For Vanguard regular readers, Robb Davis is a somewhat familiar figure having been a frequent commenter, a periodic contributor, and a former member of the Vanguard Editorial Board. When the Vanguard sat down with Mr. Davis, he stressed his role in the community on behalf of issues like restorative justice and the homeless.
However, for many in Davis, Robb Davis will be a new face who will have to introduce himself to the Davis community anew as they evaluate who is best to lead Davis in the future.
Robb Davis told the Vanguard that he is running for council because “I think we need people on council who are going to be able to take on the very very challenging fiscal issues … that means be very consistent, hold a firm line, put all of the options on the table, make clear decisions and communicate them very clearly to the population of the city.”
“I want to be part of that,” he stated. “I think where I am in my career, with the experiences I bring to the table, I can communicate clearly, I can certainly help make decisions, and listen to all of the people who have a concern, and understand their concerns…” Mr. Davis would add, “I’m not going to say that I’m going to be able to make everybody happy, because I know that I won’t.”
Robb Davis argued that he is “independent and not beholden to any group or individual.” He said, “I’m doing my own homework and reaching my own conclusions based on research and learning.”
The fiscal state of affairs is a critical issue for Robb Davis.
“I’m focusing on fiscal because this is going to require a high level of attention over a long period of time,” he said. “We got into our current situation over a period of time, it’s going to take a while to get out.”
Robb Davis believes his experience uniquely qualifies him to lead the city, noting that he has led non-profits, some of which had annual budgets in the $50 million range. He has also served on boards of a number of non-profit organizations.
“It has given me the perspective of both staff and management – an appreciation of how we move the vision of the organization forward and also how to provide the leadership that sets the policy parameters,” he stated. “I think those things translate. A city’s challenges are broader and perhaps more complex in their entirety than most individual organizations, but at the same time, they are the same issues.”
“One such issue is whether we have the revenue to deal with the current challenges that we need to deal with,” he said for example. “I think that my long experience over 25 years, much of it in a leadership role directly applies to that key challenge the city is facing right now.”
“I’ve been involved in community based development my whole career,” he said. “I’m talking about grassroots stuff, where I would sit with community members, help them to define their own vision for the community, and work with them about how they are going to put it into place.”
“I think that diverse experience has taught me a great deal about listening to people, about balancing multiple needs, about understanding about how power is wielded in a community,” Mr. Davis said. “I’m not naïve about how power is wielded. That’s important, because there are different power centers in a complex organization like our city, and we need to be able to understand that and we need to be able to make decisions within that.”
Accountability and Trust is another critical issue for Robb Davis.
A third point he raised with regards to his experience is that, “I have worked my whole career in assessing progress.” By this he means, “Assessing progress of staff towards the ends that they’re supposed to be achieving. Assessing progress towards achieving the goals of an organization. Using metric and defining the metrics we need to assess progress.”
“That’s critical because I think we have a deficit of trust right now at the level of the city,” he said. “There are many reasons for that. One of the things that we need to be able to do going forward is really lay out the evidence that we have for the decisions we’re making. We need to use evidence-based approaches. We need to be transparent about how we’re assessing progress towards our goals and whether we’re reaching them or not.”
He argues that this is what he’s done in his career. “My career and my experiences over time have taught me to be… have given me the skills I need to help lead in a variety of critical areas in the city,” he added.
“The big issue, and a lot flows from it… is the fiscal situation,” he said. He said a lot of these things are finally out on the table, but at the same time, “We’re moving and we must move towards solutions. If we’re going to get something on the ballot in June, to deal with the revenue challenges and address the structural imbalance that we have this year, we need to move and I understand that.”
“I do have a bit of a concern that we haven’t fully defined the problem for people,” he said. “I think we’ve laid out the compensation challenges going forward.” However, he is concerned that we haven’t laid out everything as transparently as we could in the area of maintenance backlog. “We’ve done it for the roads, what about other maintenance backlogs? What about parks? What about city structures?”
“I really want to make sure that we’ve counted the cost,” he said. Robb Davis said that he wanted to see those infrastructure needs part of the budgeting process rather than dealt with in an “unmet needs” category that the city has often assigned it to in the past. “That will create the kind of transparency that we need going forward when we go to the population and say we need to deal with the problem, we’ve built a sense of trust.”
He told the Vanguard he is “regretfully supporting sales tax.” He thinks sales taxes are “regressive” and wants any tax we approve “to come with accountability actions.” He thinks a parcel tax will be required due to the roads backlog. He wants to make sure that we are not adding infrastructure, but rather maintaining existing infrastructure, and believes that in addition there are further cuts that are necessary.
