Candidates Lay Out Environmental and Land Use Visions in Sierra Club Forum



The Sierra Club on Thursday night hosted their annual candidates forum, for the first time the candidates had a chance to answer a host of environmentally related questions following the rash of questions about business and the economy at the Chamber forum and the questions pertaining to the next Covell Village project at the CHA candidate’s forum.

The candidates were asked to submit written responses to a number of questions relating to the environment and then respond publicly last night to five of them.  In the second portion, they responded to questions from the public.  A future story will cover a couple of those questions as well.  Daniel Watts was unable to make it last night and his answers are not available, so it is the other four candidates who this article will feature.

Jon Li continued to press his attack on both John Whitcombe and Sue Greenwald in his opening comments and he concluded by suggesting that Covell Village be donated to the city and turned into a memorial for Julie Partansky.  In his opening comment he said, “I’m running because I think we need to talk about who runs the city council.  Is it the developers like Covell Village?  Or is it the employee groups like the firefighters?  Or is it the crazy woman whose right half of the time?”

He continued, “Last night we had a forum that was supposed to be about seniors but it was run by Covell Village.  So the answer to every question was Covell Village.  John Whitcombe has been running the city council like that for the last seven years because he has a majority vote on the city council.”  He suggest that because of this, the council has no control over itself.  He argued, “The citizens should take back control, we should cut the salaries for employees by 25%.  They get paid too much.  We need to take back the podium and the dais.”

The main event however was the first time we got to here an extended discussion on the environment and land use.

The first question was, “What is the most significant environmental issue facing Davis in the next few years?  What steps should the city take to address this issue?”

Sydney Vergis answered, “Climate change and our dependence on non-renewable resources.”  She continued,  “As energy prices rise due to peak oil, proximity to basic services such as local food production, farmers markets, grocery and retail stores will become more and more valuable as a way to reduce our vehicle trips, carbon footprints, and consumption of non-renewable energy sources. We need to ensure that our neighborhood centers and downtown core remain viable and vital through a variety of mechanisms including economic development policies and actions, investment in our biking and walking infrastructure, and implementation of the City’s Draft Climate Action Plan.”

Jon Li said, “The politics have changed since the Climate Action Team made its final report.”  He argued that their policies were tied up by the fact that the Bush administration took the position that climate change hadn’t been proven.  “We’re not longer in that world.  The reality is that I think we should have a new climate action team” and “It should be driven to see how far we can go.   As to how little we could go which is where it seemed the politics were when the council looked at that point in time.”

For Rochelle Swanson while she talked about transportation, land use and air quality as important issues, she saw “the most significant environmental issue facing Davis and the region in the coming years is a clean, reliable source of water.”  She then took a view in support of the surface water project.  “It is good that we are in the middle of a Joint Powers Agreement with Woodland,” she said.

She continued, “While we currently have an adequate supply, we do not have the adequate infrastructure and rights to ensure a safe, reliable and sustainable supply in the future. Uncertainly in future weather patterns will have an impact on the region and our city. We currently are a well-dependent community and, while this has sustained us up until now, a few of the wells are failing and the salinity and selenium content does not meet discharge requirements under our current permits. Although we are not currently being assessed fines as we pursue a solution, we need to develop a long-term plan. With reductions in access to water and the inability to meet our water quality requirements, we will not have the necessary water volume even with zero addition to the demand.”

Joe Krovoza argued, “The most significant challenge for the City is to organize its staff and community input systems so that it can aggressively address carbon reduction, habitat conservation and environmental human health impacts.  The City Council must oversee new planning and staff structures that will encourage community input and highly professional staff work to promote environmental protection.”

He argued that we need to organize to move the environmental agenda forward.  He suggested that 57% of carbon emissions are from transportation and argued therefore we need to develop closer to the core of town and become more dense.  Furthermore he pushed for water conservation as a partial solution to the problem of water supply.

