My View: Fiscal Situation Not on the Backs of the Progressives


While it has been an easy mark to pin the demise of the innovation parks, and perhaps the imperiled economic development program, on the backs of the progressive movement in Davis – and in particular, the rise of Measure J – I believe this is an incomplete reading, both of what is going on currently as well as the history of Davis.

While we are not yet at the point where we can look deeply into the present situation as it continues to unfold and develop, I will argue here that the city’s need for economic development and expansion of its economic base is not on the progressives at all.

Here we will explore three key factors: first, the decision to protect the core area in the 1960s, second, the rise of Measure J, and third, the drastic increase in employee compensation.

As Chapter 7 of John Lofland’s critical history of Davis (Davis: Radical Changes, Deep Constants) demonstrates, during the 1940s to 1960s, many if not most of American towns and cities saw the rapid expansion of services that led to the rise of “peripheral shopping malls that had the effect of drawing business away from and ultimately decimating traditional downtowns.”

In Davis, however, Professor Lofland describes the “G Street business crowd,” who early on viewed “growth as a threat to them.” He noted that they favored “rapid residential growth at the edges of the town” (page 125, emphasis in the original), but “they saw that large-scale retail at the periphery would undercut them.”

Professor Lofland writes, “Indeed, this threat was so obvious to them and spoken about so often in the pages of the Davis Enterprise that I have wondered why elites in other towns did not more often react like those in Davis.”

Later, on page 127, Professor Lofland would note that “the obvious flip-side of a sustained downtown was control of retail at the periphery.” However, they did not prohibit it. Rather, they limited the developments, keeping them small in number and size. That led to the University Mall on Russell in 1965, G Street center north of Fifth in 1967; the Davis Manor on Eighth Street (1969) and the Lucky’s Center on Anderson and Covell (1971).

“Additional centers were resisted,” he said.

All of this occurred during the 1960s, long before the progressive takeover in the early 1970s. By the way, this isn’t a criticism of the policies from the 1960s – in most ways, the city has benefited from that foresight.

However, the city’s strategy of restricting peripheral retail has also limited the size and scope of the Davis retail, and limited the tax revenue that the city might have derived from peripheral retail and the rise of big-box development.

Even when the city went against this inclination in 2006 with the voter-approved Target, proponents of the big box acknowledged that this would be a one-time shot to hopefully generate $600,000 in additional revenue. Moreover, when the Vanguard met in 2013 with CIO Rob White and Chamber CEO Kemble Pope, they acknowledged that the city was not going to support peripheral retail or the development of a strip mall to generate revenue.

The decision, therefore, to limit peripheral retail is not a construct of the progressive era, but actually precedes it.

The second point is that the rise of Measure J in 2000 was in reaction to one of the big periods of residential growth in the city’s history. In 1960, the city of Davis had less than 9000 people. That number increased to 23,000 by 1970 and 36,000 by 1980. By 2000, it was 60,000.

In other words, the city grew by about 600% over a 40-year period and nearly doubled in a 20-year period. From 1990 to 2000, the city grew by 14,000 people.

Measure J was really a reaction to that huge amount of peripheral growth in the late 1980s and 1990s. As we have argued, however, it is not completely clear that Measure J by itself stopped the growth.

The Covell Village project, even at the time, was expected to be the last major subdivision for the foreseeable future. It was a hotly contested fight that ultimately turned on the size of the project as well as the lack of traffic mitigation. It is worth noting, however, that a decade before there was a similar battle over Wildhorse that resulted in a victory for that project.

It was not just Measure J – the residents of Davis at that time seemed to turn against large peripheral growth. The only other Measure J vote came four years later in 2009 and during the heart of the real estate collapse, and the voters turned it down by a 3 to 1 margin.

The voters in 2010 then approved Measure R, the ten-year renewal of Measure J by a similar 75-25 margin.

Why is this important? First of all, while Measure J was, in fact, a progressive innovation, by 2009 and 2010, the community itself had turned against peripheral growth and heavily support the limitations.

While Measure J primarily was a reaction against residential growth, the push for economic development is now caught up in its webbing.

