Redding City Council Recall is a Cry For Help, But Who’s Listening?

Captain, played by Strother Martin in the classic film Cool Hand Luke and shown here swinging a truncheon, knew all about crime rates and failures to communicate. Publicity photo from film.

Captain, played by Strother Martin in the classic film Cool Hand Luke and shown here swinging a truncheon, knew all about crime rates and failures to communicate. Publicity photo from film.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate on so many levels, my head is spinning.

As just about everybody in Shasta County knows by now, there was a pretty damned intense Redding City Council meeting last week, during which a dozen or so constituents roundly criticized the city’s leadership on issues ranging from fighting crime to economic development to hiring a good old boy to be new city manager.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” is one of their slogans, and just to show they’re serious, they’ve gone and filed recall petitions against two Redding City Council members, Francie Sullivan and Kristen Schreder.

It’s nothing personal, they say, picking on the pair of senior council members, other than they’re the ones who’ve been making allegedly bad decisions the longest. It’s the first step in what the group promises will be an ongoing campaign to oust public officials they claim aren’t listening to “the people.”

I’m familiar with several of the people who testified at last week’s city council meeting from the Take Back Redding Facebook page, one of several pages dedicated to fighting crime in the Redding area. “If not us, who? If not now, when?” is the group’s motto and it has more than 6000 members, many of them Redding residents. While I’m not a Redding resident and I don’t necessarily agree with the recall effort, for reasons I’ll present below, I am familiar with the grievances of the people behind the recall, many of which are legitimate in my view, if misdirected.

It all began, oh, let’s say four years or so ago, when these local business owners and residents, equally divided between men and women, began attending city council meetings, voicing their concerns and presenting evidence in regard to rising property crime rates and the increasing number of so-called low level criminal offenders menacing Redding’s shopping districts and neighborhoods.

It’s worth noting that the increase in property crime rates since 2011 can be directly attributed to AB 109 — also known as prison realignment — state legislation that mandated the release of low-level prisoners to community custody, in order to relieve the state’s unconstitutionally over-crowded prisons. Academics have called the reform historic, and its impact on the state has been significant.

Prison realignment, combined with successful statewide criminal justice reform initiatives such as Props 47 and 57, has transferred responsibility for incarceration and rehabilitation of low-level offenders from the prisons to the cities and counties. It has also led to increased crime rates across the state. Redding is far from the only city in California experiencing low-level criminals running amok on its streets as a result of ongoing criminal justice reform efforts.

That’s not to say the reforms haven’t hit cash-strapped Shasta County particularly hard, with its perennially over-crowded jail and law enforcement staffing levels dependent on proximity to the most recent economic crash. That’s what brought many of the people now demanding a recall down to those city council meetings in the first place.

To be fair, the Redding City Council listened to its constituents, and tackled the problem with typical managerial zeal, contracting an outside agency to produce the Blueprint for Public Safety, following that up last year with a proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for the additional police officers, jail space and rehabilitation services required to execute the plan.

Measure D on last November’s ballot would have raised an estimated $11 million annually for the city’s general fund over 10 years. The city could have insisted that the money be spent on public safety, but that would have required a super majority of voters for passage.

Instead, the city served up Measure D with Measure E, a non-binding advisory directing, but not requiring, the funds be spent on public safety. Both measures required just simple majorities for passage, and given the furor its constituents had expressed over the property crime rate in countless city council meetings, city officials can perhaps be forgiven for thinking the measures would pass easily.

Then again, it’s no secret that Shasta County voters, including more than a few in Redding, are notoriously averse to any new tax, and perhaps the campaign should have taken that more into account. Measures D and E flopped, in part because more tax-averse voters weren’t convinced the city would spend all the revenue fighting crime, given that the advisory measure was non-binding.

Thanks to this communication breakdown, what might have been a golden example of democracy in action—constituents complain about public safety, city council comes up with a plan, constituents approve funding for plan, plan is implemented, crime rate goes down—has morphed into a quasi-populist rebellion, pitting an aggrieved citizenry comprised of ordinary workers, small business owners and professionals incensed by rising crime against a managerial elite perceived by them to be overpaid, ineffective, out-of-touch and perhaps even unnecessary.

