Commentary: Justifying the County Conaway Vote

Conaway-Ranch.pngIt was an interesting week at the county level, as watching the Conaway Ranch water agreement vote was so instructive.  The problems that this agreement presents for the Yolo Basin are troubling, as laid out by both Supervisors Jim Provenza and Duane Chamberlain.  This agreement threatens wildlife and agriculture and also threatens to compromise the spillway’s flood control capacity.

It was a week in which we saw Senator Lois Wolk come forward to the Board of Supervisors with a modest proposal, and the Board basically did not give the Senator the time of day.  It is not that they rejected her proposal, it is that they failed to even discuss it.


During the course of the discussion, it is not all that surprising to see that Supervisor Matt Rexroad does not get it.  Frankly, we should not expect him to get it.  He has been generally a good Supervisor for Woodland and the rest of the county, but at the end of the day, it would be folly to expect him to choose the environment over private property rights of the landowner.

The real problem is that Democrats like Mike McGowan, Helen Thomson, and now Don Saylor, do not get it.

Still, we have to take issue with several of the points that Supervisor Rexroad makes.

He wrote in a comment on the Vanguard on Thursday, “You want to know how many of my constituents have contacted me about this issue? Maybe five. The people of Woodland support this effort.”

That says far more about Woodland than it does about this effort.  Although one might think that backing up the flood control capacities of the Yolo Basin might have an impact on the City of Woodland, it may seem to be a bit too remote of a threat. 

It would seem that habitat protection and flood control are simply not issues of great import to the people of Woodland.

However, Mr. Rexroad writes, “That is why the Woodland City Council supported their effort with a 4-0 vote.”

Did they?  Or were they simply voting on the Woodland-Davis Water Agreement, which is separate.  There is a pervasive myth that the two efforts are connected.  However, in responding to a question from Supervisor Jim Provenza, Senior Deputy County Counsel Philip Pogledich acknowledged there was no link between this agreement and the Davis-Woodland Joint Powers Water agreement.

So did the Woodland City Council issue an advisory vote on this agreement, or is Mr. Rexroad confusing the two?

Based on the next statement it seems like the latter, because he wrote, “I would bet that they would support the county agreement with a 4-0 vote as well.”

But what difference does that make, because the City of Woodland has no jurisdiction over the county.

Regardless, I find it interesting that Matt Rexroad uses the views of Woodland to justify his vote on Conaway Ranch.  Woodland residents do not reside in Conaway Ranch but Mr. Rexroad’s district appears to encompass it.

Mr. Rexroad acknowledges that he would “write a different agreement” but still claims this was “an easy vote” to cast.  I fail to understand why he thought this was such an easy vote.  I fail to see what the county gets from this that they did not have already.

Supervisor Duane Chamberlain warned that plans for construction would interfere with the bypass’s main function, which is flood control capacity, and cause the water to back up into the Sacramento River, actually causing serious flooding.

Supervisor Chamberlain also noted that the county was essentially abandoning this land as an agricultural area, and along those lines warned that the county risked losing tax revenue.

“When you slow that water down,” he warned, “it piles up and floods.  That’s one of the problems I saw immediately in this, you are putting a plug in the bypass.”

“The Yolo bypass is designed mainly for one thing, flood control, that’s got to be the number one priority,” he added.  “If you leave in rice like it is, the water flows, it’s great habitat the way it is.”

“There is no surplus water in the summer if you’re going to farm Conaway Ranch,” Supervisor Chamberlain said and added, “That’s another thing that bothers me is [sic] that you’re selling out Conaway Ranch.”

He argued that by taking three or four acres of rice out, it will cost the county three or four million dollars a year.

“You’re talking about we’re going to get a couple of million dollars strung out over a couple of years, that’s nothing,” he added.  “This is one of the worst agreements I have ever seen the county get involved in.”

Supervisor Jim Provenza said about this agreement, “On balance I don’t see us getting much, where it does, the language is very weak.”

He added, “What we give up here is land use authority that we are exercising against anybody else.  Everyone else has to bring forward a project first, we are sitting here blindfolded not knowing what’s coming before us, saying go ahead, do what you want, we waive our rights.”

He called it a “capitulation” and added “it weakens us and sets a bad precedent for rolling over when somebody with a lot of money wants to do a project.”

Woodland residents probably do not care so much about the loss of county revenue.  Most city residents identify first with cities rather than the county.  Those residents in Woodland who do utilize county services, however, probably do not spend a lot of time contacting Supervisor Rexroad or anyone else in government and they probably have little idea of the connection between some far off ranch and county revenue and the county services they consume.

That is one reason why we have elected representatives who study these issues to understand them better than their constituents.  Or perhaps Mr. Rexroad only identifies as his constituents the conservative voters that supported his efforts.  Hard to know for sure, but his claim seems more like a justification than an explanation.

Mr. Rexroad also hits on another of my pet peeves: “My experience is that when people realize they are not going to win on the merits people start complaining about process. That seems to be what has happened here.”

So is Mr. Rexroad arguing that elected officials should not follow the due process of law embodied in the Brown Act and other open government statues?  That is a bit disappointing to me because this has been an area of common ground between the two of us.

I very much disagree with his assessment.  I see a vote that occurred in December that was rushed, most people did not know about it and certainly had no time to study the issue to attack the plan on the merits.

As a result of outcry, the county decided to bring the item back.  They failed to acknowledge any problem with the Brown Act, they simply wanted to err on the side of caution.  The problem is that if they were going to do that, they could not simply restrict this to procedural issues, they had to do a full consideration of the item.

Senator Wolk and others made some suggestions.  Now, if Mr. Rexroad wants to argue that they could not change the agreement and still get it signed by Conaway, then they should have made that argument at the meeting.  I fail to understand that rationale.

Nevertheless, none of this is complaining about process just because we cannot win on the merits, it is arguing that the process needs to be fair and open and this just wasn’t.  At the end of the day, the three votes on Board were going to decide policy direction, but that seems like little excuse not give the item a full and fair hearing.

Supervisor Rexroad boils it down to this, “You think a trust has been broken with the people but it seems to be only with about 15 people in Davis that either don’t like the agreement or don’t like people involved with it. The people of Woodland are fine.”

I don’t think that a very accurate picture of Davis, and I think most people do not really know the details of this and if they did they might think very differently.

But the bottom line is that we cannot expect people like Matt Rexroad to get it.  The problem is that the people who should get it, the Don Saylor’s of this world, are so far in the pockets of developers and the powers that be, that they fail to represent their constituents.

As much as we may criticize Matt Rexroad on this issue, at least he showed up on the Vanguard to take his lumps.  That is more than I can say for Don Saylor who has said almost nothing publicly on this issue, other than his few comments at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

It is a shame that Don Saylor never had to face real electoral competition for his seat, as he might have seen that he had a lot less support than he thinks from his own constituents.

In the end it appears that we got this bad deal because Woodland does not care about the environment or county revenue, and Don Saylor does not care to find out what his constituents think.  Or maybe Matt Rexroad is right, we got the best deal we could, it just wasn’t very good.

—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. Roger Rabbit

    I will give Matt credit for at least responding and talking about the issue rather than hiding from the press and making No statement.

    However, if only 1 person contacted him or 200, to justify a position solely on that fact is a bit short-sided. Right and wrong, good or evil, pros and cons should be deciding facts on a position. So if only five people contacted him about racial abuses, he would not have an issue with that either?

    Only a true politician could say only 5 people contacted me so I don’t really care about the issue and no one sees this as a weak or low position. At least Matt is honest about stating his opinion on why he does not care. 🙂

  2. Roger Rabbit

    Forgot to mention, I have not kept up or read everything about this issue but maybe on issues like this perhaps a pro and con lists, as a quick reference, on why this is good or bad would help people understand the issues related to this. If this is just environmental verses money, money will normally win, but it this has more deeper and long range impacts, then a list would make that clearer.

    Personally, I would rather base my opinion on facts than just the number of people that agree or disagree.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    Matt Rexroad: “My experience is that when people realize they are not going to win on the merits people start complaining about process. That seems to be what has happened here.””

    My experience is that when politicians realize they are going to win on the merits in regard to a contentious issue with a majority vote and don’t want public blowback, politicians ignore process. That seems to be what happened here.

    Matt Rexroad: “You think a trust has been broken with the people but it seems to be only with about 15 people in Davis that either don’t like the agreement or don’t like people involved with it. The people of Woodland are fine.”

    Senator Lois Wolk represents all of Yolo County, far more than 15 people in Davis! Furthermore, this statement shows a real antipathy on Rexroad’s part towards Davisites, not to mention an ignorance of who Lois Wolk actually represents!

    dmg: “Mr. Rexroad acknowledges that he would “write a different agreement””

    In other words, Mr. Rexroad is conceding this agreement is less than desirable and full of problems. Supervisor Provenza, by pointing out the flawed process by which this agreement was approved, gave Rexroad and the other Supervisors the perfect opportunity on the second go round to write a different agreement and “get it right”. Senator Lois Wolk even outlined exactly how the agreement could be improved.

    Yet shamefully neither Rexroad, McGowan, nor Saylor even considered availing themselves of this golden opportunity. Why? One has to wonder if it is because none of the majority are willing to admit all three of them (Saylor choosing to stand in the shoes of his friend former Supervisor Helen Thompson) got this wrong from the get go, tried to strong-arm this bad agreement through w/o proper notice so there would be no public outcry, and got caught with their pants down (in not following proper process) figuratively speaking…

    Provenza and Chamberlain had this exactly right: As dmg said – “This agreement threatens wildlife and agriculture and also threatens to compromise the spillway’s flood control capacity.” Only time will tell who was right, and I’m betting on Provenza and Chamberlain…

    But one thing is certain – the majority and county staff did not get the process right; tried to cover it up with a sham do-over that fooled no one; have made many distrustful of the resultant Conaway agreement; have alienated many in Yolo County who will not trust the Supervisors to make reasoned decisions taking into account consideration of public input as is required. For shame…

  4. Don Shor

    “This agreement threatens wildlife”
    Some local environmentalists disagree. When you convert farmland to wildlife habitat, you don’t threaten wildlife. Apparently one or two supervisors believe that rice farms are better for wildlife (and flood control) than wildlife habitat.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    To Matt Rexroad: Generally I am careful in my comments, and try and give politicians making difficult decisions the benefit of the doubt. This particular issue to me was so clearly egregious and caused such a gut reaction deep down inside, that I felt compelled to be very frank (“New England frank” as it is known). Apparently I was not alone in that opinion, since no less than Senator Lois Wolk made a special appearance from Sacramento to express her very valid concerns. Ironically, you yourself admitted you would have written a different agreement.

    Supervisor Don Saylor, a member of the majority that approved this agreement, actually tried to cut proper questioning off by Supervisor Jim Provenza – which was another cynical attempt by one member of the majority to circumvent proper process. I’ll chalk that up to Supervisor Saylor’s inexperience – the Yolo County Board of Supervisors have a more open style than the Davis City Council – thank goodness. And I applaud your forthright ruling as Chair of the Bd of Sups – that Supervisor Provenza was well within his rights to ask the appropriate questions of the public.

    That said, what I hope the majority on the Bd of Sups and county staff take away from this discussion is that they need to make a more concerted effort to do the following:
    1) From the outset follow proper process to the letter, erring on the side of greater public notice than is necessary.
    2) Truly listen to the public with an open mind, w/o bias as to what particular city a speaker is from.
    3) Do not engage in sham do-overs when mistakes are made.
    4) Do not rush decisions through w/o proper process (that gives the public and Supervisors sufficient time to digest and comment on an issue), just bc pressure is being brought to bear by the proponent of an agreement.

    Only time will tell if the concerns of Senator Wolk, Supervisor Provenza, Supervisor Chamberlain, and others (attorney filing suit, water expert Steve Hayes, among others) were justified. I hope for everyone concerned in Yolo County that everything turns out hunky-dory (although I have grave doubts). But clearly proper process was not followed here, which left a perception by many that this was a deal done behind closed doors in a rushed fashion that left the public standing on the outside looking in. It is a perception that cannot be washed away by a sham do-over, in which a state senator was told her concerns were of no interest to the Bd of Sups. That bell cannot be unrung…

  6. indigorocks

    Don I agree with you. Fuck the least the current ones that are dumping a bunch of roundup, pesticides, fungicides and nitrates into the water..that stuff is polluting and the surround area, and makes it a very harsh environment for wildlife to flourish.. in addition to that..

    guess what people…YOU”RE EATING THAT SHIT!!! Eat organic and bypass the toxic chemicals…

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