Del Oro mural flap is a small-town civics lesson

Was this approved?
The still-unfinished Del Oro mural was meant to depict life in a small gold-rush town. But it also is proving to be a small-town civics lesson and will be debated by the City Council on Tuesday.

Back in November, I wrote how Howard Levine of the Grass Valley Downtown Association had quietly posed as a “model” for the mural, a meter reader if you will. The artist wanted some “scale” for the three-dimension mural, so the story goes.

But Howard wasn’t in the mural when it was approved by the City Council. A mural depicting him no doubt would have raised some protests in the public forum.

Howard has ruffled some feathers with merchants over the years, with some people complaining about the association’s policies. On the other hand, he has helped revitalize the downtown.

Instead, Howard appeared once the mural was well underway in his cameo role. Howard and the owners of the Del Oro theater are friends, and they OK’ed the plan.

In February, the city received an enforcement investigation request, indicating there was a change to the mural without proper authorization.

The conditions approved by the council in 2007 were clear: “Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council and the owner.”

But the city staff has concluded: “As for the addition of the human figure to the rear wall (Howard), since it is separate and not part of the primary mural, it is not viewed as a substantial change in the character or context of the mural.” The identity of the “human figure,” the head of the Downtown Association, was never mentioned in the staff report.

Hmmm. How will the council vote? 5-0 or 4-1 to accept the staff report, based on the current makeup of the electeds.

Let’s hope someone raises the inconsistenty, though. People want to have faith that their government is following the rules and not being subjected to small-town political “end arounds.”

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.

13 thoughts on “Del Oro mural flap is a small-town civics lesson”

  1. Does a “human figure” — a generic upright biped — really have an identity in the completed mural?

    If (as I suspect) not, and the city staff deems the addition of a “human figure” of little consequence, then the problem is … what?

  2. I guess if you don’t like Howard, then you don’t want to see his “mug” on a mural. I’ve had little contact with him, and don’t truly know him, but what contact I have had has been pleasant. So, I think this is much ado about nothing.

    I really don’t like the money, time and angst that have gone into this project overall. I still wish this artwork were something that had preserved the spirit and simplicity of the old heart, which even though I’m against IMM reopening, was one of the most distinguishing and endearing things about the town when I moved here.

    Maybe when it is completed, this mural will grow on me. Kind of like the Picasso in Chicago (the big dog-woman-whatever sculpture in the Daley Center Plaza) grew on me. 10 years from now, no one will care and many won’t even know what went into getting this Del Oro mural done.

  3. An arts student from Sierra College told me the class offered to take on this project under the supervision of the instructor but the offer was turned down. Apparently there would have been no charge for all that free talent.

    If that is true, it seems to be worthy of a deeper examination and explaination perhaps.

  4. Yes, it was a community-wide fundraising effort. The “human figure” (AKA Howard) that was added later (after the project had been approved by a 4-1 council vote with the “any change to the mural design” language) was paid for by the Del Oro’s owners, according to the city. Council member Miller dissented on the original vote in 2007, stating that the design was too confusing, and he said some others told him that too.

    1. From an artistic perspective, I personally agree with Miller in his dissent. When I said I didn’t like the money, etc., I feel that way regardless of who is paying. I still think it is a colossal waste. I don’t think it will enhance downtown Grass Valley and I don’t like the design. And this comes from someone who enjoys trompe l’oeil in general. But again, once it is a fait accompli, everyone will get used to it and no one, including me, will care. (sorry for all the French, lol)

      As to small town politics, is the staff biased? If the staff is neutral why shouldn’t the council follow the recommendation?

      I think it can be fairly argued whether the figure is part of the mural or not, so to me that puts this all into the realm of opinion. But further, does it really change the character of the mural? Personally I think it adds an interesting, humorous and human touch that was sorely lacking; but that’s just me. I suppose the saddest thing is that the objections appear to be more that Howard is the meter reader than about there being a meter reader. What a tempest in a very tiny teapot.

      Yeah, all this money, time, and angst, and for what? (FYI I majored in Art way back when, and care about art in the public arena, though I have no personal interest in or money tied up in this mural).

