ChamberPAC Hosts First Council Candidates Forum – Part One

2014 Council Candidates meet in their first candidates forum, Wednesday, April 2 at Community Chambers.

The five candidates for Davis City Council met on Wednesday evening for the first time in a candidates forum sponsored by the Davis Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee (ChamberPAC).

The event was moderated by Chamber Executive Director Kemble Pope and held at the Davis Community Chambers.  The format was similar to forum held in 2012, each candidate was asked their own specific question and other candidates at times could dive in with rebuttals and questions.

What follows will be at times quotations and at times paraphrases from the answers.  This is not intended to be a transcript of the event.  We will have it in two parts and when the video is ready, we will post that as well.

The first question was to Sheila Allen, Kemble Pope asked,” you recently voted to give teachers a two percent raise…  given all of these pressing priorities, how did you determine that the best use of the recently increased state funding pass-through was to raise teacher salaries?”

Council-Debate-3Sheila Allen responded “My approach to the budget is a balanced approach.”  She noted that as an elected official, you are one person and you have to work together as a team.  She continued, “We did not increase the salaries of our employees until there was sufficient funds to do that in a balanced approach.”  Over the last five years, she said they asked all employees to take cuts and furlough days.  This resulted in increased class sizes and harder work.  “As funding came back from the state, then we took a balanced approach that way and we did negotiate an increase, fairly across all of our units.”  She said, “I will use the same approach for the city.”  She noted the city is in a different place than the school district is.  The city she said is where the school district was two years ago, still in a position where she supports the imposed cuts on the two bargaining units.  “In the future, when funding comes back, one of my priorities would be a fair, approach for increases.  We’re not there yet because there’s insufficient funds and there are some of the pressing matters, but it’s really important to me that we look at a balanced approach.”

Kemble Pope would ask Daniel Parrella, that he had said that he does not support the rate structure for the surface water project, “despite the fact that the business community partook in a thorough process to evaluate the cost and impacts of passing Measure I,” “understanding that the project has already been approved by the majority of voters, what changes if any would you need to see in order to agree with the rates and construction of our new surface water project?”

Council-Debate-4Daniel Parrella responded, “I’d like to preface that by stating I always supported the surface water project.  I think that CBFR… has the potential to be a phenomenal rate structure.”  He likes the way the structure moves away from the size of the pipe, “which was never a realistic way to judge water consumption.  He would state, “My issue with CBFR is one issue and one issue only. “  The problem he stated is that “Davis has a huge transient population.  Over 55% of Davis are renters.  We have 20,000 students who come in every year who leave in September and come in June.  That’s really my issue with CBFR is that CBFR takes usage from May to October and that dictates how much you pay for the entire year.”  He mentioned the need to have an appeal process where if you prove you use less than previous occupants you can get a lower fixed rate.  He wants to see that issue in CBFR better address either with an appeal or an annual consumption rate.

John Munn played a sixty second rebuttal card: He said, “I have some thoughts about water rates.  The first thing I want to say is I support Measure P to repeal the current water rate system because it unfairly shifts the burden of paying for new water facilities onto single family residents.”  He argued that if the current rates stay in place, they will have some unintended consequences.  They will force much larger water rate reductions than are being anticipated.  He believes that the lower consumption combined with larger users pulling out of the system “will result in much lower than projected water demand that causes much higher rates on the remaining customers that cannot escape…”

Kemble Pope would ask John Munn “What specific items from the current 2014-15 city budget do you believe should be adjusted to create more sound economic environment in our community?”

Council-Debate-2John Munn responded “The problem with that question is asking before there’s a thorough budget analysis to identify what’s going to get cut and that is not the way I would approach the problem.”  He stated that he would approach the problem by taking a hard look at where the revenues are coming from and where the spending is going.  Revenues are not all the same and can’t be used for the same things.  By doing so, we then would assemble a picture of where the monies are going to.  “Once that picture is there, then we can talk about spending,” he said.  “Spending is associated with a particular revenue.”  He argued “This has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past.  Since a lot of money that comes into the general fund is originally intended for one use and over time it gets shifted to other uses.  Then we wonder why?”

Kemble Pope pushed back that they wanted specific items from the current budget.

John Munn  continued, “We’re always going to have to look closely at the pension and the health care costs because that’s what’s going to drive us into large problems into the future.  So if you wanted me to identify one specific area that we’re going to have to pay attention to, attention has to be paid attention to and needs to go on into the future is going to be pension and health care costs.”

