Sunday Commentary: Exploiting Council’s Communications Flaws

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At City Council’s retreat last August, the council directed staff to increase public communication outreach and formalize protocol on legislative matters.  This week, the council will begin the task of evaluating the city’s communications actions to date – an effort that is long overdue.

The Staff Report states, “Staff is developing a communication strategy to efficiently and effectively manage public outreach. The City Manager established a Communication Officer to oversee and coordinate the city’s public outreach activities, including media relations, with the goal of providing accurate and timely [and consistent] information to a wide array of stake holders and to increase civic participation.” [NOTE: The Vanguard believes the two words added in the brackets are necessary and important additions to this strategy]

The recent election gives us an opportunity to evaluate this communications strategy in a real life situation, specifically the extended email exchanges with a Davis Enterprise columnist, which show us the pitfalls of this communications strategy when anyone is attempting to bait and manipulate the city into missteps and misstatements.

In last week’s article Genealogy of a Dunning Water Column, we showed one critical example of how the columnist Bob Dunning used communications with staff and council members, often lifted well out of context, to paint a negative picture of the city and their water project.

In that example, Mr. Dunning directly presented a deceptive question to council, and then jumped on them when they followed a communications protocol, deferring to staff and failing to produce the answer he desired. That example is not alone – a second example, consisting of a series of Rancho Yolo communications, illuminates a similar threat to the city and the public.

In his approach in both examples, Mr. Dunning takes advantage of the council’s overall accessibility and willingness to engage with the public and the press. The public right now has remarkable access to the Davis City Councilmembers because members of the council are readily available to and willing to communicate, either via email, in person or on the phone.

The second example began when Jerry Hallee, President of Rancho Yolo, approached Dianna Jensen, Principal Water Engineer, with questions about the Rancho Yolo water rates. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, while the questions appeared to be simple, the answers to them were anything but simple.

After an eight-day back and forth e-mail discussion that did not give Mr. Hallee an answer from Ms. Jensen that satisfied him, Mr. Hallee then wrote to Councilmembers Brett Lee and Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk, seeking clarification on the Rancho Yolo water rate structure as follows, “Dear Dan and Brett: I need your help. I have asked the Water Advisory Committee Chair Elaine Musser and Principal Engineer Dianna Jensen to explain why Rancho Yolo homeowners will be paying $1.81 per ccf when other Davis homeowners will be paying $1.23 per ccf. The string of emails below will show that I have yet to receive a response that properly explains the rationale used.”

To their credit, the councilmembers followed protocol, and forwarded Mr. Hallee’s e-mail to city staff, which resulted in a response written by Herb Niederberger, the city’s General Manager of Utilities that frustrated Mr. Hallee immensely, prompting him to write, in an e-mail dated February 13, 2013, “It is no wonder the City Council members and City Manager do not understand the rate structure. I have a headache from reading this explanation. […] I have not yet sent the latest emails to Bob Dunning and Debbie Davis, but I am definitely thinking about doing that.”

As we now know, again with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, one of the major reasons for the fact that Rancho Yolo is treated like an apartment is that it is actually plumbed like an apartment, but that was a level of technical information that the city councilmembers, while perhaps understanding the basics of the rate structure, were unlikely to know.  So they followed protocol.  Eventually, the city would be able to work its way through the questions and come up with an answer, but that took some time.

Let me digress from the narrative at this point for a moment to observe that what this second example shows is that “direct[ing] staff to increase public communication outreach and formalize protocol …” is not enough by itself to “efficiently and effectively manage public outreach.” Council followed the formalized protocol and referred the questions to staff, but no one appears to have then reached back out to Mr. Hallee to manage his expectations about when and how he was going to get an answer to his questions.

As a result, Mr. Hallee made good on his e-mail thought and forwarded the emails to Bob Dunning, who, followed a journalistic path that was less concerned with confirming any of the specific rate information (Mr. Dunning adamantly denies speaking to either Mr. Niederberger or Mr. Pinkerton about this matter) and more concerned about making the council and city look bad, specifically by recasting the initial comments from council as a further demonstration of council’s lack of understanding of the water rate structures they had adopted.

Wrote Mr. Dunning:

“Jerry Hallee, who serves as president of the Rancho Yolo Community Association, sought answers from the City Council to his group’s singularly dramatic rate increase … the responses were not encouraging … Councilman Brett Lee was stumped, but at least straightforward … “To be honest, I don’t really know why there is a difference,” Lee told Hallee … Councilman Lucas Frerichs was even more blunt … “This change in rates is quite alarming to me,” Frerichs noted … what’s alarming is that none of the council members who voted 5-0 to impose these rates on Rancho Yolo could explain the basis of the increase or why they voted for something they find so alarming in the first place … Mayor Joe Krovoza did allow that he “will be pleased to take a very hard look at this,” without explaining why the “hard look” wasn’t done prior to the unanimous vote imposing the rates … “.”

So, the quickly-written and honest answers to Mr. Hallee about his concerns, which council did not even recognize would be published in a newspaper, end up becoming fodder for Mr. Dunning’s attack on both the water project and their personal integrity..

Eventually in his column, Mr. Dunning allows, “to their credit, our council members did, of course, promise the Rancho Yolo folks that they’d refer it to ‘staff’ promptly and see if one of our well-paid ‘experts’ could come up with some sort of explanation.”

