Vanguard Analysis: Candidates Forum Mostly a Lackluster Performance

Format Also Contributed to Lack of Substance on the Part of City Council Candidates –

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The community on Tuesday got their first real exposure to the council candidates as the Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual candidate’s forum.  For the most part, it was a disappointing affair with poor questions, a difficult format, and answers lacking both substance and real understanding for the underlying problems facing Davis.

Part of the problem was coming up with a substantive answer in sixty seconds to often very complex questions.  Another problem was that each candidate did not get to answer every question.  For example, Rochelle Swanson never got any of the fiscal questions that she believes will be the hallmark of her campaign.

 

The Vanguard finds plenty to critique with each performance and much room for improvement on the part of each candidate.  At the top of our list, Joe Krovoza the person considered the front-runner to finish first in the race and become Mayor Pro Tem played things a bit too safe and at times he came across either not knowing a whole lot or simply trying not to offend anyone.  He had several opportunities to hit home on several key issues and each time, he managed to say very little.

For example, he plead ignorance in expressing which locations in the city are prime infill sites for residential development.  “One thing that it is important to know as a city council candidate is what I don’t know.  I don’t know the ins and outs of the types of constraints on different properties around town.”  Okay fine, but this is a question the incumbents two years ago would hit out of the park whether it was Sue Greenwald articulating her vision for the PG&E site or Stephen Souza talking about the structure on 3rd and E to 4th and F.  At least explain what your vision is for core development even if you don’t go into specifics for the properties you wish to see developed.

Jon Li did a much better job attacking the question even if he took it almost to the absurd talking about 19th Century London’s density and using that as a launching point to talk about the need for densification and to grow higher than three stories.

The bigger problem was on two questions that related to fiscal responsibility.  First Joe Krovoza was asked about the $43 million unfunded liability and mistook it for a pensions question.  The moderator, Debbie Davis did not help out in this regard, as she agreed when he asked if we were talking about pensions.  That certainly got the question off on the wrong track and he started talking about the stock market and then labor negotiations.  Mr. Krovoza did talk about making as conservative of projections as possible and thinking of hires as a sixty year decision.  Unfortunately, none of this goes to the question of the unfunded liability which has to do with full funding of retiree health care benefits and GASB-45.

When asked about the fiscal stability for our city, he then talked about and praised the council for setting aside and protecting 15% in reserves.  Second, he talked about sales tax, Measure Q and then Target and Trader Joe’s.  As a food store, Trader Joe’s does not figure to bring in a lot of sales tax other than through liquor sales.  Finally, he talks about partnerships.

Joe Krovoza missed a huge opportunity to talk about what Daniel Watts did, the fact that the problem the city faces is with employee compensation which accounts for 70% of the general fund spending.  He missed an opportunity to talk about pensions, retiree health benefits, and the cafeteria bail out.  He missed an opportunity to really hammer home his vision for changing the way we do business.

Joe Krovoza got a third opportunity to hit this question out of the park when he was asked about the fact that our budget has grown faster than our population.  He did talk about conservative estimates, making a pledge to taking a tough and hard look at the budget free from politics, and talked about being Davis-first, but again, where are the specifics. 

If this city were not facing a fiscal crisis, we could tip-toe around these issues, but Davis needs someone who understands the problem and can tackle the problem.  I have had enough conversations with Joe Krovoza in which he very eloquently outlined the problem, but he did not do that in a public setting and that is very disconcerting.  Is this a guy who can tackle the tough problems in Davis or this a guy who is going to play things safe and try not to offend people while he is on council.

Moving on to Sydney Vergis, here is the problem I have with her performance and in general.  First, I still do not know what she would actually do.  She had a great presentation and performance in this forum.  She spoke very well, she calm and articulate.  She had a great presence up there.  But when you uncoil her rhetoric, she does not say a thing of substance. 

Second, Sydney Vergis repeatedly talks about her professional experience in land use and planning –   “what I’d like to offer is a professional background in municipal financing, agency management, land use planning, policy – in other words the professional experience and enthusiasm to work hard for you.” She also cites her experience as a researcher as the institute in transportation studies and on commissions.

As near as I can tell, Ms. Vergis’ experience that she cites adds up to less than two years with the Sutter County Planning Department.  She began sometime in late 2007 and ended some time in 2009.  She is now a graduate student getting a masters in transportation studies.  Finally, she has served on a couple of city commissions, including the Business and Economic Development Commission.  Interestingly enough several of her colleagues complain that she has rarely actually participated in the discussions, certainly in the joint meeting with the Davis City Council she was notable for not saying a word. 

