Commentary: On Civility in Dark Times

Before I begin this column, I want you to read two past efforts on the subject of civility in the Vanguard.  The first is from April 2007 and the second is from August 1 of this year.

The first demonstrates a level of irritation for what was seen as a hypocritical gesture – someone calling for civility when they themselves were seen as part of the problem.  The second is a more reflective piece that noted the improvement of the political tone over the course of ten years on the Vanguard.

The first piece was concerned that civility was used to paper over policy differences – a concern that I think very much remains valid today.  The second noted that there was a turning point in the affairs of Davis – an incident that occurred in January 2010 between then-Councilmember Sue Greenwald and Mayor Ruth Asmundson.

When I announced last week the end of anonymity on the Vanguard, a large reaction from the group of people not posting anonymously was that, in this year, during these times, this move was needed.  The overriding belief was that, in a small town, reputation was a form of accountability.

I am not sure I fully buy into that notion.  In 2016 there have been some notable and heated public exchanges over the issues of the day.  While the conduct of the members of public institutions in Davis has for the most part remained above the board, that has not always extended beyond the dais.

The political climate in this country is getting worse.  Back during the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill  were often in a strong public adversarial position on the major policy issues of the day.  And yet, famously, the two men would often socialize together.

But, by the 1990s, just a decade later, Democrats and Republicans rarely socialized.  The divide has only grown more polarized – from observations starting with President Clinton, each succeeding administration has seen only more divide, more vitriol, and less cooperation.

In a way, I guess we should not be surprised to see a president elected who simply threw off all pretenses of civility.  I get that a portion of the country is very angry at the state of the nation and the direction of politics.

I never thought I would see the day where the American people elected someone to the office of the presidency who was, quite simply, publicly mean.  This was a man who belittled his opponents, made personal swipes about his adversaries, mocked people with disabilities, and worse.

Throughout the election, still foolishly convinced he would not win, I feared the future of political discourse after all the rules were essentially thrown out.  Now that he has improbably won, I don’t know that this nation can really continue without a real reckoning.

The reality is that, in a lot of ways, the President-elect’s conduct reflects the demeanor of some of those that elected him.  Not all.  Maybe not even most.  But I see the comments on Facebook by some of my friends who voted for him and I’m often appalled.  It is not clear that Humpty-Dumpty can be put back together again.

The political scene here in Davis is hardly more functional.  One a regular basis I hear from members of the council who complain about the angry and accusatory dialogue here in town.  A common refrain I hear is “who is stupid enough to run for office in this town?”

And, while these words may have come from one person, the theme is something I hear from multiple people.

The council has to deal with heated emotions, lawsuits, threats, and overall bullying from members of the public.

Back in August, I described that the first years of the Vanguard, from 2006 to 2010, saw a number of angry exchanges on the council (with Lamar Heystek staying above the fray as a rule).  That eventually culminated in the public exchange between then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Sue Greenwald (as captured on the infamous YouTube video by the Vanguard).

The exchange left Ms. Asmundson badly shaken.  While many have seen the YouTube video, few will remember what happened behind the scenes in the lobby when the cameras were off.  I captured that moment in this article, where I was holding my one-month-old daughter in her baby carrier in one hand while I physically had to separate then-City Manager Bill Emlen with my other hand from attacking Sue Greenwald.

The lack of civility that night was in a way far worse than portrayed in the press – because, at that time, I was the only one who saw just how bad it was.

In August I argued that it marked a turning point for our community – but I wonder if it did so in a real way.

Have we simply papered over the ugliness in a way where things will eventually rush back to the surface?  I have seen glimpses of that veneer breaking down this year, both in public at council meetings where members of the public angrily accuse the council of ugliness, and at a number of commission meetings – both ones I have been part of as well as ones I have only heard about secondhand.

I have often lamented that Davis has become ungovernable.  We have planning by exception but, even more so, we have planning by litigation.

At some point, I have argued that Davis will have difficulty maintaining its level of services and infrastructure.  And I argued that a good part of it is due to the culture of incivility where threats, accusations, innuendo and then lawsuits have become part of the daily norm.

