Commentary: No Such Thing As Halfway Democracy – WAC Makes the Right Call

floating-20We’ll borrow from a popular song a few years back and say that just as there is no such thing as halfway crooks, there is no such thing as halfway democracy.  That’s what an advisory vote on water would have been – halfway democracy.

The message would have been, while we value your input, we just don’t trust you to make the right decision.  And what kind of message is that really?

The reality is that, had the WAC decided to go with an advisory vote and been supported by the council, a citizens group would have risen up to put a competing and binding measure on the ballot anyway.

It is not that voters always make the right decision.  But at some point you do your homework, you put out your best proposal, and hope that the voters can figure it out and do the right thing.

It was a relatively close vote.  I talked to one of the people in opposition to the binding vote and they were philosophically opposed to binding the council.  They believed the current council just elected would not be foolish enough to spurn the will of the people.

Fair enough, but why send the wrong message if you believe the council will end up supporting the will of the people anyway?

Despite our initial fears that the WAC would be a stacked committee, the body has taken their job very seriously and has moved the debate to a place where we have the opportunity to have the best of both worlds – safe, reliable water source that meets the discharge requirements while at the same time, affordable.

Some have argued that we should have waited to see how this process would develop before criticizing it.  We disagree.  We think skepticism and transparency helped shape this process in ways where it could succeed.

That is not to say there are not potential pitfalls on the way.

Last week, Councilmember Stephen Souza warned if the city pushes the election past November that Woodland will opt to walk away from the JPA and do their own water project.

If we delay the vote on the water project past November, Councilmember Souza said, “The members of Woodland are going to it alone.  They’re already poised to do it.  They’re ready with the environmental documentation to do it on their own.  We’ve heard it.  They’ve said it.  They couldn’t be any clearer.”

“If that’s the case why did we even analyze a project that included Woodland?” he asked.  “They are going it alone.  I don’t know how [much] clearer I can be.  I talked to every one of them.  They all said it.”

“They know what they want,” he added.  “We don’t know what we want.  We better become clear as a community as to what we want.”

He also argued that this is a complex issue and the committee has taken hours and months to figure out the facts.

“If a committee that is composed of dedicated people have spent twelve meetings, three to four hours, and they need more time to understand, how in the world do we think our community of citizens that have spent hardly any time are going to get and understand it well enough to vote on it intelligently?” he asked.

Both of these issues need to be addressed separately.

First, I really do not buy into this mindset.  To me, this strikes me as more scare tactics and fear mongering, the likes of which happened last fall.  Mr. Souza appallingly took steps last fall to attempt to stop the signature-gathering process.

Without those efforts, we would be stuck with the poorly-designed water rates from September 6 and we would have gone forward on a more expensive project without the great insight of the WAC.

In short, delay will save us a lot of money despite the fear mongering arguments to the contrary last fall.

If we can get a regional solution, that is in everyone’s best interest.  If Woodland goes it alone over five months (November to April) delay, they are being very foolish.  I have to believe that if they see progress made toward a regional solution, they can wait those few months to let it happen.

We need to do this the right way and that means letting the voters vote on the full project with real rates.  It seems that is what the WAC believes, as well.  They believe they can do this by November.  Go for it.  My only caveat is do not be afraid to pull it back if it will not be ready to go.

Toward the second point, Mr. Souza misses the key point of subcommittee work and opinion leadership.  The WAC is spending all of this time going through the process so that the voters do not have to.

The voters do not have to start from scratch.  What the voters do is read the report and recommendations from the WAC, and then they make up their own minds.  They do not have to duplicate the work of the WAC any more than the council would.  That is why we have the WAC in the first place.

For those of us who are more skeptical of the project, we have people like Bill Kopper and Michael Bartolic to look to in order to help guide us.

As of right now, I support the notion of moving forward with the binding vote in November with the understanding that the voters will know the project and the rates by the time they go to the cast their votes.  Ideally, early September would give them enough time to do it properly.

Last year it really took several months to ferret out the problems with the rates.  The referendum bought us the time to step back and see the problems for what they were.

—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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25 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . .

    [i]”It was a relatively close vote. I talked to one of the people in opposition to the binding vote and they were philosophically opposed to binding the council. They believed the current council just elected would not be foolish enough to spurn the will of the people.

