Monday Morning Thoughts: What Does Success Look Like In A New Era in Davis?

(This may be a new regular column. My weekend commentaries “My View” and “Sunday Commentary” often wrap up the week. This one, if it catches on, may pose some thoughts at the beginning of the week).

Davis is set to hire a new city manager. Along with the resignation of former City Manager Steve Pinkerton, effective on April 23, as well as the new June council elections, this concludes the formation of the new governance team.

There was an intriguing commentary in today’s PublicCEO, “What is successful government?” Patrick Ibarra writes, “It’s not easy to determine what constitutes quality public-sector performance. Finding the answers to some crucial questions is the most important step toward a disciplined approach to high-performance government.”

As we begin a new era in Davis, my question is even more basic – what would be a successful two years in Davis City government?

One problem we face is that the community seems to be rather unaware of the problems that the community faces. From the Godbe Research poll, as we have noted, nearly 65 percent of those 504 Davis registered voters polled believe that our fiscal condition is at least fair, with less than a quarter believing it is poor or very poor.

In the poll conducted for Ramco and Mace Ranch Innovation Park, 65 percent of city residents believe that the city is headed in the right direction. Only 22 percent believe it is headed in the wrong direction. As a whole, the city council has a 48 percent favorable rating, compared to 31 percent unfavorable.

The California State Legislature has the worst approval rating, at 40-37, DJUSD has a 50-32 approval rating, while Dan Wolk – at least in April – had a 50-12 approval rating and UC Davis a stunning 81-9 favorable rating.

What do we take from all of that? Well first of all, as most of us suspect, the voters – in this case likely voters – are not paying a whole lot of attention. That is no surprise – most of the people we spoke to a week ago were unaware of the impending innovation park discussion.

At the same time, while there is a bit of a negative sense in the electorate, the views may give the new council and city staff needed room to maneuver.

The active and engaged sector of the community, and certainly the Vanguard readership, is much more aware, engaged and cynical than the electorate as a whole.

We have our challenges ahead. We have already had to pass a sales tax. We have to make a decision on a parcel tax. The city, contrary to the views of many, is not in fiscal health and needs to take a number of clear steps to further improve its fiscal standing.

The next year will focus us on the parcel tax, economic development, innovation parks and another round of MOUs.

But we come back to the question at hand. We know what governmental failure looks like. What does success at the local level look like? What should our expectations be?

To put it another way, we know what we are up against. We have already seen a glimpse of what an emerging anti-innovation park stance would look like – with questions about revenue generated, traffic impacts, and changes to the character of our community.

At the same time, as we have laid out previously, staying the course means change, as well. It means cuts to employees and staffing, curtailing city services, or higher costs for service.

It is easy to be against stuff. One of the biggest findings in the polling was the 75-15 favorability of Measure R. That largely mirrors the actual vote that took place in 2010. Those who believe there is a chance to get rid of Measure R – absorb the polling numbers for a time, bolstered by the fact that there is nearly a two-thirds’ awareness of Measure R.

On the other hand, being for Measure R could be said to be for a negative – opposing the ability of annexing and developing farmland into the city without a vote of the people.

So, I would argue that in order to know what success looks like, we need to know what we are in favor of, what our vision for the future of Davis looks like, and then and only then can we understand whether there was success or failure in achieving those goals and that vision.

If our goal is fiscal sustainability, then the question becomes how do we get there? There are multiple paths, some more inviting than others. We can cut services, outsource employees, raise taxes, grow the revenue base through economic development, or some combination thereof.

Or is it our goal to keep Davis the small and engaging college town/vibrant community that it is? Even there, we have questions. Does that mean we limit all growth and attempt to keep Davis in its current configurations? Some would argue that, while trying to preserve the community this way, we end up stifling it.

These are all critical questions and, now that we have the team in place that will lead the city, it is time to start discussing where we want this team to take us.

—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. Bill

    One of the most important issues in my view is that

    …the community seems to be rather unaware of the problems that the community faces. 

    While the budget, innovation parks, roads, etc are big & important topics, there is a tremendous gulf that exists… that being effective community engagement.  While I know the budget is tight, I would strongly advocate that a Director of Community Engagement position be created.  Without an engaged public, the City will continue to struggle on numerous fronts.  I could see this position:

    Fostering in-person community dialogue
    Developing new channels for communication and community engagement, especially online
    Developing or acquiring tools to serve the community (such as
    Leading efforts to pro-actively address social issues such as poverty, homelessness, the impending increase of ex-offenders, etc.