So Ms. Vergis packages this experience as something to offer the voters without having a whole lot of depth to any of those experiences.  Some of that is the fact that she is not even 30, but it is a bit disingenuous to overplay your experience when really you are just starting out in life.

Of course the people who listen to her do not know any of this and it sounds impressive.  When we unpack the rhetoric of her answers, it is often lacking specifics.  For example in her opening statement she said, “I believe working for you we can create thoughtful policies that enhance our community that really bolster and support the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we see in this room and that really emphasize saving taxpayer dollars and really working to make sure that city operations are working as efficiently as possible.”  That sounds great, but she never explains even remotely how she intends to accomplish this.

Ms. Vergis was asked a horrible question on which five commissions to retain, and responded with a very sarcastic, “Thank you so much for the question” which drew a lot of laughs, but was probably not the right way to respond to such a question.  She then ignored the question and talked about the fact that she had served on two commissions and that there was a need for council to have an advisory input.  Fair enough that she disagreed with the premise of the question.

I thought Rochelle Swanson hit on the answer a lot better when she talked about the great function of the commissions but “I think it’s important in these times that as we look at budget restructuring, that we re-examine our commissions and see what the cost is and what benefits the does the city derive.”  She continued, “the amount of participation that we have in our community goes to the strength and the vitality of the whole reason that all of us love Davis and why we’re here.  But when we’re asking people within our government to make tough tough choices, we have to leave no stone unturned.”  In my opinion,  Ms. Swanson really nailed this question even if it was a bad question.  Given our tough economic times, we need to really evaluate how we operate as a city, even if we are happy with some of the programs.  Nothing should be so untouchable that we don’t at least evaluate it even if we end up rejecting it as a viable option.

Ms. Vergis was asked if we could fill our housing needs over the next four years and then proceeded to lecture the audience on RHNA requirements.  She asked some questions, but never asked or answered whether we will fill our housing needs entirely with infill.  The other aspect of the question she said, is what do we want to look like as a city.  “Are we providing an adequate range of housing to meet the internally generate needs of folks who live here in Davis.  Certainly if you look at a 2009 report put out by the city, over the next twenty years, we’re going to see folks in the 55 and over age range increase by 4000 people and that’s if you assume no growth in the city.  So my question is, are we providing senior housing allocations?  Are we providing enough policy incentives through city government to allow aging in place?”  And my question to Ms. Vergis is what are your answers to those questions that you pose?

In contrast, Jon Li was simple and to the point.  He said that the city has only taken out of handful of building permits in the last two years.  He said there is no current supplyside pressure because the demand is non-existent.  “I think we’re going to meet whatever housing demand we have.  But I don’t think there’s going to be pressure for another big development in the next five years.”  Good answer.

Probably Ms. Vergis’ best answer was to the question of Davis being successful attracting major technology employers.  She suggested that this is something that we have struggled with regionally not just the city limits.  “We have seen a mass exodus of green incubators and university startups going to areas outside of this region.  That’s a real problem.  Certainly there’s great opportunities and other jurisdictions have been able to employ green zoning districts throughout their cities.  What this does is provide land use and policy incentives for green companies to locate specific areas of the city that you have identified.”  She suggested the downtown or the neighborhood shopping centers are possible locations.  “In this way you can facilitate folks who are creating local jobs to locate within your city.”  She also suggested that this would attract green businesses that are sustainable.  To that end however, she never talked about how she would do it and also it is interesting that she mentioned downtown and neighborhood shopping centers rather than business parks, which is what BEDC is supposedly evaluating at the moment.

In response to privatization she nibbled around the question suggesting that we were already spending $4.5 million on professional contract service, “which is quite a bit.”  That does not mean we cannot look into privatizing some services.  Instead of offering up how we can do it, she went into a long diatribe about multi-day budgeting.  Said we have to look at what we’re getting right now before figuring out a long term budget strategy.  “Certainly part of a long term budgeting strategy will also have a large educational component as well.  With the council being almost brand new in a couple of months, I think adopting more of a countywide multi-day intensive budget hearings where we can fully understand how each department operates, where there are opportunities for streamlining operations, and where there are opportunities to establish council-driven funding priorities, I think is a much bigger question that we need to be asking.”

Finally Ms. Vergis was asked about innovations would you make to our city’s economic development efforts.  Talked about establishing free zoning district.  “Certainly this is a nice opportunity for the city to promote sustainability and also promote economic development.”  She also talked about, “how to make our economic development department more responsive to meet your needs.  We would enthusiastically recommend that the city council develop a look-down management tool that’s been developed by the Sacramento Metro Chamber.  The concept behind this is that it tracks information requests and service requests from you, the business community, and it’s especially important when looking at requests that involve multiple agencies.”

