for the second time in two weeks. Proponents had served Coolidge at the Nov. 2 meeting and Morgan two days later, but the City Clerk’s office determined the petitions to initiate the recalls had technical deficiencies.
“Now that we have served both men with corrected notices, we will work closely with city and county officials to ensure that we move quickly to the next phase,” Morgan Kennedy, spokeswoman for the group, said in a press release. “It’s clear that everyone involved wants this recall election to be on the June ballot so we avoid unnecessary costs associated with a special election.”
Proponents will need at least 1,519 signatures from registered voters in District 5 for a recall election of Coolidge and 2,424 in District 1 for Morgan.
“It was expected,” Coolidge said of the second notice. “I’m hoping they completed the paperwork correctly this time so they stop the utilization of city staff, which cost the taxpayers money, with their mistakes.”