Vanguard Commentary: Restoring Trust

DVanguard Commentary: Restoring TrustOne conversation I find myself rather consistently having is the fundamental lack of trust that segments of the community have in city government.  Conversely, one reason I have been told that segments of the upper levels of the city are not more forthcoming and transparent, is their lack of trust that they won’t get publicly pounded.

So let us be direct.  The public has good reasons not to trust city government, such as the city’s lack of honesty a decade ago on the fiscal conditions and the passage of the sales tax measure that was billed as a way to prevent the loss of police, fire, and parks – but then used to increase compensation to city employees, in particular firefighters.  Whether it was that, or the string of questionable development deals and affordable housing scandals, or the general lack of honesty about the fiscal crisis following the economic collapse in 2008, the city voters have plenty of very valid reasons to distrust city government.

At the same time, city employees need to be mindful that, by failing to be fully transparent, they are actually perpetuating the distrust.  So what starts out as a protection mechanism to shield themselves from public scrutiny and what they may fear as unwarranted criticism actually becomes a means by which the distrust is perpetuated.

A clear example of the problem is illustrated in a column from Bob Dunning on the language of the sales tax measure.

He writes that the language states: “Shall Ordinance No. 2432, which would authorize the city of Davis to continue to collect a sales and use tax for general government purposes at the total rate of 1 percent through Dec. 31, 2020, be adopted?”

Mr. Dunning argues that the use of the word “continue” might suggest to voters that a “’yes’ vote will merely sustain the status quo by extending a tax that is already in effect.”

He notes, “No mention anywhere of the half-cent increase we’re being asked to approve. Also no mention that the current half-cent sales tax is set to expire in 2016.”

It is sloppy language.  However, perhaps past distrust leads Mr. Dunning to immediately speculate that the sloppiness has nefarious foundations.

He writes, “Why the council didn’t simply state those facts in plain, simple English is unclear. Maybe they think we’re stupid. Maybe they think we aren’t paying attention. Or maybe they hope they can slip this one past the censors with no one raising a red flag.”

The more benign explanation is that the council crafted the language well past midnight on the fly and were not as careful as they might have been.  Despite that explanation, many were ready to believe the worst, that the council was attempting to pull one over on the voters.

Trust is a complex issue.  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.

The past councils have been rightly and roundly criticized here.  We noted the bait and switch in the 2004 tax measure.  There was also the influence of the firefighters and the failure of the council to either acknowledge the depths of the economic crisis or to take the measures needed to fix the crisis.

In 2008, as incumbent Sue Greenwald and challenger Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald warned of the impending fiscal crisis, incumbents Stephen Souza and Don Saylor argued that we had a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve.  However, in calculating that balanced budget no one accounted for the unfunded liabilities in pensions and OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) as well as the unmet infrastructure needs that were already accruing even in the days prior to the September 15, 2008, economic collapse.

Over the next two years, that council would continue to project only a short-term downturn, balance the budget through attrition and by forestalling payment on infrastructure, and agree to contracts with employee groups that only made modest changes.

In this case, we should question whether the council prior to 2010 actually attempted to do the right thing, or whether their goal was to leave the next council with the tough choices –something that Lamar Heystek repeatedly warned about before he declined to seek reelection in 2010.

Since 2010, we have seen the entire council and much of the senior staff turn over.  The council began in 2011 and continued their efforts through 2012 and 2013 to fix the city’s fiscal problems.

The current council, even with a series of 3-2 votes on firefighter reforms, has been serious about tackling the fiscal issues.

That is not to say that they have not made mistakes.  I think they addressed the current structural problems too late in the process, they came forward with the revenue proposals at the last minute, and failed to really engage with the public until the midnight hour.  Now they wish to rectify that as they will put forward two revenue measures before the voters.

One individual is not willing to give the council the benefit of the doubt.  Two weeks ago they emailed me, “Are you forgetting about the fiscal hatchet job the CC tried to do until the Fall 2011 water referendum?  The same people are still around in power.  They waited until the nth hour on the sales tax, and didn’t even do a resolution making a promise to the voters how they would spend the money.”

While an interesting point, for the most part, the same people who failed on the 2011 water issue are not still around.

It is true that 3 of the 5 councilmembers are still around.  But Steve Pinkerton arrived in Davis for the September 6, 2011 council meeting on water and within a month he will be gone.  Mayor Joe Krovoza will be gone by the end of June.

Of the critical city staffers working on the water project in 2011, gone are Paul Navazio and Jacques DeBra.  Bob Clarke is still here but in a different capacity.  Yvonne Quering and Herb Niederberger were not here yet.

So the same people, even from 2011, are not around and will not be around in the next few months.

The real question is how to restore trust.  We see this playing out again with the POU (Public Owned Utility) issue – the public became aware of the issue after the fact and now the council and city are rallying for a public outreach session.

We think that the city needs an action plan to develop better communication policies.  The city is largely still operating in the dark.  We recall the budget workshops from August of 2011 as well as the budget talks in the winter and spring of 2013.  Neither of those were well attended.

The city has taken on a new solution of engaging with existing groups – service organizations, PTAs, neighborhood associations and other groups that might tap into the community.

