Several specters loomed over Chico City Council members as they convened Tuesday evening (Jan. 18). Meeting over Zoom due to coronavirus precautions, the council repeatedly heard comments in open session about matters that were to be considered later that night in closed session.
Speakers aired grievances about the settlement of the Warren v. City of Chico lawsuit challenging homeless policies—in particular, allegations encapsulated in a letter from Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds to Judge Morrison England Jr. that council members did not know all the details when they approved the agreement. Mayor Andrew Coolidge disputed this assertion in a city news conference Tuesday morning, but several citizens latched onto the uncertainty in criticizing the council, its decision and its process.
The closed session agenda included an update on that settlement, as well as a suit filed against the city by the family of Tyler Rushing, who was fatally shot by a Chico police officer in 2017. A few commenters also seized on a special closed session, initiated at the request of Reynolds, to evaluate the job performance of City Attorney Vince Ewing and City Manager Mark Orme. Both report directly to the council; speakers at various points of the open session called for each to be fired.
Juxtaposed with those hot-button issues, the council handled routine matters—approving a boundary-line shift for the Stonegate development along Bruce Road; hearing an update on deescalation training and staff recruitment in the police department; agreeing to a letter supporting local restaurant relief and to discuss revisiting park rules—before adjourning to their confidential Zoom.
Council members ultimately, anticlimactically, took no action on any closed-session items, opting only to give direction to staff still including Orme and Ewing.
“I think people were naturally defaulting to the elephant in the room in terms of what’s been happening with the city going through the settlement process,” Coolidge told the CN&R by phone Wednesday morning (Jan. 19). “People obviously have been very interested in getting more information, very interested in airing their opinions about it, and also just wanting to be heard—and I think that’s very important.”
Reynolds concurred, also saying by phone Wednesday morning that “this has been a very tumultuous thing for our community. There’s a lot of high emotions, mine included, circling around everything that’s been happening.”
Emotions didn’t prompt her request for a special session, however. She told the CN&R that she anticipated the potential of personnel issues arising during the Warren v. Chico discussion, so to comply with the Brown Act governing public meetings in California, she sought an appropriate avenue to direct such feedback. She noted that Ewing and Orme will have formal reviews in the next couple months.
Terminating one or both “could have been an outcome that could have been chosen,” Reynolds said. “But when you’re in the middle of a really, really hard time and a lot of turmoil, I don’t know that that is actually the time to put us into more turmoil and not have a city attorney and a city manager.”
Coolidge expressed support for both employees, especially Orme, saying the city manager “through this process has done what no one else could have done. I think he has put his heart and soul into this. I think he worked to get the best deal for Chico.
Without much deliberation or feedback, the council unanimously ratified a decision by staffers comprising the Map Advisory Committee to adjust a boundary between city land and a portion of the Stonegate subdivision. The council also decided, on 7-0 votes, to have Coolidge send a letter to Congress urging replenishment of the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund to assist more Chico eateries affected by the pandemic;and to agendize discussions next month on supporting a state crime bill (AB 1599, which would repeal nearly all of the changes made by Proposition 47) and having the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission review park rules.
The latter was proposed by Coolidge, who intended for the commission—then the council—to “make current” regulations involving such matters as closing times, drug-free zones, weapons possession, noise and conduct. He told the CN&R that the idea struck him as the meeting unfolded.
“I really do believe that the parks commission needs to dig into some of that stuff,” Coolidge continued. “I think it’s really important for the community. It will give the community an opportunity to weigh in, both at the parks commission and at the council. I’d like to see [commissioners] take a more active role, especially now that they can as we clean up some of these areas. Our parks have been neglected for way too long.”
Neither the mayor nor vice mayor connected this proposal to enforcement parameters in the lawsuit settlement, with Reynolds saying, “I don’t think the [Bidwell] Park and Playground Commission updating rules really has anything to do with the case.
“Where I saw it, and where my vote came from, is we’re now moving forward into a new stage of where we’re going to be restoring our parks and playgrounds to their intended use, which is for families and citizens and not camping. … We already have rules, but is it clear what those rules are? Do we have signs up? And as we move forward, can we ensure the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission is on the same page and that they’re following that directive?”
For information only, Police Chief Matt Madden presented a report on training focused on deescalation and crisis intervention, along with a recap of hiring last year. The previous council, in June 2020, directed Chico PD to have sworn officers complete 40 hours of this training over a two-year period. Madden expanded the scope to incorporate dispatchers and community service officers, who also interact with the public, and reported that “almost all of our staff are trained in this area.”
The chief told the council that he’s “seeing officers absorbing and taking this training to a different level”—that it’s making an impact. “A highly trained police department is a good police department.”
Deescalation became a council concern when the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer amplified anger over fatal encounters locally, such as Rushing’s. Speaker Jesica Giannola suggested that the shooting of Rushing “could have been avoided with the deescalation [training that officers] are getting now.”
As for recruitment, Madden said the department offered jobs to 24 applicants last year, including eight sworn officers and two academy trainees, but wound with 18. Chico PD has 17 openings—notably, eight officers and five dispatchers.