    Structurally, this is the type of move that is needed to move Davis forward into the 21st century.

        1. Bill

          If you look at cities that have highly engaged citizenry, this role is often present.  It goes by different names, but it’s there.  Davis does not have such a role, thus low engagement.  It requires a specific set of skills, and those skills are quite different from a CM.

          We can keep going as we always have and remain with paltry engagement, or we can invest in such a position.  As I look around the landscape of Davis, this is one of the key pieces that is missing.  Will it cost money? Yes. But it would be money well spent.

  2. Anon

    First of all, polls are notoriously unreliable, so I personally don’t put much stock in them.  Current polls are even more unreliable in light of the fact that there has been limited and just the beginning of public education on upcoming issues, e.g. innovation parks, parcel tax, with far more public education to come.   Secondly, innovation parks are definitely on the minds of many citizens.  Whether folks are willing to pay for a new parcel tax largely depends on what the parcel tax will fund.  Put it towards road repair, bicycle paths, parks, and you probably have a winner if the parcel tax is not too high ($50-75/year).  Put it towards fixing pools and I suspect it is DOA.  I would encourage the pools community to get behind the innovation parks idea, because it is likely the only way the city is going to be able to fix current pools (or build a new one) and address other building maintenance issues.

    1. South of Davis

      Anon wrote:

      > First of all, polls are notoriously unreliable, so I personally don’t put much stock in them. 

      Remember someone always pays for a poll and they almost always set things up to get the answer they want.


      “Do you favor a huge new parcel tax so we can pay our new city manager over $200K”


      “Do you favor a small parcel tax to keep cops and firefighters on the job and repair our roads”

      1. David Greenwald

        The purpose of their poll was to decide whether or not they should invest millions of dollars into an innovation park. Don’t you think they had a vested interest in making sure that the poll was done correctly? Don’t you think that a professional pollster knows far more about conducting polls than you?

        1. South of Davis

          David wrote:

          >  Don’t you think they had a vested interest in making sure

          > that the poll was done correctly?

          Over the years I have seen a lot of real estate projects move forward and have seen a lot of polls about them.  Every poll I have ever seen has been from either a group that wanted the project to move forward or from a group that wanted to stop it.

          P.S. I’m betting that this poll was paid for by a group that will make money if the project moves forward not an investor with millions thinking about investing his own money in the park…

    2. Davis Progressive

      it’s not that polls are unreliable, it’s that public opinion constantly shifts as new information becomes available and the public as you mention becomes engaged.  but that doesn’t mean you ignore public opinion.

      i don’t see how you’re going to sell the pools community on the innovation parks idea being a fix for current pool issues.

    3. Tia Will


      So it seems that you are advocating that the swimming community wait at least 5-10  ( the anticipated build out time ) years to get a pool fixed. I am not part of the swimming community and that doesn’t even sound like a good deal to me.


  3. DT Businessman

    No, no, Bill.  Transparently and effectively developing informed consent in the electorate using contemporary communication means is no way to govern.  How will we then control the behavior of the residents to achieve the desired outcomes?

    -Michael Bisch


  4. Davis Progressive

    no one has talked about what success looks like, other than maybe bill.  i think bill has a good point even if i’d also be reluctant to add an employee.  also, i don’t think you can ask the city manager to be that person.  that’s not what you want a city manager to do.

    1. Frankly

      Why not expect that responsibility from our highly-compensated city CEO?  If the CM is not the chief champion of change then it probably will not happen anyway.

      1. Davis Progressive

        there are two different issues in your comment.  one is whether that should be the chief responsibility of the city manager and i don’t agree with that.  the other is whether the cm can be the champion of change, doing things like what pinkerton finally did in the spring going to groups and doing preentations, but i see the cm role overall as being different from that.

      2. Tia Will

        Why not expect that responsibility from our highly-compensated city CEO?”

        Maybe because you have hired him to do other duties ? The line of reasoning that because we pay someone a large salary means that we should keep piling on secondary responsibilities does not hold. Do we expect the CEO of a large company to also head up HR because they have a huge salary ?  Do you want your surgeon assigned the responsibility of designing the ads for your group practice because of her high compensation ?

        Either you designate someone to do this completely separate function, or you don’t. I can’t think of a better way to set a city manager up for failure than to add another job to his duties.

