I’d say Mark Orme learned the hard way that there isn’t a back the conservatives on the Chico City Council won’t stab, but I suspect deep down he already knew that. In all my years reporting on city government under his tenure as city manager and assistant city manager, and asking him questions in our many face-to-face meetings, it was clear to me that he never quite felt secure in his job.
I’m sure he was more anxious in the two years the progressives held the council majority, a time when he ostensibly was more vulnerable. It’s no secret that Orme is a conservative guy, which is the typical orthodoxy in that line of work. Yet he attempted to find common ground with people who hold divergent views, folks like yours truly.
That didn’t work out well with the current makeup of the panel, the newbies excepted (see “Time’s up”). Turns out you can’t straddle the middle of the road when ideologues are driving. They will run your ass over in a heartbeat for political cover, which is exactly what happened to Orme late last month. Indeed, the city manager is the proverbial sacrificial lamb, the fall guy the majority will use to deflect criticism related to the federal lawsuit the city recently settled. Their conservative base is outraged by the terms of that agreement, the most vexing being the new shelter facility for homeless people on municipal property, and they’ve laid much of the blame on Orme. Gripes run the gamut, but the main theme goes something like, “The city is spending millions on homeless people when it can’t even repair the roads!”
That’s a valid point, but let’s consider how we got here.
Fact: The conservatives on the panel ordered the chief of police to run homeless folks out of the parks, and he dutifully followed their command despite ample warnings that doing so might result in litigation based on case law in Boise, Idaho. This newspaper sounded the alarm ahead of the sweeps, but we were far from the only ones. There were protests, there were emails, there were public comments at council meetings. Moreover, there were public displays of civil rights attorneys gathering data.
All signs pointed to stop, but the conservatives weren’t having it. They went so far as firing the city attorney and re-hiring their previous one, “yes man” Vince Ewing, to get the OK to commence the sweeps. Doing so was their fatal mistake, the action that set the lawsuit in motion. And that rests squarely on the council majority, not the city manager, who, like all city administrators, defers questions related to law to legal counsel.
Everything is documented through public record, and that includes Ewing getting excoriated by the federal judge overseeing the resulting Warren v. City of Chico lawsuit. The conservatives took a calculated risk and they lost, because the policies they attempted to enforce broke the law of the land. Period.
What’s ironic is that some of the same community members who called for such draconian methods in the first place, contending that such action was perfectly legal, are the ones who adamantly opposed the creation of a local tiny house village that would’ve been largely privately funded.
As for Orme’s sacking, I have a bone to pick about the way it went down.
I’m not trying to make him a martyr, and I definitely have my own criticism—most recently his sign-off on the ice rink at City Plaza—but the council was wrong to blindside him. Orme was at the helm during and after the Camp Fire, when the city took on unprecedented growth literally overnight. Before that, he helped steer the city to solvency after the worst recession since the Great Depression.
He deserved better from the people he worked alongside for years. That’s especially true of those who instigated his forced resignation, Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds and longtime Councilman Sean Morgan. What they did tells us more about their character than it does about Orme’s record.
Melissa Daugherty is editor-at-large for the Chico News & Review
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