by Leslie Layton
This is what a political crisis looks like: Two City Council resignations in seven days. A barely-used emergency shelter for homeless residents that was erected by the city on a remote lot. Social media threads where commenters use terms like “trench warfare” to describe local politics.
The second City Council resignation came June 27 when first-term Councilor Kami Denlay announced she was stepping down — only seven days after her colleague, Scott Huber, had resigned. That leaves two vacancies on the seven-member panel – an unprecedented event, at least in recent decades.
The resignations — from councilors at opposite ends of the political spectrum on the issue of homelessness — come as Chico, bitterly divided over how to manage the problem, approaches a July 2 deadline imposed by a federal judge for action on an emergency shelter.
The city opened a shelter June 25 near the airport tarmac, erecting a canvas canopy to provide shade in a treeless area. On June 26 at 3 p.m, the only people present were a pair of private security guards, although there were several names on a sign-in sheet. A thermometer placed on a marked sleeping space in the dirt measured the temperature at 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Two councilors step down
Denlay, who was elected in November to represent District 3 on the panel, resigned amidst rumors that since December she has lived in Red Bluff rather than Chico. (Councilors must not only live in Chico, but under the new district election system, live in the district they represent.) Rumors began circulating after an anonymous note making that allegation was sent to several organizations.
Denlay said she resigned because of “people showing up on private property, loitering, and surveilling from across the street,” which she noted was a “frightening experience” for her children. In a Facebook post, Denlay said her family owns property outside of Chico, that she has used “decoy addresses” for privacy and that she has “somewhere in my district to live to fulfill my duty as a city council member.”
“My family is so blessed to call Chico home,” she wrote. “This breaks my heart, truly.”
A local Democratic party leader said Denlay was using a Red Bluff mailing address and a Chico voter registration address. “We have reason to believe, that at least for many years, she hasn’t lived at the address where she was registered as a voter,” said David Welch, chair of the Democratic Action Club of Chico. “You have to register to vote at your real address.”
In her Facebook post, Denlay asked the media to respect her privacy, made reference to a “recent incident my family had with a ‘reporter,’” said she was seeking peace and safety for her family, and provided no further detail.
Politically, Denlay represented an ultra-conservative position on homelessness and on the lawsuit against the city filed by eight unhoused plaintiffs and Legal Services of Northern California. She was part of the slate supported by Citizens for a Safe Chico, the developer-funded political action committee that poured money into the 2020 City Council election. She helped persuade the Council majority to oppose renewal of the shelter crisis declaration that has freed up federal funding for the city.
“It is unfortunate that you are another casualty of the trench warfare that Chico public service has become,” said a Facebook reader in response to her resignation. “Good Luck!”
On the other side of the issue was Councilor Huber, who lobbied for sheltering and services to the homeless. Huber stepped down June 21 after the Safe Chico PAC launched a campaign, suggesting Huber had moved to Wyoming. (He left for a summer job only and attended a couple of City Council meetings by Zoom.)
The Safe Chico group posted a paid ad on Facebook that included a link to his Wyoming employer, who was then contacted by Chico residents. In a June 7 post, the PAC identified Huber as one of several “extremists and enablers” who should be blamed “when you see a new transient camp pop up in your neighborhood.”
Seven months before the 2018 Camp Fire that exacerbated Chico’s homelessness problem, Huber spent a weekend on the streets of Chico to get a closer view of what people were going through.
County doesn’t like city shelter
In an unusual weekend press release, county officials said they hadn’t been consulted about the airport shelter and questioned whether it would meet the region’s needs. By the time it released an official statement, the shelter had earned various monikers on social media, including “concentration camp” and “frying pan.”
“The location at the airport selected by the City is not suitable in many respects for the County to provide mental health and social services …”, a Butte County press release states.
“Our goal is to provide the critical services to get people out of homelessness,” said Butte County Supervisor Debra Lucero.
The site has no electricity or kitchen facilities (cooking is prohibited, probably because of fire danger), and no stores or services within walking distance. The city says it will provide some bus service into downtown.
Lucero sounded dismayed in a June 26 Facebook post after visiting the shelter, which is in her District 2. “While I appreciate the efforts of the City and understand the pressure it is under to come up with solutions by July 2 under court order,” she wrote, “this site is woefully inadequate. It appears to be set up for failure.”
Butte County has committed half a million dollars to servicing a site in collaboration with the city. But Lucero says the county hasn’t been consulted by the City of Chico since June 10.
On social media, Councilor Sean Morgan’s supporters mocked unsheltered people for their hesitance to settle in after Morgan posted this: “We are under attack! … ‘Solution providers’ are having none of it. The site does not have a laundry service, they say … There is no Ferris wheel.”
ChicoSol contacted Morgan, asking about the city-county collaboration.
Morgan sent a brief statement by email, stating: “There [sic] county administrator is full of shit. We had multiple meetings attempting to find different solutions. County admin (not electeds) walked away. Now they want to hold the city hostage.”
“A barren wasteland”
Former mayor and City Council member Andy Holcombe wonders if the new airport shelter is nothing more than a political maneuver – that the Council picked a “barren wasteland” as a site in the belief that it would then be ordered by the court to do more. He suspects the Council is trying to “appease its base.”
Chico’s messy politics reflect the character of politics nationwide, but something else as well – the difficulty of managing a national housing crisis and homelessness in a mid-sized community.
On June 24, Butte County was identified as one of several areas in California with a growing population of unsheltered people. Tina Rosales, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, speaking during a statewide media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, said there have been increases in homelessness in recent years particularly remarkable in Fresno, Watsonville and Butte County.
The Butte County Housing Authority says this county has about 1,800 homeless people, with about half that number unsheltered. Others may be in emergency shelters or transitional housing; but the vast majority became homeless in their home area — in other words, they haven’t drifted in from somewhere else.
But the issue becomes increasingly charged as Chico conservatives increasingly use terms like “enablers” and “extremists” to describe anyone who wants to help and “transients” to describe people who may be from this area, a point Holcombe and other community members have made to ChicoSol.
“Homelessness has made it harder to meet in the middle and agree,” said Holcombe, who served two four-year terms on the Council and as mayor from 2006 to 2008. “I appreciate compromise and meeting people in the middle. But the right wing on our Council, they’re not willing to explore any reasonable alternative.”
Holcombe doesn’t recall any time in Chico’s history when two vacancies have occurred on the Council because of resignations. But he recalls a couple of times when there was one vacancy and the turmoil that ensued.
In one case, Holcombe, a liberal, provided the swing vote that placed conservative Bob Evans in a vacant seat. Irate constituents were “screaming in my face,” Holcombe recalled.
But he was persuaded by community members who argued that the empty seat should go to the candidate who had won the next-highest number of votes in the preceding election.
If the current Council voted in that way to replace Denlay, the seat would go to former Mayor Ann Schwab, a moderate liberal. And how is a replacement for Huber chosen, when he was elected in an at-large election and provided a moderating voice?
The Democratic Party of Butte County announced a press conference related to the Council vacancies that will be held at 2 p.m. today, Monday, at the Hands sculpture.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.