“I guess it’s just a rhetorical device to say everything needs to be on the table, but I happen to believe that’s true,” Mr. Davis stated. “When I say everything that’s compensation, that’s staffing, that’s this big thing… economic development. The bottom line is there is no silver bullet, there is no one thing that we do…”
“All of these steps that we take,” he said, “There is not going to be a single thing that we’re able to do that’s going to solve it. Therefore, I’m focusing on putting everything on the table.”
Affordable Housing and Social Justice
“One area that I’m quite concerned about, and it’s the result really of the loss of our RDA is affordable housing,” he said. “With the loss of RDA, we lose a significant amount of money to expand affordable housing, but there’s also a danger over time that with that loss, that we don’t even retain what we have.”
One of the problems with the current situation is that it is an issue that we don’t control our destiny on, he said in terms of funding from the State. The old funding mechanism is now gone.
“Affordable housing needs to focus on denser multi-family units,” he said. “That’s the future that I see. I am very committed to not using peripheral land for housing, so we need to densify and we need to infill. I know that’s controversial but that’s the way it’s got to work.”
He is also concerned with the issue of people living with addictions and mental health issues that have generally not been traditionally treated or handled by city policies. These are services that have been handled by our county, but in recent years we have seen reductions.
“What I say, and why I think we as a city need to step up and do more in that regard,” he stated. “People that face those challenges… they do not live in the county. They live in our cities, they live here, they’re our neighbors. Increasingly, we’ve seen examples in our town of what long term, long term mental illness, can do in terms of violence.”
He also mentioned the impact of alcoholism and meth use, and how the combinations of these things “really cause people to do things that are not healthy for themselves and the community.”
He is not talking about new programs, but rather having the city play a larger role in coordinating activities among non-profit groups.
“I believe we can do that even in the midst of this fiscal situation since a lot of it is coordination and bringing people together,” Robb Davis pointed out.
“I feel like those collaborations are really possible because I see what we’ve done with Neighborhood Court,” which he said was a District Attorney, City, voluntary, public-private coordination. “What we’re doing is not only dealing with issues of criminality, but identifying systemic issues in the community,” he added.
Strengthening our relationship with the University.
A third area he identified, “I still in my heart believe we need to do more to build our relationship with the university.” We argued that we need to understand the differences between the university and the city of Davis. “We are a representative democracy that has a highly engaged populace. That means that our decision making process is not nimble, it’s always going to be fraught with challenges it’s going to be a go-slow – I wouldn’t want to change that.”
“The university needs to understand that,” he said. “We are not them. They are not a representative democracy (and) they have their own bureaucratic issues. But on certain issues they can turn on a dime, they can make decisions quickly.”
“The university needs something from us,” he said citing their need for incubator space and space for startups and spinoffs. The university also creates challenges that the city deals with whether it is alcohol problems in the downtown entertainment areas or parking issues.
Robb Davis considers himself an advocate for the preservation of farm and agricultural land, but he distinguishes himself from other people who hold similar views.
Robb’s views on Land Use and Economic Development
“I’m very very conservative in terms of developing peripheral land for uses that move it from agriculture to something else,” he said. But “I’m not zero growth.”
He differentiates himself from others, because he hears in their advocacy of limited growth the desire to keep Davis “the way it is” and “I want Davis to be small.” “I hear that and there’s a certain element of that that I agree with,” he said. “I think a compact city is a city that also can have a lower environmental impact in that we can bike and walk and use public transit.”
The reason for his view is that Davis sits on some of the best soil in the world. “This is a best-in-the-world natural resource,” he said. “Our class two soil is the envy of every other place I’ve ever been in the world.” He added, “Our class one soil, talk to farmer’s, they’ll say it’s unbelievable what the yields are on this land.”
He also noted that despite the drought, we have a very good water supply for the irrigation of the land unlike other parts of the valley.
“We are positioned both in our research sense and our production sense to do things that can’t be done in terms of food production of anywhere in the world, we have to shepherd that,” he said. He added, “There are some places where you have to say, this is what we do here.”
For Robb Davis, that means he has to favor densification of our downtown, infill, and talk about removing barriers to densification. “We’ve got to be much more efficient with our land use in every way within the city boundaries,” he said.
He said he does support the potential of developing the three properties named by the Innovation Park Task Force. He believes “that the sizes of those and locations of those are appropriate for our needs.”
Robb Davis noted that with the conservation easement going down on Mace 391, we have a limit on where we can develop past the Ramos-Bruner tract east of Mace. He said he is hearing from farmer’s who say, “It’s great farmland, but it’s bounded. You have to have something that can release the pressure.”
“I’m in favor of developing those areas for revenue generation, economic development,” he said. “Nishi I support because it’s really not appropriate for farming anymore given its location.”
Mr. Davis added, “The land by the hospital is really class four soil, it’s really not productive land.”
