The statement this week that City Manager Dirk Brazil had announced his retirement, effective January 8, 2018, came as a bit of a surprise. There had been speculation ever since Dan Wolk left the city council that Dirk Brazil might be following him and leaving at some point, but, as time went on, frankly that seemed less likely.
His departure after just over three years as city manager seems to continue a trend that he lamented early in his term. A Davis Enterprise article from June 2015, six months into his tenure as Davis city manager, noted, “He’s also helping repair damage done from the recession, repeated state takeaways from city budgets and the carousel of seven different city CEOs in the past 15 years.”
That carousel now will continue and, depending on the ability to hire someone quickly, the city might have to employ another interim city manager. In 2014, Steve Pinkerton left in April, and Dirk Brazil was hired in late November.
Mr. Brazil represented markedly contrasting styles from his predecessors. Steve Pinkerton was very hands-on. Dirk Brazil, at least in the public arena, seemed to have a much more hands-off approach, allowing the assistant city managers to make the bulk of staff presentations.
What are the needs of the city at this point?
In order to answer that question this time around, let us look at what I see as the three most pressing issues in Davis – although all are somewhat related.
First, we have the fiscal health of the city. In 2014, the city was still emerging from the Great Recession. Recall that in the spring, the city council pushed for a sales tax. In fact, when Steve Pinkerton was leaving, he agreed to do a series of meetings laying out the city’s fiscal position.
While the immediate structural deficit disappeared, the city went through a time under Dan Wolk where the word out of City Hall was “Davis Renaissance” and the mayor trumpeted a balanced budget, 15 percent reserve, and fiscal resiliency.
The reality was not there and the city, under the leadership of Mayor Robb Davis, the Finance and Budget Commission and the consultant Bob Leland, identified an ongoing shortfall of just under $8 million – and some believe that to be a low number.
The finance department has been some sort of mixed bag under the current city manager. For years the city’s finance director was Paul Navazio, who left to become Woodland’s city manager in 2012. Steve Pinkerton had his own vast knowledge of the budget and finances and put budget control as a key priority. He brought in another former city manager, Yvonne Quiring, as his finance person, to various effects.
Under Dirk Brazil the city has not put in place a strong finance director, the city manager himself does not have a background in finance and for a few years I would argue that the city was not advancing the ball forward on the fiscal concerns. Only this year, under consultant Bob Leland and pressure from the mayor and city council, have we gotten back on track fiscally, in my view.
Second, we have the issue of housing which is quite vexing and in some ways outside of the control of the city manager. After all, the council voted to put Nishi on the ballot –we can certainly argue that Nishi had its flaws, and the voters ended up rejecting it.
While the city manager himself does not have a land use background, again, unlike Mr. Pinkerton, the city has solid leadership under Community Development Director and Assistant City Manager Mike Webb. And they made a solid hiring decision, despite our initial trepidations about his background, with the hire of Ashley Feeney who had previously worked for the New Home Company which brought us Cannery.
Third, the area in which I have greatest concern at this point is on the economic development front. Without harping on the decision too much, I would argue that letting Rob White go as Chief Innovation Officer was a huge mistake and a blow to economic development in the city.
When Dirk Brazil came in, we had two solid projects on the table for economic development and innovation parks. Davis Innovation Park and Mace Ranch Innovation Park. Davis Innovation Park has since been left and has reformed in another form in Woodland. MRIC continues to meander through the system, having just obtained EIR certification even though its future remains unclear.
All is not lost here. We have seen Area 52 and the Sierra Energy company pushing for an innovation site on their South Davis location. We have also seen the purchase of what is now the University Research Park by Fulcrum Properties. But overall I think we have taken steps backward and not forward since 2014, when everything seemed to be lining up in our favor.
There are opportunities with the new chancellor and the Greater Sacramento Economic Council’s push for a regional innovation center, but that will require skill and a lot of leadership to pull off.
I see those three issues as the areas in biggest need of an influx of leadership, starting with the city manager and a vigorous city council. Which way will the council now go with a new hire and how quickly can they get a new person in place?
—David M. Greenwald reporting