    Fair enough, but why send the wrong message if you believe the council will end up supporting the will of the people anyway?”[/i]

    David, one need go no further than Proposition 13 to see just how far reaching the effects (good and bad, intended and unintended) of a binding initiative can be. In the end, given how the actual ballot language was structured, the possibility of such unintended consequences was substantially mitigated, but at the time that the 6-4 vote took place, that language was not yet known and I believe the four votes were “exercising caution” . . . very understandable caution.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t have a particular problem with those who voted against the binding vote, I just think overall, as you obviously did as well, it would have caused problems.

  3. newshoundpm

    DG said: “If Woodland goes it alone over five months (November to April) delay, they are being very foolish. I have to believe that if they see progress made toward a regional solution, they can wait those few months to let it happen.”

    I think you make that statement from at a minimum, a “daviscentric” viewpoint. Woodland is on a different timeline from Davis, as you and others have acknowledged. Frankly, given all of the history up to this point, I would argue that Woodland would be foolish to rely upon Davis to be on board in April if they aren’t on board in November. I don’t know what Woodland’s timeframe is, and you might do a service to your readers to investigate and report on what it is. Perhaps what Woodland will do is proceed as if Davis is not going to participate, and then look to see whether it makes sense to allow Davis to participate in the future and under what terms. Without analyzing what happens to Woodland if they don’t proceed forward, you lack any credibility with your statement.

    I liken this whole scenario to a scenario where Woodland needs to get down to Los Angeles to attend a wedding. Davis has indicated that it will share in the cost of renting a car to get there and paying for half the gas. The wedding is this weekend and Davis doesn’t need to get there until the following weekend for another wedding. Woodland has to decide what size car to rent and when to rent it, knowing that there is a limited availabiliy of cars and that prices while good right now, could go up as they wait closer to the departure date. David is recommending that Woodland wait until perhaps the day it needs to leave to book the rental car, giving Davis as much flexibility as possible. Souza is saying that Woodland intends to book a smaller car to make sure that it has a car at a good rate and can make it to Los Angeles with enough time to spare in case there is more traffic than expected or a possible breakdown along the way.

    What we don’t know at this point (or at least I don’t), is whether April is the equivalent of leaving 6 hours before the wedding starts and November is perhaps leaving the day before. The other thing I don’t know is what is the cost to Woodland to allow Davis to subsequently join in April if it proceeds forward on its own in November? Is it an irreversible decision due to time, or is there a price that Davis could pay to make it worth it to Woodland to allow Davis back in. This is the analysis that I think needs to be done.

  4. Michael Harrington

    I think putting this on the November ballot is too soon. There is no water emergency; Woodland’s problems are not ours; there is an argument that the ranch water we already purchased is enough to supply Davis for the foreseeable future. Any new big project as the CC majority is currently pushing is all about water for growth and sprawl, not about our current residents and rate payers.

    Matt: you took my simple email thanking you and ERM for the 6/4 vote to recommend a binding ballot measure at some time, to be my signing on to a November ballot; I did not do that. If you want to quote me again, please check with me. Thank you.

  5. newshoundpm

    David,

    I thought I recalled that one of the big questions as to whether to make the vote binding or advisory had to do with the percentage of votes needed. My recollection was that an advisory vote required only 50% + 1, while a binding vote perhaps required 2/3rds. Is this true, or have I gotten this mixed-up a bit? If it is true and say 55% of the vote supports not moving forward with the surface water project on a binding vote, what are you suggesting that should require of the City Council?

    For the record, I generally think that binding votes on such issues are problematic, particularly when issues are complex and the issue is dynamic. If new information arises, even if compelling to a majority of the voters, the City Council cannot move contrary to a successful binding vote. If timing weren’t so critical and if the issues were not so complex and dynamic, there would be less risk of such an outcome. For that reason, I think that a non-binding advisory vote is the way to go, and if the City Council votes contrary to the advisory vote, it does so at its own peril. If they vote against the advisory vote, unless they have some really compelling reasons which the voters agree with, I suspect that they get recalled, particularly given the importanace of this issue to the overall community. Look who is on this City Council now. I just don’t see three City Councilmembers doing this without a REALLY good reason. Do you? We have to have some faith in our elected representatives to do what’s in the best interests of the community, particularly with complicated issues. Just too risky to completely tie their hands.