Thus, just about anything the city council has done since the election has been greeted on the various local Facebook pages I troll with howls of derision and disbelief. It’s gone far beyond the topic of public safety at this point. Genuine anger and resentment are beginning to boil, and unfortunately recent news events haven’t been too favorable to the city council.

The numerous city department managers earning six-figure salaries, including new city manager Barry Tippin, who will make $210,000 annually, have become obvious targets of resentment. One member of Take Back Redding told me she began losing faith in the city council when it gave raises to several city managers shortly after Measure D and E’s defeat, even as it was proposing cuts to public safety personnel. Another compared Tippin’s salary unfavorably to President Donald Trump’s, suggesting Tippin was overcompensated, bigly.

A former assistant city manager who was promoted to the head position after Redding had conducted an expensive outside search for a candidate, Tippin took heat from one recall supporter at last week’s city council meeting for being part of the “good old boy” network. The hope was an outsider might shake things up, particularly in regard to renegotiating contracts for the city’s 1000 employees.

The pensions of past, present and future city employees have also become a target of wrath, especially after the Shasta County Grand Jury released a fairly stunning report on Redding, Shasta Lake City, Anderson and the county’s unfunded pension liabilities earlier this year.

It’s complicated, but to cut to the chase, in the near future local taxpayers will be liable for millions in stock market losses incurred by state-run pension funds like CalPERS during the past two economic downturns. There’s not too much we can do about contracts that have already been negotiated except pay them out. Pray that we’re not currently on the cusp of yet another stock market implosion, for that will only add to the previous losses.

In yet more damaging news to city leadership delivered by the grand jury, the city’s $41 million public investment in Stillwater Business Park was seriously called into question last month. In development since 2006, the project consists of 14 parcels zoned for light and heavy industrial use, with infrastructure such as electrical and plumbing connections already installed at taxpayer cost. In the past seven years, the city has generated just 14 sales leads and has managed to sell just one parcel.

One of the leads that almost generated a sale was with greenhouse manufacturer Emerald Kingdom, which planned to build a state-of-the-art composite building on one of the parcels until its bid was turned down last year for reasons that remain unclear. A senior associate with Colliers International, the third firm Redding has hired to market the project, told the local daily at the time, “We need jobs in Redding and we don’t need cool designs.”

Perhaps Colliers should examine the website it designed to sell the project, which features Sundial Bridge—a cool design by anyone’s standard—as a primary area attraction.

Industrial real estate is supposed to be hot in California, but Stillwater Business Park isn't selling.

Industrial real estate is supposed to be hot in California, but Stillwater Business Park isn’t selling.

As it turned out, any jobs Emerald Kingdom would have provided to Redding have now gone to Red Bluff, where the company recently announced it’s building a new facility. The announcement further bolstered claims by members of the Take Back Redding group that Redding, compared to nearby cities such as Anderson and Red Bluff, is hostile to new business development.

The very existence of Stillwater Business Park would appear to bely that notion, but then there’s the grand jury report, in which the jurors were unable to find anyone officially in charge of the project. That’s concerning considering the interest on the underlying bonds will bring the total cost of the project to nearly $60 million when and if they reach maturity. Without new tenets bringing in revenue, taxpayers will be stuck with the costs, and there is apparently no plan to avoid this inevitability, other than muddling through.

One thing I’ve noticed in Shasta County during the short time I’ve lived here is grand jury reports generally don’t have much bite, no matter how egregious their findings. The findings on Stillwater Business Park are pretty egregious. Someone needs to be held accountable. Moreover, someone needs to be put in charge of the project. Or at least pretend they care.

I think that’s a pretty common feeling here in Shasta County—no matter which city you live in—the feeling that no one’s in charge, no one’s ever held accountable, no one cares, and it’s driving this nascent quasi-populist rebellion in Redding.

In large part, this animosity is a built-in feature of our present way of local government. We elect part-time, underpaid figureheads (sheriff excepted) who we pretend run the show, while high-paid managers do the real work. When something goes wrong, we can throw the bums out and elect new ones, but it’s still the same machine behind the curtain, so nothing really ever changes, except the level of frustration.

And the level of frustration is rising at this point, due to the reasons cited above and many others, including the brutally maligned contest to design a new city flag as well as the recent city code enforcement crackdown on rental trucks and storage sheds in the parking lots of Lowe’s and Home Depot, with no sign of letting up. It’s no use pointing out that code enforcement was responding to citizen complaints. The city can’t do anything right in the minds of its detractors.

