Commentary: Why is the City Council So Unpopular?

citycatIn 2007, the city commissioned a survey on citizen satisfaction with municipal services.  At that time, satisfaction was off the charts with 94% of residents reporting satisfaction with current city services, 83% reporting a positive experience with Davis City Staff when they had interactions, 98% were satisfied with the appearance of the city of Davis, 92% with recreational opportunities, and 97 percent reporting satisfied with the overall feeling of safety in the neighborhoods.

At the same time, about a 47% rated the current financial situation of the City as Excellent or Good.  That translated back in 2007 to 70% support for a renewal of the sales tax and 50% support for an increase in the sales tax.

Back in 2007, the top issues facing residents were growth, development, and land use (34%) and lack of affordable housing (21%).  Not even on the radar at 1.7% was the budget and the economy.

It would be interesting to see how these things changed, but it is worth noting that in 2008, this high satisfaction led to the city voters reelecting all three incumbents for the city council.

All of this becomes pretext to the next point, because somewhat buried within a survey on schools and the district’s assessment of the viability of a new parcel tax was a question asking people to rate their approval for various bodies.  The good news for the Davis City Council is that they scored higher than the governor or state legislature.  The bad news is that it has half of the approval rate for schools and nearly three times the negative rating as the schools or the county.

ddjusd10-poll2.jpg

We do not have a whole lot more to go on than this.  However, we can infer a few things from looking at the numbers combined with two numbers from that survey in 2007.

The Davis City Council gets a negative rating from 37, a positive rating from 21% and a neutral rating from 42%.  We’re going to argue here that in fact, that 42%, the vast majority of those people simply have no rating because they are not paying much attention.

We go back to the 2007 Resident Satisfaction Survey, and we note that the Davis Enterprise represented the source for which most people got their information about city news.  That figure was about 48.8 percent.  By the same token, a very small percentage of the population watches council meetings on TV (3.8%) on a regular basis, another 9% watch it monthly, 16.7% a few times a year, and 52.2%  do not watch the meetings and another 16% had never even heard of the Government Channel. 

In other words, the 42% neutral rating coincides fairly nicely with the percentage of people that would have no exposure to the city council either through the newspaper or on Channel 16.

That means of those who have an opinion, 63% of them hold a negative opinion of the city council.  That’s not quite the 70-8 percent animus for the state legislature, but that’s not good, particularly in a town where people are generally satisfied with the quality of life.  We still have fairly low crime rate, and even with the economic downturn our standard of living is still fairly high.

What is causing this dissatisfaction with the council?  Well it is not simply the downturn in the economy.  After all the school district is dealing with devastating economic times, far worse than the city has currently had to deal with.  And yet, the school district has a 3-1 positive rating.  The County has had huge cutbacks even worse than the school district, they are cutting health services and other county services to the bone, and yet the board of supervisors had nearly a 2-1 positive rating.

And while it is true that the public pays more attention to the city than the county, in terns of offering an opinion, the same percentage of the public offer an opinion on the schools as offer an opinion on council.

One clear difference is that the members of the school board appear to get along as do for the most part the members of the board of supervisors.  That probably plays a role.  Is it simply incivility that is turning off the public or is it more than just that?

It would be interesting to revisit some of these questions from 2007.  From my standpoint, the issue of fiscal governance has surpassed the issue of growth.  The fact that we have Measure J, will likely continue to have Measure J (or Measure R as it is known on the ballot this year) and the fact that the housing market constrains growth, means that the growth issue for the next five to ten years will be the decisions as to how to develop infill parcels of land.

However, the fiscal issue is explosive and potentially devastating to the city.  That has emerged from nowhere on people’s radar, to an issue that is consuming a lot of attention.  It would be helpful to know where people stand on these issues, how much of the fiscal crisis has penetrated into people’s perceptions.

It will also be interesting to see how this public perception plays out this June.  Will the people of Davis elect people who stand for fiscal responsibility and changing the way we do business, or will they vote for candidates who stand for business as usual.  Or will they even know who stands for what?  That is a burning question and one that must be addressed.