Robb Davis played his sixty second rebuttal card, stating, “It’s a difficult question to answer because we just completed recently negotiations with all the employee groups in the city.  We know the major drivers of the fiscal imbalance have to do with pensions, they have to do with other post-employment benefits, they have to do with health care.  We will not be opening those contracts up for another couple of years.”  He continues, “The city manager put forth a list of cuts.  No prioritization, just a list of total cuts that would get us to $5.1 million.  Before we do anything we have to look at what are the opportunities within those cuts.  We need to ask for prioritization, what can we do first?”  He also stated that beyond that “we have to have a community conversation about this…  We haven’t had that conversation yet.”

Kemble Pope asked Rochelle Swanson about increased residential and commercial density, “How would you change zoning and the downtown specific plan and other conflicting planning documents to achieve this goal?”  He added what has the council historically done?

Council-Debate-5Rochelle Swanson responded that the council has looked at the vacancy rates and what can be done to further encourage the use, the flow, and how do we do business outreach.  “What we need to do is actually continue the work that we have already started that has been stymied from the lack of staff resources and bandwidth.”  She noted that the planning commission was charged with going through the zoning code, general plan, including all of the specific area plans and the downtown core area.  “What we were looking for was to see where was there conflict.”  She said there is often confusion as to what can take place on a given parcel and the number one thing we need is “certainty.”  She added that staff has worked very hard to streamline the process of going through the Planning Department.  The budget and water issues have sidelined some of these efforts and she argued we “need to reengage and recommit.”

Kemble Pope asked Robb Davis, progress has been made recently reducing the rate of growth of city employee compensation, “unfortunately the growth rate is still unsustainable, what is your plan to address this unsustainable rate of growth of city employee compensation plans?”

Council-Debate-6Robb Davis said that the reality is that for the next two years we will not move “to discussions with employees about their compensation packages.”  He noted, we are talking about “the cost of compensation.  Sad thing is, our employees may be taking home less money but the cost of compensation to the city is going up.”  He stated, “We have serious constraints.  We cannot break promises.  We cannot go back and undo the pension offerings that we have made in the past.  The way forward is going to be based on a couple of things, first, we cannot demonize our staff and make them the enemy.  We cannot say you are the problem, they are part of our community.”  He added, “There will be hard decision because the pensions that they are lined up to receive…  CalPERS, because of their actuarial approach and because they underfunded it for years is requiring the city to pay even more.  These are not our employees problems, they’re all our problems.  The solutions are not going to be easy.  The way forward in the short-term is going to be asking employees to give back more.” By that he meant not giving salary but rather giving a greater contribution to their retirement.

Daniel Parrella jumped in with a 30 second rebuttal.  He stated he agreed with what Robb Davis stated and added, “It’s not to demonize the public employees.  It’s important to remember that we negotiated successfully with five of the seven groups.  If all of them had dug in like the other two groups had we probably wouldn’t have gotten the labor negotiations that we were able to successfully negotiate.  It’s very important for us to have a working relationship with them.”  He added, “a lot of people just want to mass outsource, I don’t think that’s the way to go.”

Rochelle Swanson also jumped in with a 30 second rebuttal.  “The demonization of our employees is very difficult.  Employee morale that we see within these walls and about the city is tough.”  Ms. Swanson added that the role of the councilmember does not end on Tuesday on the dais, “we need to get out of our comfort zone and get to the capital, go to Washington DC, and that’s been a part of what I’ve tried to do on these policies.”  She started to say that a lot of the limitations that Robb Davis alluded to specifically have to do with these policies, but her time expired before she completed the thought.

John Munn added, “I agree with what I’ve heard.  There is one issue that hasn’t been brought up.  It’s a very tough issue and again it has an effect on employee morale.  One of these approaches to getting costs and salaries under control is outsourcing.  I just wanted to state it so that we know that it’s part of the picture.”

Sheila Allen added, “I wanted to reiterate the importance of not demonizing and the other point I wanted to raise is about treating all of our employees equally and fairly.  I’ve been very concerned about particular groups that have been trying to be squashed in a lot of negative about that.”  She said we really need “to talk to the employees because I think that they have ideas about ways there can be cost savings and I’d like to hear those ideas. “

Chamber Executive Director Kemble Pope lays down the rules with Steve Greenfield on his left and former County Supervisor Betsy Marchand on his right.
Chamber Executive Director Kemble Pope lays down the rules with Steve Greenfield on his left and former County Supervisor Betsy Marchand on his far right.

Kemble Pope goes back to Sheila Allen for the second round of questions.  He notes that she had said a few weeks ago that she was getting a better handle on unfunded liabilities.  “Can you give us a few examples of what you better understand now?”