  5. OK. Any volunteers? Who’s going to stand in as the scale for this debate, just to give proper perspective to the triviality of it all. I mean, wake up. Russ wrote on his blog — just today! — about how George wrote on his blog about singularity, and about how the Wall Street Journal really made it all interesting and understandable to George. George says we’re going to have machines for slaves! I mean, can Howard the Meter Reader really compete with that?

  6. Didn’t like the old heart much when I came up here from L A, where art on the outside walls of buildings is generally done with spray paint, but preferred it to the new mural, which hit me as confused and unattractive, but if done, better by locals and for less money, which could have been put to better use for needed projects. The addition of Howard peeping out, as he really has worked hard over the years to keep downtown Grass Valley a benefit to the city, is its one redeeming feature.

  7. Here’s the real issue to consider:

    The mural was approved by a prior City Council by a 4-1 vote. This took place after a signifegent amount of public controversy over the proposed mural design. Since the Del Oro is in the historic district and for other reasons many wanted the prior, long standing mural to be repainted.

    The Planning Commission first reviewed the proposed mural at a public hearing. It was very clear that the proposed mural was very controversial. So the proposed mural was forwarded to the City Council for review and a decision. The Council got an earful from the public about the proposed mural. Due to the public outcry the Council formed a mural review committee. The committee reviewed design options and recommended the Council approve the mural as proposed.

    The City Council conducted a public hearing to consider the recommendation of the mural design committee. Again there was signifegent public controversy over the proposed mural. The previous City Council approved the proposed mural by a 4-1 vote, with Council member Dan Miller voting no.

    Important… the mural was approved by a 4-1 vote by a prior City Council, not the City Council currently sitting. The then City Council approved the mural design but did so with one very specific “Condition of Approval”.

    This “Condition of Approval” stated… “Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council”.

    The City Council at that time said “any”, as in ANY change. The word “any” is specific to it’s intend. “Any” is black and white; no room for interpretation. The word “any” means… ANY.

    Clearly the mural was changed since approved by the prior City Council. The change is the addition of the life-size “meter reader” at the bottom of the mural. This was not part of the original design and it was not part of the mural approved by the former City Council at a public hearing. This is a change to the mural.

    This change did not return to the City Council for review and consideration as required under the “Condition of Approval” put in place by the prior City Council. The condition of approval is clear…“Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council”.

    The change to the mural took place without first returning to the City Council as required. Now an “after the fact” review of the change is required. Joe Heckel, Community Development Director has reviewed the change to the mural and has prepared a staff report on the issue. This issue will be before the City Council Tuesday night.

    In the staff report for this item the Community Development Director states:

    “After reviewing the background in this case, City staff would offer that the intent of the wording of the condition, “Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council and the owner”, was to apply to substantial changes and not minor alterations”.

    So now City staff offers, “that the intent of the wording of the condition, “Any change to the mural… was to apply to substantial changes and not minor alterations”.

    The City Council at that time said “any”, as in ANY. The word “any” is specific to it’s intend, no room for interpretation, there is no need. The word “any”, means “any”, as in “ANY”.

    To have a City staff member attempt to reach back in time and replace the thoughts and actions of the prior City Council with his own is outrageous and dangerous for so many reasons.

    To have the Community Development Director attempt to revise history, to replace the “intend” and specific actions of the then City Council with his own opinion is an insult to the prior City Council. It also sets us down a very slipper slope when a staff member takes it upon himself to interpret and revise the actions of prior elected decision makers and attempt to replace them with his own opinion.

    There is no need for a staff member to interpret the “intend” of the City Council that reviewed and approved the mural. The “Condition of Approval” applied to the mural by the prior City Council is 100% clear.

    “Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council”

    The Community Development Director provides only two options in the staff report:

    1) Adopt a finding that the addition to the rear wall is not a substantial change to the mural and does not alter its character or context, or

    2) adopt a finding that the addition is a substantial change and direct that it be removed.

    How about a third option?… How about the truth?

    Find that a violation of the “Condition of Approval” put in place by the prior City Council has occurred.

    Do not allow the Community Development Director to revise history and replace the specific actions of the then City Council with his own opinion.

    The “Condition of Approval” applied to the mural by the prior City Council is 100% clear, “Any change to the mural design would require the approval of the City Council”.

    The City Council at that time said “any”, as in ANY change. The word “any” is specific to it’s intend.

    The word “any” means… “ANY”.

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