Commentary: Mayor Strikes Careful Balance Recasting Challenges as Opportunity

Mayor Wolk delivers the State of the City Address on Tuesday
Mayor Wolk delivers the State of the City Address on Tuesday

One of the biggest questions we had was what would a Mayor Dan Wolk term look like in the city of Davis. And while we have had six months of a warm-up act, so to speak, Tuesday at the Davis Chamber the State of the City Address was really our first opportunity to see the mayor fully articulate his vision for the future.

The mayor really tried to do two things in his speech – first differentiate himself from the past while recasting the present and even future challenges into positive terms. His introduction made light of the fact that past State of the City Addresses, both by City Manager Steve Pinkerton and last year by Mayor Joe Krovoza, were “dour.” He also noted they were long and had multiple PowerPoint slides.

By way of differentiating himself, he reduced his presentation down to two basic point slides – 2014: “It was a very good year” and 2015 “Let’s ‘Renew Davis.’” He had a few pictures of the MRAP and the city council for effect, but his presentation boiled down to these two slides.

Mayor Dan Wolk clearly led with the positive, illustrating eight successes in 2014 from his perspective: the Innovations Centers and Nishi, a new council and city manager, the Cannery, the budget, reinvestment in infrastructure, environmental efforts, the water project, and the downtown.

The message was clear and consistent: “The state of the city is very strong right now” and “2014 was a very good year.”

Can we quibble on some of these things? Absolutely.

Mayor Wolk said that the city was hit hard by the Great Recession, “but we’re emerging. We had a 25 percent reduction in employees, our employees had to take a number of concessions, cuts.” He said, “But things are getting better. We ended last year at $850,000 more than we were expecting. That isn’t considered one-time money. This recovery has legs.”

“We are on our way to eliminating our structural deficit,” he added.

There are, as we presented earlier this week, other sides to the story. But Mayor Wolk was able to cater the message to his audience and even when he brought up areas where he might differ with the Chamber crowd, such as his support for minimum wage hikes or the Fifth Street Redesign, he was able to acknowledge potential differences but downplay them.

Mayor Wolk was also, for the most part, able to avoid being seen as a Pollyanna, as well. He didn’t necessarily ignore challenges, but rather he embraced them, recasting these challenges into a positive vision for the future.

So instead of lamenting the lack of housing and the shrinking demographics of the 25 to 45-year-old group, which he said “is concerning for the future of our city,” he couched the Cannery project as being the antidote for both the shrinking 25 to 45-year-old demographic as well as providing housing and services for the rapidly growing senior population. Cannery, as he put it, “reestablishes Davis as a leader in innovative housing.”

For Fifth Street, he acknowledged it was a controversial topic. “We’re kind of seeing how that plays out,” he said. “So far the results have been good, but I think it really takes a while for folks to get used to that… Certainly, the sky didn’t fall on that project.” He noted that he bikes down Fifth Street, so he really appreciates the change.

But the centerpiece of Dan Wolk’s presentation was his vision.

“My vision for 2015,” Mayor Wolk explained, “is Renew Davis.” He then became quite eloquent in laying out that vision.

He quoted from Newark Mayor Corey Booker, “We drink from wells that we did not dig.” From Mayor Wolk’s perspective, “Previous generations give a lot to our community… so that all of us in this room can benefit from that. I think that we have an obligation… to pay that forward.”

“We have significant challenges that go well beyond our time in this community and we need to be willing to make the sacrifices to ensure that future generations have the same things that we benefited from,” he added.

He said that’s the theme not only of his service on the council but as we think about 2015, “that’s really what I want us to be. My conception of that is ‘Renew Davis.’”

This isn’t a future without challenges, but rather he embodies those challenges within a positive vision for the future – a future that addresses the issues of economic development and the need for Davis to expand its economic base and provide jobs for young people coming out of college so that they can fulfill the same dream he lived – the opportunity to stay in Davis and raise a family.

