Commentary: Political Bias in Historical Names List?

Historic-StreetOn November 12, 2013, the Davis City Council unanimously declined to approve two lists of “Historic Davis Names” submitted by the Davis Historical Resources Management Commission (HRMC).

In response, there is a scheduled December 16, 2013, discussion meeting where the commission “will discuss a proposal to update and refine a list of individuals and families who have played a significant role in Davis history.”

According to a press statement, “The HRMC intends to create a list of historic Davis names that could be used for naming certain future streets in the City, if adopted by the City Council.”

The HRMC is inviting the public and all interested persons to suggest names for inclusion or exclusion, and to discuss “the merits of those being considered.”

The list of historic Davis names generated will be provided to the City Council at a later date for consideration and adoption as a list of potential streets names that could be used in certain future projects for streets.

While this exercise might seem dull and innocuous, it has been pointed out that the list of potential streets bears significant political bias.  People on the mainstream or the more developer-friendly side of Davis history are included, as are six names of Davis Enterprise employees including Debbie Davis, Bruce Gallaudet, Bob Dunning and Dean McNaughton.

Historical-List-2

Historical-List-3

Among the progressives, Bob Black seems to be the only one on the list, and others such as Julie Partansky, Bill Kopper, Tom Tomasi and others are notably absent.

The Vanguard is informed that the list reflects the preferences of one commissioner who filled the list with people that he likes and excluded people who have played as important, if not more important, a role in Davis history than the people on the list.

According to the council agenda from the November 12 meeting, back in May, Rich Rifkin presented an idea to change street names to reflect historical figures.  However, “Many Commissioners felt that naming new streets after these people might be more practical than renaming existing streets, and suggested that Commissioner Rifkin create a list of recommended names that reflect Davis history and present the list to the Public Works Department to use when naming future streets. The Commission consensus was to pursue the idea of changing Covell Place to Jerry Kaneko Place.”

The agenda adds, “On June 17, 2013 Commissioner Rifkin shared with the Commission his efforts since the May 20, 2013 meeting. The Commission agreed that Commissioner Rifkin should consolidate the names and have it sent to Commissioners for review and additional comments or suggestions.”

On August 19, the commission unanimously supported a motion that included, “[t]hat the City Council authorize that names of persons important to Davis history be used for the Cannery development for its new streets with the approval of the property developer, and that the names should be those on the subcommittee’s list of historic Davis names.”

Perhaps the most notable exclusion is Julie Partansky, the former mayor who has been venerated and honored in the few years since her premature passing.  Ms. Partansky was instrumental in a number of innovations in Davis, some of which ended up not working as well as hoped, but has been universally lauded for her passion, compassion, principles and civil demeanor.

The political bias here should be noted, but so too is any sort of objective process.  If we are to name streets after contemporary or historical figures of note, there should be objective criteria, a public procedure where the decisions for inclusion and exclusion are publicly deliberated.

There is concern that much of the HRMC is unaware of Davis’ history and therefore may not be qualified to determine who belongs on the list and who does not.

A street sign is not and should not be a political game to put those who are liked by the current political climate on the list and exclude those who are not liked.

The meeting will be Monday, December 16th at the Hattie Weber Museum (445 C Street) at 7:00 PM.  The public is encouraged to attend the hearing and voice their additions to the list.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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29 thoughts on “Commentary: Political Bias in Historical Names List?”

  1. Phil Coleman

    Something that seems routine, even mundane, promises to be a contentious and controversial issue. Look for comments from outside our community that will mockingly say something to the effect, “Only in Davis.”

  2. Tia Will

    I would like to add a thought about process. A list is a reasonable starting point. A list generated by one person will inevitably be biased by that individuals values and sensibilities. What I would find of more value is as you have suggested a listing of names solicited from the community at large, and the requirement of a brief comment about contributions that the proposed individual has made to the community rather than simply their occupation and/or
    status as an elected.

  3. Tia Will

    Phil Coleman

    I would agree that the naming of streets would seem mundane. It would be if what were being considered were animal names or tree names or colors. Who has been of sufficient importance historically within the community to be commemorated with a street name is hardly a noncontroversial issue, especially when delegated to a single individual to start the process.

    Also, we seem to have a different take on the “only in Davis” comment from outside. You seem to be seeing it as a source of derision. I see it as a mark of a community that actually cares about civic matters both large and small.

