Commentary: This is About Process Not Conspiracy Theories

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Sacramento-River-stock.jpgPeople keep asking me if I think this is a good deal for Davis and Yolo County.  Quite frankly I do not know the answer to that.  It may be a good deal, it may not be a good deal.  We may not know the answer to that for some time.

However, the point I think that needs to be made over and over again is that democracy is not about outcomes.  We could get together and figure out the best solution and impose it on the people, but that is not democracy.  Democracy is about process – open process, transparent process, and sometimes messy process.

We could have the right outcome and still have the wrong process.  The Sacramento Bee had a decent Op-Ed, basically arguing that the deal with Tsakopoulos sounds scary but if you dig deep, it’s a good deal.

Writes the Bee, after explaining the necessity of the deal, “Some Yolo residents are angry that details of this water transfer became public shortly before supervisors voted 3-2 to endorse it. We share those misgivings. No matter the timelines on Tsakopoulos’ real estate dealings, there’s no excuse for anything less than a full public airing of this complex transaction.”

However, they continue, “That said, the water arrangements with Woodland and Davis have been public for nearly a week, and no one disputes that the two cities face a budding crisis and could shore up their environmental standing by reducing their reliance on groundwater.”

And the Bee editorial then concludes using the “C” word to dismiss concerns: “Such a plan, of course, could affect farming, which is why Yolo will need to be closely involved and compensated for lost tax revenue. Yet there’s a chance for mutual gain and an environmental win-win with this arrangement. Conspiracy theorists should at least acknowledge that.”

Despite my reputation, I am not a conspiracy theorist.  I do not think there is a grand conspiracy coming together to harm the public.

Instead I am two things: an advocate of open government and a skeptic.

The skeptic in me believes that people make mistakes.  It also believes that people like Tsakopoulos are self-interested, which is fine.  He has the right to be self-interested.  And there is no harm in that as long as the people on the other side of the bargain are looking out for the public’s interest and are as knowledgeable as Mr. Tsakopoulos in knowing what is in the public’s interest.

That is where open government and transparency come into play.  The more light that shines on a deal, the more the public is informed, the better chance that someone scrutinizing the deal will catch a mistake.

In addition to mistakes, there is also the factor of differential interests.  In other words, the county may have one interest, the city may have another interest, and the public may have still another interest.  If the city and county’s chief interest is in providing the public with a reliable source for summer water, they may overlook other issues that are less directly in their jurisdiction, such as Delta Protection.

Again, none of this is a grand conspiracy.  I think the five supervisors and five councilmembers who voted on this had the best interest of residents at heart.  I think the same about the staff members.  I do worry about differential interests and the possibility that in the haste of ramming this through at the end, we may have overlooked something big.

My concern is from a procedural standpoint.

No one was particularly happy with the timeline which pushed this out last week, and pushed us to a vote the week before Christmas.  It is a testament to the public’s involvement that as many people showed up as did on December 20 and 21 for public meetings.  However, if this were January, the house would have been packed.

“I’m angry at the truncated timeline,” Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said, “Don’t get me wrong.  I would really be pushing that we keep this going longer.”

Joe Krovoza was involved as a member of the Joint Powers Authority in the process, and thus was a bit less concerned.

“I don’t view this as a quick decision made in a week,” Mr. Krovoza said, “I view this as actually an extremely deliberate process that is coming to a conclusion after a year.”

He said he had been hopeful that deals could have been brought forward both on November 29 and December 9, but the deals were not in place and thus they could not come forward as he would have liked.

“This has been out there,” he said, “Not to the extent that we would have liked, but it has been.”

“I would say that the foreshortening of the public process that we had hoped for was because there was an elongation of the very tough bargaining by the CWA [Clean Water Agency], and that gives me reason to be comfortable that although I wish we had more time, I’m going to vote against this [substitute] motion,” he added.

And then there is Sue Greenwald.

“From information I have managed to piece together from experts I trust in the scant three business days over the holiday that we were afforded (because of vacations, I did not have full access to the experts with whom I needed to confer), I would say that we definitely need more time,” she continued.