While laying this out he also would acknowledge that he is in support of both proposed Innovation Parks as well Nishi. Will that be a challenge to approve? He did gloss over some of the details and pushed off the tougher decision, noting that we have to see how the studies come out.

He also pushed again for infrastructure not just in roads, but also parks and pools and city buildings.

He pushed for clean energy, differentiating himself from the POU proposal to a Community Choice Aggregation model.

The mayor again pushed forth his healthy families initiatives – acknowledging the need for this community to care for children.

Finally, he talked about local and regional partnerships. Mayor Wolk noted that in recent years Davis has begun to flex its muscles regionally. “With the innovation centers people are really [seeing] that Davis really is beginning to do some things at our regional level,” he said. “I think we really need to do more of that.”

He said he wanted to see the councilmembers pushing for us to do more at the regional level and partnering with others in our region.

It is clear and Mayor Wolk acknowledged that the city of Davis has clear challenges ahead. The strength of the mayor’s State of the City Address was his ability to recast those challenges into a positive vision for the future.

The weakness of his speak was perhaps the downplaying of those challenges and the lack of specific policy proposals. For example, he is supportive of all three innovation centers (including Nishi) and says, “all three of those would be wonderful additions to our community.” But getting those three through the voters is going to be difficult and that difficulty is really glossed over.

He talks about the need to invest in infrastructure without committing to the parcel tax money necessary to make that happen.

He also praises Cannery and talks about the declining 25 to 45 demographic without a real discussion of what it would mean to provide the necessary housing to reverse that trend.

Finally, as we have noted in the past, he is optimistic on the city’s economy. Again, he says, “But things are getting better. We ended last year at $850,000 more than we were expecting. That isn’t considered one-time money. This recovery has legs.”

“We are on our way to eliminating our structural deficit,” he added.

As we have noted in the past, he seems more bullish than the other four council members on the economy. The liabilities, he said, are daunting, but we are putting in the necessary money needed to shore up those funds. However, we are not convinced that the city has the money in place or a plan to put in place to address unfunded liabilities on an ever-changing pension front.

The other really interesting point he made is “this is a very sound city budget that we have.”

That is a city budget that has held the line on spending, and it has saved about $4 million per year in general fund for infrastructure. He did not commit to what a future budget would or should look like.

The bottom line, from our perspective, is that the challenges here are quite substantial and while the economy is going well the city really still needs to both grow its revenue base through economic development and shore up revenues in the short-term through taxes. That will be a large challenge in 2015 to get both of those put in place.

The mayor did a great job of talking about the need to “Renew Davis,” but it was more of a laying out of a vision than a call to action.

Nevertheless, we would argue this is one of the better speeches overall – Dan Wolk stayed on message, he laid out his vision and recast challenges in positive terms.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is the state of the city is very strong and we’ve got a really bright future.”

That line certainly fully captured the essence of his speech.

—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. Davis Progressive

    when i first read this editorial, it seemed the vanguard had gone soft.  but the criticisms while subtle are there.  he is critical of the feasibility of getting three innovation parks past and critical that the details of which were “glossed over.”  there was no talk about parcel tax – time or amount.  he praised cannery but did not discuss how we could address housing needs any further, and the structural deficit and pension stuff is messed up – dan clearly has not gone over the numbers with anyone who understands city finance.

  2. Miwok

    the Cannery project as being the antidote for both the shrinking 25 to 45-year-old demographic as well as providing housing and services for the rapidly growing senior population

    Oh, sure, the mommies and daddies of the 25-45 year olds can afford to buy their kids a house now? Then the demographic will go up? The only 25-45 year olds I know are new faculty, and UCD makes housing loans available for them lower than the Prime Rate. Most are going to West Sac, but I am not a real estate guy. I just talk to people.

    If Mayor Wolk thinks his leadership will bring younger people into town, he has to have control of real estate.

    Not having heard any of his speeches, I can only think he tried to put the best face on things, and did not say “It was a great 2014, now let’s change everything!”.

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