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 the forum held in 2012 – each candidate was asked their own specific question and other candidates at times could dive in with rebuttals and questions.
This is the third of three parts.
The first question was on affordable housing.
Robb Davis: My default answers say yes we should do something but I’m only going to answer yes in the context of sitting down with the affordable housing advocates, the affordable housing providers in the county. We need to revision where we’re going with this. We’re going to have to continue to provide it, we are part of the region and we need to continue provide it but it is re-visioning time for affordable housing.
Rochelle Swanson: I’d agree with Robb that the current model is broken without funding. But I really want to echo what you said about the dispersed affordable housing that’s part and parcel about what’s made Davis this amazing. It’s clear the children thrive when they grow and make social economic development throughout a community and everybody benefits from the diversity rather than it being subject to one part of town. I think rather than just look at large “A” affordability we also have to truly talk about small “a” affordability where we can integrate into our current stock and as we move forward in partnering with the people who are doing the development even if it’s remodeling so that we can actually add in components and find ways that we can address it.
John Munn: With all respect Kemble, I think you got it dead wrong that sustainability and affordable housing are separate. In fact you have to have a sustainable financial situation in order to support affordable housing, so actually they aren’t separate they’re intertwined in it. Just you can’t take them apart. Davis has had lots of experience of trying different models of affordable housing and as far as I know – and I’ve always been on the periphery of this – none of them has really work that well. That doesn’t mean we give up, but it does mean that we have to learn from past models and past problems. Personally what I prefer is the mixed-housing model the Davis has used in the past where you have relatively inexpensive homes intermingled among the larger homes and I think if you look at the west side of town on the other side of 113 you see some of that. It makes for a very good community and it helps hold some housing at a somewhat cost.
After a quick follow up by Kemble Pope, Mr. Munn added, “I think what I was trying to describe at the end there would be more like the little “a” that you’re talking about but you don’t have development that is all one type. I like to mix, I think it makes for better communities.”
Sheila Allen: I want to clarify one thing, in New Harmony there was much concern from the Montgomery Elementary School that’s very nearby, that they were going to be inundated with more low-income students. Really they were kids were already in our district, already in Montgomery and now they have some new housing where they could go. So that was positive for them. I am very much supportive of new neighborhoods where we have all different incomes together and all different ages together and I do have concerns about what happened around Montgomery, that’s where there’s a lot of affordable housing concentrated and then it makes for different feel for the neighborhood
In response to a follow up question, she continued, “That’s on the part of the community’s responsibility. I do think we have need of a community conversation about how big that we need to go. We need to have conversations with the other levels of government to see if we can draw some of that money to Davis, but it’s just a small amount but do think it’s better to do that the mixed approach then to have separate.”
Daniel Parrella: I think you nailed it on the head when we can’t really afford to continue subsidizing, not in the near future. I mean I think that right now – if we declare bankruptcy it’s because because of the roads not because of the pensions. And it’s one of those things, we need to establish our priorities. I will say that the little “a,” the idea of small home movement, I think has always meshed well with Davis. I always think that one of our infill projects with a small home movement would be phenomenal. It doesn’t have to be quite as extreme as say the domes but I think the idea of having very small houses, on very small lots that are affordable, not in the government subsidy way but they’re just much cheaper than the average home in Davis. I think that meshes with Davis and that would be something I would be interested in looking into.
Kemble Pope asked about the ten-day rule for agenda items and a normal time rule where the council meets twice a month and adjourns at a certain time.
Daniel Parrella: I think that our city employees are stressed and overworked right now, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t think the city council says no to enough items – those things where we just go everywhere. The ten-day rule is kind of interesting, I will have to I think on it, however I’d be willing adjourn city council meetings earlier. However I would say I prefer to just to have weekly city council meetings. I mean we all know what we’re getting into up here, if time’s an issue we really shouldn’t be running. I think that I much prefer weekly meetings that adjourn say at 10 or 11 that we can look into it. As for the ten-day rule I have to look more into that. I understand where you’re coming from but really it just takes discipline on behalf of city councilmembers to decide what we should focus on at this time.