Councilmember Greenwald concluded, “The problem with JPA’s is that the work is done independent of scrutiny of the entire council. Only two council members are appointed, and they will probably always be the enthusiasts rather than the more cost-sensitive of councilmembers.”

If you want to feed a conspiracy, produce a deal that comes out in mid-December and which is required to be acted upon by the end of the year, forcing holiday votes.  Oh, and throw in a name like Tsakopoulos.

Supervisor Jim Provenza is a pretty reasonable person.  He is also an attorney with a key sense of propriety.  When he was a School Board member, the board used to routinely meet in closed session on items that should have been discussed publicly. 

During one such discussion, Mr. Provenza refused to meet in closed session, walked out and sat at the dais.  Because of that, his colleagues followed suit.

But Mr. Provenza is not a guy who cries wolf either, and so if he has misgivings, then perhaps we should too.

Jim Provenza wrote a memo to county officials arguing that the action may have violated the state’s open-meeting laws, due to the fact that the public had less than 24 hours to consider the agreement prior to the board of supervisors taking action on it.

Mr. Provenza told the Bee: “I’m suggesting we reschedule the hearing, rescind our prior actions and take a new vote.  I don’t believe our notice and agendas were in compliance with the Brown Act. The public did not have adequate notice that the contract was being voted on.”

Of course the county denies this charge.  County Counsel Robyn Drivon is insisting that there is no violation and that the meeting was properly noticed.  The only problem is that this is the same Robyn Drivon who has failed to make sure her own office complies with timelines for public records requests, suggesting perhaps she is not the best authority to weigh in and insist that the county is acting lawfully – particularly since she probably viewed the meeting in advance and advised them to proceed.

Mr. Provenza claims he received notice of the meeting at 4:56 on Thursday last week for a meeting that was supposed to start at 1:30 on Friday, only 20.5 hours later.

According to the state law controlling open meetings, the Brown Act, local governments are required to give 24 hours of notice prior to holding a special meeting.  It also requires a written notice to the local newspaper of general circulation.  The Davis Enterprise claims to have received an agenda at roughly the same time as Mr. Provenza.

As I said, I don’t know if this is a good deal for the residents of Davis or Yolo County, but I do know that the process here stinks.  I think the County is becoming very lax about following the law with regards to public disclosure and perhaps now open meetings, and I am sure not going to take their word for it.

Jim Provenza is a very careful and cautious public official and if he has a problem with this, we all should.

This is about process.  The deal may be fine.  But democracy is not about outcomes, it is about the means by which we arrive at those outcomes.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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17 thoughts on “Commentary: This is About Process Not Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Dr. Wu

    David:

    One of my friend always says “Trust the process” and you seem to agree. I am somewhat more pragmatic and not completely averse to a benevolent all-knowing government. However, time and time again we have seen our City lead us down the wrong path or not get the best deal it could.

    The process, at least if its done properly, allows the public to poke holes at this agreement and forces its defenders (e.g., Joe and Steven) to defend it. Unfortunately that process was largely abrogated this time (and certainly not for the first time either).

    We had a process with zipcar but unfortunately it was not in City Council but on this blog where many people chimed in including three or four of our five City Council members (our mayor was largely absent). We also saw a rare instance where you and Dunning agreed.

    THe process should take place at City Hall. It didn’t.

    I’ve quoted Churchill’s famous line before and its appropriate again here: “democracy is the worse form of government…except for all the others.”

    Of course Hamilton pointed out that “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”

    I think there are limits to democracy, but having such a short discussion right before Christmas on such a major project is not good process.

  2. Mr.Toad

    Provenza’s complaint about process is a hail marry attempt to first unwind the vote and then perhaps bring pressure to bear on the other supervisors to get a third vote against the deal because he believes, rightfully so in my opinion, that the deal is bad for the county because it will export water and reduce the land that is under cultivation, resulting in a loss of economic activity in the county. Just as AKT played their usual time is of the essence endgame and all the elected officials danced like minarets closing the deal in the timeline demanded, Provenza probably believes more public scrutiny and time for discovery will give his objections a better chance of being addressed.

    The next time you hear elected officials claim that we need to preserve farmland remember how they voted on this deal because chances are no other decision will result in the loss of more land under cultivation that this one.