I call it a quasi-populist rebellion because I’m not exactly sure where the people behind the recall effort are coming from yet. Are they serious-minded reformers, or just the typical anti-government voters one encounters in Shasta County?

Supporters of Francie Sullivan and Kristen Schreder suggest the pair have been targeted for recall because of their work on homelessness and joblessness issues. Judging from some of the remarks on those issues I’ve read on Take Back Redding, it’s clear some recall supporters believe a bus ticket out of town for every troublesome vagrant is the final solution to Redding’s crime problem.

Moving the problem to another city or county faced with exactly the same issues can hardly be called a populist policy. Neither can it be called being “part of the solution,” which thanks to a wave of historic criminal justice reforms in the past decade, now necessarily involves cities and counties providing services to low level criminals once provided by the state, whether its constituents like it or not.

In short, this problem isn’t going away, unless the state suddenly decides to build a bunch of new prisons, which is entirely possible, if the great reform experiment the state has embarked upon continues to fail. That’s how historical cycles have worked in the past.

So far, the state savings from AB 109 prison realignment that have been passed on to Shasta County have not covered all the costs of housing and rehabilitating the low level criminals that have become our responsibility. We started out in the hole with an over-crowded jail and we’ve been digging our way out ever since. The county’s recent failure to secure $6 million in Prop 47 grant funding from the state was a kick in the teeth before we’d even poked our head up out of the hole.

Therein lies the essence of why I cannot endorse the recall effort against two Redding City Council members, allegedly for not doing something about the crime rate: This is a county-wide problem, not just a city of Redding problem, one caused by a dramatic shift in criminal justice reform at the state level that’s clearly failing even as its architects, from Gov. Jerry Brown to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to former state attorney general and now U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, continue to tout it as a success.

How long they’ll be able to maintain this charade remains to be seen, but until they drop it and start funding criminal justice reform more aggressively, the crime rate’s not likely to get any better.

How can it, when low-level criminals who commit serious nonviolent crimes face virtually no criminal penalties? A serious misdemeanor might land a junkie thief a jail sentence, assuming there’s a cell available, but more likely than not, low-level drug offenders are cited and released to continue preying upon not just residents and businesses, but the homeless community, which receives the brunt of the violence. Without the threat of a jail sentence, local law enforcement have no leverage to force such offenders into drug treatment programs, assuming a program is available in the first place.

In other words, we’re in really deep shit. The crime rate isn’t going down because this is the new normal. Which means for the time being we’re stuck with this quasi-populist rebellion in Shasta County. In fact, it may already be exerting influence. As I was completing this story, news broke that Redding Police Chief Robert Paoletti has been sacked by new Redding city manager Tippin, for reasons unknown at this time.

Last year, I spoke to Paoletti at length about the challenges posed by criminal justice reform, and I left one remark on the cutting room floor that warrants repeating now. The worst job in Shasta County, he told me, belongs to the deputies at the jail who have to decide who to keep and who to release without endangering the public.

My impression of Paoletti is that he knows the score when it comes to the reality of criminal justice reform. He’s a shrewd communicator who’s done a fairly decent job informing the public about the department’s progress—or lack thereof. Up to this point, I haven’t noticed too many negative comments about the now former police chief on social media, other than posts concerning several well publicized incidents of alleged police brutality on his watch.

I can’t recall Paoletti’s name being mentioned on Take Back Redding, at least recently, and I have no idea what the people behind the recall think about his performance as chief. If I had to guess, I’d say they support Paoletti, which means city officials have screwed up yet again. But I could be wrong. Perhaps they’ll see it as the sort of bold decision-making they’ve been seeking.

I really have no idea what the quasi-populist rebellion thinks about Paoletti’s firing, but I’m pretty sure the crime rate ain’t going to improve while Redding is breaking in a new chief of police. Perhaps it will get bad enough, state officials will finally take notice of us. That’s a positive of sorts.

In the meantime, the question to be determined over the next 160 days will be whether 7600 hundred Redding voters are angry enough to sign recall petitions for two city council members. The two council members can hardly be blamed for the city’s present predicament—but then there’s those grand jury reports. Someone’s gotta pay.

Currently, I rate the chances of a successful recall at 50-50. If the economy tanks, make it 100 percent. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty, but these days, democracy seldom is. Pretty.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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