The second question, “Davis is lagging behind many other California cities that have been able to implement significant steps to reduce their carbon footprint. What will you do, if elected, to accelerate the adoption of some meaningful sustainability practices in Davis?  What elements of the city’s Climate Action Plan do you believe would be most effective in reducing the city’s carbon footprint and environmental impacts?”

Jon Li went first this time.  Talked about a program in Queensland University about how to make climate change unremarkable.  He said UC Davis could learn a lot from it.  “We’re not the cutting edge on this stuff.  We’re way behind the times.”  

Rochelle Swanson spoke about making sustainable efforts accessible to the broader community.  “The city can play a significant role in facilitating such projects by creating a green building and planning concierge at City Hall to fast-track endeavors that would help reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.  She added, “The city can also invest in energy efficiency programs. For example, retrofitting current housing stock to be more energy efficient is a smart investment that at the same time provides a reduction in costs to the resident.”

She also talked about the need to redo our entire traffic planning to synchronize our traffic lights to improve traffic flows.  We need more education on all modes of transportation and we need to continue to encourage innovations such as plug-ins for electrical vehicles.

Joe Krovoza talked about creating a carbon neutral city.  He proposed this in three ways.  First a new urban form for Davis, looking at Smart Growth and New Urbanism.  He argued that, “Such approaches will also bring strong co-benefits to our Davis economy and gains in livability by increasing pedestrian travel, access to open space, biking, shorter commute times and a greater sense of community via more social interactions.”

Second, he talked about biking and safe bike routes to schools.  Bike ridership he argues has flagged in recent years but a good low-cost way to save time and reduce air emissions.  Finally he talked about home energy retrofits.  

Sydney Vergis argued, “I want to see Davis on the environmental forefront, implementing greener policies that save taxpayer dollars and contribute to a cleaner environment. We are uniquely positioned to partner more closely with the University to attract clean/green tech spins offs to facilitate live/work and job diversification opportunities and help Davis remain vibrant and economically viable.”  She continued, “There are multiple levels of benefit to working toward recruiting green businesses including: helping to anchor other uses in our neighborhood shopping centers and downtown stores, providing job diversification opportunities, and providing residents the opportunity to invest in locally produced sustainable products, for example, solar-hot water and PV systems, rainwater catchment systems, and low flow irrigation, etc.”

The third question was, “What is your view of Measure R (the renewal of Measure J)?  Measure J has been in effect now for 10 years. Do you think it has benefited Davis? Has been a detriment?”

Rochelle Swanson went first and argued that she supports Measure R and believes that it has benefited our community.  First she cited low foreclosure rates.  “One of the main reasons we in Davis are not seeing the foreclosure rates of surrounding communities is because we did not have new large developments on the market during the recent housing bust.”

She argued that Measure R has forced us to think about what we want and to make smart planning decisions.  “There have been projects on the ballot under Measure J that have incurred a large amount of staff time and resources, as well as those of the proposed development. This large expenditure is not simply a result of Measure J, but a combination of the need to get a majority support and our process for residential development is not straight forward and is highly discretionary.”  She continued, “To get the best projects for Davis, we need to have our standards clearly laid out in advance. We must always be mindful of patterns that work, and uphold our common goals of livability, innovation, and public safety. Any project must also include policies to provide for sustainable, affordable and achievable carbon reductions, retrofitting of our existing housing, and impacts on our current infrastructure.”

Joe Krovoza also supported Measure R.  He said, “Measure J preserves open space surrounding Davis and makes it imperative that Davis consider infill strategies and increased densities for City lands that will be considered for development.”  He argued that it forces us to think very carefully and plan carefully about when, where, and how to grow.  “Measure R will continue to set a high bar for the approval of any new peripheral development.  Such a threshold ensures that when we develop on our edges, the development will represent a clearly community need, be located properly in the context of other developments, and, finally, be constructed to meet the highest environmental standards.”