One thing is clear, the Davis City Council is surprisingly perhaps unpopular and we need to understand why.

—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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18 Comments

  1. Mr.Toad

    When I think of the city council I think of Sue Greenwald’s grandstanding outbursts that set a negative tone in my mind. Whether her outrage is from a lack of control from being on the losing side of decisions or contrived to draw attention to her concerns is not important. What matters is that it drives a public perception of hostility and disharmony rather than one of conviviality and civility. To me it is a turnoff even when she is correct on the policy issues. If I was polled on the council I would have rated the council poorly but in my mind’s eye I would have visualized Sue attacking her collegues.

  2. wdf1

    I agree with Mr. Toad that it is likely the S. Greenwald/Asmundsen tension that defines the current situation on the city council for most Davisites. I would be impressed more than 20% of voting Davisites who could identify specific significant issues that the city council is dealing with.

  3. Justin Kudo

    From the perspective of someone that does polling, I have to question a lot of the conclusions here. Just for starters:

    – Less than 30% of people in one poll observe council meetings, ever. This suggests that their opinions will strongly be shaped by media coverage.
    – The approve/disapprove for council poll was done, if I’m reading this correctly (the commentary story gives very selective data and omits a lot of other points or sources), right after the council made statewide news for dysfunctional behavior.
    – People are pissed off about dysfunctional behavior or anything that can be interpreted as failing governance in elected officials right now.

    If you want to get an accurate view of this instead of just throwing around suppositions like bricks, I would charter your own poll. Might even be able to get some folks to chip in for the results. I would ask for favorability/unfavorability on each individual council member, and on issues (such as political contributions, various “scandals”, etc). It would also be interesting to run crosstabs on this information compared to people who watch vs participate vs get from the media vs ignore local politics.

  4. Justin Kudo

    Sorry, forgot to make one point that was hinted at: I strongly suspect that favorability/unfavorability for individual council members would be different and more interesting than a blanket question on the efficacy of the council.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    When the economy is not doing well, for whatever reason, usually the popularity of politicians takes a hit. Add to it outbursts of temper and unseemly behavior from four of five City Council members who are wrestliing with very tough and politically charged issues, it adds to the negative view. Add to that unseemly attempts to decrease public participation, and you have the negative view you have…

  6. davisite2

    David: Allow me to offer an alternative reason for the “dissatisfaction” Council quotient. Like most voters, Davis citizens approve or disapprove of their elected representatives based primarily on policy NOT personalities. We have an excellent example of this with the repeated electoral success of Councilperson Sue Greenwald who is repeatedly elected because she represents policies that the MAJORITY of Davis voters support rather than her being Ms. Congeniality. Remember, 75% of voters rejected the decision of 4 of the current Council members to support the Wildhorse Ranch project and 60% of the voters rejected the decision of the current Council Majority(Saylor,Asmudson and Souza)to support Measure X(Coucilperson Greenwald being the only one on the Council in bothe cases to reject both Measure X and Measure P). I wonder what the approval rating would have been for the Council at the time that they unanimously(and congenially) supported converting the now expanded Central Park property into commercial development when this idea was decidedly rejected by a Davus citizen referendum.

  7. David Suder

    [quote] I strongly suspect that favorability/unfavorability for individual council members would be different and more interesting than a blanket question on the efficacy of the council. [/quote]
    We have opinion polls on 2 or 3 individual council members every other year. We call them elections.

    In part due the extensive attention paid by the media (including this blog) to councilmember behavior, many Davis citizens are probably more familiar with the social skills of the current councilmembers than their voting records or positions on issues. If you don’t think that stories of interpersonal conflict are much more marketable than stories about people (including politicians) doing their jobs in a calm rational manner, consider “reality TV” as Exhibit A.

    Personally, I vote for politicians who I believe will make the best (or least bad) decisions, not necessarily the ones I would choose to have as dinner guests or fishing buddies. (I don’t fish, anyway.)

