Sunday Commentary: Can Council Cast the Tough Votes?

Davis-City-Council-2014-16

We saw it in meeting number one where five councilmembers, despite deep hesitations and concerns, voted to allow one of the innovation park project teams to put an advisory measure on the ballot. Behind the scenes, city staff then had to work very hard to convince the developers that this was not a good idea, and smarter heads prevailed.

Earlier this year, council made the decision to pull out of the POU (Publicly Owned Utility) after months of public outcry, much of which was fueled by a PG&E campaign.

We also saw this new council push back a parcel tax vote until the spring (at least), after polling showed that the public was not behind the parcel tax and largely unaware of the city’s fiscal condition.

Last year, in a commentary following a council vote to punt the issue of fire personnel and reducing personnel from 12 to 11 on a shift – a policy that they would implement on a tough 3-2 vote a few months later, we wrote that “somewhere along the way, the council has gone soft.”

The council, we noted, had seemed to believe that “a 3-2 vote is a four-letter word and they avoid it like the plague.”

We wrote, “Mayor Joe Krovoza was the only one who stood firm. He stood firm in the face of responding to former Interim Chief Bill Weisgerber’s bait about making the public unsafe, he stood firm in responding to the attacks from Joe Tenney and Bobby Weist, and he stood firm, even as his colleagues were going soft, in trying to get the council to commit to the staffing reduction.”

We would add, “As a number of people have told me, the council looked weak on Tuesday night. They looked weak and indecisive. And the problem is that they forget just whom they are dealing with.”

The question for any new council is how they respond to public pressure, and when they are willing to make a tough vote.

I say this because, on Thursday, the council made a 4-0 vote, in an empty room with only myself and the Davis Enterprise reporter present from the public, that will likely have a good deal of blowback in the community and privately.

Expanding the city manager’s compensation was absolutely the right thing to do, given the importance of the position, the FACT that the city of Davis has the lowest compensation for a city manager in the region, and the fact that they clearly (without saying it) were not going to get the people they identified as being the ideal candidates at the compensation level they were offering.

But it is easy to have courage in an empty room. I completely believe this was not manufactured to have a special meeting, in mid-July, on short notice, with little outreach to the community. But the appearance of hiding something in plain sight to a skeptical community looks just as bad as intentionally doing it.

The question is, what will happen if the council hears a barrage of complaints from the public? Right now, Bob Dunning remains fixated on water, it’s not clear if the Enterprise will make an issue of it, and it is too soon to see how the public overall will respond.

I happen to believe the council did the exact right thing, but my concern is what happens if the barrage of public opinion rains down on them? To their credit, two of them told me that they will be forced to take the approach of thanking people for their opinion and wishing them well.

And maybe that is how it is going to happen. After all, on the POU issue, the council needed public opinion ultimately to get done what needed to happen. On this issue, they can ram it through.

It is a fine line in public office. We were often critical of the 2006-2010 council majority that would ram things through on 3-2 votes, often in the face of public opinion blowing against them. The line between taking a firm stand and arrogant indifference is far slimmer than people would like to believe.

In the years following the emergence of a new council in 2010, it seemed that the council took strides to be more accommodating to the public stance, but sometimes went too far. It was clear, for instance, when the council voted 3-2 to put Davis Diamonds in the auto-mall that the council had gone too far in bowing to public opinion.

On the other hand, listening to the public can help avoid unpleasantries down the line.

The question here is what this council will look like. It is clear to the Vanguard at this time that hiring the right city manager is absolutely crucial to moving the city forward. I know that Steve Pinkerton got mixed views in the public – but from the standpoint of fiscal sustainability, he was absolutely critical moving forward.

I understand employee morale is a concern and finding a city manager who can improve it would be helpful, but only if the city manager understands the critical issues that the city faces – finding new revenue sources through both taxes and economic development is critical, but so too is holding the line on spending and employee compensation.

As I noted yesterday, Steve Pinkerton himself, however, did tell me on more than one occasion that, if he had asked for more money back in 2011, there would have been no way he could have settled with the bargaining units.

So we end up with the conundrum that we need to offer more money to hire a good city manager, but paying that amount of money makes it harder for the city manager to work.