2010 seems far in the rear, but it is not as far off as you think.

In the end, I tend to agree that those who are not part of the solution CAN BE part of the problem, and my hope is that, in 2017, the Vanguard through its new policies can help to forge a new day – but I’m pessimistic that this will be enough.

—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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16 thoughts on “Commentary: On Civility in Dark Times”

  1. Tia Will

    We have planning by exception but even more so, we have planning by litigation.”

    I suspect that we would have far less of the latter if we did not have the former. I see a very covert form of “incivility” behind the process of land acquisition and planning prior to consideration of all of the impacts on those most affected with the hope that the exceptions will be made in one’s favor. This “backdoor” approach to planning which seems to be the dominant form lacks even the common courtesy to discuss issues up front before any investment is made and thus sets the stage for ongoing hostility and contention. This process seems to me to be the antithesis of community “planning” and “civility” although it may succeed in profitable planning for those invited to invest or develop.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I’m not so sure about that. I do think we have gotten so bogged down in this stuff however, we are no longer functional and that is going to come back to haunt us.

    2. Howard P

      You are correct… civility is much easier when someone conforms to whatever you demand of them… when they fully acquiesce to your views of what they should do.

      1. Howard P

        My experience is that conflict is a normal part of change and of life… and depending on one’s temperament, and depending how dearly one holds their views/values, it may express itself sincerely/calmly, “uncivilly (acting out)”, or “civilly” masking a passive/aggressive bent.  Am sure there are other ways to approach conflict, but those are the three I’ve most experienced.

        There is ‘collaboration’, but for some that means “problem solving”, to others that means conspiracy, or aiding and abetting (ex. ‘collaborating with the Nazis’), to yet others, it means the other is obligated to cave to your own will.

        I think what happened between Greenwald/Asmundson was true ‘uncivil’ behavior in most minds… your account of Emlen’s provoked reaction (as I recall Ms G was calling Ruth the equivalent of ‘faker’/drama queen) was visceral, and in my mind quite normal, and civil/uncivil doesn’t apply… it was truly “in the moment”…

        The ‘Civil War’, wasn’t… more Americans died in that than all the other wars the US has been involved in, combined… by far [not even counting the horrific injuries].  The “civil” thing the North could have done would have been to let the South secede, or fully espouse ‘states rights’ and slavery.  Probably an outcome that most would NOT choose.

        There are very many ways of judging ‘civility’… I suspect some would consider my previous post as “civil”, and many others would consider this and the previous post as “uncivil”…

        Perhaps we’ll see how the VG ‘community’ reacts to this..

        [So yes, David, you understood me quite well…]

         

        1. Howard P

          Sidebar, off topic… watching news, covering preparations for New Years Eve in Times Square… Times Square is the eastern terminus of the Lincoln Highway [US 40] (just east of the Lincoln Tunnel).  Russell Bl., B Street, First, Richards tunnel, Olive Drive, bikepath to the bypass are all parts of the original Lincoln Hwy.

          May we all have a great 2017, even if we argue and tick each other off from time to time [accidental puns].  And like Abe, am honest in saying that…

    3. Alan Miller

      What Tia said.

      I’ve seen rough interactions in City chambers in the past year or two, spurred by developer, commenter, or City actions that betrayed.  War is defined by the aggressor, and often uncivil actions come in response to  aggressive or betraying tactics.

      1. Howard P

         War is defined by the aggressor, and often uncivil actions come in response to  aggressive or betraying tactics.

        Would add “passive aggressive” to that mix… but one could easily opine that P-A is just another ‘flavor’ of an aggressive tactic…  and, for the record, have seen the uncivil/hostile/aggressive tactics come out when there has been open, straight-forward, honest processes… a ‘tactic’ that is little respected… when the latter is used, those who use it are often attacked by both “sides”…

        God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy…

  2. Matt Williams

    Tia said . . . I suspect that we would have far less of the latter if we did not have the former. I see a very covert form of “incivility” behind the process of land acquisition and planning prior to consideration of all of the impacts on those most affected with the hope that the exceptions will be made in one’s favor.”