Robb Davis: I would support the ten-day rule. Look I’ve been on a lot of boards, anytime you come and want to change a cultural thing like that, change the frequency of meetings or noticing, it feels like how can we do it. We can do it. We must do it for the reasons you’re talking about. It’s about transparency, it’s about giving people time to vet the issues and have time. That is a no-brainer. Finishing at 11 o’clock, sure great idea, here’s the issue, we have an engaged citizenry. They want to talk, we need to listen to them, that’s our format. What we can do is we can make sure as a city council that we set priorities at the beginning of the year and place them first on the agenda. People want to stay later and talk we will be here to listen, but we need to make sure that the key business items core business items get dealt with first. So if we do that we can still maintain a high-level of citizen engagement which is going to continue but we can also make sure that we get priorities dealt with first. And I would support those kind of changes.
Sheila Allen: Actually before Gina (Daleiden), Tim (Taylor) and I were elected and I was sitting out in that audience, it would always go way past midnight. I remember taking notes and I said we’re starting the budget 1:30 AM, nobody’s watching but me. So once we go on there, we made the rule that we had to vote every fifteen minutes once we got to 11 o’clock as a way to help to reel us in. Now I’m, it’s really the chair – so the mayor for hear – the school board president works with the administration to look at to see where there’s going to be the public input which is very important and to see what will be a hot topic. You can never tell what’s going to walk in the door there might be something. But it’s really the responsibility of the team to make sure that it’s short enough. So now we fixed that problem. I’m experienced in that area and its one of the things that I would like to do. Regarding the two times a month, I think we might be able to do that. But there is important work that needs to be done so we might have to meet more than two times per month and the staff reports 10 days before, I’m absolutely [ in support].
John Munn: I think we’re talking about a ten-day rule here for agenda items and not letting meetings run later than 10 or 11 o’clock. Sounds good to me. I particularly like the early adjournment part now that I’m eligible for Medicare. I remember trying to stay awake in late night school board meetings. I want to agree with Robb about prioritizing the agenda items so that the issues that people are most interested in do come up earlier because I’m not sure that all of the business of the city can be conducted in two meetings a month from 7 to 11. I just don’t know that that can be done. So I wouldn’t commit to that but I like the idea of prioritizing the items.
Rochelle Swanson: I’m in a unique position because I’m in the middle of this. Couple things I’m going to start with. 100 less employees. Part of my consulting business is to work in other jurisdictions and I’ve done the 10-day rule and it’s an excellent idea and to have the two meetings per month. If we have a ten-day rule we have to think of that Thursday because a week and a half in advance, so staff is constantly preparing for the next meeting. When you have a small amount of items – in budget times it doesn’t work. When we have a small amount of items on an agenda you can do that. Robb is right. This is Davis, people are engaged, I do think that we can prioritize. I think we can streamline the way that people come and engage in a public comment a lot of other communities use cards and other pieces.
Kemble Pope went to a yes or no question: do you support the recommendations of the Innovation Parks Task Force?
John Munn: Hasn’t read it all.
Sheila Allen: Yes
Daniel Parrella: Yes
Rochelle Swanson: Yes
Robb Davis: Yes
Kemble Pope next asked about the city going to a POU and whether the city should continue to invest funds into the project.
Robb Davis: I very much agree with the stance that Brett Lee took on this a week or so ago. Invest. Invest can mean using more intensively local expertise. That’s exactly what we have. We can continue to pursue all options for local control. We can do it by using people who are in our community to help us understand the full range of options. This is the future, we need to walk into it, we can use our local resources to get us there.
Kemble Pope followed up.
Robb Davis: Much reduced city dollars. We can get some volunteerism – it’s already happening. We can also possibly use local consultants at a much lower rate. It’s already happening.
Kemble Pope interjected again.
Robb Davis: (Brett Lee) used a very specific thing which I think is right, which is what is the timeline that’s ahead of us. What’s the timeline for getting to a POU? That was his question, give me what other cities have experienced. But I can tell you, already in this community there are volunteers, they are people involved in the energy industry who are already lifting and saying this is what it’s going to take to get to a dispersed supply and distribution system – because that’s the future.
Kemble Pope pressed again, asking them to put a dollar amount. Robb Davis said he could not answer that question, but stated it is far under a million. When pressed on whether it’s $100,000, he responded, “I’m just not going to answer that question right now. All I’m saying is we have a significant possibility of drawing in volunteers and volunteers here. Brett’s approach is to take a very careful look at what the process is going to be – I support that.”