Of the three candidates that most believe the ultimate winners will come from, Rochelle Swanson probably did the best at articulating her vision for Davis and hitting on some tough issues.  She was clearly disappointed that somehow none of the direct fiscal questions were directed at her, but seized on the opportunity she had.

Rochelle Swanson’s best answer was when she made the point when asked about labor-management issues that: “”it really makes me uncomfortable when I look at some of the budget layouts that we’re looking at.  We’ll have small increments for one or two years and all of a sudden you’ll see giant spikes, jump up in year three, four, and five.  I think we need to consider not just multi-year contracts but multi-year budgets where we look at the long term based on our current assumptions of what’s going on.  Not old models back when we had a different economic reality.”  She also pushed the need in the labor-management proposal to bring in outside consultants, which to pushes the issue of outside negotiators that the council majority had opposed in labor negotiations.

Although at times, Ms. Swanson also struggled to address the specific question.  For instance in the declining enrollment question which played to her experience in the schools, she mentioned that we need to go beyond two-by-two in working together, but she never really addressed the question, a question left over from two years ago, that was trying to get her to talk about sustainable development and the presumed need for additional growth in Davis.  Rochelle Swanson didn’t take that bait and instead talked about the city and schools working together, which is one of her campaign themes.

She also talked about the CEQA process and streamlining it as a solution to bringing business to town which will undoubtedly thrill those in the Chamber but make environmentalists and progressives a bit uneasy.  She is correct however, in stating that it is great to have our great restaurants but we do not offer a lot of jobs in Davis that pay wages to allow people to make their house payments.

Finally, while she was correct that sixty seconds was not near enough time to tackle a complex question on aging, her answer showed a lack of understanding for those issues.  Here she would have been well-served with a brief discussion of aging in place and what city requirements could allow for it and also senior housing development, where it needs to go, how much.  Finally, what other services an aging population would need.  Whether that can be done in sixty seconds is another question.

We have talked a bit about Jon Li’s answers previously.  He couldn’t help take a shot at the progressive movement by mocking the “no-growthers” from the early 70s.  He also called the General Plan useless.  He introduced his viable systems model which no one understands and suggested people read his literature on it and that it will solve all of our problems.

On the other hand, Jon Li gave the answer that Joe Krovoza should have given on the fiscal health of the city when he said: “We’re not living within our budget now, I don’t care about the 15 percent.  We’re so overcommitted in terms of our longterm obligations to our employees that we’re going to have to cutback.  Part of that is going to face the lawsuits that have to do with cutting things that we won’t be able to pay for anymore.  The revenue is not going to increase as Rochelle just laid out for you.”   He continued, “We do not have the money to afford what we’re doing now.  We need to find ways to do a better job of what we’re doing and lowering our expectations and dealing with the reality of new problems that we haven’t anticipated yet.  Labor is going to have to face some cuts.  That’s a fact.”

Daniel Watts was rough around the edges but clearly the conscience of the group that was willing to take on the tough issue and let the chips fall where they may.  He went after unconstitutional city ordinances, the police who he claims harass students and homeless people, city salaries, the firefighters, landlord-tenant disputes, the Davis Model lease, you name it.  Said Mr. Watts, “We don’t have an advocate for the voiceless on the city council.  I intend to be that advocate.”

He got to heart of the matter, “Part of the reason why we have gigantic unfunded liabilities is because half of the city council is bought by the firefighters union.”  He continued, “It boggles my mind that people don’t see this, there’s a 3-2 vote on these kinds of issue with Lamar Heystek and Sue Greenwald in the minority.”  He continued, “We need to renegotiate these contracts.  The next time these come up, you need to negotiate hard with the public employee unions and explain to them that we’re not going to take this anymore.  We’re not going to be bought by you anymore.”  He argued that many city employees get paid a lot more than they need to.  We live in a great community and that can be an enticement for people to come work here.  “They shouldn’t be here for the money and we shouldn’t pay them that money.”

Later Mr. Watts talked about fiscal responsibility and honed in on salaries:

“The main problem with the city is the salaries.  Salaries account for I think over 70 percent of the city budget.  So any cuts that are made to the city budget need to come primarily from the salaries of the city employees.”  He argued that there are a number of superfluous or redundant city jobs that could be outsourced.  He further argued that “the city attorney shouldn’t sit through city council meetings for six hours and get paid an attorney’s hourly salary to sit there and watch Sue and Ruth have heart attacks.  It’s a complete waste of money but the city is still spending money on things like this.”  Bill (Emlen) should not get paid over $160,000 each year even though it is less than what other city managers make.  “When 70% of your budget goes to salaries, the cuts primarily have to be to salaries.”