    Tia’s bolded words above resonate for me.  The challenge I have with Tia’s unbolded words is that they revolve around an absolute term “all of the impacts” and practically speaking what Tia is describing is an impossible task for three reasons.

    The first is that the only way that “all” the impacts can be identified is if “all” the citizens participate in the impacts consideration process.  Even in the best of circumstances that does not happen … and the result is that after a robust consideration process has completed its many steps you will still have people who step up at a later date and say “My voice wasn’t heard, and the impacts on my life have not been considered.”  

    The second is that “consideration” of impacts is a very personal exercise, and any time a group of people are assembled to engage in such a consideration there will be different personal opinions about how individual (and aggregate) impacts should be considered.  One example of this was in the very effective graphic poster that Alan Miller used in his recent public comment to Council about the Third Street Character Area and Core Transition East Mixed Use Character Area in the Downtown and Traditional Residential Design Guidelines.  If I remember correctly, the graphics on his poster showed the one-story Fit House structure at the corner of 3rd and G Streets on the left side of the graphic, the proposed Trackside building in the middle of the graphic, and the one-story Montgomery House on the right side of the graphic.  Alan’s very effective message was “What kind of transition is this?  Alan’s graphic would have looked substantially different if he had used the two-story Temple Coffee building at the same 3rd and G intersection on the left side and the two-story wood-frame apartment building at the same 3rd and I intersection as the Montgomery building.  His “what kind of transition is this?” message would have still been valid, but it wouldn’t have been as visually powerful.  If he had used the three-story residence at 364 I street in the right portion of his graphic, his “what kind of transition is this?” message would again have been valid, but he chose the message that was most consistent with his individual perspective on the impacts.

    The third reason is the ambiguity of the documentation of our guiding regulations.  If you go to page 83 of the Traditional Residential Design Guidelines document, you see the following graphic

    http://www.davisvanguard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2001-07-01-DDTRN-Design-Guidelines-2001-Page-83.jpg

    That graphic, clearly showing at least three stories, isn’t in the Core Transition East Special Character section of the guidelines (pages 74-75).  It isn’t in the Core Transition West Special Character section of the guidelines (pages 70-73). It is in the Third Street Special Character Area section of the guidelines (pages 82-83).

    Many people, including multiple Planning Commissioners, have looked at the text on that graphic and upon reading the “3rd Street Section between A and B Streets” label have decided that the graphic only applies to the west end of Third Street, not the east end of Third Street.  If that were the intention of the graphic, why wouldn’t it have been put somewhere on the Core Transition West Special Character section of the guidelines (pages 70-73)?  Unfortunately, there is no answer to that question.  As Yoda once said, “There is no do, or do not, only try.” Or alternatively, as Yul Brynner once said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

    Bottom-line, we have a land use planning process built on sand.

    There is a solution to this problem … bring the General Plan and all its associated documents up to date, including, but not limited to the DDTN Guidelines, the Olive Drive Specific Plan and the Downtown Core Area Specific Plan and the Zoning chapter of the Municipal Code.  Implementing that solution will take a minimum of two years and will cost several millions of dollars.  Can we afford to do that?  Can we not afford to do that?

    My very clear answer is that we absolutely have to do that.  Otherwise the dysfunctional planning by exception and planning by litigation environment we currently have will continue.

    There may be a way to pay for this solution.  Each year the City of Davis pays Yolo County in excess of $3 million under the provisions of the Pass Through Agreement.  Many people argue that the City gets absolutely zero value from this payment because of three factors.  The first and most important reason is the existence of Measure J/R. The second reason is that the County has very limited options for providing water and sewer to any County jurisdiction around Davis.  The only practical option is to connect to the Davis water system and the Davis sewer system, and the City is under no obligation to provide such a connection.  In effect that water and sewer services reality is redundant to the provisions of the Pass Through Agreement.  The third reason argued by many people is that even if the water and sewer situation did not exist, the cost to the County of providing Police and Fire and Social services to any area around Davis (Nishi for example) would far exceed the revenues that the County would receive from taxes.  They would have to build their own fire station, dispatch County Sheriff patrols from Woodland (or build a new substation), and maintain Parks and recreational facilities.  What that all adds up to is a huge fiscal disincentive for the County to “go it alone.”  The County’s fiscal bottom-line is much better served by working with the City to negotiate annexation of the land into the City (not just in the case of Davis, but West Sacramento and Winters too … possibly even Woodland).