Rochelle Swanson: Significant is a spongy word. 1950s Berryessa water rights. It’s never a good time to invest, it’s always an easy argument. I stood strong with Brett that we need to slow down and go in a staged approach. I think it was premature to do the project manager before we hear from a couple more jurisdictions about what their process is. I do think we need to start thinking about it realistically but just be trapped within the minds of a publicly owned utility but also be able to explore other green renewables. But it’s never going to be a good time and I agree with Robb, that we have some excellent resources and I think we have to move forward with it.
After a following, she explained that while there are other communities that have tried this, “they are not all like Davis… We have an incredible brain trust in our community. We have a commitment to an ethos of renewable energy, so I think comparing doesn’t always work apples to apples.”
Mr. Pope followed up, “Is this the right time to be the innovator?’ Ms. Swanson responded, “I think it is the right time to do the exploration about the resources we have, I do not support just suddenly committing the full 600 ($600,000) and that is why continually we push on the phasing so we have an opportunity if it looks like it is not the right fit. But I think that it’s short-sided for us to not look now while we have people engaged in the opportunities to actually explore our options.”
Daniel Parrella: I don’t think we should ever stop innovating. I think that Robb really hit the nail on the head when looking at the housing steering committee, the innovation park task force, the downtown parking task force, the water advisory committee, I was always blown away by how knowledgeable some of the people are in here. One thing I think the city should do is convene some sort of public utility company commission with the idea of reaching out to Marin County, Sonoma County, SMUD, Roseville, all of the places that have either gone with community choice aggregation or some kind of public utility company and moving ahead from there.
Sheila Allen: Two weeks ago when I was doing my walking, the only thing that people wanted to talk about was the Fifth Street diet. This weekend people only wanted to talk about public utility. I could not find anybody who was interested in us spending money right now to do this. I absolutely agree that we need to move towards more renewables. I really appreciated any time the city wants to do something that will save me 20 percent on my electrical bill or any other bill, but I think hiring a manager a moving forward with this right now is not the right time.
John Munn: I’m not going to sugar-coat this. I don’t support pursuing a city-run utility at this time or spending money studying it. We need to fix our problems first and then my requirements for seriously considering a publicly owned utility at any time are that it be clear from the outset that a city owned utility must be as reliable as what it replaces and must provide electricity at rates that are competitive with PG&E.
Kemble Pope then asked each candidate in ten seconds to get at their formal experience with budget. He asked, “What is the largest budget (in dollars) per annum which you have been responsible for?”
John Munn: DJUSD, $40 to $50 million, four years.
Sheila Allen: DJUSD, $85 million (it’s gone up since John Munn was on the school board), nine years.
Daniel Parrella, his business, “Won’t go into details about revenue but less than $84 million” and “always dealing with less money than you want to have to deal with.”
Rochelle Swanson, $245 million, City of Davis, four years
Robb Davis, CEO of a non-profit organization, Mennonite Central Committee, annual budget of $45 million, 18 months.
Kemble Pope spoke about the overburdening of taxes. He said, “We have 120 fewer staff members, we have actually done a good job of cutting, cutting, a lot of that’s through attrition.” He added, “We had a budget surplus, we did not have a budget deficit six years ago. Yet the council continues to take on new projects and assign them to city staff.” He asked the candidates to explain if elected, how they would address this imbalance.
John Munn: The way you address it is that you recognize it being a problem and you prioritize what you think the important things (are) that the council needs to get done. I see doing a budget review process as the most critical action that the council should be involved in. So my priorities in staff work would be in that are and not having them work on public utility proposals and paid parking proposals and all of these other things that we have been talking about here tonight that really require a balanced budget in order to successfully implement them.”
Sheila Allen: We’ve experienced this at the school district. At a certain point you say, you can’t cut your way out of it and you have to look at what are the priorities. Staff need to give feedback to the council so that that they know when, even if they have an expectation something’s going to get done, it won’t get done because there are just not sufficient time or finances or people to do it. So I think that there has to be that honest consultation, and each time before the council makes a decision to add either additional something that needs to be funded or needs to have more people, they need to have the conservation with the staff and with the community when something needs to be done. Because it’s likely not realistic at this time unless you take something off the plate.