Sydney Vergis also supports Measure R.  “I continue to support Measure J as a way of involving local residents in land use decisions- I have endorsed Measure R. The concept in and of itself is a good one; as stated “the policy is intended to assure full participation in land use decisions by the citizens and voters of the City, including but not limited to public debate and a vote of the people, and to assure that the principles set forth in the General Plan relating to land use, affordable housing, open space, agricultural preservation and conservation and the like are fully implemented.” It remains to be seen if the high cost of an election may discourage smaller projects that are more in keeping with the nature of our community; It is my hope that by directly engaging the community, we will encourage creative projects that meet the needs of our existing community.”

Jon Li offered a mea culpa, suggesting that while he opposed Measure J ten years ago and wrote a column about it, he was very thankful that we had a chance to vote on Measure X and that he voted no on it.  He said that he personally benefited from J.  He believes that Measure R will pass by a far larger vote since Susie Boyd is not around to give people comfort in opposing it.  He argued it was political suicide to go against Measure R.  The growth issue is not going to go away even though we are in slowdown in the real estate market.  He did argue it is time to rethink our planning and that we need to become much more dense and go above three stories in height.

The fourth question returned to the issue of water.  “Davis faces significant challenges with respect to water. Should Davis make greater efforts to meet its water needs and challenges through more aggressive conservation efforts or by bringing in surface water from the Sacramento River? What are the economic impacts of each approach on city residents?”

Joe Krovoza looked to two solutions, first, conservation and second supply while also focusing on building local partnerships, in this case with Woodland, “to share permitting and infrastructure costs bring greater efficiencies to the delivery of City services.”  Talked about the need for extreme conservations measures in this town not just for environmental reasons abut also for cost reasons.  Every amount we save is less we have to pull out of the rivers and pump out of the ground. 

He said, “Any examination of new water supplies must examine the cost-competitiveness of greater conservation.  This said, new water supplies in California are increasingly scarce and may only increase in cost over time.  Therefore, securing some additional water rights now is likely to be a very wise long-term investment for the City.”

Sydney Vergis said that we need to manage our costs and conserve.  She noted that our average watter use is about 125 gallons per person per day and “through extensive conservation, that homes could reduce this value to 50 gallons per person per day.”  She argued we need to look at the implications of our policies 30 to 40 years down the line.  And we need to look toward regional solutions.

Jon Li was on the conservation bandwagon arguing that we could reduce our usage through water awareness.  He also pressed that lawns are a huge use of water, particularly in the dry months.  He said that anyone who has a lawn is wasting water.  He advocated for xeriscaping. 

Finally Rochelle Swanson argued that conservation is imperative.  “Conservation is our first priority, but to maintain our standard of living, we need to secure water rights as we can, maximize use of recycled and alternative water supplies, increase our demand management efforts, and continue to maintain our wells for storage. “

She hit a bit on the idea that these project will lead to rate increases, “It is true that a water and sewer project will result in rate increases, but we should examine how we can spread the costs as fairly as possible while minimizing the impact on those with limited resources. The other alternative is to pay later, but it is reasonable to assume that purchasing from senior right holders will be more expensive than investing in our community now. It is simply a choice of pay now or pay more later. When addressing financial impacts and benefits of investment we need to ensure that all costs are examined. By not addressing the waste water issue, the City would subject itself to fines for not meeting minimum discharge requirements. It is my understanding that translates to $10,000.00 a day per violation.”

(A small editorial comment I think is in order here, because none of the candidates really addressed the cost to the ratepayers other than Ms. Swanson a bit.  No one talked about the fact that water rates are increasing 23% next year, and 20% the next three and address how low and fixed income people can afford these rates.  I will attempt to ask that question in the future).

Finally, they asked a fiscal question and applied it to environmental policies, “The city has claimed that it is unable to implement a number of important environmental initiatives because there is not enough money in the budget.  The city also appears to have significant structural shortfalls both in its annual budget and in future unfunded pension liabilities. What is your understanding of these fiscal issues and how would you address them?”

