Though all appearances point to a unilateral decision by the Chico City Council to replace City Manager Mark Orme, councilmembers who spoke with the CN&R would not provide confirmation for the impetus of last week’s staff upheaval.
At a special meeting Friday (March 25), in closed session, the council voted to have City Attorney Vince Ewing negotiate with Orme per a clause in the city manager’s contract stating he’d remain employed until “Orme resigns in writing following an offer by a majority of the council to accept Orme’s resignation in lieu of termination.” The council agreed to the terms and appointed Police Chief Matt Madden as interim city manager; Madden takes over Saturday (April 2), with CPD Capt. Billy Aldridge serving as interim police chief.
Neither Mayor Andrew Coolidge nor former mayor Sean Morgan, a councilman since 2012, would confirm that the council instigated Orme’s resignation. Coolidge cited confidentiality of personnel matters discussed in closed session; Morgan said “those negotiations could have been going in either direction.” Both praised Orme, city manager for eight years after a year as assistant city manager under Brian Nakamura.
“I felt it was necessary to accept his resignation,” Coolidge said by phone Monday. “Mark is a very skilled city manager. He’s certainly given more to the city in the last nine years than almost anyone I can think of. I have nothing but good things to say about him and wish him nothing but good things for the future.
“Of course, nothing goes perfect in that position, and city manager is a difficult position to hold for a long period of time. I believe the average is something like five years. Chico is often a very charged political environment, so for him to be in that for such a long period of time really shows his fortitude and his willingness to serve the community of Chico.”
Said Morgan: “There are people who are like, ‘We want somebody’s scalp’ or ‘Finally we got rid of this guy’—it wasn’t like that. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a great guy, he’s still a super guy, and whatever he decides to do next, I think he will be fantastic at. He decided to leave; I think about leaving every single day, and my job isn’t nearly as complicated as his.”
Orme declined to discuss the decision with the CN&R. The contract clause cited by the city attorney indicated action initiated by the council—as did events in council chambers.
Coolidge called a special meeting last Tuesday (March 22), on a day’s notice, for the council to consider Orme’s performance evaluation. After four hours in closed session, council members decided on a second special meeting, for Friday, with an expanded agenda of “public employee performance evaluation / appointment / discipline / dismissal.” During the two hours of closed session, supporters gathered and prayed with Orme.
“What I’ve experienced the past nine years has just been utterly amazing,” Orme said by phone Tuesday morning. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity to truly be a servant leader within a community that went through a tremendous amount of tumultuous times and a lot of change over those nine years, from the financial concerns [with the city budget] to Oroville Dam Crisis to the Camp Fire—you just go through the list of things.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve, and I just want to thank the citizens of Chico: They’ve been a wonderful partner to work with, they’re passionate, and they truly want to have a better place to live.”
Orme said he plans to take “a respite” to spend time with his family—wife Jennifer, 14-year-old son Grant and daughter Grace, about to turn 17—“and then I’ll get back up and see what path God has before me and where I’m headed off to. It’s likely to be another city manager position, but … I’ll make that decision down the road.”
In choosing Madden, the council went with an interim city manager who’s been police chief since August 2020 (following a two-month stint as interim chief, succeeding current Councilman Michael O’Brien) and with the Chico Police Department for 25 years. He leapfrogged Deputy City Manager Jennifer Macarthy, who replaced former Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin last April.
Morgan noted that CPD is the largest department in the city “with the most potential liability.” He also pointed to the settlement of the Warren v. City of Chico lawsuit, which includes the Pallet shelter site opening soon and law enforcement actions; “who’s going to be able to get that to the finish line” was a key consideration for him.
Coolidge called the chief “very educated and skilled. I believe he has the leadership to get us through this time. He certainly has the knowledge about city issues and city matters that we need at the helm right now. I’m very confident he can do the job and get us through this transition.”
Madden didn’t have advance notice of the change—Coolidge said he doesn’t believe the chief knew the appointment was coming, which Madden confirmed at the council meeting Tuesday night (March 29). The council met with Madden during the first special meeting but not during Friday afternoon’s session.
Macarthy previously served as Butte County’s deputy administrative officer for community and economic development; that has been her emphasis at the city. In consideration for interim city manager, the councilmen mentioned her tenure as well as her role compared to her predecessor’s. Constantin was “second in command at all levels,” Coolidge said—and while Macarthy is “certainly capable,” Morgan said, “as far as running the whole operation for a somewhat extended period of time, that’s not what that position [she’s holding] has been. But it wasn’t a personal thing; it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t give it to that person!’”
Councilwoman Alex Brown, the progressive among six conservatives, declined to talk about the Orme decision but expressed her concerns about Madden’s appointment, for which she cast the one opposing vote.
“There are a variety of capable leaders on the city staff, and I think it sends the wrong message to lead with a law enforcement perspective or narrative,” she said by phone Tuesday morning. “That by no means is a judgment on Interim City Manager Madden’s capabilities as a leader. But I do believe that many in the community are rattled by that decision….
“To make the argument that because of enforcement in regards of Warren v. Chico that we should appoint the police chief as the city manager really just kind of feeds the narrative that law enforcement in the view of this council is the be-all, end-all of the problems that are facing our city. I think that is an incredibly harmful narrative; it has been proven inaccurate year after year after year; and if that’s really the justification that they’re using, then I think everyone in our city should be keeping a close eye on what happens in our city.”
Note: This story was updated (March 29, 8:20 p.m.) to include information from Matt Madden.