    Five years from now, what will you care more about: unpleasant behavior among council members during the 2009-2010 term, or the consequences of their recent financial management decisions?

  8. Mr.Toad

    “Councilperson Sue Greenwald who is repeatedly elected because she represents policies that the MAJORITY of Davis voters support rather than her being Ms. Congeniality.”

    Actually Sue came in third last time so majority should be replaced by plurality. It makes a difference as to your argument.

  9. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”We have opinion polls on 2 or 3 individual council members every other year. We call them elections.”[/i]

    There is no better poll than an election. But just because they are the best measure of public sentiment toward incumbents, does not mean that they are perfect measures.

    Incumbents normally have a big edge in fundraising and name-recogntion. If a challenger is not a good fundraiser and thus cannot get his name (and ideas) out to the voters, the challenger will lose, even if his positions are more popular with the electorate.

    Also, a large percentage of Davis voters vote based on personal familiarity or friendship with candidates. They don’t necessarily follow any issues closely and might not know which incumbents say, favor more peripheral development and which oppose it, or which prefer paying firefighters $200,000 a year and which don’t. But they know, “He’s that guy from the Odd Fellows. I like him.”

    Alernatively, some voters are very much single-issue voters. They might dislike the council policies as a whole or most of the positions of a certain member of the council, but vote for that person because that incumbent is right on the one position they care most about.

    I would imagine, for example, there are some residents who live near the old Simmons Estate who really don’t like the development which is going in there. Some of those folks might disagree heartily on almost every issue with Sue Greenwald and might not like her personally. But they might vote for her, because they agree with her stance on that project. Same thing with some of the WHR neighbors.

  10. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”Actually Sue came in third last time so majority should be replaced by plurality.”[/i]

    If you divide each candidate’s vote total by the total number of votes cast, no candidate, not even Saylor, who finished first, got a majority.

    When three seats are being contested, every voter gets three votes. Hence, I think it is reasonable to take the total votes for a candidate and divide that by one-third of the total votes cast to determine a popular percentage.

    Doing that, this was the outcome in the 2008 election:

    Don Saylor–63.85%
    Stephen Souza–60.77%
    Sue Greenwald–53.38%
    Sydney Vergis–46.10%
    Cecilia E-G–39.46%
    Rob Roy–36.44%

    The three winners were supported by most people; and the three losers were not.

  11. Barbara King

    And might I add that if I had to spend more time arguing for time to speak than I spent saying my piece–which is something Sue is often subjected to–I would not have handled anywhere near as well as she has.

  12. davisite2

    “Actually Sue came in third last time so majority should be replaced by plurality.”

    Mr. Toad: I was not referring to an electoral majority in Council elections but rather Councilperson Greenwald’s POLICY positions(No on X and NO on P) which were supported by 60% and 75% of Davis voters respectively.

  13. davisite2

    “I wonder what the approval rating would have been for the Council at the time that they unanimously(and congenially) supported converting the now expanded Central Park property into commercial development when this idea was decidedly rejected by a Davis citizen referendum.”

    My recollection(admittedly very vague at this point..Rich Rifkin, can you help me out here?) is that these Council members did not continue to represent the Davis voters when their terms expired, either they did not run for reelection or were defeated.

  14. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”… converting the now expanded Central Park property into commercial development when this idea was decidedly rejected by a Davis citizen referendum.”[/i]

    I’m not sure if this quote is in reference to the decision in the late ’60s to approve the Arden-Mayfair proposal or a later proposal for development of that block? The Arden-Mayfair company had wanted to build a mall-like complex, which would have had off-street parking, a supermarket, a drugstore and a few smaller spaces, for things like a barber shop or a jewelry store.