He is in favor of looking at those properties and seeing what kinds of proposals come up.
He acknowledged that the access concerns at Nishi are difficult ones. “My understanding is there is a concept of the tunnel under the railroad somewhere near the Mondavi Center.” He added that there is going to have to, he thinks, be an access at Richards and he is not sure what that will look like. He also noted the ongoing conversation about the Gateway project going into the downtown.
“Those things have to be solved,” he stated noting that he has yet to see concrete access plans. The council will start to address these issues as soon as next week when they get an update on the Nishi project.
Robb Davis said he does not favor peripheral retail development. He is supportive of the continued build out of the Target pads but would really like the city to focus on better developing and utilizing its neighborhood shopping centers. “It’s an issue of being more efficient with what we have,” he said.
He also sees the downtown as an undertapped resource, asking rhetorically, “Have we maximized the revenue generating potential of the downtown?” He said, “It’s not a dense downtown. The mixed use structures are successful. We need more of them. We need to go up.”
“All city councilmembers say we need to densify,” he said. “Then why isn’t it happening.” He recognizes fiscal limitations. “In a post-RDA world the challenge of redeveloping our downtown and making it denser are there. But what can we do to remove barriers and what can we do to spur current property owners here to go in the direction of creating density.”
He said that we have to have housing here, “I think the future is a mixed use downtown that has housing above, some form of retail services below.”
Robb Davis argued, that by economic development, “We do not mean peripheral housing. We need businesses that have a multiplier effect in that they create jobs or they keep jobs and those jobs mean people have more money to spend in our city.”
In order to even think about downtown densification, the city has to solve a parking problem which Robb Davis, who served on the Downtown Parking Task Force, believes is fundamentally a management issue.
“It’s managing what we already have,” he stated. “The parking task force acknowledged that, we have underutilized garage up on Fourth Street. We have misallocated parking on our streets.”
He explained, “We have people who are over-using a limited resource, employees for example who should be pushed out to the periphery because of their longer stay, are taking up key spaces downtown.”
“Most of the measures are management of what we have,” he said including paid parking which he argues is not primarily a revenue generator but rather a “management tool to allocate scarce resources so that they’re better utilized. There is an economic cost to over-utilization. We know when we have free goods they’re over-consumed.”
Robb Davis said during the parking task force that he made a lot of motions to bring the group back to the issue of management of parking resources.
“Even if we add parking, we still have to manage effectively what we have,” he said. He said at that point he is open to exploring a structure, the challenge is where to put it and he did not believe the E and F location was a good location because “it just brings too many cars into the center of our town.”
Reform of the Fire Service
The conversation turned to the reform of the fire service. “I would say that what the city has done in conjunction with the university is absolutely the right direction,” Mr. Davis stated. “At this point I don’t see anything more that’s glaring that we should do.”
He was supportive of the boundary drop and three on an engine “and the greater response that provides to non-fires and positioning of units. The projects are there and I think the data is starting to demonstrate that we are maintaining a level of safety in our city that’s more than adequate,” he said noting that we have actually improved our response time because of them.
“I fully support those moves,” he said adding that if and when he is on the council he will be asking for routine safety data.
With regards to shared services, he wants to see a constant update with how it is working, help in understanding the hiccups and other problems that might arise. “What I’m interested in doing is making sure that these two units are working closely together to achieve… safety for both entities,” he said. “That’s not calling into the logic of what they’re doing.”
“Some of the things that frustrated me the most on the attack on shared services,” he began. “One is this notion that was repeated even by some elected officials that somehow we’re returning control of our city fire services to, I heard it said to the Regents of the University of California, from a firefighter who was collecting signatures.”
“That’s just wrong,” he said. “That’s just inaccurate and it’s not helpful.”
“We maintain full control,” he said noting our city manager is meeting with the fire chief.
The other thing that bothered him in the discussion was the notion “that somehow public safety is the concern of the city but it’s not of the university.”
UC Davis is of course conducting multimillion dollar search and in control of multi-storied buildings with chemicals and other experiments taking place in lab, “there’s a certification level of the firefighters on that campus that some of our firefighters may not have.” He stated, “Point is these people are fully capable of contributing to the safety of our community.”
The election will be in June. There are two seats that are up for election. Joe Krovoza declined to run for reelection and is instead running for Assembly. Rochelle Swanson is running for reelection and there are two other challengers, school board member Sheila Allen and Daniel Parrella.
The Vanguard interviewed Sheila Allen and published it last Sunday. We published the interview with Rochelle Swanson on Monday. An interview is scheduled this week with Daniel Parrella.
Filing period opens next Monday, will other candidates emerge? Stay tuned.
—David M. Greenwald reporting