  6. Michael Harrington

    Readers: in 1988, the CC on a series of 3/2 votes adopted a General Plan with huge growth and new neighborhoods going on for miles. Shortly after that, to meet those GP goals, the CC started pushing a surface water plant. Throughout the 1990s, under Lois Wolk primarly, the surface water plant was to provide those new people with water; taste and quality were not in the mix.

    Then, when Sue and I were elected in 2000, and we took Covell Village out of the 2001 General Plan, and Measure J required a city wide vote for new annexations of land/upzoning, the water plant proponents started talking about quality, regulations, etc., and not the water as needed for new growth.

    Let me assure the public: the JPA and a big project with Woodland is ALL about growth, and would use YOUR ratepayer money to provide water to those large exterior parcels, leading to billions of dollars in property value increases to those parcels that would have access to the water plant water. (David: post the water usage map showing the green borders that I gave you. The public simply has to see it, and how it vastly expands the growth potential for Woodland and Davis, and most of the area between them.)

    Also, I was at last Thursday’s WAC meeting through the end of the 6/4 vote. It was surreal …. I was hearing Helen Thompson and friends at her end of the table going on and on about the November ballot will have the most voters, so we have to rush this thing through so they can vote, and she and her friends did not even want a binding vote. The water referendum was blocked and harrassed and not supported by those who are behind Helen and her voting block at the WAC, and here I was, listening to them pound the table about the merits of direct democracy: so long as it was an advisory vote, right now in November. Completely alien moment for me, to be sure.

    I do not think a project needs to be rammed through right now. There is no rush.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Hound: On your first post, my belief is that Woodland would not want to incur huge additional expenses for the wont of a few months.

    On your second post, I don’t believe is a two-thirds vote requirement.

  8. Michael Harrington

    The JPA/water gang have a real dilemma: they lost the “let’s put something vauge on the November ballot using builders union and developer donations to pay for the rush campaign, because we can bambozzle the voters with our campaign money”.

    Now it has to be specific.

    But they dont have anything specific to talk about, other than the JPA/Woodland disaster plant that is overpriced and not needed. If they put that one on the ballot, I am confident the voters will knock it down.

    I know the WAC has been working really hard, with the City responding slowly to requests for data and reports, and I just dont see how staff and the WAC can come up with an alternative, reasonable and specific project WITH BINDING RATES in time for the November ballot.

    Again, the water gang, and the same CC members who gave us the Sept 6 fraudulent rates, are going to try to dump onto the November ballot an ill-conceived project and rates that simply have to be sky-high to pay for what Souza and Saylor having been trying to dump on us for years.

  9. Matt Williams

    Michael Harrington said . . .

    [i]”Matt: you took my simple email thanking you and ERM for the 6/4 vote to recommend a binding ballot measure at some time, to be my signing on to a November ballot; I did not do that. If you want to quote me again, please check with me. Thank you.”[/i]

    Michael, go back and reread what I said. I did not in any way say or imply that you were “signing on to a November ballot.” In fact I specifically added a caution after your quote that pointed out that your satisfaction with the Thursday night vote was subject to change at any moment. Further, I did check in with you. We exchanged 20 e-mails (10 from you and 10 from me) on Friday and Saturday and never once did you raise concerns about my quoting of you in the article. You’ve never been bashful about raising concerns before, what is it about the following that is either problematic or not accurate?

    [i][b]”It is useful to put Thursday night’s WAC recommendation the perspective of the 2011 referendum. In e-mails to individual WAC members after Thursday night’s decision, Michael Harrington said, “I thought [the] comments last night were really good […] the WAC voted to give the voters something tangible to approve or not. […] Thank you for that vote.”

    There’s an old expression there’s “many a slip between the cup and the lip,” and between now and November there may be details of the process as outlined by the WAC that cause Mr. Harrington and others to be less positive about the ballot , but I believe the WAC is moving in the right direction and 100% committed to doing what is necessary to make sure that the process works smoothly, transparently and inclusively.”[/i][/b]

    after the

  10. Matt Williams

    Michael Harrington said . . .