Daniel Parrella: Every time an agenda item goes on the city council – I don’t think I’ve ever seen, no we can’t do that right now it’s too much time. Some issues that we obviously have to move into. I think even the little ones where you say, why don’t we have staff look into this, why don’t we have staff get back to us next week, I think there comes a time when we have to take some of the little things or even some of the big things and understand as Sheila and John have been going on about priorities, if we can find the ones we really need to deal with, at this time of fiscal crisis, that could help alleviate some of the strain for some of the staff members.
Rochelle Swanson: Six years ago we did not have a real budget surplus. We probably at that time had a debt of $10 to $50 million if you included all of the unfunded maintenance for our parks and our roads and all of the rest of our infrastructure. So I challenge that premise. I think we just had things off the books that we now have on the books. Projects pay for staff not programs. We’ve done a lot of project cut backs in our community –every time something is put together, if there’s a building built, if there’s redevelopment happening, those are line item budgets that actually assign people to those to cover that. So it doesn’t just come directly out of the general fund. I think by doing some realignment on what we’re focusing on where we have our staff, we’d be in better alignment. We also need our community to get engaged in what prioritized. When costs come forward and fees come forward we often end up in a conflict where people do not want to pay services and yet we have to fund staff.
Robb Davis: I disagree with your conclusion that the city did a good job in cutting by attrition. All that gives us is less staff.
Kemble Pope interjects, “I didn’t say it was good, I said it happened.”
Robb Davis responded, “You said they did a good job… When you cut by attrition… you end up with really bad imbalances, especially attrition at this level. We need to do an analysis of our staff and see if what we have matches the core services we want to provide. We got to start that right away because its dishonoring to workers to be placed in the situation where they’re not doing the job that they were hired to do… So we need a full analysis. We also – maybe this is just saying what’s already been said – this is the time now when it sits for the first couple of months, we have to get back to what’s our core business? That’s a prioritization question. Core business does not simply mean safety, etc. , it can also mean amenities. But we need to have the conversation about what our core business is and make sure we have the staff to match it.
Daniel Parrella jumped in for his 30 second question: Robb, I have a question for you, I understand that attrition is maybe not the most strategic way of doing it, but realistically it’s the easiest way of doing it. I look at how the DCAA laid off the nine tree trimmers, without question the ugliest part of the cost-cutting process, we lost a lot of faith of the public employee groups, we lost a lot of faith of the public opinion, how would you have shrunk the work force without attrition?
Robb Davis responded, I don’t know exactly, but any time we face the kind of fiscal challenge that we’re facing now, all cities, all entities, all non-profits, all for-profits, do need to stop and ask the fundamental question about core business. I don’t think we’ve done that. Therefore it’s impossible to match what we have with what we need, because we haven’t done that process. We need to do that right away, that’s the only way we’re going to be able to face it. I’m not casting aspirations at the current council, we get caught up in the doing, but when we face the serious fiscal challenges we’re facing now, we have to pause. We have to stop and say, are we achieving even what we say we’re setting out to do. If we’re not doing that we have to reorient.
John Munn with a thirty second response, I didn’t talk about attrition because I didn’t have time. But I would like to agree that attrition is an awful way to do staff reorganization, because you end up with holes that are really in the wrong places. You end up with jobs to do with no one there to do it. So the city really does need to go through a staff reorganization assessment and figure out the best way to restructure themselves with the resources that are available.
Kemble Pope added, “I want to clarify that the chamber of commerce does agree with that position that attrition is not the best way, from a business perspective I think we all know that attrition is not the best way to cut labor costs.”
Kemble Pope asked one more yes or no question about outsourcing, do you support increased outsourcing as budgeting priority?
Daniel Parrella: Yes
Rochelle Swanson: No for a tool, but yes for service delivery when appropriate
Robb Davis: Yes if there’s good quality control
John Munn: Yes, we’ve gotta have the tool
Sheila Allen: No, not as a priority or the best way to approach.
Sheila Allen asked everyone a yes/ no as her thirty-second question. People always ask who are you running against, I never say I am running against everyone, I’m running for a position. There two positions that are open to the five of us. Two of us are going to be working together as part of a governance team. I would to invite all of us to go out for breakfast some time soon because two of us are going to be working together and I want this to be a positive campaign. That’s my yes/ no question, will you go to breakfast with me.
They said yes.
This concludes our coverage of the ChamberPAC Candidates forum. The Vanguard will have its own candidates forum on Wednesday, May 15 at 6:30 pm, location TBD.
—David M. Greenwald reporting