  3. Rifkin

    [i]”However, the point I think that needs to be made over and over again is that democracy is not about outcomes. We could get together and figure out the best solution and impose it on the people, but that is not democracy. Democracy is about process – open process, transparent process, and sometimes messy process. We could have the right outcome and still have the wrong process.”[/i]

    I could not disagree more. I think ultimately it should be about the outcome. It is my opinion that real democracy is best because, when it is not corrupted, through deliberation and sunshine it does create the best outcomes for the most people.

    The reason undemocratic systems create bad outcomes is because the people in charge are always inherently corrupted by their unchecked power. To quote the great Catholic intellectual, Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Our questions of water, as Sue Greenwald has articulated, are bottom-line questions for all financially marginal people in Davis. Are we as a municipality taking on expenses that will push some older residents out of their homes? Is the deal we got the best possible deal?

    Your suggestion that is should be more about process than outcome is misguided, unless you think that sunshine and deliberation result in the best outcomes. The real reason I want an open and uncorrupted democratic process is because that will result in the best solution.

    Churchill famously doubted the idea that dictators could do better: “… it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    Your notion that “We could get together and figure out the best solution and impose it on the people” is unfounded, in my opinion. A more open process, where over a period of time more people, ordinary concerned citizens, would have a chance to weigh in and express their viewpoints on the agreement which was reached would have a far better chance of arriving at “the best solution.”

    As we found with Zipcar and repeatedly with our bad labor deals, there might be details within these contracts which don’t serve the best interests of the taxpayers. I think if there had been more time, we might have found with the water deal that there are details in it which don’t necessarily serve the best interests of the people of Davis and Yolo County.

    If Sue Greenwald had more time, maybe she could have brought in water economists who would have testified that the price we will be paying is terribly high; or maybe they would think the deal is just right. Without the sunshine of that sort of democracy, it’s impossible to know if the solution reached by the cabal is the best solution.

    Mr. Toad (after it was passed) pointed out the clause in the Yolo County contract which will revert 4,000 acres out of 17,244 acres of the Conaway Ranch into permanent floodplain for habitat restoration. Toad says Jim Provenza told him that will cost Yolo County’s economy $50 million in economic activity.

    Toad points out rightly that earlier this year Helen Thomson and Mike McGowan, who voted for this deal, got on their high horse to decry the notion of reverting any of the Conaway Ranch for habitat restoration. Yet less than 6 months later they enthusiastically approved a contract which will have about 25% of the ranch fallowed for habitat restoration?

    If we had had a more democratic process in discussing these potential contracts, the people could have called them on that and weighed in on that trade-off and we could have come to an agreement about what is best for our county. But the process was so brief, the deliberation so muted, that it was not until after the deal was signed that (at least for me) this aspect of the deal was exposed. It still has yet to be well explained. (I think Toad’s explanation was at least partially wrong.)

    If the deals signed by Yolo County and by the City of Davis were the best possible, then it really doesn’t matter at all that the public and dissenting elected officials never had much of a chance to discuss these questions and to question the details. However, there is good reason to think that these deals could have been much better with more public input and more time to decipher the details.

  4. Steve Hayes

    The process was rushed because a 3-2 favorable vote by the City Council as seated was only guaranteed through December. In January, four elected Council members (plus a possible appointee) could not provide such a guarantee.

  5. Rifkin

    Keep in mind, Steve, that the Davis City Council voted 4-1 in favor of this deal, and that 3 of the 4 who voted yes will still be on the Council next year, and that those 3 are going to choose who the 5th member of the Davis City Council will be. As such, the end of Saylor’s time on the DCC does not mean anything as to this particular vote. In fact, Saylor could have been a vocal opponent of the deal and voted no and it would not have changed the outcome.

  6. Don Shor

    People keep asking me if I think this is a good deal for Davis and Yolo County.
    Yes. This is an historic vote which provides a long-term, high-quality permanent water supply for Davis and Woodland at a fixed, apparently reasonable price. Future residents of the cities will be very grateful for this action.

    and it would not have changed the outcome.
    Nothing would change the outcome, IMO, at the county board or either city council. If Jim Provenza wants to rescind the action and take another vote for procedural reasons, fine. If he believes that action could lead to a different outcome, and if that is his reason for his proposal, then it is misguided.

