Time’s up

Another wild week with the City Council ends with police chief replacing Chico’s city manager

Supporters pray with Mark Orme (with tie in center) while awaiting the Chico City Council's decision about his future as city manager Friday afternoon (March 25). (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

This feature from the April 7 print version of the Chico News & Review is an overview of the departure of former City Manager Mark Orme that comprises reporting from a series of stories by Evan Tuchinsky that appeared on the newspaper’s website in the preceding weeks.

For nearly four hours, with the Chico City Council sequestered in a conference room evaluating Mark Orme’s performance as city manager, a tense silence permeated council chambers. Mayor Andrew Coolidge, on 24-hours’ notice, had called this special meeting for the night of March 22. Orme and a handful of city department heads—including Police Chief Matt Madden—attended.

Orme sat in the front of the chambers, then stood in the rear. He headed back down for perfunctory conversations with staff, even pulled out a broom from the janitorial closet and swept corners for cobwebs.

The council conferred for 45 minutes before calling back, in succession, him; Public Works Director Erik Gustafson; Madden and City Attorney Vince Ewing together; and, finally, Deputy City Clerk Dani Rogers.

“Sorry, takes a lot of time,” Coolidge said, “lots of politicians back there.”

The end result was an anticlimax: a second special meeting called for three days later, though with foreshadowing in the agenda item title—“public employee performance evaluation / appointment /
discipline / dismissal.”

That Friday afternoon (March 25), family and supporters gathered at City Council Chambers. Seven spoke on Orme’s behalf; a dozen prayed with him as the council met in closed session. This time, Ewing asked to meet with Orme, in the conference room not occupied by the council, and when Orme returned, his expression telegraphed the outcome.

His time was up.

Having deliberated six hours over two meetings, the council agreed to terms with Orme on his resignation in lieu of termination and appointed Madden as interim city manager. Madden—who started effective April 2 but attended the March 29 meeting in the city manager’s place—told the CN&R he did not know about the appointment until hearing Ewing’s announcement March 25, seated among colleagues. Capt. Billy Aldridge is serving as interim police chief.

Orme declined to comment on the decision but reflected on his tenure.

Orme concludes his tenure having served under six mayors in nine years. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

“What I’ve experienced the past nine years has just been utterly amazing,” he told the CN&R by phone. “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 the 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.”

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.”

Quit or fired?

Though all appearances point to a unilateral decision, council members who spoke with the CN&R would not confirm the impetus for the staff upheaval.

The council voted 5-2 to have Ewing negotiate separation terms with Orme. Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds made the motion, with a second from Councilman Sean Morgan; Councilmen Dale Bennett and Michael O’Brien dissented. Council members unanimously approved the negotiated terms, on a motion made by O’Brien and seconded by Bennett.

The clause in Orme’s contract that Ewing cited for entering negotiations states the city manager would 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.”

Neither Coolidge nor Morgan, a former mayor who’s been a councilman since 2012, would establish whether 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, noting his time as city manager spanned six mayors—seven including his year as assistant city manager under Brian Nakamura.

“I felt it was necessary to accept his resignation,” Coolidge said by phone. “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.”

Successor pick

In Madden, the council chose an interim city manager who’s been police chief since August 2020 (following a two-month stint as interim chief, succeeding O’Brien) and with the Chico Police Department for 25 years.

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 and law enforcement actions; “who’s going to be able to get that to the finish line” was a key consideration for him.

Chief of Police Matt Madden moves to the city manager’s seat on an interim basis. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

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.”

Madden moved to a City Hall office that includes Deputy City Manager Jennifer Macarthy. Hired to replace former Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin last April, 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.”

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. (Morgan made the motion, seconded by O’Brien.)

“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 … [which] 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.”

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