    [i]”I know the WAC has been working really hard, with the City responding slowly to requests for data and reports, and I just dont see how staff and the WAC can come up with an alternative, reasonable and specific project WITH BINDING RATES in time for the November ballot.”[/i]

    Michael, I realize that is your opinion, but have you looked at the WAC’s Long Range Calendar before coming to that opinion? I personally don’t see any reason why the WAC and the Council can not come up with, approve and publish a Prop 218 notice with specific binding rates and specific costs for the underlying conjunctive use water system by late September. If the Prop 218 information is available to all Davis voters then, there will be several weeks to conduct community workshops and community dialogue on both the rates and the costs well in advance of the date for submission of completed ballots by mail. Further, all during the month of October there is opportunity for more workshops and dialogue leading up to the Tuesday, November 6, 2012 Election Day.

    Bottom-line, there will be no rush.

  11. Matt Williams

    newshoundpm said . . .

    [i]”For the record, I generally think that binding votes on such issues are problematic, particularly when issues are complex and the issue is dynamic. If new information arises, even if compelling to a majority of the voters, the City Council cannot move contrary to a successful binding vote.”[/i]

    newshound, I tend to agree with your thought about binding votes; however, in this case the vote’s parameters are so proscribed that the issues are not either complex or dynamic. The voters will be asked to simply say Yes or No to approving the specific rates published in the Prop 218 notice. There is plenty of complexity underlying those rates, but the rates will be really quite simple.

  12. E Roberts Musser

    The decision whether the vote should be advisory or binding was very close – 6 to 4. That is because each side of that vote had very valid and understandable concerns. There is no one “right way” to do things. It seems obvious to most logical thinking people that there are a number of paths one can take that lead to any particular destination. That doesn’t make any specific path the “right” or “wrong” one, they are just different paths towards the same goal.

    However, the vote on whether to have the vote in November or April was virtually unanimous (one abstention), and for very good reason. If the WAC had voted to delay in making a decision until April, it could have precipitated action from Woodland that would have taken possible surface water options off the table. Why do that if the WAC can obtain sufficient information in time for a November ballot?

  13. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Woodland is on a different timeline from Davis, as you and others have acknowledged. Frankly, given all of the history up to this point, I would argue that Woodland would be foolish to rely upon Davis to be on board in April if they aren’t on board in November. I don’t know what Woodland’s timeframe is, and you might do a service to your readers to investigate and report on what it is. Perhaps what Woodland will do is proceed as if Davis is not going to participate, and then look to see whether it makes sense to allow Davis to participate in the future and under what terms.[/quote]

    This is precisely the point – Woodland is on a different time frame than Davis. It is my understanding Woodland is currently out of compliance w their wastewater discharge permit, and paying fines as we speak. Those fines could go considerably higher if Woodland doesn’t get started on a surface water project as proposed. A decision must be made as to whether to spend millions of dollars on whether to fill in the Woodland water treatment facility site, a critical path item, by Aug 21. Woodland has little choice but to go it alone if Davis fails to make a decision in time for a November ballot. And once Woodland decides to go it alone, it considerably changes the landscape in terms of options for Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento.

  14. Siegel

    As chair Elaine has to strike the conciliatory moderate note, but there is a right and wrong answer here. The wrong answer for elaine who wants this past with no hitches is to avoid doing things to causes hitches. The biggest hitch would have been competing ballot measures. When ballot measures compete, they both lose 9 times out of 10.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]I think putting this on the November ballot is too soon. There is no water emergency; Woodland’s problems are not ours; there is an argument that the ranch water we already purchased is enough to supply Davis for the foreseeable future. Any new big project as the CC majority is currently pushing is all about water for growth and sprawl, not about our current residents and rate payers. [/quote]

    It would seem not a single WAC member agrees w your position, and the WAC has taken the time and trouble to get itself very educated on all the issues surrounding the surface water project as proposed and anything even remotely relating to it.

  16. Siegel

    Elaine: I would caution you against sinking into that arrogant mindset. After all you could argue that the city was in a similar position last year and yet as we all know, they screwed things up. You just because you studied the issue, doesn’t mean you have it right.

  17. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Let me assure the public: the JPA and a big project with Woodland is ALL about growth, and would use YOUR ratepayer money to provide water to those large exterior parcels, leading to billions of dollars in property value increases to those parcels that would have access to the water plant water.[/quote]

    Let me assure the public – a surface water project is all about new and stringent federal and state regulations coming down the pike. One can argue whether such standards are fair or not, but nevertheless they are coming, like it or not…

  18. Siegel

    Actually I think both Elaine and Michael Harrington are right. For people like Elaine, it’s about the regulations. For others it’s about the ability to have sufficient water to develop. As Elaine would say, there is no wrong and or right answer because different people have different motivations.