    1. Mr.Toad

      I’d like to see a street named for Jack Forbes. He was an inspiration to myself and so many others. He lived and taught here for 50 years. He founded a Department on campus and authored around 20 books.

    2. Phil Coleman

      Tia:

      ” You seem to be seeing it as a source of derision.”

      Fair point, but it’s not relevant how I see it, it’s how its portrayed by those outside our community. As far as how WE should interpret it, that’s also an individual choice.

      My sense is that there is more than a smidgen of “Davis envy” with what we have happening here–maybe not the process, but the end product. We are a very desirable place to live and the tedious and protracted journey justifies the final destination.

  4. Don Shor

    I can think of many academics that belong on that list, plus several past political figures. And any list that doesn’t include Tom and Amelia Basinger is simply incomplete.
    This should be a fun can of worms.

    1. hpierce

      Tommy Basinger did most of the fine grading of the bikepaths in Community Park. With a Fordson box on the back of his famous tractor. Helluva guy! At the very least. we should name one of the main bikepaths in the park for him.

      He had a theory about park pathways that always made sense to me: turf everything, and wait a year or so… then grade and pave those areas where the grass was trampled down… historically, particularly in the east part of the US, that’s how main street alignments were established… where the wagon/horse tracks were.

  5. hpierce

    Would folks be interested in knowing the history of how Davis’ street names are determined? I know someone who was involved in the process for over 25 years, I might be able to get him to share.

  6. Jim Frame

    As others have noted, picking street names from such a casually assembled list would be ridiculous, if for no other reason that so many of those people are still alive. hpierce referred to the dead-man criterion as a “rule,” but I thought it was at least a formal policy, if not an
    ordinance.

    1. hpierce

      Jim is correct… there is no ordinance, nor formal resolution, but there have been OTHER facilities, other than public streets, that have been named for living people… Dave Pelz bike/ped OC, Howard Reese commemorative bike/ped path, Tim Spencer alley (by state code, an alley is roughly equivalent to a street, but enough different to say that this was not an “exception”).

    2. Rich Rifkin

      Of the 30 names on the current list, only 4 are living: Thomson, Larkey, Streng and Corbett. An admittedly “political” reason for including Larkey and Thomson is that they are highly qualified females. Helen Thomson was elected many times by the people of Davis to the school board, county board of supervisors, state assembly and back to the county board of supervisors. Also, she and her husband, Dr. Captane Thomson, have played a large role in local, regional and state public health questions, including mental health. Joann Leach Larkey, who grew up in Davis and moved to Winters after her husband, Dr. Richard Larkey, retired, is our city’s foremost historian. Bill Streng is alive, but quite old. We decided to keep him on the list because of his extremely long and significant contribution to the development and architecture of Davis. Some might not like Streng (or Thomson or Larkey), but there is no doubting their affect on Davis. The story with Mike Corbett is similar. He not only served on the Davis City Council, but he built the most innovative and in that sense important subdivisions in Davis history. He is not as old as Streng, but he has largely retired from Davis politics. Yet if you think because he is alive or because he is still building a few homes–Corbett designed and is building the new Parkview Place apartments at 4th and D right now–please come to the HRMC meeting on Monday night and object to his inclusion.

      I should add that, when it comes to the living (or any other factors for inclusion or exclusion), the decision is up to the Davis City Council. The HRMC list is simply a recommendation. It is not policy. It has no force of law. We decided to include the names of four who are alive. But if this Council does not like that, they will take off those names.

      In the not so distant past, other Councils decided it is okay to name public facilities for the living. As a result, a small street was named for Fred Kendall, a major alley was named for Tim Spencer, a long bike path was named for Howard Reese, and a large overpass was named for Dave Pelz. All of those people were alive when honored in this manner. My feeling is that it brings a lot more joy to the individual honoree to name the place for them when they are alive than waiting until they are dead. But I understand not everyone shares that opinion.

      And a bit of trivia: Not that he ever lived in the town named for him, but Jerome Davis was very much alive when DeWitt Rice (the man for whom Rice Lane is named) and his partners in the California Pacific Railroad decided to name their new real estate project Davisville in 1868. I suppose, if they agreed with those who only want to honor the dead, they could have named the town they laid out Putah Creek Township. That was another possibility back in the day.

