Commentary: Trust, Local Government, and Water Glasses

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the-truth-1

There are a couple of questions I have been asked a number of times over the last few months.  One is the degree to which I trust various public entities and second, whether I view the water glass as half full or half empty.

I want to start with the trust issue.  President Ronald Reagan developed a phrase as relations improved with the Soviets in the mid-1980s, trust but verify.

Trust is actually a very complex term.  There are different components.  There are one’s intentions – do I trust one to attempt to do the right thing?  There are also outcomes – do I trust one to accomplish the outcome that they say they seek?  Those are two different matters.

Within the city context, we need to examine the term “trust” within the context of the two huge issues that loom over us, water and budget.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I did not trust the Water Advisory Committee (WAC).  I realize now that this was a too simplistic and ultimately unfair indictment.  I think that statement requires fleshing out.

I believe that the WAC has done a tremendous job of evaluating a very complex situation under very difficult circumstances.

On the other hand, we had to pressure the WAC to make the meetings more public by televising them.  That would not have happened automatically, and certainly not without public pressure on both the WAC and the council.

Furthermore a few weeks ago they had voted unanimously for a November water referendum.  We learned later it was more a compromise vote than the final margin suggested.  We also quickly figured out that the timeline to get a measure on the November was impossibly tight and ultimately the WAC changed the timeline.

So how does this relate to trust?  Trust is not a blank check.  It is not synonymous with the term “faith.”   On the one hand, we define faith as “confidence or trust in a person or thing.”  But on the other hand, we have to add for common meaning, “belief that is not based on proof.”

To President Reagan’s “trust but verify,” we add “trust but verify, scrutinize, and pressure.”

Along the same tokens, we believe that the current city council and even the immediate past city council are far superior to the 2006 to 2010 predecessor.  On the other hand, this council blindly passed ZipCars, erroneously installed water rates without a rate study or sufficient and effective public outreach, and failed to actually achieve its $2.5 million personnel cuts.

What we see here are a few factors in trust.  We believe that this council intends to do the right thing and has intended to fix past problems.

Toward that end, they have twice passed sweeping budget reforms.  And when the water process broke down last fall, they tore it down and have almost rebuilt it from scratch, even now at the risk of the joint Woodland-Davis water project.

Some will argue they have not gone far enough on either.

But there are critical points that should be raised here with regard to trust.  Good intentions are not always sufficient to produce good outcomes.  Good people make errors in judgment.  Good people make mistakes.  Good people sometimes support the wrong process or the wrong project.

In short, we trust that the council intends to do the right things, but we also have to acknowledge that these are incredibly complex situations.  The budget itself relies not only passing the right policies but getting other stakeholders to agree with them, and if they do not, to legally be able to temporarily impose a new contract that will work.

So to answer the question: do we trust the council?  We trust that the council has good intentions, which is something we have questioned in the past.  We believe that the council faces real challenges both on water and the budget, and that means that all choices need to be scrutinized and at times criticized.

We can celebrate achievements, at the same time acknowledging that we are not even halfway through the book – a book that has yet to be completed.

Moving on from trust to water glasses.  It is odd that our culture has become so fixated on whether the glass is half full or half empty to determine whether people are optimistic or pessimistic.

First of all, I think it is a stretch to discuss optimism and pessimistism as though the terms were complete opposites.  I think it is less a dichotomy than a continuum.

When I was young, there was a sermon by my Rabbi in which he discussed his optimism, but he saw optimism quite differently, as a cup of potential and that the optimist looks at the cup as an opportunity and goal that needs to be built up and fulfilled rather than simply looking at it as a finished product that either is half full or half empty.

That definition stuck with me because I do not fit into a dichotomous mold of optimism or pessimism.  First of all, it is situational.  Second of all, I do not see the terms nearly as antitheses as others do.

I believe in the potential of humanity to overcome its obstacles but at the same time I believe we face daunting obstacles that we often try to whitewash because the task is so overwhelming.

Putting it another way, one of the reasons why I think my view is dim is that pointing out the problems that we face forces us to deal with those problems.  Ignoring the problems we face allows us to avoid them, and makes the problems worse.

The Vanguard was initially described to this community as a “vivid description of the dark underbelly of the People’s Republic of Davis.”  That sentence has been a remarkably prescient statement of what the Vanguard was on July 30, 2006 and what it remains, as we are just days short of our sixth year anniversary.

The idea of the Vanguard was to provide that description, shine a light on the problems that we have ignored, and have faith that this community, once recognizing those problems, will step up and solve them.

You can view that as a negative and pessimistic vision or you can see that as the positive vision that my Rabbi laid out years ago, where we are looking at the potential of the community and demanding that it live up to its creed, its promise and its potential.

Martin Luther King, in his I have a dream speech, indeed had a positive dream that he fought to make a reality, urging the country to live up to the values and ideals that it was founded on.

But in order to lay out that vision, he had to have an understanding of the dark reality.  He spoke of the promissory note that was returned, marked insufficient funds.

