On Tuesday, PublicCEO posted a fascinating piece from Bill Britt of California Forward. The article was “Three Steps to Restoring Trust in a City’s Finances and Governance” and it told the story of how Michele Martinez not only promised “to restore trust” in her city, but “actually delivered on it.”
Mr. Britt writes, “Long after winning a seat on the Santa Ana City Council in 2006 with a reputation for pushing for more government accountability, Martinez has not only helped boost residents’ trust in city government, she landed a tangible result to show for it: a sunshine ordinance forged by a coalition of city officials and community activists who were impressed with Martinez’s personal commitment to city affairs.”
That was one thing that, even with the previous council, got little traction in Davis – a sunshine ordinance.
More importantly, the article lays out three steps that we will evaluate in a Davis context.
First, “Open your doors.”
The article notes, that a city’s “front door is its official website.” And if that’s true, perhaps the biggest debacle of the last regime was the botching of the city’s website. The city rolled out a new website before it was ready to roll. There were dead links, people could not find critical information and to this day, the website is cumbersome and difficult to use.
The city of Davis has brought in a lot of tools to help it better communicate with and interact with the public, but until it has a website that is easy to access and makes it easy to find important information, it will be difficult for the city to really gain the trust of the community.
Second, “Listen closely to those who aren’t happy.”
This is an interesting one. For a long time, I believe that the city of Davis under the council majority from 2004 to 2010 attempted to marginalize those whose were not happy. Not all of the time and not everyone. Those with political power and those who had issues that seemed to coincide with the council majority or their perception of the broader public had a bit more access.
But those who were deemed in the opposition to the council majority were not only marginalized, they were often subjected to cynical manipulation. For many, this served to undermine their trust in the community.
There was a comment made at the last council meeting when citizens became angry about the content of one of the council goals and there was irritation expressed by some on the council that people automatically assume the worst when sometimes there are honest miscommunications.
I think this really stems from history – recent history – where people really were being manipulated and cynically so, and they have countered that by becoming suspicious of the intentions of city staff and council.
If the city wishes to address this distrust, they have to rebuild trust and start by listening. And I think mostly, in the last four or five years, the council has listened. Sometimes, I think they have gone too far in the other direction and listened too much and backed down at a hint of opposition.
Third, “Invite them to partner with you to find solutions.”
Here I think we suffer from an opposite problem. Trust is a two-way street. The public has good reason to not trust city government, given the history of both city staff and city council. That said, I think that city council and city staff also have reasons to distrust segments of the population.
In the Santa Ana experience, the message was “trust us enough to help develop a sunshine ordinance.”
As Mayor Pro Tem Sarmiento points out, when elected officials make a genuine effort to reach out, the result is simply better government: “The importance of passing the sunshine ordinance was to let people know that they have a role in their government and hopefully we can convince them there are good results when they participate.”
The city and the community need to be able to partner together in order to form common trust, but the city has to be able to trust the motivations of those involved.
For example, the city would be well-served to partner with community groups on the planning of the innovation parks. Where the public has concerns about impacts of the parks, their partnership can help them overcome that.
However, I think there is a legitimate concern on the part of some that some will use this partnership not to further the parks, but as a way to sabotage them. This is a difficult problem to overcome and trust needs to be established.
In short, I think the problem in Davis is that there are segments of the population that do not trust the government and the government does not trust segments of the population.
That is the key problem we face in this community, and it will become a bigger and bigger problem.
The biggest issues on the table are the city budget and the proposed innovation parks.
As we noted last week, a Davis Enterprise editorial pointed out that, while the city faces a long-term financial crunch, the solution is tax revenues that the innovation parks could generate.
However, in his column this week, Rich Rifkin points out that “higher revenues alone will not solve the fundamental problem with how our city does business.”
The critical factor, he argues, is “[h]ow the city manages the growth of its expenses, particularly its hourly labor costs.”
The truth is, there are a large number of people in this community who have paid very little attention to the city’s finances over the years and when polled last year, most did not recognize the state of the city’s finances.
However, for those paying attention, many are waiting for the next shoe to drop. They fully expect the current council to increase employee compensation. A lot of people are reluctant to support the innovation parks for this very reason – believing that they will simply become a way to increase compensation to the firefighters and other city employees.
On the other hand, even the more hawkish councilmembers have told me directly that the city is not going to go back to the days of 2009. We are not going to see double-digit compensation increases for any bargaining unit.
The more likely outcome will be a small but incremental increase.
The bottom line here is that many remain concerned with the long-term fiscal viability of the city and, even during the most hawkish period of deficit reduction, Rich Rifkin argues that at best we have only made “the picture less bad.”
He writes, “A few council members have made small differences in cutting this or that here and there. But at the very same time, every one — including those who have pushed cuts — has ignored the relationship of the growth of labor costs to the growth of city revenues, where unit costs continually have grown faster.”
The trust factor will inhibit the city’s ability to sell innovation parks to the public, which in turn will inhibit the ability of the city to make ends meet and perhaps hire the quality employees that they believe they need.
Can we restore trust? I am increasingly skeptical about that, as I feel in the past year we have moved back from significant gains.
—David M. Greenwald reporting