Has the Council Campaign Been “Devoid of Real Substantive Issues?”

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Friday I read in Bob Dunning’s column a comment from someone named Paul on Muir who wrote: “Am I missing something or are the current City Council campaigns pretty much devoid of real substantive issues?”  Bob Dunning went on to describe the campaign as “the least contentious campaign in city history.”

That may be true.  Although just beneath the surface, perhaps not.  I know of whisper campaigns that were pretty vicious, but most of them never made it to the public realm, let alone the Davis Enterprise.  Nevertheless, as these council campaign go, it seemed pretty tame, certainly compared to 2006 when issues and heat were bubbling to the surface, there were lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, protesters at City Hall, angry public comments, doors slammed in the face of candidates, and a vicious letter from the wife of a city councilmember accusing a council candidate of misogyny.

So from that perspective, yes, I see this as a least contentious.  But I disagree it was devoid of real substantive issues.

I see three things have happened to tone things down.  First, everyone is sensitive that things have become too contentious on the dais over the last four years.  And while things are much better than they were in January, certainly I can see sensitivity to that issue.

But second, the growth issue is really off the table.  Measure P really changed the game, at least the community’s sense of the game, if not the current council who is still trying to ram through projects like it’s 2005.  The candidates seemed to understand that Measure R, which they all supported, would likely preclude new peripheral developments in the near term, and therefore they looked toward infill, densification, and transportation as issues to address through land use.

Third, the biggest issue facing the city is the budget, but here, where there were differences, they were not expressed in policy terms and in broad senses of the word.  Two years ago, there was a clear dividing line with three of the council candidates arguing that we have a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve while the other half were arguing (correctly) that that was an illusion.  Likewise, half of the council candidates argued for continuing current growth policies and looking toward Measure J projects, while the other half argued for slower growth and that we did not need to do any additional peripheral growth.

Those lines seem to have at least temporarily be blurred if not gone.  Even the firefighter and influence of public employees was removed from the table by virtue of the fact that most if not all of the candidates simply eschewed such money and the firefighters pulled back to the sidelines.

But here is where I disagree with Paul and by extension Bob Dunning, this was not a campaign devoid of real substantive issues.  No, instead it was a campaign devoid of real and substantive coverage of those issues by the mainstream newspaper in this town.

The Vanguard attended every candidate’s forum that had all of the candidates in attendance.  The town’s newspaper only attended two of them and covered it in a single article (in a rather insufficient manner).  The sum total of the town’s newspaper’s coverage was a column that each candidate wrote on bicycling issues (newspaper’s topic choice), three articles on fundraising, and one feature story on each candidate plus the one article on the candidate’s forums.

So where’s the coverage?  Anyone who attended the candidate’s forums would have heard the candidates discussing real and substantive issues.

The irony is that the dearth of coverage somehow reflects the sense in the community overall that seems to fail to recognize the severity of the crisis that is bearing down on municipal government, not just in Davis but in the entire state.

There is nothing more telling I think than the Enterprise’s Editorial Board’s failure to grasp the severity of the city’s fiscal crisis.  When the Enterprise endorsed Measure Q, the sales tax initiative, the editorial said, “It is fortunate that, despite the frequent dramas played out on the Davis City Council dais, our city is well-managed.”

Worse than that is the failure to grasp that Davis’ problem does not rest with the $1 million deficit from 2010-11 and it is not saved by a $5 million reserve.

the city has not been well-managed at all.  We are fortunate that we have not been hit as hard as other communities.  That has to do with the relatively tight real estate market, the fact that this community is upper-middle class and has only recently been hit by the problems affecting other areas.  We haven’t had huge waves of foreclosure, and only with state furloughs and layoffs and now university furloughs and layoffs have we felt what much of the rest of the state has felt much harder, much sooner.

But we are not well-managed.  During the last decade, we have exploded our commitments to city employees and we have yet to feel the full brunt of those impacts.

Davis does have a modest budget gap which we have closed mainly through retirements and closing vacant positions, mixed in with a small amount of savings from new bargaining agreements and the cutback of a lot of city services.

However, we also face much larger problems in the impact of PERS cost hikes and an unfunded liability that is approaching $60 million.  These two factors alone may siphon off as much as $11 million in additional money from the general fund within five years.  Given that number is nearly one-third of our current operating budget, that is something that we should fear.  And yet, not only did we irresponsibly pass policies in the last decade to create the problem, our latest round of employee bargaining has hardly touched them.

The editorial harps on the reserve as though that were some sort of saving grace.  The reality is that the money in that reserve is little more than margin for error.  A real crisis would wipe out that money almost instantaneously.

Think about this, that reserve is less than one-tenth of our unfunded health care liability, it is less than our pension liability, it is less than the expected PERS rate hikes, it is less than half of our unfunded needs, it is nearly half of our street repair liability.  In other words, is nothing more than a buffer on an annual basis if our revenues do not reach what is projected, as they did not last year, or if we end up with additional costs or less savings than projected, as also happened last year.

And so we have dipped into our reserve this year and will cut more from the budget next year in order to repay it.  That may be an appropriate use of the reserve, but to suggest is helps us plan for a rainy day and that we hope we never have to use it – we already did use it and it provides us with nothing more than a false assurance, because $5 million is nothing.

The newspaper has never given any kind of in-depth coverage looking deeply into the budget beyond the staff reports and council discussions.  The newspaper has not covered the fact that the city has no money left for fixing its streets and infrastructure.  That it’s repavement program is on its last funding.  That a third of all Davis streets are earning failing grades, and that the overall quality of roads is about to drastically decline.

And yet, somehow all of this has been covered and discussed by the candidates themselves throughout the campaign.  The problem is that the local paper has for whatever reason decided that election coverage is something that needs to be cut back on.  Even two years ago, the Enterprise had a question a week that the candidates would answer.  It was not enough, but at least it was something.

So the answer to Paul’s question is, that there were lots of substantive issues in this campaign, it is just that your newspaper did not cover them.

The good news for Davis residents is that the candidates did discuss these issues during the campaign, and I believe most of them understand the magnitude of the problem even if that has not resulted in screaming at each other.  Perhaps there is something to be said for screaming, at least then people are getting through to the voters that way.

—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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2 Comments

  1. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “The good news for Davis residents is that the candidates did discuss these issues during the campaign, and I believe most of them understand the magnitude of the problem even if that has not resulted in screaming at each other. Perhaps there is something to be said for screaming, at least then people are getting through to the voters that way.”

    A lot of the candidates responses were very carefully crafted to be uncontroversial. That is understandable, after having such a contentious City Council. However, it is not always clear where the candidates stand on issues…

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