Sydney Vergis went first.  She said, “If elected, one of my priorities will be to develop innovative and collaborative fiscal solutions that ensure efficient provision of services; and pro-actively working to bolster our existing local businesses (and sales tax base) including examining our redevelopment program and economic development activities.”  Her big idea has been, “I see great value in adopting more intensive budget hearings to facilitate Council and community understanding of City operations and processes. This knowledge will be imperative in developing a workable budget, establishing City Council and community driven funding priorities, identifying opportunities for more efficient operations, continued conversation regarding the most effective options for funding retiree health benefits.” 

Toward that end she has recommended multi-day budget hearings citing the county as the way to go, with each department addressing and justifying their budget.  “Taking the time to fully understand each City program and funding area, may shine light on programs that my not be in alignment with existing needs and could provide resources for current Council and community priorities- whether it be for environmental initiatives, or social services for underserved demographics within the Davis community.”

Jon Li was particularly outspoken on this one.  “I would hope that the new council would be familiar with the budget.”  He continued, “There are lots of reasons why we are where we are right now and most of those are because of the city council and because of the bargaining units.”  We called for the renegotiation with the new council for all contracts and “everything should be on the table.”

Rochelle Swanson made it a point to say that while 70% of our budget goes to employee compensation, we should not attempt to balance the budget on the back of the employees.  She argued that we need t expect our city to live within its means, that our old growth model is no longer in line with current economic reality.  She said, “A careful and considered examination of our city budget, line by line, assessing essential city services and infrastructure funding is imperative. This requires prioritization and needed funding assessments of programs and services that enhance our quality of life. We must prioritize spending, pursue the development of multi-year budgets, streamline the process for business to come to Davis, and maximize the opportunities presented by our proximity of the University.”

She continued, “To be fiscally healthy moving forward, we must also examine the impact on the budget of current pay structures coupled with benefit packages as they stand and future unfunded benefits.”  She said that we need to start funding the unfunded liabilities even though they are thirty years out.

Finally Joe Krovoza answered the question.  Argued that we need to thoroughly examine the budget to make sure that we are really putting Davis first in all of our decisions that we make.  He argued that we need to take a strong look at our budgets and also work on our partnerships “looking for the efficiencies we can create [by having local governments] work in cooperation” look at providing better and more efficient services for residents.  Talked about not taking contributions from city employees to have the maximum flexibility in making his decisions without the appearance or pressure to serve one group over another.

“One of the things that troubles me is that we’ve got done with the most recent round of negotiations with public employees, and really within a couple of months we’re looking at not hiring sixteen employees and laying off four employees.  That tells me that we didn’t look broadly across all departments to what was really best for the city.” Emphasized the importance of budgeting and the independence of all the members of council.

On a final note, later in the evening Jon Li continued his attack on Sue Greenwald, suggesting again that she should be recalled in November and that Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk should run to replace her.  Again, Mr. Li maybe right about Mr. Whitcombe and was certainly correct that the answer to the CHA questions was all Covell Village, but the attacks on the Councilmember were unnecessary and undermine any hope of forging public civility and dialogue in the community.

We will have more on the second portion of the event in the coming days.

—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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  1. Neutral

    davisite: Jon Li: Local “Tea Party” candidate, Davis-style.

    Surely you jest. You really have no idea who this guy is, or what his contributions to the community have been over the past 30+ years, do you?

  2. E Roberts Musser

    “For Rochelle Swanson while she talked about transportation, land use and air quality as important issues, she saw “the most significant environmental issue facing Davis and the region in the coming years is a clean, reliable source of water.” She then took a view in support of the surface water project. “It is good that we are in the middle of a Joint Powers Agreement with Woodland,” she said.”

    This issue is the big elephant in the room. How are citizens going to pay for this, especially seniors on fixed incomes?

  3. davisite2

    “Surely you jest. You really have no idea who this guy is>….”