      1. hpierce

        Rich, you are either mis-informed or… Kendall Way was named years after Fred passed. I pointed out the other exceptions you noted, yet you seem to refute my factual comment earlier. Whatever, as the kids say…

  7. Rich Rifkin

    I am going to break my silence on comments on the Vanguard for this story, as I am the subject of this editorial in some sense. It’s odd that the Vanguard accuses me of having political bias in choosing names–I was on the subcommittee which created the first list. The very reason I thought to suggest some developers* was because it was suggested it to meThat list was then altered to fit the City’s standard practice (not an ordinance) of not naming facilities for people who are alive and still in public office. (The two names I can recall in that regard which were removed were Lois Wolk and David Rosenberg. The feeling as to why they belonged was largely because they have both been elected multiple times to multiple offices by the people of Davis, and in Rosenberg’s case he has served the public in non-elective offices, as well.)

    Our intent as a commission has been to try to promote Davis history. I thought this was an innocuous and positive exercise. I never thought of political bias or anything of the sort.

    After he complained to the city council that there had not been enough citizen input in the HRMC process–we had held 3 public meetings on this, each of which was noticed–the council told us to invite more public participation. I wrote the notice in The Enterprise for next Monday’s HRMC meeting. Our staff liaison reached out to a number of historically minded Davis residents, (Greenwald never asked me for my side of the story. Nor did Greenwald approach HRMC Chair Rand Herbert. Both of us were at the City Council meeting last night.)

    If it turns out that the public which comes to the 12-16 meeting of the HRMC feels that our list should have other names that we left off, we are very happy to hear them. Greenwald suggests in his editorial Julie Partansky as one. That is not a bad idea. However, our intent was to try to honor people who have no other such honors. Davis has a Partansky Pond named for her. Also, while she was twice elected to serve on the Davis City Council and served as mayor for 2 years, most of the people on our list who were elected by the public either served much longer or did something else in town which affected Davis history. For example, Jack Hibbert is on the list. He was on the City Council. And he started and ran Hibbert Lumber, a long time and important business in Davis. Likewise, Harry Whitcombe is on the list. He was also on the City Council, and he greatly affected our town’s development as a home builder (though in that regard less than his son, John Whitcombe).

    *A few more comments: Greenwald attacks the idea of Enterprise people like Dunning and Debbie Davis Gallaudet. Neither made the final cut, largely because they are still too active in town life, and neither is terribly old or ill. However, Debbie has been running the Davis Enterprise for about 35 years–I am not sure the exact number. That is a very significant contribution to our city’s most important media company. Dunning has been a writer and columnist for the Enterprise for even longer, and he has been active in public life in Davis for a very long time. Of course, Lofland and Greenwald hate Dunning. So thus they see me as biased for thinking of them for the list.

    I should add that the subcommittee met (some 6 months ago) with the fire department and the city engineer to discuss potentially problematic names. One we could not use, for example, is Stanley Davis, because of the possible confusion with Old Davis Road. Same issue arises in naming a street for Debbie Davis, which is her maiden and professional name. Another important person in Davis history was WW Robbins, who built Oak Avenue, among other things. Because there is a Robin already, having a Robbins would cause a problem for public safety. ….. If there was anything “political” in forming the list it was to try to choose more women. I don’t think we particularly succeeded in that, but we tried. A problem is that most of the best female candidates are alive and still active or somewhat active. If there are good female candidates who are not on our list and have not yet been honored with a public facility named for them, please come to the HRMC meeting on Monday night and suggest them to us.

    Finally, I should add that, at this point, I am resigned to the realization that this effort will not succeed. It was supposed to be joyful, a celebration of our history in an uncontroversial manner. The New Homes company, which is building The Cannery, told me they liked the proposal and favored it. (The HRMC recommendation to the DCC was to give the developer a full veto on names.)

    1. Tia Will

      Welcome back Rifs !

      Just wondering if Herb Bauer had been considered for the list……or perhaps Richard Oi.
      I realize that both were most active within the medical/public health realm and as such are probably not thought of readily in terms of street names, however, each in his own way was instrumental in shaping
      the medical and public health community both in the town and county.

      1. Rich Rifkin

        I did not mean to imply that Ramos is a problem for me. In fact, I have had nothing but positive interactions with Mr. Ramos in the past. He has been very generous with county employees I know, also. (I should note that I was not living in Davis during the time the County moved on Mace Ranch against the wishes of the City Council.)