As though this were not enough, Mr. Dunning uses this exchange once again, writing:

“The thing that struck me most about last week’s troubling story concerning the water rates the good folks in the Rancho Yolo Senior Community will be paying compared to the rest of homeowners in town was how utterly incapable council members were of explaining the rates to those directly affected … while council members were polite and generally responsive, the best any of them could offer to the Rancho Yolo Community was ‘let me check with staff and get back to you.’ “

This is, of course, what led us to the question we had at the time Mr. Dunning was writing all of this.  It is one thing for the council to understand and approve the basic structure of  water rates and how the components of those rates are derived, it is another for them to – on the spot, without the consultation of the city’s experts –  understand the particulars, complex and site-specific, about how it worked at an individual site like Rancho Yolo.

In the absence of anyone communicating with Mr. Hallee to manage his expectations about when and how he was going to get an answer to his questions, the responses by the various members of the Davis City Council played right into the hands of Mr. Dunning, who used a variety of techniques to keep the councilmembers and staff off-balance and waited for the right moment to pounce.

In fact, Mr. Dunning, as we cited, well before he wrote the initial Rancho Yolo column on February 21 and the follow up on February 26, had lengthy email exchanges with Brett Lee and Mayor Joe Krovoza that showed they understood the basics of the proposed water rates and were able to articulate that understanding in some depth and detail.

The problem, from his perspective, was that their answers did not conform to his personal view of what was wrong with the rates.  None of this was explained to the public in either of the columns in question.  As a result, we were all treated to another chapter of gottcha journalism.

The question, from the city’s perspective, is what can be learned from these exchanges.   Absent effective expectation management, the city was in an unwinnable situation.  However, with effective expectation management in place, Herb Niederberger’s initial response to Jerry Hallee would not have been rushed, and it would have been reviewed (and probably edited) so that Mr. Hallee would not have said after he read it, “I have a headache from reading this explanation.”

The lesson here appears to be that no single strategy will suffice when receiving citizen questions.  Each one will have its own characteristics, and the key to “efficiently and effectively manage public outreach” is to both have a protocol and set appropriate expectations.  Further, it is clear that responding prematurely can lead to wrongful conclusions.

Expectation management will also help in situations where the issue isn’t a citizen question.  For example, the city clearly waited far too long when facing the lawsuit to address the issue of non-payment.  In the heart of an election, ten days is an eternity. Effective expectation management would have resulted in a far more timely response.  Waiting too long can allow a message to get traction to the point where news stories and editorials, endorsing the water project, end up repeating the claim that the city did not pay for its water use simply because it is an unanswered question – when in fact the reality was far more complex.

When one side is attempting to play fast and loose, and catch the council in their unmentionables, perhaps mistakes are unavoidable.  Certainly the councilmembers understood full well that their answers were on the record when they emailed Bob Dunning.

However, what the Jerry Hallee exchange demonstrates is that, whether it is a citizen who forwards their response or the watchdog who files a public records request, every time a councilmember hits send, they are in effect on the record and should treat the information as such.  So it was a protocol mistake for Lucas Frerichs to respond that the information was “alarming” before getting the facts from city staff just as it was a protocol mistake for Dan Wolk to forward entire email exchanges, and with his folksy and seemingly innocuous, “good question.”

Of the councilmembers, only Rochelle Swanson kept herself out of trouble by stating to Mr. Hallee that, rather than providing an immediate comment/answer, she needed to wait for the data from staff.  She also acknowledged that she knew that Mr. Hallee was already working with staff.

Should the city have a standard answer that 1) acknowledges the question and 2) sets the expectation of how long it will be before a response will be forthcoming?

The city could develop protocols for how to respond to highly technical questions that councilmembers probably cannot readily answer off the top of their heads.  That approach would be to acknowledge the question, suggest that a staff member will assist them, and set an expectation on how long it will take for the response to occur.

Councilmembers and staff should avoid using exclamatory phrases like “that’s alarming” or “I’m puzzled” or even “good question” because those can be pulled out of context and used to suggest that councilmembers or staff are ignorant about the issue.

City staff is looking to modernize the city’s communications system – something that they are badly in need of doing – but at the same time they need protocols for responding to the public and responding to press inquiries.

These protocols should be “human,” not an auto-generated response, and should give the city time to ensure that the answers they provide are well-considered and accurate, as well as understood by the people involved in the dialogue.

The city would also be wise to consider developing a FAQ (frequently asked questions) document on the city website that would allow all parties to access it when questions arise.

It would be a shame if the councilmembers had to curtail or limit their communications with members of the public.  But imagine from their perspective what would have happened had Measure I gone down and one of the clear reasons was Dunning’s series of columns?  While Measure I may suggest the highest stakes, from their perspective, the risk runs deep regardless of the issue.

—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 Comment

  1. medwoman

    Communication between CC members, city staff and the community is certainly one part of the issue.
    I think there is another part that is equally as important. The question for me is : “What do we really expect from our CC members ? ”

    Do we expect them to be 1) representatives of our community ? 2) civic leaders ? 3) engaged in analysis and advocacy for public policy ? 4) subject matter experts ?

    I would propose that the first three are clearly within the realm of the current CC. But if we also anticipate that they will become subject matter experts, with facts of the details of all areas of city functioning at their fingertips, I would say that we would need to be willing to make these full time, well compensated positions, with attractive benefits.
    I have not seen advocacy for this kind of job description and compensation change, and might even predict that some of those who have been critical of the CC for not having information at their fingertips, would be the strongest opponents of spending public monies on increasing their compensation packages.

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