Sheila Allen noted that there have been a few additions to that list that have been added by the council.  She said, “I have some concerns about the $5.1 million ongoing deficit.  I think some of that is in the area of health benefits.  Health benefits are very important to me as a public health nurse.  I personally believe in the single-payer system and health care for all.”  She continued, “while we are living within these bounds I have concerns about the cashing out ability that is something that is not done in other areas.  So that is an area that we could do better with.”  She added, “I have concern about the road plan… I’m concerned that there’s a very large apple that we’re trying to swallow the whole thing for roads.  I would like us to look carefully and prioritize and to space those over more time because there’s just not enough in a single year’s budget in order to address that particular topic.”  She also brought up investigating if we’re going to have a public utility.  She said she is supportive of the concept of a public utility, she is very concerned that while we’re looking down the barrel of a large deficit of spending hundreds of thousands when we already have a deficit we’re looking at, “I think it’s the wrong for that.”

Robb Davis responded with a thirty second rebuttal.  He stated, “if indeed we consider the roads and other means backlogs as unfunded liabilities which I assume we do, then the picture is dire city staff reports say that we can spend $200 million over the next 20 years over that, have the same pavement condition index that we have today and have a greater backlog.  In addition we’re not really sure what other maintenance backlogs exist. I sat with Nate Trauernicht over at the fire department, and he is telling me the fire stations are in terrible shape. We need to get the full story on the table of what the maintenance backlogs in the city are.”

Kemble Pope asked Daniel Parrella stating that he prioritized generating revenue without increasing taxes in order to draw more people into our communities, he asked how he proposed reducing our deficits without increasing taxes?

Daniel Parrella responded, “The sales tax in June and the parcel tax in November I think are essential.  There is really no way to close the budget in the short term without doing that.”  He continued, “Mostly what I mean in the futures beyond that I don’t think we should have any more taxes the on that and one thing that really think we should be doing is focusing on Innovation Park Task Force reports.”  He stated that one area he really likes is Nishi.  He stated, “There is a lot of work being done there.  Its primarily residential at the moment which I’m a little disappointed about, but I do think that there are some good places for research  and development that will help generate some revenue .”  He added that he’s mostly interested in a peripheral business park east of Mace.

Kemble Pope asked John Munn his vision for growing revenue.

John Munn responded “I have actually focused more on the process of determining what revenues need to grow than on trying to tell you exactly what revenues are going to grow. When we talk about growth you have economic development which we’re hearing a lot about and there are tax proposals which we’re also hearing a lot about.”  He continued, “on economic development the next council is going to be dealing with the actually quite a suite of parcels.”  He stated, “It looks like the Nishi parcel will be coming forward that’s located west of Richards between I-80 and railroad.  A new hotel complex of the current University Park in Café Italia site, the East innovation Park which is east of Mace and north of Second, there is a less developed West innovation Park proposal near Sutter Hospital.”  He said, “the chamber also mentions a fifth development or another development area which is the downtown which continually has proposals of one sort or another for new businesses.”  He said, “it is promoted and hoped that this kind of economic development will bring businesses that will pay sales taxes, will pay property taxes and increase the city revenues that way.”  He said, “the other side of the coin are the tax increases right now we’re looking at the tax increases and other ones before supposed immediately is a sales tax.”

Rochelle Swanson jumped in for a sixty second rebuttal.  “I see every debate as an opportunity for education, this one I need to weigh in on.  There’s a lot of places to have revenue and while it is true that we are looking at peripheral development and innovation task parks through the task force in different areas including the center of town which I believe you’re talking about the corp yard in PG&E, I really want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we also have a lot of infill that we could densify and those are immediate revenue sources .”  She continued, “when somebody remodels a house and their parcel’s reassessed typically their tax base goes up.  We have a number of places throughout town which we could do that next part of the stuff today and earlier question about what things that we need to change.  We have approximately 26 different tax brackets throughout the community in different parcels and that something that I know the finance department is looking at to see where we should also focus.”  She continued,  “point-of-sale is an amazing place where we really should focus on and that’s why manufacturing continues to be touted as one of the best forms of economic development.”

Sheila Allen also jumped in with a sixty second rebuttal.  “I’m very interested in the innovation research park in particular my favorite area right now but there has to be really a strong community conversation on this and that is the Mace area.  That place already has the infrastructure that’s available.  Another  advantage that it has is that we have the surrounding Greenbelt that’s already been put into place so we don’t have to worry about further expansion out that way.”  She would add, “there are some really fabulous examples I looked into my alma mater at University Wisconsin that has an innovation Park and they work closely with the University to get the ideas in ivory tower right in into that manufacturing, so I would support that as a way to bring additional economic development.”