He called the Davis Model lease a violation of state law.  “The Davis Model lease has clauses in it that are in violation of state law.”

He put the onus of economic development on the chamber: “A lot of this is not really related to the city council itself.  None of this not my job, all of this is your job as the leaders of the Davis economic community.”

Mr. Watts summed things up by saying, “The city has a gigantic budget problem that needs to be fixed.”  Second, “the inattentiveness of the city council to the needs of those who are not demographically represented on the city council.  That’s students, that’s young people, that’s the homeless, that’s all sorts of people that are without a voice on the city council.”  He continued, that there is an entire population of the city, half the city, “there are students and they are part of this community and they’re not represented on the city council.  They don’t feel like the people [in the city, in the downtown, in the business]… like they’re respected and it is important that they have a voice on the city council.”  He said that right now Lamar Heystek is that voice, but he’s leaving the city council.  “Many of you were students once, imagine what you would feel like if you lost your one voice on the city council.”

Daniel Watts was certainly unguarded at times, raw at other times, but there was also a good deal of substance to his points and he made points that were very true that no one else was willing to say.  Certainly in the Chamber crowd, that type of message did not resonate, but for many in this community it will.

Overall it was an interesting first debate, but the tough questions facing our city and the specific answers to them have not been addressed.  Two years ago that would have been frustrating, but given the situation that this city faces, we need less rhetoric, less playing it safe, and more specifics.  We need people willing to raise the points that may not be so popular.  Frankly the two people who did that the best were Jon Li and Daniel Watts.  Of the candidates most likely to win, Rochelle Swanson did that a little, but both Joe Krovoza and Sydney Vergis offered very little in specifics and failed to really hit on the tough answers to the tough issues.

—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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6 Comments

  1. Siegel

    Let me get this straight, 70+ comments yesterday on what to do when Saylor retires, including many who are adamant about having an election and yet NONE so far today (granted it’s early) on the election before you. You people have your priorities messed up. You want to vote on an election but you aren’t paying attention to the election in front of your faces.

  2. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”(Rochelle Swanson’s) best answer was when she made the point when asked about labor-management issues that: ‘it really makes me uncomfortable when I look at some of the budget layouts that we’re looking at. We’ll have small increments for one or two years and all of a sudden you’ll see giant spikes, jump up in year three, four, and five.'[/i]

    Your preface statement to her quote is somewhat misleading. Her actual statement is justified, but it does not really follow ‘labor-management issues,’ as you say.

    The truth is, in our labor contracts, none of them spike up in cost in years three, four or five after small incremental increases in years one and two. If anything, the normal procedure has been just the opposite in the past: give big raises in the first and second year of a contract and smaller raises (by percentage) after that. In the latest round, there were cuts or freezes up front and small raises in the later years.

    Yet Rochelle’s statement with regard to the budgeting process is, as you know better than I, correct. That is, in the short-run, the council has approved (at the recommendation of staff) fiscal budgetary decisions which we perhaps can afford at present yet are bound to cause serious problems down the road. The most obvious of these — and really the most serious threat* to the long-term health of the City of Davis — is with retiree health care costs. Likewise, the City has built up a serious ongoing and increasing liability with regard to street and sidewalk maintenance and we have no obvious way to pay these bills. Insofar as current budget cuts are affecting parks and greenbelts, it seems likely that in a few years we will also have added liabilities from not properly maintaining city trees and so on.

    —————
    *The only other very serious fiscal threat facing the City is the prospect of significantly higher pension costs. However, insofar as total compensation costs are capped, that is really more of a threat to current employees than it is to the taxpayers. I suspect most city employees don’t quite understand that they might be facing 10-15% wage reductions in a few years to cover the increased costs of their pensions.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Rich: Yeah, the answer was in response to a question on labor-management issues.

    I assume what she is referring to is what is happening to pensions that in 2013-14, after most of the people are off the council, the rates will surge up. That’s a huge problem.

    I’m not sure I agree with you that the retiree health costs are the biggest threat. Don’t get me wrong, paying $2 to $4 million per year to fully fund it, will strain the budget, but the worst danger is what happens if they downgrade their projected investment returns on PERS, that could be catastrophic as was discussed earlier this week.

  4. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”… the worst danger is what happens if they downgrade their projected investment returns on PERS, that could be catastrophic as was discussed earlier this week.”[/i]

    As long as we have “total comp caps,” as the new contracts have, that is not true for the city’s budget. I do think, though, it is a serious threat for the employees. Do you understand how the caps work?

  5. David M. Greenwald

    Rich: I don’t think we have caps for most of the new contracts. I know that there is some buffer on increases for PERS costs for non-safety, but that only covers a 3% increase.

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