Almost unanimous

Council ends COVID-19 emergency on split vote in otherwise agreeable meeting

Mayor Andrew Coolidge and Arts Commission Chair Monica McDaniel (right) present Jess Mercer with a Mayor’s Achievement in the Arts Award at the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday night (Oct. 4). (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

The current iteration of the Chico City Council isn’t known for harmony. The six conservatives and one progressive often find themselves at loggerheads within their ranks and with members of the public. Meetings go long … though not the marathons of councils in decades past.

Tuesday night (Oct. 4), business concluded in 96 minutes (125 including closed session). Unanimity reigned for virtually the entire agenda.

Council members who chose to honor Almond Bowl week—the annual festivities surrounding the crosstown high-school football game—with Chico High or Pleasant Valley garb kept the rivalry cordial. Divergent politically, Arts Commission Chair Monica McDaniel (also a current City Council candidate) joined Mayor Andrew Coolidge as he presented Mayor’s Achievement in the Arts Awards to Jess Mercer, the Steel family (i.e., Roger and Claudia) and Chico Art Center. The council, with minimal public comment (James Hutchinson and/or Jesica Giannola, if any), proceeded methodically through items—including new commercial cannabis fees, allocation of housing funds and confirmation of Billy Aldridge’s appointment as Chico’s interim police chief—approving each 7-0.

Until the end.

Familiar tensions resurfaced during the final action item, in which the council considered, and the majority ultimately approved, termination of the local emergency for COVID-19.

The previous council declared the emergency March 25, 2020, as the pandemic reached the North State. Along with the declaration came executive orders that, among other things, suspended deadlines for construction projects to start and enabled restaurants without outdoor patios to set up street-front seating (or “parklets”). Developers would have grace periods to proceed, but all other provisions of emergency orders end on the effective date of termination.

Staff recommended an end date of Dec. 1.

The proposal went to the council’s Internal Affairs Committee on Sept. 12. With Councilwoman Deepika Tandon absent that committee meeting, Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds and Councilman Mike O’Brien voted to recommend the city end the declaration and adopt a temporary ordinance allowing the parklets to continue until the city, with community input, could create “a comprehensive ordinance to address parklets in the downtown area.”

Interim Police Chief Billy Aldridge after the City Council unanimously approves his appointment. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

That’s essentially what the council decided, minus the temporary ordinance, as the discussion will commence at the next meeting, Oct. 18. Deputy City Manager Jennifer Macarthy said staff arrived at the Dec. 1 date with the parklet timeline in mind.

Reynolds, who noted that the Board of Supervisors ended Butte County’s declaration April 26, told her colleagues she’d “like [parklets] more uniform, attractive, and [to] make sure we’re doing it the right way.”

On a motion by Councilman Sean Morgan seconded by O’Brien, the council voted 6-1 to accept the recommendation, end the COVID declaration/orders and reassess parklets.

This after pointed questions and sharp dissent from Councilwoman Alex Brown, notably on the issue of tenant protections. The lone progressive, Brown homed in on provisions in the emergency declaration that strengthened rights for renters. Macarthy assured her that statewide protections remain in force, but City Attorney Vince Ewing responded he could not say for certain how safeguards might change without a “deeper dive” into the matter (i.e., legal research not feasible mid-meeting).

Brown declared her opposition and cast the opposing vote.

Following the meeting, she told the CN&R: “Ending the COVID-19 emergency was presented as a small idea, with minimal impacts, and that very well may be the case. But I don’t believe staff or council really made the case that it was a small impact.

“I don’t see the purpose in rushing to end an emergency while we’re still in it, even though we’re in a different chapter or phase of that emergency, without understanding what the potential impacts of that could be. This isn’t just about downtown parklets, which everybody likes and wants to keep in place; it’s also about protections for people who are in vulnerable positions, who are renters, and beyond. The fact that there was no preparation to answer those questions about the nuances that were listed in our emergency—I just couldn’t support it.”

Brown sees the decision within a broader context enmeshing both COVID and the community.

“I think at this point it’s almost impossible to remove the political tone from the landscape that we’re in right now,” she said. “We’ve got an election coming up in November [ballots mailed Oct. 10]—another notch on this council’s belt is ending a COVID-19 emergency that they sparsely believed in in the first place but one that allowed us to access funding resources and alternative methods of public engagement. It’s hard to separate how close an election is to this move.”

Brown, vice mayor in the previous council who is not seeking a second council term, also asked Macarthy whether the city risked losing COVID-related funding by ending the declaration. Staff does not believe so, for current or future disbursements.

Morgan, whose third term runs through 2024, told the CN&R that he feels the timing is right for changes.

“We’ve learned to live with COVID,” he said. “It’s not as deadly as it used to be. We can’t keep these special circumstances in place forever.

“The deputy city manager made a great point about the parkets, as did the vice mayor: There are restaurants that are excited about the parklets, and there is an equal number of restaurants not excited about the parklets. So if we have that discussion, and we get into parking again, it’s going to be a blankshow. I may skip that meeting.”

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