    Neutral: Jon Li is “out there” for all to see. His barely controlled anger and apparent delight in inflamatory public rhetoric are much like “Tea Party” people, who also demonstrate that they are not constitutionally(psychological, not political)ill-equipped to function effectively in a democratic political system.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Neutral: I suspect we could put together an interesting pro/ con chart on Mr. Li. I will say that, he was the only one with the courage to call the CHA event for what is was, and he was correct, the correct answer to all of their questions was Covell Village. However, at the same time, as we talk about civility and what happened on January 26, how do you bring that trait to the council by calling someone a crazy woman and demanding her recall. So it is, what it is.

  5. roger bockrath

    It’s interesting to contrast Jon Li’s “run your mouth ” style of fairly un-prepared sounding remarks with, say Sydney Vergis’s or Rochell’s much more prepared remarks. My experience with people who are always prepared to say the right thing for the right audience is that they end up doing quite different things than what was promised during the campaign.

    I hear that Jon Li has contributed greatly to this community over the years. Does anybody know where can I learn more about his activities in the past. Track record goes a long way toward influencing my vote.

  6. davisite2

    “Does anybody know where can I learn more about his activities in the past. Track record goes a long way toward influencing my vote.”

    Roger: I also would like to what contribution Jon Li has made to Davis local politics except “standing on the sidelines” and critically pontificating. I have been active in Davis local political campaigns for the past 12-15 years and cannot recall an instance where his name as an active political participant was prominent. He certainly did not make a significant “appearance” in the Measure X or Measure P campaigns, on either side of the issue.

  7. biddlin

    Public employees and retirees have every right to contribute to political campaigns. We certainly vote. A candidate who say’s, ” I won’t take their contributions.” is saying that we aren’t worthy to participate in electing those who will make decisions that will affect our lives. It also makes me wonder what a contribution to such exclusive candidates buys.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    I think it’s a conflict of interest personally whether it is legal or not, it certainly presents the appearance that a vote can be bought.

  9. biddlin

    My point being that City employees don’t answer to the council, they answer to the city manager. Why is taking contributions from farmers, or grocers less of a conflict if no one is given greater access or consideration? It may look tough on civil servants, which might appeal to a certain constituency, but by the same token it sends the message that city employees are just here to do our bidding and should be silent and grateful. It is most certainly an attitude to consider when choosing a candidate to represent the interest of the entire city, not just those he or she deems deserving.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    Biddlin: Because Council does not vote on the contracts of farmers or grocers. They don’t have to sit across the table during negotiations and have those people say, as the firefighters do, hey what’s the deal, we gave you money and got you elected, why are you voting against our contract? That’s a problem that we don’t need. I want people on this council who are independent of such added pressures, who can look at a contract and determine what is in the best interest of the people of Davis, not just the people who gave them the most money.

  11. davisite2

    “…………. they end up doing quite different things than what was promised during the campaign.”

    Someone I highly respect who has been termed-out of the State Senate after nearly twenty years in the California legislature as a Progressive advocate once responded to my “frustrations” with the political wisdom, “Political campaigning is POETRY,governing is PROSE”.

  12. biddlin

    David M Greenwald-“I want people on this council who are independent of such added pressures, who can look at a contract and determine what is in the best interest of the people of Davis, not just the people who gave them the most money.” Me too. As the late Jesse Unruh said,“If you can’t take their money, drink their liquor, … and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don’t belong here.” The council has considerable influence on conditions that affect the farmer and the grocer, for example traffic patterns, loading zones and parking. I hate to think that Bob the grocer gets the parking spot because he gave a few bucks to the council campaigns, while the people who paint the curbs, place the signs and enforce the ordinances are treated like lepers.

  13. David M. Greenwald

    Unfortunately, Unruh was an optimist. Most people don’t take someone’s money and then turn around and vote against them. And when they do, like Sue Greenwald, the ff’ers try to take her out the next time.

    I would also add, that as I understand it, his declaration was anyone doing business with the city of Davis. Personally, if I were a councilmember, and received money from an individual, I would recuse myself from voting on whether Bob the grocer gets his parking space if he gave me money. Because that is just as problematic as voting on a fire fighters contract after they gave you $10K in direct and indirect contributions.