The final piece to the city’s fiscal puzzle comes from the 2000 to 2008 period. There is certainly blame enough to go around. It was the 1999 council that approved four on an engine for the fire department. It was the 2000 council that approved their 3 percent at 50 retirement package. Both of these were key ingredients in the fiscal crisis.

But the real catalyst came from the 2005 council of Ruth Asmundson, Don Saylor, Stephen Souza and Ted Puntillo. In 2004, the voters warned that the city might face layoffs, so they passed a half-cent sales tax. But by the next year, those fiscal warnings either disappeared or subsided.

What happened next would change the course of history. The tax increase helped to finance a massive 36 percent increase in the firefighters’ salary for their 2005 to 2009 MOU. While the firefighters and their political prowess have been rightly and roundly criticized here, it’s important to note that every bargaining unit got at least a 15 percent pay increase over a four-year period, with some approaching 20 percent.

That decade saw firefighters’ pay explode from a modest $48,000 in 2000 to over $80,000 and $90,000 by 2008. With retirement and pension increases, total compensation for firefighters was a whopping $150,000.

In the 2008 election, it was progressives like Sue Greenwald and candidate Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald who warned about the fiscal cliff we were about to fall off. Meanwhile, incumbents Don Saylor and Stephen Souza bragged that we had a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve – ignoring what was even at that time tens of millions in unfunded liabilities and probably $100 million or more in unmet needs, and keeping them off the budget.

It would take the economic collapse and a new city council in 2010 and 2012 to deal with these fiscal realities.

Those who argue that we now need peripheral innovation parks need to understand that the genesis of the fiscal crisis was policies put in place in the 1960s limiting peripheral sales, runaway growth policies in the 1980s and 1990s that led to Measure J, and runaway fiscal spending in the 2000s. None of this was the result primarily of progressive policies, but instead a reaction to unrestrained growth.

Measure J and Measure R are not the primary culprit here. However, that does not change the fact that the city needs to create more sound fiscal policies, both in terms of spending and revenue, going forward into the future.

—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. Frankly

    I have rightly been blasted on a regular basis for affixing definitive political labels to sides of policy dispute.  I do this mostly for convenience of making a strong point, and also because, like it or not, our political system is dominated by two opposing political parties.  The domination of one party over the other has lead to disastrous consequences.

    What is missing from this article is the contribution to our problems from the public-sector union-powered Democratic Party machine.  Democrats have dominated state and local politics for decades, and is primarily Democrats (though certainly not exclusively) that are responsible for the fiscal mess in the state and throughout the state in cities and counties.

    But Davis is in a unique mess from the lack of economic development over the last 50 years.  And although the Vanguard makes a good case that it wasn’t progressives responsible for the start of this anti-development trend, today it most certainly is… but with a lot of help from others.

    But getting back to my first point about assigning responsibility to political labels.

    I think with respect to current and ongoing blocking of development, it is not just progressives; I think the correct label is “reactionaries”.   In political discourse, the term is more often used to pin on conservatives defending tradition.  Conservatism itself tends to gives more weight to the value of the way things are.  In most communities where conservatives demonstrate strong reactionary tendencies, conservatives dominate the politics.

    But here in Davis the politics are dominated by people claiming a liberal-progressive tilt.  And they have also dominated the reactionary tendency.

    Reactionaries are really just people opposing change for reasons that resonate from a position of anxiety or fear.  They do so in clear view of rational justification for the change.

    A good example of this is the education system.  The US spends more per student on public school education than any other industrialized country, yet we have some of the worst outcomes compared to almost every other industrialized country.  But liberals and Democrats are highly reactionary to demands for significant reform that does not just allocate more money to what is really the status quo.

    Reactionaries have a value in public policy because otherwise we might have cowboy and cowgirl politicians shooting from the hip making changes that benefit their political careers or pockets at the expense of the communities they are supposed to serve.  Not all change is good.  Not all change is justified.

    But the problem we face in Davis is that there is a definitive need to grow our economy through some peripheral expansion, yet the reactionaries are blocking it.   And the reactionaries are blocking it because they have Measure J/R.