  7. Steve Hayes

    Rifkin 12/24/10 – 11:19 AM…
    ….” the Davis City Council voted 4-1 in favor of this deal”…

    I recognize this, Rich, but I think that the 3rd assured vote in favor of the project gave Rochelle “cover” so she could more readily vote in favor of it, and ultimately provide the “comfortable” 4-1 favorable margin. Had the spotlight been on her to provide the crucial 3rd vote in favor of the project, she would have had a much more difficult vote. She is on record about her concerns about process.

  8. craised

    With all due respect we are a Republic we are NOT a Democracy. We the people do not vote on specific issues. Rather, we vote for and elect representatives who will act as the voice of the people in out little fish bowel. These representatives (County Supervisors) act on our behalf, theoretically voting on issues the way most of their constituency would want. If they don’t, we chop there heads off.
    Were open meeting laws violated? Maybe. We are a nation of laws. Way to many laws.

  9. Frankly

    “craised: With all due respect we are a Republic we are NOT a Democracy”

    Exactly! Our founders were concerned as much about the anarchy tendencies of Democracy as they were concerned about constituent misery inflicted by totalitarian control.

    Representative democracy strives to maintain a balance: emphasizing government by the people and for the people, while not consensus-constraining decision authority. The balance seems to be teetering out of control. We experience more back-room, closed-door decision making by our leaders. At the same time we seem decision-paralyzed by much greater political participation by so many well-funded and well-organized self-interests… combined with media influence run amuck.

    I see a broken process of social governance where too few substantive solutions develop, even though we spend copious energy attempting to solve problems.

  10. wdf1

    At the same time we seem decision-paralyzed by much greater political participation by so many well-funded and well-organized self-interests… combined with media influence run amuck.

    Is this a criticism of the proposition/initiative process in California?

  11. Frankly

    “Is this a criticism of the proposition/initiative process in California?”

    Yes, but I think this only a symptom of the larger problem.

    I am not a political scientist, but I believe our representative form of democracy was not designed to withstand so many influences to the political process, and so many conflicts to the governance process. Again, these are well-funded and well-organized self interests… not just waves of public opinion.

  12. Rifkin

    [i]”Again, these are well-funded and well-organized self interests… not just waves of public opinion.”[/i]

    Our system’s great flaw is now and always has been the private financing of campaigns. Almost no one who gives big money to candidates (or for referedums) does so out of the goodness of his heart. The financiers finance campaigns because they expect benefits worth much more back in return.

    When our government was much smaller and less ambitious and its decisions were less important to most peoples’ outcomes in business, the fact that the barons of industry in the railroads, coal, meatpacking, banking, kerosene*, steel, and shipping had corrupted virtually every member of the Congress and state governments by financing their campaigns for office was just not that important. America was a nation of small farms and small towns which revolved around those farms. (Davisville was no different in 1890 than the towns that 90% of Americans lived in at that time.) But ever since the end of World War 1 and the industrialization and urbanization of most Americans, the inherent corruption in a government directed by politicians who win office or stay in office or rise in power in their offices based on how much private money they can raise, the corruption built into our system is terribly important and in some respects ruinous. No major segment of our economy, even the farm economy, can succeed without buying favorable political outcomes from elected officials. And every year the sophistication of the corruption seems to grow a bit more. The Democrats are corrupted by organized labor and various professions and industries; the Republicans** are corrupted by huge farm corporations and other industries and so on.

    The only solution I can think of is to change our Constitution, which surely never will be done. We need to have clean money–that is, money derived from a tax levied on all citizens–to finance our campaigns; and we need to make sure that no one who wins office does so with the help of individuals or aggregations who stand to profit from that help.

    *John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. made almost all of its profits refining crude oil into kerosene up to 1906. There was simply very little demand in those days for gasoline or diesel.