        My point, perhaps not well said, was that we thought that Mr. Ramos was too controversial for the people of Davis at this time. (Had John Lofland not proposed Ramos to me, I likely never would have thought of him for consideration for the list. Oddly enough, in his attack against the HRMC in a letter to the City Council, Lofland said that our list was full of villains, which, of course, is not true. Yet had we gone with Lofland’s suggestion of Ramos, I think many would have agreed with Lofland’s attack.)

        As to Mike Corbett, I don’t think his historical contributions–especially with regard to Village Homes–are controversial. I also think, because the people of Davis elected him to the City Council, he deserves to be seen as someone who was in that sense endorsed by the people of Davis, much like others elected to office.

        I am sure that a few former public office holders on the list are controversial in some quarters. Maybe a few in Davis really don’t like Helen Thomson, for example. But our subcommittee’s standard in a case like hers was to credit her for being elected over and over again by the people of Davis for multiple offices. I certainly did not take into account her unfortunate votes doubling public employee pensions when she was in the Assembly. I never considered my own political point of view in helping to assemble the list.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      Rich: A couple of points. First, I wasn’t objecting necessarily to anyone, only illustrating that I think your list was one-sided and ignored prominent progressives. Second, I will say it was more than just one person who had a problem with the list. Third, I’m troubled that you have taken a column that had a policy objection and turned it into a personal attack against an individual in the community.

    1. Rich Rifkin

      The idea of Herb and Hanna Bauer is a good one. We had hoped to ask the Council to require a brown historical sign (attached on the normal street sign post) for each honoree, explaining in brief for whom the street is named. But we did not want to get ahead of the process with that. Our hope was first that the Council would agree with the idea. But I am sure, because Lofland has decided to make this so controversial, that nothing will happen. But if it does, I will suggest a Bauer street honor both Herb and Hanna, a team as you say. We gave such double honors for others. In one case, we took off one partner’s name, due to a divorce. However, in the case of Donna and Dale Lott, who in fact divorced, we decided that if a bike path were to be named for one, it had to be in honor of the other, too. And so we forwarded that recommendation to the Council, and it appears that the bike path from Drummond Ave. to San Marino Drive in S. Davis (just north of Willowbank) will be the Dale and Donna Lott Commemorative Bike Path. In case you don’t know, the Lotts both were very active in helping to make Davis a bicycle friendly city and one which had the first bike lanes of the type we now have in the United States. (Not surprisingly, when I told Lofland about the honor for Donna Lott, he had nothing but harsh words about her.) ….. While I am on the subject of naming bike paths (not bike lanes), another person under serious consideration was Norman Woodbury. Mayor Woodbury and City Councilman Maynard Skinner were perhaps the most important elected officials in making our city so bicycle friendly back in the 1960s and thereafter. However, the decision was made that Woodbury would also be a good candidate for a street name. So it looks like there will be a Maynard Skinner Commemorative Bike Path (from Research Park Drive to Drummond Ave.). Hopefully, Mr. Woodbury, who is no longer living, will be honored with a street name. If not–due to Lofland’s strange antics–I think the HRMC should look for a bicycle path which could be named for him.

    1. Tia Will

      I was thinking that the naming policy along with examples and anecdotes about choices and any controversies would make an interesting short article for the Vanguard. Particularly after reading J Trask’s post with regard to
      “Partansky Place, I wondered how much an honoree’s area of interest did play into what was named for him or her.

  8. Alan Miller

    Major problem with this list is some people are still alive. Their story is not complete. Not to mention the ego thing. No public thing should ever be named after a living person, period. What if they have sex with a goat in Central Park before they die? Have to rename that street. Messy.

  9. J Trask

    Onr more vote for Partansky Place. Should be a quiet street near the edge of town, with no whiny farting leafblowers alllowed to interrupt the chorus of frogs, crickets, and other critters. Subdued street lighting, no urban glare bright enough to prevent the moon from casting cut shadows.

    To forestalll the inevitable controversy as to whether or not Partansky Place should be a dead-end street, future city council meetings can address proposals to set up a citizen petition process to address this issue.

  10. Davis Progressive

    i think the problem here is there is no clear policy, rifkin created an ad hoc list, h probably had good intentions but had his own biases and oversights and it struck people as a self-serving list.

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