    They are not just progressive reactionaries… they are joined by liberals and conservatives, residents and business owners,  that all share the reactionary tendency that is driven by anxiety and fear of losing what they dominate.

    Measure J/R is a gift to the reactionaries because without it there would not be enough political cohesion in opposition to this justified change to grow our local economy.   Measure J/R makes strange bedfellows of people from all political strips and diverse special interests to come together in solidarity to block change… needed change in this case.

    We have met the enemy and it is Measure R/J.   It is a primary tool of the reactionary… only sometimes being useful for the more calculating and reasoned folk to have their say on change.

    1. Don Shor

      Nearly every major growth proposal I can think of since I moved here — Mace Ranch, Covell Village, Target, Richards Blvd. underpass widening, and more — has been supported by the then-council majority, by most political leaders in the area. All of those political leaders were elected, popular folks, re-elected in many cases after their initiatives failed. Some have been promoted, like Don Saylor, to regional government office and is sufficiently successful that he was unopposed in his re-election bid. In spite of the popularity of local figures like Dave Rosenberg, Lois Wolk, Don Saylor, Mike Corbett, and others — in the majority of cases when they approved big projects and put them before the voters, those projects failed. Only rarely has there been a council majority comprised of slow/no-growth members.
      In Davis, no-growth folks call their opponents “developer Democrats.”
      But in any event, you can rail against Measure R all you like. I would be willing to bet that if it went before the voters again, it would pass with at least a 60/40 margin. That any candidate who ran on a platform of revising it would likely lose, unless there was a very unusual tilt to the field of candidates. To pass the Davis voters, a project has to check off all the right boxes, minimize any housing component, and clearly address near-neighbor concerns.

  2. Doby Fleeman

    In general, I want little truck with those prefer to rely on labels to express their views on life and politics.
    I find the use of labels to be more an impediment than an assist in attempting to sort through the thornier issues that bedevil our social interactions.  Several years ago, Jennifer and I travelled back to New York for the launch of a group labelled “No Labels”.   It didn’t get too far, but it was an acknowledgment that the labels often just get in the way of what we are trying to say.
    As for today’s commentary on progressives roles in our current state of affairs in Davis, I’m not sure I really understand the point of your article – unless you are attempting to conflate progressives with naysayers when it comes to discussion of the Innovation Centers – a point I feel that does genuine disservice to the conversation.
    Bottom line, whenever somebody offers up a good idea, my first response is “Splendid idea, now how do we intend to pay for it?”   There are many who pooh-pooh the question of who will pay – arguing it’s just the right thing to do.   In many cases, I’m sure they are correct.  However, when that attitude comes in contact with massive government spending programs, then we find the making of potential problems.  Politicians tend to love new, feel good programs that appeal to large numbers of voters.
    On “paying side”, what has happened – beginning at the Federal Level and now filtered down to the state and local – is the increasing use of deferred expenditures and acceptance of Unfunded Liabilities (a redundant term, by the way, only used in public sector accounting because it gives lip service to the recognition that these shouldn’t be unfunded, but rather prefunded liabilities.}
    All I know is that there remain an almost limitless opportunity to identify worthy causes, initiatives and programs that will be appealing to the masses – particularly if they seem to be available at little or no cost.  
    So for me, the rubber meets the road, when we get down to talking about who is going to be paying for the cool free stuff AND how we intend to divvy up the bill.
    We are about to the point where taxpayers are going to shut off the spigot for the use of “unfunded liabilities” and “deferred maintenance” as the answer.   It’s either got to be NEW revenues from incremental NEW economic growth and vitality, or it’s got to be from NEW taxes on the general public.
    So, as we look forward, and begin to imagine what a new and improved Davis might offer – it’s important to keep in mind just how we plan to pay for these new amenities.  I’m not disagreeing – by the way – that there are important public investments that we address (particularly if we hope to stay at the forefront as a socially responsible and sustainable community).   I can see that our roads and bridges, and schools and parks, and public buildings all need upgrades and major investments.  Our water and wastewater resources is one of the more recent examples.
    But there will also be growing demand for new and improved faciliaties to address the needs of our growing senior population.   It’s totally obvious and totally predictable as the Boomer Generation ages out of the jobs market and joins the ranks of pensioners.    Expanded programs for seniors will likely represent one of the greatest challenges for our communities in the decades ahead.  Where will that funding come from?   There is nothing but an unfunded liability underpinning our Federal programs for Social Security and Medicare.  Yes, the Federal Government can continue or expand its program of quantitative easing (as we see in Europe and Japan), but that is simply weakening the dollar and deferring a problem that will come home during this 30 year time horizon that parallels the build-out of our proposed Innovation Centers.
    So, let’s bring it back home and take the long? (30 years is long) view.   What will Davis of 2045 be needing if it intends to continue as a global leader in sustainable communities?    I can imagine the need for increased mental health services at the local level – both to address the aging cohort, but also because the will be many in this same cohort who will be sorely pressed for the necessary financial wherewithal to make do in these future years.  Then there are the questions of how does Davis intend to finance its fair share of regional transit solutions?    Today, we have almost no budgetary line item for public transit – other than passthrough of funding from other jurisdictions.  What is the plan and how are those services to be financed?   Today, we have talk of new initiatives to implement Restorative Justice practices – non-prison solutions for repeat offenders and programs to help better re-socialize those with criminal pasts.   But it seems that even today, we don’t actual programs and funding in place to follow through on these well intended new programs.
    So, wall it what you will – how to make this a better world and a better society – but pause long enough to answer the corollary question:  Who and How do will be able to pay for all these essential programs?
    Isn’t that worth talking about, or should we just wait until 2045 and see how this stasis thing is working out three decades hence?