    Having $3 million per year to fund the updates to the General Plan, DDTN Guidelines, Olive Drive Specific Plan, Downtown Core Area Specific Plan, and the Zoning Code would be more than sufficient given the minimum of 2 years such a process would take.  Yolo County wouldn’t like losing the annual Pass Through Agreement payments, but those payments are nearing their end under the provisions of the terms of the 1986 agreement, which set a threshold of total payments at $72 million.

    It’s not the only possible solution to our process built on sand, but it is one worth considering.

  3. Tia Will

    Matt

    The challenge I have with Tia’s unbolded words is that they revolve around an absolute term “all of the impacts” and practically speaking what Tia is describing is an impossible task for three reasons.”

    This would be true if I were seeking perfection of process. However, I am not. What I am seeking is improvement. One cannot expect that every single person will step up and make their opinions known in a timely manner even if many opportunities and venues are provided. But with the current process of design by exception, when the plan is not even considered before the investment is made, land is purchased and preliminary design settled upon, it is guaranteed that there has been no input prior to moving forward with the hopes of simply being approved with as few “mitigations” as possible. To me, this is a best wishful thinking and at worst willful obfuscation. Neither appears to me to be a productive process.

    I do not agree with your analysis of Alan Miller’s choice of graphic illustration. What you neglected to point out is that his choice of The Fit House as opposed to Temple is more likely to reflect the fact that the The Fit House is on the same side of the street as the Trackside and the houses to the east whereas the two story Temple building is further west and on the other side of the street than it does to Alan’s personal aesthetic.

    we have a land use planning process built on sand.

    There is a solution to this problem … bring the General Plan and all its associated documents up to date, including, but not limited to the DDTN Guidelines, the Olive Drive Specific Plan and the Downtown Core Area Specific Plan and the Zoning chapter of the Municipal Code.  Implementing that solution will take a minimum of two years and will cost several millions of dollars.”

    On this point, we agree. I believe that we need to revise the General Plan, and until the time that this is done, our developers should adhere to one of two processes. Either build within the existing guidelines or work extensively with the directly affected neighbors far in advance of acquisition and design to avoid these kinds of land use disputes and law suits. Nothing works as well as primary prevention. This is true for medicine, and I believe that it is equally true in many other aspects of life as well.

    1. Matt Williams

      As he expressed it that night, Alan was trying to illustrate the relationship of a Transition Zone to the two areas on each side of the transition. Thus his words, “What kind of transition is this?”  That means (to me at least) the Old East Davis Neighborhood and the Downtown Core with the transition zone between.  There are a lot of structures to choose from as representative of Old East Davis.  Similarly, there are a lot of structures to choose from as representative of the Downtown Core.  Choosing single point examples runs the risk of introducing bias into any dialogue about those two areas of the City.

       

    2. Matt Williams

      Tia said . . . This would be true if I were seeking perfection of process. However, I am not. What I am seeking is improvement. One cannot expect that every single person will step up and make their opinions known in a timely manner even if many opportunities and venues are provided.”

      I hear you loud and clear Tia.  There is a great deal of similarity between my reading too much absolutism into your word “all” and Colin’s inserting the absolute meaning “all” before my word “people” in the parking thread.  I wholeheartedly agree with seeking improvement.

      With that said, how do you feel about redirecting the $3 million a year from the Pass Through Agreement payments to funding the General Plan, Zoning and Guidelines documents?

      1. Howard P

        Am curious… what makes you think the $ 3 million will end up in Davis, rather than the State?  Or Yolo County?  Must have missed that memo… haven’t heard that the pass-through agreement has been voided… just having no relationship to redevelopment…

      2. Howard P

        Thinking more… the City should completely abolish the redevelopment areas, lest the State should siphon it off… bet that those are still separate “tax zones”…

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