  14. biddlin

    David, the only way to achieve the kind of ethical guarantee you desire is public financing of campaigns, until then council persons are limited by their personal sense of ethics and the the law. If you don’t trust someone to act in the interest of all the city, why would you vote for them?

  15. David M. Greenwald

    I disagree. People can reasonably anticipate who will have business before a city council, particularly the negotiation of contracts and the determination of development projects. Anything else can be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    And you are ignoring the elephant in the room by focusing on a small time grocer. We’re talking about a fire fighters union intentionally trying to get around campaign finance laws that restrict donations to $100 per person or organization by bundling 40-45 contributions of $100 checks into a single unit. Look at the Vergis’ disclosure from two years ago, they all gave the same day. How much independence does someone have when they are accepting that kind of money from a powerful employee bargaining group. And is it any surprise that they voted for their contract, voted for the $400,000 battalion chief model, and voted to hide from the public Aaronson’s investigation into the Grand Jury’s allegations?

  16. David M. Greenwald

    That was an example since she’s running this time, they did the same thing with Souza and Saylor who won, if that makes you feel better.

  17. Don Shor

    “They don’t have to sit across the table during negotiations…”
    As has been noted before, that problem would be much less of an issue if the city had professional negotiators.

  18. E Roberts Musser

    DS: “”They don’t have to sit across the table during negotiations…”
    As has been noted before, that problem would be much less of an issue if the city had professional negotiators.”

    To me, that was the real key – there should have been an independent negotiator, which would have pretty much solved the conflict of interest problem, no?

  19. biddlin

    DS and ERM I agree completely, that would render the issue moot. I still contend that taking a contribution does not constitute selling a vote, which is what David implies.

  20. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t know if donations from say the FF’ers influenced the votes of the council majority AND that’s the point. When you take large amounts from a group you have to negotiate with, it creates questions. I want people who, whether I agree or disagree with them, at least I know that they made the decision for reasons of conscience rather than because they got a lot of money or feared pissing off a certain group.

    A professional negotiator would reduce some of that concern, but it would not eliminate it. Councilmembers along with staff still drive goals and still vote.

  21. biddlin

    David M Greenwald-“Councilmembers along with staff still drive the goals and still vote.” My point exactly and if you want them to act independently of “special interests”, then they take contributions equally from everyone, the public financial option. Whether it’s Bob the grocer, Ari the developer or Phil the park worker, they are all affected by the actions and outcomes of the council and should have equal rights and access.

  22. David M. Greenwald

    The problem is you’re still dodging the major question here, by acting like everything is equal when it’s not. One group is exerting a far far larger bit of influence than all others put together. I laid that out on my previous comment to you and you’re only response was to mention that Vergis lost. Well that doesn’t cut, you’re dodging the point.

  23. biddlin

    Can you show evidence FF’s or any other public employee group exerted any more influence than business people, or Monsanto or any other group or individuals that might have made contributions?

  24. biddlin

    David, I get dozens of such mailers from unions, landlord groups neighborhood and community organizations, religious pacs, Democratic central committee, AARP and countless others all of whom donated to the candidates and causes they trumpet and frequently hedge their bets by donating to the opposing side as well. Unless you repeal the first amendment, I don’t know how to stop that practice. I pay a little bit less attention to those than I do to insurance adverts on the T.V. The fact that you are unhappy with the MOU that the union and city approved is also not evidence of vote selling.

  25. preston

    The council did not sit across the table during negotiations. Emlen, Navazio, and Chaney did. CC just voted on what was brought before them.

  26. David M. Greenwald

    Preston: That’s not exactly true. The Council met numerous times in closed session with the negotiating team directing them on how to proceed.

  27. Sue Greenwald

    I think that David is right. I have always advocated for an independent negotiator. But ultimately it is the council that calls the shots.

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