In short, whether you view this glass as half empty or half full depends upon whether you believe that our goal is to describe things as they are and ask why, or describe things that never were and ask why not.

No matter how enticing that notion is, without a common understanding of the underlying problems, it is difficult to address them.  For too long in this community, we buried our head in the sand and believed people who could speak in calm voices and assure us that everything would be okay, that there was nothing to fear.

The reality is that sometimes the calmest voice in the room is dead wrong.  Sometimes the person shrieking is the voice of reason.  Sometimes the man shining the lantern is the truth-seeker and sometimes the truth is that the emperor really has no clothes.

And sometimes you have to hit people over the head, over and over again, until it finally sinks in.

Is optimism believing the best of the current situation or believing you can change the world by getting people to acknowledge the flaws of the present?

—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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14 thoughts on “Commentary: Trust, Local Government, and Water Glasses”

  1. Michael Harrington

    Like I have said, we had to make a lot of noise to halt the bogus rates last fall. We are continuing to assist the public process going forward. This is our “Plan B” after the CC’s repeal on December 6th of those rates.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]To President Reagan’s “trust but verify,” we add “trust but verify, scrutinize, and pressure.”[/quote]

    Pressure? Pressure to do things a certain way based on the Vanguard’s world view? Help me to understand what is meant by “pressure”…

    [quote]Putting it another way, one of the reasons why I think my view is dim is that pointing out the problems that we face forces us to deal with those problems. Ignoring the problems we face allows us to avoid them, and makes the problems worse.[/quote]

    I would respectfully suggest your view seems to be “dim” because you are fixating on problems, instead of concentrating more on proposing solutions and engaging in the art of persuasion to push for those solutions. However, you have to accept that your views may not mesh with what others think about an issue and be willing to compromise…

    [quote]The idea of the Vanguard was to provide that description, shine a light on the problems that we have ignored, and have faith that this community, once recognizing those problems, will step up and solve them.[/quote]

    A laudable goal to be sure. But it seems as if the Vanguard has become more agenda driven, and less investigative…

  3. David M. Greenwald

    “Pressure? Pressure to do things a certain way based on the Vanguard’s world view? Help me to understand what is meant by “pressure”… “

    The Vanguard supports open government and fair a process. That is the vanguard’s world view as you put it.

    “I would respectfully suggest your view seems to be “dim” because you are fixating on problems, instead of concentrating more on proposing solutions and engaging in the art of persuasion to push for those solutions. However, you have to accept that your views may not mesh with what others think about an issue and be willing to compromise… “

    That’s why I don’t focus on solutions. Reasonable people can differ on the outcome. I focus on what is the problem and what should the process be to address that problem.

    “A laudable goal to be sure. But it seems as if the Vanguard has become more agenda driven, and less investigative… “

    How so?

  4. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]In short, whether you view this glass as half empty or half full depends upon whether you believe that our goal is to describe things as they are and ask why, or describe things that never were and ask why not.[/quote]

    If one sees the glass as half full, s/he can see things as they are and ask why, but also firmly believe the glass has the potential to be filled to the brim in the future if the right conditions are met. The one who sees the glass half empty can see things as they are and ask why, but is convinced something is going to come along and cause a drain in the rest of the glass in the future. The difference is the focus – is the focus one of hope or one of despair?

    [quote]And sometimes you have to hit people over the head, over and over again, until it finally sinks in.[/quote]

    Is it that people have to be “hit over the head”; or is it a failure of the persuader to persuade?

    [quote]Is optimism believing the best of the current situation or believing you can change the world by getting people to acknowledge the flaws of the present?[/quote]

    Optimism is the firm belief that anything is possible, even in the face of devastation; the ability to find happiness in the little things in life despite all of life’s difficulties; not dwelling on the negative, but acknowledging the negative and be determined to overcome… Persistence and determination that solutions are achievable and somewhere around that next corner…

  5. E Roberts Musser

    I had to reprint this from David Suder – it was just too good to pass up. He was addressing the issue of using metaphors of the glass half full or empty in terms of the city budget. Here was his offer of a more apt metaphor – I couldn’t stop laughing – thanks for making my morning David:

    [quote]The Davis ship has had a hole in the bottom for a long time. Captains Asmundson and Saylor, and First Mate Emlen denied the existence of the hole (as water level in the cabin rose to their knees) and then jumped ship. Seeing the ship sinking, Captain RoJo and new First Mate Pinkie came aboard to save it. They’ve located the hole and started bailing the water out. Unfortunately, water is still rushing in faster than they are bailing. Until the hole is repaired or they get a much bigger pump, the ship is still sinking.[/quote]

  6. Mark West

    David Greewald: “[i]That’s why I don’t focus on solutions. Reasonable people can differ on the outcome. I focus on what is the problem and what should the process be to address that problem.[/i]”

    So your approach then is to whine until someone else comes along and fixes the problem to your satisfaction, but since you won’t say what exactly will satisfy you, you just bitch some more about any proposed solutions. Do I have that right? And how exactly is that working to better the community?