  5. Bill

    Just to be clear, this is MUCH more than simply posting on FB.  This person would locate tools to enable the citizen to have a voice. Some examples:

    1. Virtual Town Hall meetings.  This would enable families with young kids as well as elderly who can’t drive at night participate.

    2. Crowdsourcing (welcome to the 21st century):

    Davis Barnraising (could be used when figuring out what the community wants in terms of proposals… say, an Innovation Center for Example)
    New York uses to identify high-risk traffic trouble-spots
    Crowdfunding:  Kansas City crowdfunded the B-cycle project to provide 90 sharable bikes.  Btw, they raised $420,000
    C0-budgeting to gain insights into where the public would want money spent (article)
    And the possibilities go on and on

    3. Video blog updates — Robb Davis did this a while ago relating to the MRAP.

    Then there’s all the social media outlets that aren’t used very effectively.  The City of Davis FB page only has 950 likes.  That’s waaay below where it should be for effective engagement.  It’s no wonder that folks don’t know what’s going on in town.

    If the City were thinking that maybe it’d be smart (and good PR) to take more of a lead in addressing social issues, they would have a dedicated staff person to do so.  Who’s even begun talking about Prop 47 and the impact upon the city?  If the city doesn’t take a lead in this discussion, it will only result in a defensive posture upon the release of offenders.  If, however, they had someone actively working on a plan to address this, it could result in an opportunity for job creation.  Check out for example.

    It does cost money, yes.  But if anyone is willing to make the argument that we already are where we need to be in terms of community engagement in the 21st century, please say so.


    1. Mark West

      I think you have a number of good ideas here Bill, but I don’t agree with the idea of hiring another City employee to handle it.  I think this sort of interaction would be best handled on a contract basis by a company already well versed in the methods and process.  Besides, I don’t see this as a one person job if you really want it done well.

      1. Bill

        I agree that a company could handle some of these things.  But effective engagement is built around relationship.  You can’t manufacture that from the outside in effectively; it needs to be from the inside out… someone who already has relationships they can tap into.  A contracted company could provide the platform(s), but couldn’t provide the relational piece.  Still, you’re right, it could be a contracted local.

  6. DavisBurns

    We have already seen a glimpse of what an emerging anti-innovation park stance would look like – with questions about revenue generated, traffic impacts, and changes to the character of our community.

     That is just wrong-headed, David.  Unless we want to mindlessly approve anything proposed, we need to ask those questions!  it’s the responsible thing to do.

    1. David Greenwald

      I agree we need to ask those questions, I just want to also move beyond those detail questions to an understanding of what we want this community to look like.

  7. Tia Will

    I would argue that in order to know what success looks like, we need to know what we are in favor of, what our vision for the future of Davis looks like”

    I am a day late so I have no idea if anyone is still reading, but I am going to give a shot at answering this question.

    Given that change, although not growth, is inevitable I am going to do my best to describe how I would like to see Davis look. To understand my perspective one first has to understand that my highest value would best be described as harmony, not wealth accumulation .

    What I want for Davis is a warm, welcoming space for everyone who lives, works or visits here. I want a city in which I know my neighbors, shopkeepers, teachers, city leaders. I want a city where I feel comfortable walking on the streets and will see folks I know and want to get to know as I go about my day. I want approachable buildings interspersed with public spaces not vast parking lots. I want a well defined periphery, not the ongoing threat of merger with communities to the north and west. I want open space left partially because I like open space, but more importantly because I want all of what I have described not only for myself but for our children. I believe that our children deserve to have the right to have some determinations saved for them. I do not want to create a city that is so determined to have everything we want without paying for it ourselves, that we “use every bit of open space” as one poster said, thus leaving no room for differing decisions that might have been the preference of our children had we only left them some decisions to make in the future about land use.

    This last goal of saving some determinations for future generations can only be accomplished if we ourselves are willing to pay for what we want and use ourselves. The idea that we will simply grow our way out of financial difficulty is not a sound one. Financial growth is exactly that. A means of generating more money. I suppose if that is one’s highest value, then that would be the way to go. However, if one feels that we could achieve the same goals of raising enough to pay for our own desires by choosing to pay more ourselves, either with our money in the form of taxes, , with our money in the form of crowd sourcing or other creative ways of funding generation as Bill and others have suggested,or with our time in the form of volunteering,  then I believe we could preserve a very high quality life style without occupying every available unused space ourselves and allow our children to enjoy the amenities of Davis while still preserving for them some open space for their dreams and visions.

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