    1. Alan Miller

      I find the use of labels to be more an impediment than an assist in attempting to sort through the thornier issues that bedevil our social interactions.


      the launch of a group labelled “No Labels”.

      Reminds me of when a group of clowns marched through Santa Cruz chanting, “No more Chanting!  No more Chanting!”

  3. Gunrocik

    It is important to draw a distinction between land use issues, social issues and labor issues.

    Social issues such as zero waste, zero energy, sugary drinks, toad tunnels, along with the protection of coyotes, bats and burrowing owls typically are imposed on us via political views which derive the evil democratic machine demonized by Frankly.  Of course, there are other communities where the tea party crazies of the right have attempted to put their stamp on the local populace by attempting to eliminate any government service that doesn’t relate to public safety, sewer or water.

    Labor issues are also typically based on party affiliation, which was certainly the case with the Saylor led giveaway to the unions (and we are about to see again now that the Wolk machine occupies the City Manager’s office).

    Our growth policies — as in most cities  — are bi-partisan.  In Davis, Brentwood, Orinda, Walnut Creek and hundreds of other cities with growth controls, they are typically imposed with help from every part of the political spectrum.  Even the most ardent conservatives seem to turn into environmentalists when it comes to protecting their way  of life.  While there are very few residents of Tea Party-controlled Fayette County Georgia that share Dr. Will’s political views, they are sympatico when it comes to protecting their community from future growth.

    If you were to try and find a common theme among cities with restrictive growth controls, they typically are cities with a lot of amenities, an affluent, aging population, good schools, and a prevailing attitude of superiority among the population. They also likely had a period of very rapid growth which enraged the masses and compelled the ballot initiative to limit growth.

    While we now live in a very polarized world when it comes to governance, among those who already have a home in a nice community — growth control is the one issue where we are still one community!

    1. Frankly

      growth control is the one issue where we are still one community!

      Not one community because there are many that understand that we need economic growth.  More what I said… reactionaries of all political stripes making strange bedfellows.  They are in solidarity to block growth.

      I am on the slow-growth train except when it is clear that we have to grow.  I really don’t know anyone living here that is in favor of massive growth.  But there are those of us that have done the math and looked at the past and present and future, and have come to the conclusion that there is only one logical way to repair our fiscal house… generate more revenue to the city.  You can demand higher taxes ($400 – $500 per year), but we are already highly taxed and the residents will not vote to accept it.   When we look at our sources of tax revenue compared to all other comparable cities, Davis’s business tax receipts are any order of magnitude less.  So there you see the clear solution.