The next question was for Rochelle Swanson.  He said as much as the current council is an improvement over past councils, the ability for the council to prioritize continues to be somewhat dysfunctional.  “What active steps do you propose to take to address this particularly in light of our looming fiscal emergency?”

Rochelle Swanson responded, that there is a poster of tree that has six little pieces that talks about a priority areas and “one of them is community engagement and I’ll be the first to admit that that’s probably our weakest.”  She continued, “One of the immediate steps that we can take is to quit talking about updating our website and get it online so that people can actively engage.  There’s a number of different kinds of software that staff has been working on to make sure that people feel comfortable and can get on and see what’s in our budget to be able to actually allocate resources that they think we should be focusing on.”  She adds, “The city council can continue to make this a friendly chamber, I have to say I have just been heartened by the diversity of the people who now come to counsel, it is a wonderful thing it’s great to see people lining up in the aisle waiting to talk on issues and not just what’s on the agenda but also bringing issues forward…”

She continued, “I will go back to my earlier point is that while we can fill these chambers on a number of items actually do move us off the mark on our priorities need people engaged on the budget.  One of the things that we really worked on this year is getting the city manager’s office into the community to talk about the budget, and revenue and the challenges.”  She spoke of past efforts that only saw 15 people show up over the course of several workshops and a number of people were going to more than one meeting.

Kemble Pope then asked Robb Davis about how social concerns will be prioritized with this fiscal budget concerns that we have at hand.

Robb Davis responded, “As we know social concerns, if we want to use that lump-term, social issues have traditionally been the purview of counties we do have development block grants that we get the federal government that we pass on to local entities including when I work for.   But it’s largely been the purview of counties and those monies have been cut.   We’ve lost a significant amount of mental health services, we’ve lost a drug and alcohol counseling, we’ve lost a successful meth treatment program in this county.”  He continued, “how we plugging holes poorly, we are doing it poorly because the needs are on the rise.”  He added, “what you’re seeing in the downtown this is largely driven by not just the economy, it’s being driven by methamphetamines – one of the most disastrous things on our planet and it’s here, and it’s now.  People are bound by it and people can’t get out of it and they have no resources.  We’re doing syndromes of problems here.  So homelessness and jail time and drug or alcohol addiction and broken families.  Our County services though I really respect what Supervisor Saylor and Rexroad are doing are simply not matching it.”

After being carded for going slightly off-topic, Mr. Davis continued, “It’s time for us to have a parcel tax even if it’s a small amount to bring some more resources to bear on these problems.  We have done it for our parks, we have done it for open space, we have done it for our schools, we have done it for all manner of other things that we want in this community.   We’re talking about human resources here. I’m not to say I’m going to put forward an ex percent parcel tax, what I am going to say is that I’m going to open discussion.”

This is part one of several installments of the first council debate.

—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. Frankly

    Thanks VG. I had to miss the event and this helps me get to know my candidates better.

    I was hoping that there were more probing questions about each candidate’s vision for the future of Davis with respect to their position on growth: housing growth, population growth, peripheral growth, business and economic growth.

    Question: Davis is a unique medium-sized California city. Much much of our uniqueness is self-induced from our history of rejecting growth. For example, due to a lack of growth, our population density is closer to that of urban areas rather than rural areas. We benefit from a certain vibrancy that density provides, but it also comes with challenges. For example, our lack of available commercial real estate to develop business on has resulted in too little economic activity to support the monetary needs of the community. Also, we have self-induced super-high housing costs that is causing a demographic shift away from young families and young professionals. Davis is becoming a community of affluent seniors and students. What is your desired vision for Davis over the coming decade or two with respect to growth: both business/economic and housing?

  2. Matt Williams

    Separate from any individual question answers, there was a very interesting leadership pattern on display last night. Specifically, all four of the other candidates followed Robb Davis’ lead.

    It started with Daniel Parrella’s use of his first 30 second card stating, “I agree with Robb …” The issues of agreement were many and varied, but each of the candidates (some of them multiple times) clearly began their comment(s) with the words, “I agree with Robb …”

    That was leadership in action, and it wasn’t a coincidence that that leadership was coming from Robb Davis from the Council dais.

    Lets be clear about my perception of Robb Davis as a leader. Fremontia has pointed out that I am not unbiased whenever I talk about Robb. I have declared my support for him in many venues. I have formally endorsed him. I volunteer for him at the Farmer’s Market every Saturday. My name is on record at the City Clerk’s office in Robb’s FPPC filings. I have appreciated Robb’s leadership and character for a long time. It was good to see the other four candidates overtly demonstrate similar appreciation at the forum.