  19. newshoundpm

    Matt: Upon thinking a bit more thoughtfully about the structure of the combination of the electorate vote and the 218 vote, I think I agree with you that perhaps there is not too much given up by doing it this way and perhaps a great deal gained in terms of perceived transparency and commmunity support for the overall process. Since the 218 vote has to be done regardless, I guess my concern was more form than substance in retrospect.

  20. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Actually I think both Elaine and Michael Harrington are right. For people like Elaine, it’s about the regulations. For others it’s about the ability to have sufficient water to develop. As Elaine would say, there is no wrong and or right answer because different people have different motivations.[/quote]

    It always comes down to a risk/benefit/cost analysis, and there are no easy answers. Nor are there necessarily “right” or “wrong” answers, so much as there are different answers. What I do think one thing everyone has in common is they want the best possible project that is affordable for citizens. However “best” and “affordable” are highly subjective terms, and it depends on the eye of the beholder. This is what makes this process so difficult.

    I was quite comfortable with the split decision for an advisory vs binding vote. I was very torn in making my decision for a binding vote. Both sides had very compelling reasons for their stance on that particular issue. However, the issue of when to put the matter on the ballot was much more clear cut, once the WAC determined that no less than full disclosure to the public on the specifics of the project would be necessary. Putting the ballot measure off until April would have unnecessarily closed off options to no good purpose, which made no sense. This virtually all WAC members could agree on…

    However, make no mistake. There is one reason, and one reason only that the city is doing a surface water project – new and more stringent federal and state drinking water/wastewater quality regulations. If the regulations had remained the same over the next 30 years, it is highly doubtful the city would have contemplated a new surface water project of this magnitude and cost…

    [quote]As chair Elaine has to strike the conciliatory moderate note, but there is a right and wrong answer here. The wrong answer for elaine who wants this past with no hitches is to avoid doing things to causes hitches. The biggest hitch would have been competing ballot measures. When ballot measures compete, they both lose 9 times out of 10.[/quote]

    I’m not following you here…

  21. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Elaine: I would caution you against sinking into that arrogant mindset. After all you could argue that the city was in a similar position last year and yet as we all know, they screwed things up. You just because you studied the issue, doesn’t mean you have it right.[/quote]

    What arrogant mindset? That we should place the issue of which surface water project on the November ballot provided there is sufficient information to make an informed and reasoned decision? I don’t think that is an arrogant mindset – it is simple logic.

    We don’t know anything of the sort, in regard to whether the city “screwed things up”. Had the surface water project as proposed moved forward, how would that be a “wrong” answer? We would have had an expensive project w all the bells and whistles, and plenty of water. It would have been a “choice”, nothing more, nothing less.

    That is what makes this process so difficult – there are no “right” or “wrong” answers necessarily, but tradeoffs, risks, benefits, costs. As one expert told us, build as much as the city can afford, just make sure to leave room for future expansion if the city needs it. So the more difficult question becomes what can the city “afford”? Even now the answer to that question is not clear to me personally. I know many members of the WAC are wrestling w that same question.

    And as another expert said, no matter what decision the city comes to, it will probably be “wrong” for some reason. No one has a crystal ball. Not you, not me, not Mr. Harrington. Even when we make a choice as to which project, how will we know another project might have been better or worse? Some things are just not knowable. This is why I am not comfortable casting things on water issues as “right” or “wrong” or in relative absolutes.

    I do think there were reasons for putting off the vote until April, but they were far outweighed by reasons for trying to stick to November, provided all the necessary information as to specifics is available. This is not an issue of “getting things passed without hitches”. It is a matter of looking at all the alternatives, and hopefully coming to agreement as to what the best alternative is for the city and its citizens. But there are many competing interests, motivations, ability to pay, etc. All these factors have to be taken into consideration. It is entirely possible and expected that upcoming future votes may not be unanimous…

  22. Michael Harrington

    Been out looking at wrecked airplanes all day, and I come back to mostly the same comments I heard during the drive to gather referendum signatures. Sigh.

  23. hpierce

    Mr Harrington… many of us understand that you would like the city to study the issue, fully analyze all the options, and, perhaps, put a measure to a vote in November… of 2135.

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