      But the direct democracy approach empowers those that would just say no to anything they fear will impact them.

      It is largely an emotional response and not so much a rational one.

      1. Jim Frame

        But the direct democracy approach empowers those that would just say no to anything they fear will impact them.


        You mean like raising taxes?  Heaven forbid we should allow mere voters to block tax increases!

  4. Tia Will


    While we now live in a very polarized world when it comes to governance, among those who already have a home in a nice community — growth control is the one issue where we are still one community!”

    I agree with your statement and would like to point out that it is far more inclusive than you have portrayed. Having lived at most conceivable levels of the economic spectrum, I would like to point out that neither polarization nor desire for growth control are limited to any particular class. In my hometown the desired to control growth was evenly distributed among the upper class who did not want the “hoi poloi” ( yes, actual term used) spoiling their community and those who lived by necessity a rural lifestyle and did not want the lifestyle destroyed, as it inevitably was by those who could not afford the highest priced homes, but could afford their pseudo-mansions provided by developers whose interest was in making money ( not a sin, but certainly without any consideration of the lives they were destroying in order to maximize their profits.

    I also agree with you that neither side of the political spectrum is more change averse. We just see different types of change as most desirable based on our values. Open mindedness, respect for the opinions of others and an openness to thinking outside the box of our traditional approaches do not seem to be on the radar for either side of the ideologically committed.


  5. davisite4

    “the demise of the innovation parks”

    I am surprised to see the plural here — or is there something you’re not saying?  Is this about the layoffs at Schilling, as reported in the Enterprise:

    Declining crude-oil prices may bring good news at the gas pump, but they’re bad news for 59 employees at Schilling Robotics, who were laid off last week.


    The company, which produces robotics equipment and remote-operated vehicles commonly used for undersea construction of offshore oil drilling rigs, blamed the plummeting oil prices for a drop in business leading to the layoffs. The staff reduction represents just under 15 percent of the company’s global workforce.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    Current times, weren’t Measures J/R and reckless city spending supported by a majority of Democrats / Progressives? Weren’t a majority of elected officials, public opinion makers, public spokespeople, and those which fight for and implemented these policies, Democrats / Progressives?

    I don’t think there were Conservatives, Independents, Libertarians, Whigs or Tea Party members pushing for a 30 percent pay increase for city employees.

    On top of this, in a town dominated by the Left, it is these same people who now don’t want to pay the piper for these goods and services via more taxes.

    Wasn’t it also this same crowd who greased the wheels to move land – already zoned for commercial development -into an agricultural preserve, making it ten times as hard to get a new innovation center established? This is what is referred to in the business world as butt-backwards.

    Furthermore, this same crowd wants to add a revenue-sucking $10-million-plus showcase Olympic pool and a mega sports complex on the periphery of town (which will just promote driving and external shopping and development). These were apparently overlooked, along with a massive unfunded road maintenance bill which should be front-center of any discussion of city finances.

    You can’t blame the Whigs.

    1. Don Shor

      who greased the wheels to move land – already zoned for commercial development -into an agricultural preserve, making it ten times as hard to get a new innovation center established?

      Which site was that?

    2. Matt Williams

      who greased the wheels to move land – already zoned for commercial development -into an agricultural preserve, making it ten times as hard to get a new innovation center established?

      TBD, you have caused me to shake my head many, many times in the period since you joined the Vanguard in the height of the Nancy Peterson affair, but of all your contributions to the Vanguard, the quote above is far and away the most misguided and inaccurate you have ever come up with. You sir have outdone yourself.

      Although, your very first post was a doozie as well.

      I officially nominate Nancy Peterson in the lead role for Housewives of Sacramento Valley; her hubby Dr. obtaining, and then leaking Confidential personnel documents sealed the nomination.

        1. Matt Williams

          Nancy Peterson was anything but a Democrat insider. In her School Board Election filing her political party affiliation wasn’t Democrat.

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