At the same time, the city is still behind the times in terms of email lists and social media.  Clearly, proactive communication is part of the key.

However, citizens bear responsibility here as well.  I still remember writing a column asking where the outrage was on the water costs in the spring of 2011 and it was only when the rates were codified that the public became engaged.

As intelligent, professional and engaged as the Davis population is, they get caught flat-footed on critical issues time and time again.  While a clear onus is on the city to communicate better, another onus is on the populace to remain informed.

But it is worse than that.  The complacency of the public is what allowed this crisis, at least ten years in the making, to fester and become really bad.  A lot of the people speaking out the loudest were quite frankly the stakeholders asleep at the wheel, who not only allowed this crisis to happen but supported and in some cases continue to support the very leaders who got us into this predicament.

Trust cannot exist where there are no clear lines of communication, and in this era of mass communication and instant communication and social media, there can be no excuse.

—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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3 Comments

  1. Frankly

    One consideration in support of a lack of transparency is the tendency for people to use any and all information in pursuit of their agenda without acceptance of the greater good or the greater problems to solve. Representative governance works, or more specifically direct democracy does not work, because of the tendency for humans to pursue their own selfish interests over and above those of others that conflict with their own selfish interests. Sometimes the right things to do are the unpopular things to do. If we could count on people objectively and willingly accepting self-sacrifice and true personal charity, then I think we absolutely should open the books and involve more of the public in the decision-making. But otherwise we are just going to end up with analysis-paralysis and a multi-stakeholder fight for every policy decision.

    The consideration in support of more transparency is the lack of true leadership quality we have in our politicians these days. We have people seeking a career in politics and not people fulfilling a sense of duty to serve.

    And who do we blame for this?

    Four things:

    1. The way we allow campaigns to be funded. The funding itself is not the problem, IMO, it is the type of people that we end up electing because they are better skilled at bringing in the money… and not necessarily better skilled at leadership.

    2. The media, political correctness and speech codes. The media, including the new media like the VG, causes good people to not want to serve because they are constantly at risk of being destroyed over what is basically immaterial twaddle… a word that causes the hyper-sensitive to explode. Also, the media is exploited as a weapon of politics and not just a source of news. It has always been like this to some degree… but beginning with the end of Harry Truman’s presidency and the beginning of Ike, media developed to be a driver of political careers, not just one that reported on them.

    3. The education system that has helped develop politics as a career. Politics should not be a career. It should always be a temporary public service that regular people go do and then go back to their own lives. The education system has also shifted way left and has done a fantastic job programming more students to adopt liberal ideology. That ideology is one that supports bigger government. Bigger government is more complex. Politicians then have to be educated and experienced to handle increased complexity. Career politicians end up being more attractive in a self-serving defense adding greater and greater complexity.

    4. Immigration. Recent surveys have proved that the US has experienced a demographic shift that is primarily due to young immigrants and the children of immigrants. The problem is that we have overwhelmed the system’s ability to assimilate these people into American culture and teach them to adopt American values. Instead they import their own culture and values… and many of these are the same that contributed to their desire to flee their home county. These people are then co-opted by existing Americans with a chip on their shoulder feeling disenfranchised and left out of the economic opportunities (or otherwise just feeling left out) and together they have taken the country down a path away from economic growth and toward a system of greater liberalism and socialism… and this demands a much larger and more complex government.

    I see all these things contributing to a lack of transparency. Until and unless we address these things, we will continue to experience greater and greater difficulty for the average voter to be connected with the business of government. We will continue our slide from a system of by the people, for the people, to a system of by the few, for the few.

  2. Davis Progressive

    frankly:

    naturally i have a different view.

    first, “One consideration in support of a lack of transparency is the tendency for people to use any and all information in pursuit of their agenda without acceptance of the greater good or the greater problems to solve.”

    it’s kind of like arguing that the downside of democracy is that the people decide. that’s the point. people are flawed. some will have their own agendas. however, the same can be said with city councilmembers and city staff.

    on your four things

    we elect the people we do because they are the ones that survive the current process rather than the most qualified. i don’t know how to fix that.

    blaming the media i have decided is the last refuge of the scoundril. after all, in the old days we had machines, corruption, and all sorts of private enrichment off of public service. are those things gone? no, just ask leland yee. but they are rare and the politicians are far more likely to be caught. if that means that we nitpick, so be it.

    “The education system that has helped develop politics as a career. ”

    i don’t buy that there is any link between the two. the reason why politics has arisen as a career is that government is complex, the nation is large, and we need expertise. furthermore, got back to your point one. it’s not just that bigger government is complex, it’s that a modern nation needs bigger government than we did 250 years ago.

    finally, i really disagree on immigration. without immigration this would be a nation of elderly people with no productivity to support it.

    1. Frankly

      You are skimming the content and context of my post and returning arguments far too general to be useful.

      Except for blaming the media i have decided is the last refuge of the scoundril

      Says the poster comfortable having the same political bent as the media. Have you read the book? There is nothing comparable to the historical conspiracies listed and the media today. You have your head conveniently in the sand about this.

      the reason why politics has arisen as a career is that government is complex, the nation is large, and we need expertise.

      We don’t “need” for government to be so complex. It is complex because it is too large.

      And technocrats are generally not good leaders.

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