      1. Barack Palin

        I was going to vote for Robb Davis until I heard his stand on the paid parking issue so now I’ll have to rethink that vote. It seems the Vanguard, well at least its editorial staff, are solidly in Robb Davis’s corner.

  3. Ryan Kelly

    I have been impressed with Robb until he went off topic. He seems to not realize that Obamacare will allow many of the homeless, ill people we see downtown to start receiving healthcare – including mental healthcare, that the County has just received a substantial grant for mental health care, the Department of Mental Health is going through a reorganization and a new Department head has been hired. Things are actually looking up over there.

    I wonder how focused Robb will be on dealing with our financial issues and infrastructure needs of the City – these things being very mundane and not part of Robb’s interest in social issues. The City Council just may not be a good fit for him.

    1. Frankly

      Robb is obviously a strong social justice guy. I can accept that as long as it does not end up being a distraction from the critical work to balance the budget and cover our long-term nut. I don’t have too much of a problem with his diversion off topic as long as I hear consistent support for dealing with our fiscal issues with urgency… and this includes a primary focus on economic development. Franky, if Robb wants to solve more social justice issues he will focus on economic development. Private companies can do a lot to help fund local non-profits.

    2. Matt Williams

      I concur with Frankly. Once the video gets up I think it will be clear that Robb made the points he did within the framework of collaboration with the County, which has the primary responsibility for healthcare issues. With that said, addressing homelessness in Davis is also an economic sustainability and quality of life issue. I personally believe he wasn’t off topic at all.

  4. Ryan Kelly

    But I’ll wait until I hear more – the other 3/4 of the forum. I’m interested in what all the candidates have to say about the efforts to create a POU.

  5. Frankly

    It is clear from Sheila Allen’s comments that at the first sign of increased revenue she will be fighting to reward city employees.

    The comments from candidates about the demonization of city employees… I want to demand that we get some evidence of that occurring at any level that justifies the comments. I understand why the candidates are reaching out to these people that will cast a vote, but I think this inference is irresponsible.

    It is a trick of the unions to personalize challenges to compensation levels. If I say that a firefighter makes too much, then per the union-political template I am attacking the firefighters. If I say teachers pay should be significantly based on merit, then I am attacking the teachers.

    This type of thing is disingenuous and divisive, and damages the ongoing ability for useful dialog.

    We all pretty much know what is going on. We are over-compensating most city employees when considering their total compensation when compared to the overall labor market. It might not FEEL like over compensation to the actual employees, but the facts are the facts. And these facts are not any type of an attack. The employees are not being blamed.

    The blame goes mostly to past politicians. That is why we need to absolutely know what these and future candidates might be thinking about and aligning with respect to city employee compensation. And with Ms. Allen’s comments I can see that she does not really care about overall labor market comparisons. For her it is all about the budget… if we have the money we should pay the money. That is exactly the type of thinking that got us into the giant fiscal quagmire.

    I know that employee morale suffers when there is talk of cuts and when employees feel that they are not appreciated. And when people say someone is over-compensated, to that person, it will generally always feel like an insult and a sign of under appreciation (unless the employee is new to the job and hasn’t hit the motivation wall yet).

    There are fundamental challenges for motivating public sector employees versus private sector. The primary difference is that a public employee trades an extra level of job security for the stress of a merit-based promotional system that most companies in the private sector utilize. It is natural for someone to eventually discount the lower-stress, higher-security, higher-benefits job and start feeling under-appreciated and in need of other “feel good” remedies. And over the last several decades, that things has been to acquire even more benefits.

    And that is where we are today. The public sector employee that took a career that offered lower-competition stress and greater job security in exchange for the loss of greater promotional opportunities, has had their benefits expanded to an order of magnitude greater than those private sector employees… those dealing with greater competitive stress and no real job security other than their accumulation of marketable job skills… and now we recognize the levels of these benefits are completely unsustainable.

    It is not an attack to say that we are over-compensating these employees. It is simply a fact.

    But we can agree that city employees don’t like it. That is understandable.

    What we cannot do is make the same mistake we have made over and over and over again and elect Council members that don’t get the problem using cash flow as the primary determinant for when to give raises or not.

  6. Jim Frame

    Well, I’ll be dipped — I actually agree with Frankly on this. I don’t agree with his oft-expressed notion that public employee unions should be outlawed, but I think he described the public agency compensation dynamic pretty well.

    I need to go take my temperature — I must be coming down with something…

      1. Barack Palin

        Yes Frankly, I believe Sheila Allen will reward the public union employees the first chance she gets. I hope the voters are on to this because we don’t need to go down that road again.

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