    **As I suspect Jeff Boone would agree, the vast majority of Republican voters or people who call themselves “conservatives” vehemently disagreed with the George W. Bush administration’s massive expansion of the Medicare program (Part D) to provide a lot more money for pharmaceuticals. But those voters had no sway. What decided that outcome was the group of drugmakers called Big Pharma. They fed tens of millions of dollars into Rep. Speaker of the House Tom Delay’s PACs, and Mr. Delay and his supporters did all they had to to make sure Big Pharma got the bill they wanted. That is what “democracy” now means with just about EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF LEGISLATION passed by Congress or state legislative body in our country today.

  13. Don Shor

    Our system’s great flaw is now and always has been the private financing of campaigns.

    Maybe so, but that doesn’t seem like a factor as to how the city council or board of supervisors dealt with this issue.

  14. Frankly

    ”Rich Rifkin: As I suspect Jeff Boone would agree, the vast majority of Republican voters or people who call themselves “conservatives” vehemently disagreed with the George W. Bush administration’s massive expansion of the Medicare program (Part D) to provide a lot more money for pharmaceuticals.”

    I agree, but primarily because of the unfunded cost and secondarily because of ideological disagreements over the long term destructive social tendencies of a growing nanny state. Bush was not loved by libertarian conservatives.

    At age 50 and with some understanding of American history, at times I struggle with a consideration that I romanticize the past too much. After all, human nature is human nature, and the design of our republic – the great experiment – has remained largely the same for almost 250 years. Also, business and labor has been at odds since the industrial revolution; and both have sought to influence politics for their selfish interests. However, neither had the capacity to influence the masses the way it is done today. Whether because of that or in spite of that, we were a greater community of like thinkers… our needs and wants more aligned. As a people we had power in numbers… populist power to override and root out the political corruption if it got out of hand.

    Today we are much more fragmented into factions (tribes?) of specific, single-issue, self-interest. Media constantly permeates our every waking hour, and it is used to effectively mold and shape public opinion to the benefit of those funded and organized well enough to exploit it. Lobbyists, corporate money and union money have existed for some time. However, cable news, network “new” media and George Soros are modern phenomena. We used to rely on the latent wisdom of the people to provide the balancing mechanism for government overreach and failure. When Michele Rhee’s champion mayor is voted out of office even with overwhelming evidence that she was profoundly improving the outcomes of DC schools, we know there is something different going on. When California elects a union-friendly governor even while state tax receipts are falling from a lack of private economic activity and decades of our of control spending from the public employees union-controlled-Democrat legislature have created a massive budget deficit of unfunded liabilities… then there is something different going on.

  15. Rifkin

    [i]”Maybe so, but that doesn’t seem like a factor as to how the city council or board of supervisors dealt with this issue.”[/i]

    I agree. However, it seems like our Board of Supervisors made an abrupt turn around in their position on whether or not it was good for Yolo County to take farmland on Conaway Ranch out of production. This was reported in the October 13 issue of The Davis Enterprise: [quote] County officials plan to ask supervisors for an extension at their Nov. 9 meeting, enough time for Phil Pogledich, senior deputy county counsel, to draft an ordinance that would [b]permanently bar outside interests from buying up Yolo land, taking it out of farming and turning it into a floodplain for endangered fish, or wetlands for threatened waterfowl. [/b]

    Outsiders see turning Yolo County farmland into habitat as a perfect way of satisfying their legal duty to offset the harm they inflict by developing elsewhere, said Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis. Already a floodway, the 59,000-acre Yolo Bypass, 52,000 acres of which is farmland, is particularly attractive. [/quote] Conaway Ranch is 17,000 acres. Of that, around 15,000 is farmed. The agreement the Supervisors agreed to with Tsakopoulos will take 6,000 acres (40%) out of production. 4,000 acres will be sold to the state for flooding; 1,000 acres more will no longer be farmed to provide habitat for the giant garter snake; and 1,000 more acres will be preserved for the Swainson’s Hawk.

    That abrupt change in position raises the question: Why was this sort of deal anathema to the county officials in October and why was it so attractive to them 2 months later?

  16. craised

    [quote]Why was this sort of deal anathema to the county officials in October and why was it so attractive to them 2 months later? [/quote]

    The County is busted.They have an insatious need for Money… Kinda like the Banana Republic of Davis.

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