    Complaining is easy. The hard work comes with offering ideas, collaborating and compromising to find solutions, and then implementing. The people doing that work are the ones striving to better the community, not the complainers and obstructionists.

  7. Frankly

    I think Mark makes an excellent point… and one that, I think, should be elevated in our discourse related to our fiscal and social problems.

    Certainly you can take the, frankly, easier path of being only a critic. But I don’t think a person earns much respect for doing so… unless you are Derrick Bang.

    How much progress would a football team make only playing defense?

    Critics, except those like Derrick Bang – trained in the domain of expertise that they criticize – are really a dime a dozen. It is a risk-free endeavor (can’t ever be pinned for doing the wrong thing) and useless at some point unless the goal is to never fix anything.

    There is that principle: “lead, follow or get out of the way”.

    In my view, there should be a statute of limitations for criticism of an idea, after which we should move to problem-solving refining that idea, or coming up with competing ideas.

  8. medwoman

    Jeff

    [quote]There is that principle: “lead, follow or get out of the way”.
    [/quote]

    All principles have their limitations and exceptions. What came to mind for me are lemmings !

  9. medwoman

    More seriously, I think that there is a tendency to want to simplify and categorize that does not capture the nuances of differing points of view and the value of a variety of societal roles.

    I think it is possible to point out flaws and errors without your comments being labelled as “whining”.

    It is possible and often constructive to point out the errors and flaws well before you have come to any conclusion about what a good solution might be. For example, you don’t have to be an arson expert or fireman to point out that a building is on fire. Sometimes it is enough to sound the alarm.

    Sometimes one can see how a solution from one field of study might have applications in another but not know the details outside ones area of expertise to know how best to implement in that field.
    An example of which I am well aware. The checklist. Airlines had been using them for years and probably could have told us how to run our ORs and hospitals more safely from the outside. But would we have listened? It took Atul Gawande and like minded individuals, paying attention, and adopting practices from the outside to our discipline to implement the checklist which has improved our performance dramatically.

    I think that there is value in reporting clearly, concisely, and forcefully on problems, whether or not one has proposed solutions, and also in expressing appreciation when something is improving visibly.

    And, on a lighter note, seriously folks, is it not basic human nature to complain and present the negatives when things do not appear to be going our way, and to celebrate when they are ? Has not every poster here done precisely that ? Surely we are not suggesting that the Vanguard should be exempt from human nature.

  10. Frankly

    [i]That’s why I don’t focus on solutions. Reasonable people can differ on the outcome. I focus on what is the problem and what should the process be to address that problem.”[/i]

    That is a definition of a mediator. I don’t think it works to be both an agitator AND a mediator.

  11. Mark West

    Medwoman: [i]”I think that there is value in reporting clearly, concisely, and forcefully on problems, whether or not one has proposed solutions, and also in expressing appreciation when something is improving visibly.” [/i]

    I agree, but David is not a reporter. He does not report what other people say and do, he opines about it, and in the process often ‘reinterprets’ their words and actions to fit his argument.
    I think David has a unique insight into what is going on around town and he clearly has the intelligence to come up with viable solutions to our problems if he chose to. Unfortunately, instead of working to solve our collective problems he has chosen to sit on the sidelines and criticize others. Complaining alone, without offering an alternative vision, is not working to solve problems, it is acting to block solutions. There is great value to society in pointing out where we need to improve, but using the memory of Martin Luther King to try to justify sitting on the fence and kibitzing is patently absurd.

  12. concernedcitizen

    Wow, lots of criticism of David Greenwald’s reporting. It kind of fascinates me. He must be offering something of value as all the posters above this comment are [i]very[/i] involved in almost every thread.

    Maybe we should take our own advice and instead of just criticizing David’s articles, we pose some creative, positive stories he can follow or report on. There’s a lot of great things happening in Davis in response to the problems faced by the city… Open Door Art Studios which is seeking to revitalized the Court-N-Cedar area, Mosaic Tea & Coffee which is seeking to provide job training for adults w/ disabilities and institute a “gift economy,” Davis Roots which is seeking to be an incubator, and even a group exploring Crowdsourced Placemaking to revitalize downtown.

    [b]So, I’d like to throw this out as a challenge to Davis… write a positive story about one of these ventures[/b] (and I’m sure there’s others out there).

    @David Greenwald: you asked in a previous thread about engagement w/ the Vanguard. It just dawned on me that maybe adding a new component to your posts, ones that focuses on the creative response to problems in Davis, might engage new populations/readers.

  13. Lydia L.

    “The reality is that sometimes the calmest voice in the room is dead wrong. Sometimes the person shrieking is the voice of reason. Sometimes the man shining the lantern is the truth-seeker and sometimes the truth is that the emperor really has no clothes.”

    I really like these 3 sentences. Very well written.

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