Oroville Mercury-Register

Fridge decision turns up heat on the council

- Evan Tuchinsky Evan Tuchinsky is weekend editor of the Enterprise­Record. You can reach him at etuchinsky@chicoer.com.

Food insecurity is real. Various assessment­s, including one delivered to the Butte County Board of Supervisor­s last summer, estimate 1 in 5 people locally do not have enough to eat — including 1 in 4 children and 1 in 2 college students.

Behind these numbers are individual­s. Sierra Sandoval sees them daily at the Chico Community Fridge, set up behind her apartment complex in the Chapman neighborho­od. A hundred people a day come up the alley to drop off or pick up a meal, produce, canned goods, even clothing and toiletries.

She knows them. Some are homeless — among them, people from her hometown, Paradise, displaced by the Camp Fire.

Some are working families such as hers. Donors, recipients, volunteers, they’re all neighbors.

Sandoval took over the fridge last year. It originally sat along Pine Street in the Mulberry neighborho­od, until the city required an administra­tive use permit for it to continue. That permit costs $1,679 — a substantia­l sum for a charitable group, especially so for a loose collection of residents. Sandoval plans to turn the fridge into a 501(c)3 nonprofit; for now, it lacks a formal organizati­on.

Supporters responded. She got $1,700 donated and applied for the permit last week. Her story caught the attention of Addison Winslow, one of two new members on the City Council, and he requested his colleagues consider regulatory relief for small mutual-aid projects such as the fridge.

Technicall­y, Winslow asked councilors to discuss discussing the matter. They did so Tuesday night, at the end of their meeting, three hours after a series of public speakers advocated for the cause. Tom van Overbeek and Dale Bennett were on board … but, with Winslow, found themselves on the losing side of a 4-3 vote that nipped the proposal in the bud.

This does not nix the fridge. The city — specifical­ly, Community Developmen­t Director Brendan Vieg — will review the permit applicatio­n. If Sandoval and the volunteers adhere to conditions set out, along with county environmen­tal health regulation­s, the fridge will keep running.

What the decision did, besides enforcing the $1,679 fee, is reinforce a reputation of indifferen­ce toward the plight of struggling Chicoans.

Conservati­ve councilors say they do a lot — too much in the eyes of some backers. The city spent millions on the Pallet shelter, for instance, where the Jesus Center is under contract to offer meals and services. There’s also electricit­y and air conditioni­ng.

They reckon they could have done less (see: resting site on airport tarmac). They also could have done more, particular­ly in the first place, before deciding to sweep encampment­s (see: Warren v. City of Chico). Meeting after meeting, constituen­ts blast the council for the repercussi­ons.

Perception matters. Whether councilors care, their actions send a message.

Tuesday, four conservati­ves — Andrew Coolidge, Sean Morgan, Kasey Reynolds and Deepika Tandon — declined to entertain a discussion about a small aid project among neighbors. They did so after approving a massive project billed as aiding a municipal neighbor, a sewer connection with Chico.

Reasons cited for opposing the proposal aren’t unreasonab­le. Food safety is an issue. So is setting a precedent of lowering or waiving fees based on councilors’ wishes. Those are points to consider, discuss, debate.

The council didn’t get that far. As City Attorney Vince Ewing injected, the matter at hand was only to set a discussion — or, as it turned out, not. Councilors decided they’d heard enough and knew enough.

They may have made the decision on merits, but regardless, they added yet more fuel to inflamed citizens.

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