Time Machine: set your watch for Chico, CA, 2012…

21 Feb

How the heck did Chico get into the mess it’s in? That’s been discussed from many points of view – here’s mine. You can also read back in the archives, I chronicled as much of it here as I could, trying to make sense of it, all the way back to 2012, when I quit my old blog at the Enterprise Record. Anybody remember that?

I’ll start there. Back in 2012, the city of Chico hired a new city manager out of a tiny Southern California town called Hemet. Brian Nakamura – a man with a questionable employment record, who was already on the hot seat in Hemet for various reasons. Nakamura was hired at an unheard of new salary – $212,000/yr, plus full benefits – he paid nothing toward his pension or health benefits.

At that time the city was still reeling from years of fiscal hijinks – the most damning, a Memo of Understanding brought forward about 2006 by former city manager Tom Lando. At that time, the city was riding high from developer fees, so Lando decided everybody should get a raise. He wanted in on the money train coming from years of over development, so he suggest that we “attach salaries to revenue increases but NOT decreases”. Council approved that MOU. Over the next few years, salaries went up incredibly – 14%, 19%, 22%, per year.

Lando’s salary went from around $90,000/yr to over $150,000/yr. At that time, here’s the whammy – management paid NOTHING toward their benefits and the other employee groups paid slim to none as well. Public safety paid nothing, for pensions of 90 percent of their highest year’s salary, available at 55 years old.

And then, you might remember, The Great Bust of 2008. Like it was a surprise? Foreclosures all over town took property tax revenues into the toilet. Reeling from their own bad investments, CalPERS started to tank, and began demanding outrageous payments for all those new pensions. Trouble, right here in Bidwell City, and that’s starts with ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for PENSIONS.

That’s where we were when Nakamura rode in, like Gene Wilder in “Blazing Saddles”. Nakamura was hired as a “corporate assassin”. We had a big payroll, and he had been hired to pare it down. Instead of negotiating better contracts with a “top heavy” management force – as had been suggested several times by consultants – Nakamura just waded in and started firing people.

All behind closed doors, without explanation, he eliminated senior staffers who didn’t agree with the new policies. He hired his friends from Hemet to replace them – Mark Orme and Chris Constantin – as his assistant manager and finance director, giving them salaries in excess of the people who’d formerly held those positions. And then Constantin started a campaign of blaming all the city’s financial woes on his predecessor Jennifer Hennessy, calling her “Loosey Goosey” in meetings and in an appearance before the Chico Tea Party. Constantin went on an regular PR campaign – sheesh, he even attended one of my Chico Taxpayer meetings, brought his wife and everything. He tried to tell us the whole thing was the fire departments’ fault. Nakamura started reporting threats from the Police and Fire Departments. But he kept doling out raises to his friends and refused to ask employee groups to pay higher shares of the CalPERS costs.

Instead, Nakamura began gutting the lower-paid workforce in all departments. This really made no sense in light of the fact that new management positions continued to be created at higher salaries. Orme went on creating new management positions right up until he left last year, while telling us we needed to pay a one-cent sales tax if we wanted our streets maintained.

Nakamura had been the one who first raised the subject of the CalPERS pension deficit, even mentioning the benefits deficit that is rarely discussed. Well, of course he needed to mention that – all the new salaries and no employee shares was rising up on the horizon like a tidal wave. I always think, “Jaws”, or “Perfect Storm”. Nakamura told us about it, but his solution was, the taxpayers should pay more. After Nakamura left and Orme and Constantin took over, the total payments to CalPERS went up drastically, millions a year siphoned quietly out of all the department funds. The city finally established the “Pension Stabilization Trust” and these payments became instituted – the PST gets a set percentage of every department budget, no matter the needs of the city.

Nakamura left as quickly as he was hired, leaving suddenly to take a job in Rancho Cordova, from which he was essentially fired for pulling some dirty tricks in a revenue measure campaign. But his legacy lives on in many ways – next time we’ll talk about the Trash Tax (cause that’s what current city manager and former city council member Mark Orme called it back in 2012).

Ever wonder what happened to Nakamura? Here he is at Texas A&M, giving us his insights on how the public needs to do more. We’ll pick this up again later as well.

I’m working on what we call “coproduction of services” at the local government level. Essentially, coproduction of services for a local government is “how do we engage the citizens to be active and to participate within the environment in the community in which they live?” We want citizens to engage within the community beyond volunteering and participating in public meetings. We want them to engage in the production and implementation of essential public services.
For example, citizens tend to engage in Neighborhood Watch or community-oriented policing, and we want to take this one step further by having citizens truly engage, in a safe manner of course, in providing services related to economic development, social justice, and environmental protection. Let’s put the gloves on, get the shovels and trimmers out, and rid our parks and natural areas of invasive tree and plant species, as an example.

2 Responses to “Time Machine: set your watch for Chico, CA, 2012…”

  1. Scott Rushing February 21, 2023 at 5:06 pm #

    If a student can learn from mistakes then Brian Nakamura is overqualified to teach the students at Texas A&M.

    • Juanita Sumner February 21, 2023 at 6:33 pm #

      It’s creepy to think that he has any influence over young people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: