Commentary: Where Will New Council Make the Biggest Difference?

wolk-1Last night Dan Wolk was sworn in as the newest member of the Davis City Council.  The true impact of Mr. Wolk will not be fully known until we get to see what he does under the pressure of a crucial vote.

There is no doubt that the single biggest issue before the council in the next fifteen months is the budget and most specifically unfunded liabilities, retirement and pensions.

As Ruth Asmundson and Lamar Heystek were replaced with Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson and Don Saylor left the council, there was a clear sea change in the view of council in approaching this issue. 

Tentative and taking half measures under the control of the council majority, themselves beholden to the firefighters and other special interests in city government, we saw the clearest policy direction last month on the issue of unfunded liabilities as Rochelle Swanson moved and the council unanimously approved the following on January 19, “I move to express the city council’s intent to pursue long-term sustainable contracts and employee benefit programs by implementation of long and short-term reduction measures and directing the interim city manager to return to the council with recommendations on the appropriate means of implementing this intent and strategies to utilize outside expertise.”

Dan Wolk himself figures to continue to strengthen that commitment.  He made it really the centerpiece in terms of the issues in his campaign.

“In the long-term, the challenges are even more daunting. The city confronts a host of “unfunded liabilities” from an estimated $53 million in retiree health care costs, to millions in pension costs (resulting in a substantial increase in CalPERS contributions), to delayed infrastructure projects,” Dan Wolk wrote in his candidate statement.  “These challenges must be addressed in a systematic and proactive manner. And as much as we would find it easier to cobble together a short-term plan and cross our fingers hoping for larger economic forces to come to our rescue, that only delays the tough decisions we have to make.”

He followed that up in his Vanguard interview, stating, “As I wrote in my application statement, the city’s number one priority right now should be its budget and fiscal challenges.” 

He added, “From day one, I would join with the Council in making a concerted effort to address these daunting issues.”

How that stated view will parlay into tough policy considerations as the city is forced to cut back on services and play hardball in labor contract negotiations is an open question.

While Dan Wolk will help solidify council resolve on a crucial issue, the council was largely moving in that direction anyway.  Where he may make a bigger difference in a sea change is on the issue of development.

The easy example of the previous council majority’s problem with land use goes back to 2005, when they put all of their collective eggs into not only supporting but promoting Covell Village, only to see that effort fail.  It would be nearly three years after the failure of Covell Village that another project came forward.

The problem in general was the lack of rigor on the part of council to ensure that we put forward good projects, rather than merely acceptable and standard ones.

Good examples of these problems can be seen with Verona, Simmons Ranch and Willowbank, all of which were rammed through over objections of neighbors and with minimal regard to standards.

Now the test case comes before council at some point in the form of ConAgra.  As we noted yesterday, the ConAgra proposal for 610 units at the Cannery site has only been tweaked along the margins, when the fundamental problems are at the core.

The council really needs to provide two separate forms of direction.  First, they must determine whether we need to add housing right now during a real estate slowdown when it is clear there are numerous approved and entitled units already available, in addition to the West Village development being constructed.

The previous council, with Don Saylor casting the deciding vote, allowed the application to go forward.  But it is clear that four members of the council had trouble with the proposal.

The second issue, if the council sees fit for development of housing at that site, is to give firm direction to what that housing should look like.  Issues such as sustainability, universal design and transportation, along with appropriate housing mix, affordable housing and open space features have not been adequately addressed by the applicant. 

The city has approved a climate action plan, but they really need to solidify it by providing direction to future applicants that the baseline needs to be 90 to 100 percent reduction of carbon. 

Two commissions, including the social services commissions of which Dan Wolk chaired, developed senior housing guidelines.  The city needs to codify these into firm requirements for concepts such as universal design – something that this project barely provides lipservice for.

Moreover, the council needs to take seriously the fiscal issues that have been treated as secondary concerns.  All new developments must be penciled out, for at least a twenty-year time horizon, using realistic assumptions of costs for city services.

Previous councils have basically rubberstamped these types of developments and let less than desirable projects to come forward. 

Will the new council enforce more rigorous standards?  That is a huge question that we have going forward.

—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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9 Comments

  1. DT Businessman

    DG, really “rammed through over the objections of neighbors”? My experience has been that community policy and project debates are dominated by very narrow special interests. No matter what the policy or project someone will scream “it was rammed through”, or “there was opportunity for community input”. I’m really looking forward to more reasoned debates with the welfare of the entire community the primary focus. The welfare of the various special interests are but part of the whole, not the entirety.

  2. Neutral

    Davis: [i]. . . play hardball in labor contract negotiations . . .[/i]

    Hardball? Doubtful. What will make the difference is whether the council gets off it’s collective hindquarters and hires a professional negotiator.

  3. Rifkin

    [i]”Good examples of these problems can be seen with Verona, Simmons Ranch and Willowbank, all of which were rammed through over objections of neighbors and with minimal regard to standards.”[/i]

    Perhaps my read on what happened is inaccurate, but I don’t agree with your characterization of what happened on any of those projects, especially Simmons Ranch (aka the Chiles property east of the Davis Cemetery).

    I think the problem in all of those cases was a conflict in values at play. On the one hand, the City directed the developers to reach deals with the neighbors which assuaged the concerns of those neighbors. That is perfectly reasonable, as an unintended but natural consequence of infill development is the negative impact (especially with regard to traffic) that it can have on the nearest neighbors. So in these cases (but maybe less so with regard to the Willowbank project), the neighbors and the developers thought they had in place an agreement on the size and scope and layout of the project.

    But then by city law staff had to keep in mind the conflicts those side agreements had with regard to our General Plan (or in some cases a neighborhood specific plan). The GP generally calls for much denser housing in infill than what already exists nearby. So staff told the developers you can’t do what you agreed with the neighbors to do. That won’t follow the requirements of the General Plan.

    So these developers then had to get together with staff and include far more smaller lots and anything else which did not meet the GP’s needs.

    When the neighbors finally see the plan that staff supports (which is what the GP told them to support), the neighbors naturally object, as it is so different than what they were led to believe was going to happen.

    And then some anti-development voices in town come in and says, “staff and or developer-Democrats on the Council are once again ramming through this project that the neighbors object to.”

    And then when a peripheral development project is proposed, those same anti-development voices cry out, “What is so wrong with infill development in Davis? We should be starting with projects inside the city limits first.”

    And never once do they realize that they have objected to almost every infill project which has come along.

  4. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Moreover, the council needs to take seriously the fiscal issues that have been treated as secondary concerns. All new developments must be penciled out, for at least a twenty-year time horizon, using realistic assumptions of costs for city services.”

    For me, this is the core issue – fiscal impact to the city at a time of dire economic instability/underfunding. Period.

  5. JustSaying

    Is it just me or does the staff look like the next big hurdle the City faces in becoming a smooth-running municipality again? Last night’s extended meeting brought out some interesting interactions between our council members and the on-camera staff members.

    From the council members’ concerns about the incomplete way issues are brought to them to the staff’s reluctance to accept direction and requests, the meeting dragged on far beyond what the agenda seemed to need.

    It was as though the “staff recommendations” eventually could be approved if logical alternatives weren’t included in the reports…or if motions could be ignored or action delayed through feigned ignorance of the council members’ expressed intentions…or if the staff could send enough signals that they didn’t approve of the direction the council conversations were headed on a particular issue.

    Slouched in their chairs, talking with chin resting on hand, avoiding direct response until asked a second or third time, providing incomplete packages until the meeting was underway, negotiating to assure that the city manager would get the decision-making when the council was making obvious their desire to be more involved, bringing issues so late in the process that something suffers without immediate council action and without adequate consideration, denying responsibility for inadequate staff planning on the water project and on and on.

    I’d hope that the city manager will get a copy of the meeting video and make it required watching for city staff. Last night’s performance doesn’t bode well for the length of future council meeting or for the “new council” being able to change the strong-staff/weak-council form of government we’ve lived with in recent years. Or is it just me?

  6. DT Businessman

    JustSaying, I was in the council chambers. My read was the council was giving staff directions that were not going to lead to the desired results. Staff was pretty much saying that they could go through the motions, but to what end? Even the legal advisor was pointing the discrepency out. It was all pretty painful. And the vendors all salivating over the contract, geez! If there are any waste water treatment experts following the blog, weigh in.

  7. E Roberts Musser

    DTB: “JustSaying, I was in the council chambers. My read was the council was giving staff directions that were not going to lead to the desired results. Staff was pretty much saying that they could go through the motions, but to what end? Even the legal advisor was pointing the discrepency out. It was all pretty painful. And the vendors all salivating over the contract, geez! If there are any waste water treatment experts following the blog, weigh in.”

    I too was in the Council chambers and pretty much agree with your assessment. The bottom line is water rates are going up by about 2.5 times what they are now bc of the river water project, that was just approved and now has to be paid for. And the work on the wastewater treatment plant will begin in earnest, but the sewer rates were long ago ginned up so money is pretty much in hand already to make sure excessive sewer rate increases are not necessary. Staff was not being “obstinate” or “obstructive”, but pretty realistic as to the realities of the situation that water rates have to essentially double in four years in order to have enough capital to be able to issue bonds.

    Unfortunately the current City Council has inherited the water mess from the previous Council, and now has to deal w the fallout – huge water rate increases in a short space of time. It will have to be carefully finessed w the public, bc the “hit” is going to be very, very hard for many – almost like paying ground rent at a mobile home park…

    As to the sewer project, as was pointed out repeatedly to City Council, the city cannot expect construction consultants to draw up $2.3 million dollar plans for the new sewer plant upgrade for zero dollars, in the mere “hope” of landing the city contract for the plant upgrade – just so the City Council can compare and contrast competitors bids. Hence the intense back and forth between city staff and City Council. This was a situation where I think the Council may have been trying to micro-manage a process (how to go about constructing the wastewater treatment plant upgrade) they are not knowledgeable enough about to really weigh in – in any meaningful and intelligent manner. It is way too far outside the Council’s area of expertise… just my take…

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