My View: Avoiding a Return of a Toxic City Hall Environment

City Hall

A few days ago I was going back over old Vanguard articles as I was in search of an old story, and it struck me how toxic the city council environment was from 2006 to 2010. One of the stunning factors, of course, was the polarity.

During that period there was a definite council majority of three votes and many of the most important decisions and votes took place on a 3-2 margin with the same coalition of three holding. There was little need or room at that time for compromise – after all, they had their 3-2 vote.

The bigger factor than the polarity between a staunch three-vote majority on things like land use decisions and the budget was the personality mix. The personality mix – and it was not just one person who was causing it – through that time was tense. It meant that there was contentiousness.

There are people who wish to put that personality mix on one person, but the council majority played its role in exacerbating what was already a difficult situation. By trying to put time constraints and rein in that person, rather than letting that person be heard, the rest of the council greatly increased the tension.

All one has to do is look at the period from the 2010 to 2012 and see the difference in the tone during that time to realize that things had not been handled well.

I have intentionally left out names here to avoid old debates and mainly because my point is not looking to the past, but rather looking to the present and future.

A number of people have asked why we might expect a difference between the current council with Dan Wolk as mayor and Robb Davis as mayor pro tem, and the last council where Joe Krovoza was mayor and Dan Wolk was mayor pro tem.

After all, that is the council where the mayor and mayor pro tem were battling for the Assembly seat that neither ended up winning. While there were increasing amounts of tension behind the scenes, the council did a fairly good job keeping that behind closed doors. The public face was one of consensus and, often to a fault, the council would avoid 3-2 votes (and sometimes you really do need a 3-2 vote to get things done and have things crystallized).

I think that, so far on policy issues, the current council has done a decent job of getting things off the plate. The obvious example is water, where I think Dan Wolk deserves a lot of credit for pushing through a compromise on the water rates and also striking a deal – even one that has people scratching their heads – to end the litigation and the possibility of another water referendum.

At the same time, the council really hasn’t dealt with the thorny issues yet. Those are coming, but not this week.

The most contentious issue was perhaps the MRAP, where it was a 3-1-1 vote to send the vehicle back, as opposed to a more measured approach which would have the council consider possibilities for sixty days and then decide whether to send it back.

There was also the vote to remove the ADU provision in the Affordable Housing ordinance – that was a reversed vote from the last council as Robb Davis replaced Joe Krovoza and formed the third vote with Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk not to allow ADUs to count toward affordable housing provisions.

While those issues were contentious (MRAP more so than Affordable Housing), bigger factors loom.

This week, we received additional information behind the scenes and from non-council sources about a potential deadlock on the new city manager. A key factor in that split is the firefighters’ union.

We have gone over the history of the firefighters’ union and its influence on the city council, but really, from 2011 to 2014, the firefighters were effectively locked out of city government influence. The mayor was a staunch supporter of economic and budget reform, as was the former city manager.

In 2013, things began to change. The firefighters’ union fought the city virtually every step of the way on reforms – they were one of two bargaining units that refused to agree to a contract, forcing a unanimous council to impose the last, best and final offer. But the bigger dispute was over fire staffing and shared management.

The firefighters tried everything to influence the process – they precinct walked, held meetings, formed a group called Friends of the Davis Firefighters, held protests outside of City Hall, had no-confidence votes, and eventually tried to get City Manager Steve Pinkerton fired. They also had public officials send two letters to the council opposing the shared management agreement.

While none of these efforts worked immediately, the pressure by the union to fire Steve Pinkerton was a large factor in his taking a position at Incline Village. That left a void at City Hall.

Moreover, Dan Wolk, in attempting to gain union support for his State Assembly run, cozied up to the firefighters. In 2011, he was the third vote to reduce employee compensation. In 2013, he was in opposition to staffing cuts and switched his vote on the shared management agreement following the two letters, one of which was signed by Senator Lois Wolk.

In early 2014, he was contentiously questioning the shared management fire chief on fire report updates.

All of this has been the opening that the firefighters’ union has needed to get back into their position of influence at City Hall and the battle line seems to be drawn on the new city manager. We are hearing that there may be two finalists at this point – one back by the fire union, the other back by the more reform-minded portion of the council.

Whoever wins out of this power struggle will help shape a future that still has to address such issues as the next round of MOUs, parcel taxes, and the proposed innovation parks.

These are critical issues that face this community and ground zero seems to be the city manager position. Stay tuned because, while things have greatly improved in the last four years, whoever is hired will set a tone for the next four.

—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. Barack Palin

    ” We are hearing that there may be two finalists at this point – one back by the fire unions, the other back by the more reform minded portion of the council.”

    If true, it’s amazing that a candidate that’s backed by the fire unions is even being considered and has made it to the final two. I hope the council members who are backing the union choice realize the uproar that’s headed their way if this all plays out where their choice gets the job.

  2. Tia Will


    While I agree with your assessment that there would likely be an “uproar” if the firefighter backed candidate gets the job, I would truly hope that the fear of an uproar will not play into the decision making. What is needed at this point is strong leadership from someone willing to take a balanced view of city priorities. I am hoping for a candidate who will keep the economic, environmental, health and wellness, and social aspects of city management in mind when implementing council direction and will neither bow to any particular interest group nor allow the perceived “emergency” or “neglect” of any one of these spheres to unduly drive their approach.

    I am also strongly hoping that any decision that is made will be reflection of each CC member’s willingness to set aside potential personal goals ( whether economic, political or social ) in order to focus on their current job, namely doing their very best for the City of Davis.

  3. Anon

    Somehow I doubt that the shared management model of the fire department would be “rolled back” – it would set off a fire storm that I doubt any City Council member would care to encourage.

    1. Matt Williams

      I tend to agree with you Anon, which is why I’m a bit surprised that the “hearsay” candidate (who is being identified by “hearsay” as being a supporter of rolling back the fire fighting governance and staffing changes) doesn’t come out and make the kind of practical statement that you have made in your post.

  4. Anon

    “There are people who wish to put that personality mix on one person, but the council majority played its role in exacerbating what was already a difficult situation. By trying to put time constraints and rein in that person, rather than letting that person be heard, the rest of the council greatly increased the tension.”

    I would agree that the mix on the City Council at the time the DV speaks of was toxic. However, I would still say there is a certain segment of political activists left over from that era purposely trying to use incivility to disrupt commission meetings and farmer’s market tabling, threatening lawsuits/referendums and other such nastiness to get their way at all costs. These political activists have not been successful on the larger issues, but have caused enough trouble on some smaller issues that it has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in various ways.

  5. tribeUSA

    I get nervous when all representatives of a council are all agreeing with each other most of the time.

    On the other hand, it seems to me the ‘fighting’ by legislators in D.C. is mainly play-acting and semantic games to disguise the reality that both sides of the aisle are behind the same basic agenda.

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