    [b]”My recollection is that these Council members did not continue to represent the Davis voters when their terms expired, either they did not run for reelection or were defeated.”[/b]

    I think the council which gave Arden-Mayfair its first green-light in 1968 had Aronson, Gill, Skinner, Woodbury and McChesney. Kent Gill and Robert McChesney (who I think was actually an interim appointment) were out when the next council was seated. Ralph Aronson, though, was re-elected.

    The election which really changed the politics in Davis in that period was 1972, when Bob Black, Dick Holdstock, Joan Poulos and Richard Weinstock came in and replaced a much more traditional, conservative lot in Aronson, Asmundson, Woodbury and Miller. The only holdover was Skinner, and Maynard was more-less aligned with his new colleagues. Students voting had a lot to do with the change and a lot to do with Black winning. However, a big issue in that race was growth control, which was popular among the new, more liberal faculty which had moved to Davis in the ’60s.

    My memory is vague on it, but I recall there were a number of development proposals in the 20 or so years after the Arden-Mayfair deal fell apart. Maybe you are thinking of one of those?

    It was in 1988 when the council (Corbett, Skinner, Adler, Evans and Rosenberg) finally voted to double the size of Central Park and get rid of 4th Street between B and C. I don’t think any councils after that one ever approved a development project on the site. But I was not living in Davis at that time, so I might be wrong, there.

    By the way, an interesting footnote in the history of the north side of Central Park is that it was not built until the Depression years, when the city got some federal funds, I guess from the WPA, and they were able to acquire it. That northside land was privately owned but mostly undeveloped. It did have some businesses (and maybe houses) on it. They were moved or demolished to make room for the new park, the first in Davis. Back when the highway used to come through Davis, the stretch of B between 1st and 5th was full of gas stations and car repair shops. Even in my childhood, long after U.S. 40 was built (later renamed Interstate 80), there was still a Chevron gas station at 5th & B (southwest corner) and there was a Shell station at 1st & B, where the Vietnamese restaurant now is.

  15. Rich Rifkin

    I looked this up in Mike Fitch’s history and now realize you were talking about the 1986 plan, which was subverted by Measure S. It was Measure S which led to the council approving the doubling of Central Park: [quote]The second event was voter approval of Measure S, a city initiative on the same ballot [i](as Measure L, which was a slow-growth initiative)[/i] that didn’t deal directly with Campus Research Park, but strengthened the conviction that voters were in a slow-growth mood. The measure was sponsored by a group known as Save Open Space that included former Mayor Maynard Skinner among its leaders and gained the support of almost 58 percent of the voters. The measure’s passage derailed the city’s plans for having an 85,000-square-foot shopping center built on the Arden-Mayfair Lot, vacant, city-owned land north of Third Street between B and C streets. The lot was used as a parking lot at the time, and Central Park covered only the block just north of the lot. Measure S was an ordinance requiring the city to extend Central Park southward across the lot, with the understanding that up to one-third of the lot could be used for parking and public buildings. In the same election, Councilwoman Ann Evans was re-elected to a second term and Mike Corbett was elected to the council. Both were outspoken champions of slow growth, as was Rosenberg, who the council chose to serve as mayor. In his letter, Asera cited the council’s choice of Rosenberg to be mayor as the third event that caused Ramos to reassess his plans. “One cannot deny that growth in this part of the county will occur,” Asera concluded. “Growth is not only inevitable, but essential in light of Yolo County’s financial needs. If approved, our project will help to satisfy those needs.” [/quote] Note that in the very next election after Measure S was approved, only 1 seat on the council changed hands. Maynard Skinner, absent for 14 years, replaced Deborah Nichols-Poulos.

  16. David Suder

    [quote]There is no better poll than an election. But just because they are the best measure of public sentiment toward incumbents, does not mean that they are perfect measures.[/quote]
    Rich: I agree with this and most of everything you wrote in response to my initial posting on this. Incumbents have a huge advantage, but are not invincible, particularly when many voters disagree with recent Council actions – as you pointed out.

    Don: Interesting bit of historical trivia regarding Skinner’s promise to mow the lawn in central park. Did he ever do it?

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