The bottom line right now is that the council has a series of tough decisions that it will have to make. They will make decisions that not everyone will agree with and some of those decisions will be bitterly disputed. But make them they must.

The jury’s out – we’ll see how the council steps up.

—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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12 Comments

  1. Frankly

    Expanding the city manager’s compensation was absolutely the right thing to do, given the importance of the position, the FACT that the city of Davis has the lowest compensation for a city manager in the region, and the fact that they clearly (without saying it) were not going to get the people they identified as being the ideal candidates at the compensation level they were offering.

    I think that going with the flow is the easy thing to do, not the tough thing to do. We know we are overpaying for city labor… including the CM. Yet, the Davis CC just decided to continue on. The worry is that we won’t attract a good enough candidate without paying the same as other communities that are also over-paying.

    Families that have problems with abuse and families on welfare tend to span generations until a generation breaks the cycle of dysfunction. Breaking the cycle of dysfunction is the difficult thing. Going along with it so that you don’t ruffle any feathers is the easy thing.

    When something is wrong it does not matter what everyone else is doing. If all security traders are all using insider information to game the investment markets, and the public knew about it, but you decided to do the same for your investment bank because “everyone else is doing it.” … would that make it right?

      1. Davis Progressive

        what got us into the mess in part was a series of inept city managers starting with antonen, emlen, navazio who failed to force the council to reconcile their policies with fiscal reality.

        1. Mark West

          I think you are assigning the blame to the wrong parties. Those City Managers were acting in accordance with the City Council majorities during the period of their employment. It is the CC’s responsibility to direct the CM to act, not the other way around.

          1. Davis Progressive

            i think it’s both. i recall reading about navazio not following council direction which led to them not hiring him as the permanent cm. council sets the policy but the cm has to be adept at carrying it out.

  2. SODA

    Davis has a fine quality of life as most of us appreciate. it would seem that CM candidates would be attracted to that and it might be worth some extra compensation. We have a very involved community which I guess might be attractive (or not) to candidates….I am not convinced that comparing to nearby or same size cities is the only way to go…..

  3. DavisBurns

    The worry is that we won’t attract a good enough candidate without paying the same as other communities that are also over-paying.”

    A product, service or tangible item is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. If other communities are paying their city managers Xdollars, that’s what he/she is worth to that community. If we want someone to work for us for $188.000 and there are no takers with the qualifications we require then the qualified individuals will go elsewhere. That’s what Pinkerton did. This is basic capitalism. I can’t believe Frankly doesn’t get that. Supply and demand.

    1. Frankly

      Supply and demand in a closed and monopolized system that sets its own pricing. I’m not surprised that DB and DP ignore that malfeasance within the Democrat party power apparatus, but consistently will complain when the same occurs in private industry.

        1. Frankly

          The fox guarding the hen house… the Democrat party – pubic sector union/labor cartel where members negotiate pay and benefits for members and the politicians on the left support them and protect them. The malfeasance is that it causes unnecessary budget problems and leads to insolvency. Unnecessary because when compared to the full labor market for like sills, we could find adequate talent/resources at 60% of the total cost for what we are paying the cartel.

          Free market capitalism (please read Adam Smith) absolutely demands checks and balances to prevent monopolization. The power of the market to optimize price-value is based on the understanding that the market will be fully competitive.

          I guaranty that the job posting for the Davis CM is done so that only insiders would qualify. Gotta keep the business within the “family”, right?

          The only true monopoly we see today is government. And those on the left lose much credibility wailing about the false threat of private sector oligarchy while they also demand larger and larger government.

          And as we see today, the government monopoly is by far the most dangerous as there is no higher power to force it to break up and divest. Well let me add that in a well-functioning democracy it is the people that would demand government to break up and divest. But we don’t have a well-functioning democracy due to the flood of poor and uneducated people we have allowed in the country… people that are an order of magnitude less experienced and knowledgeable about political cause and effect. And the left – the political ideology that accepts almost any means to its desired end – is only too happy to exploit that large new voting block in the mad attempt to win their feel-good pursuits at the expense of everything else.

          We are overpaying for our city labor, yet apparently we cannot fix the problem.

          Why can’t we fix the problem?

          1. Don Shor

            Note that a majority of the Davis city council members now are not registered Democrats.

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