One of the most interesting questions that came out of yesterday’s abortive discussion on “Renew Davis” is one of the most basic questions which is, simply put, how do we accurate and faithfully determined what the community’s view are on what matters most?
It is a very basic question, but ultimately difficult to answer. Part of the problem is that we do not live in a true democracy. And while elections may represent the truest measure of a community’s values, even those fall short.
Observe the following chain of events that lead me to conclude that all elections are is the amplification of the loudest voices in the room.
First, we have a representational government. But while we directly choose our leaders to represent us – generally speaking we only get to choose from a small sample and vote for the people that we deem most likely to do the least amount of damage. Even in these elections, locally, half of those who have registered to vote, do so. And only a percentage of people who are eligible to vote, register to vote.
Those who vote are tantamount to the loudest voices in the room. They may be people who feel most strongly on issues affecting them. They may be people with direct financial interests. They may be those who are passionate about our community.
The rest of what follows at the local level is simply a group of five people who assess the best interests of the people and who at times respond to the loudest person in the room. From agenda setting, either through community groups, commissions, and public comment through the final vote, we only know community values based on who shows up, who writes letters, who speaks at public comment, and who makes comments.
The point is that we never really know what the “community” thinks about something. Rather it is always a subsection of the community that is engaged, whether it be engaged to show up and speak, write, or to vote – that is what we have heard.
So the question really is, do we need to determine the community’s views on what matters the most?
Where it gets more tricky – in trying to create a shared vision to allow the community move forward in Davis ultimately requires consent of the governed. Measure R effectively means that there are constraints on what elected officials can do.
Elected officials are largely free to operate according to their beliefs. It is not that the voters will not ultimately vote against incumbents – they will. We saw that in 2012 when the two incumbents finished fourth and fifth. Both had been elected officials for a number of years – 12 and 8 respectively. The community grew tired of their voices, probably less so than their ultimate votes.
But that is not my point. Rather my point is that with Measure R, there is only so much the elected officials can do with respect to land use without ultimate authorization from the voters.
The point I was making earlier in the week is that when the elected officials and other leaders in the community were meeting to plan and discuss innovation parks there was a critical part of the community missing. The so-called progressive community.
This was very critical to this discussion because, while one segment of the community had the loudest voice in terms of the proceedings, it was very evident from the start that in order to gain Measure R passage, the progressive voting bloc had to be supportive enough not to vote against it in such numbers that they could effectively veto the consideration.
So when we talk about community discussion and visioning, if that voter bloc does not participate, we can gain the concession of those in the room all we want – it is not going to produce a workable solution that can pass at the polls.
As I pointed out on Tuesday, right now the progressive are just strong enough to block initiatives that they deem as harmful to the community.
I understand that engagement is a two-way street. Many told me that they just do not see opportunities for progressives to meaningfully engage.
As one commenter put it, “The opportunity of going to an echo-chamber meeting where the presupposition of the importance of a peripheral business park is already determined doesn’t count.”
Moreover, some have disengaged because of public ridicule for the position. As I listened to comments last year at the Innovation Park Task Force meeting, the comments were condescending and demeaning.
People’s motives for opposing projects and growth are called into question. However, I would point out that people’s motives for supporting projects and growth are also called into question. Councilmembers are ridiculed for being in the pockets of developer interests for example.
Ultimately, what has happened is that very little has changed in Davis in the last eight years. We still have a divide on the issue of growth. While people like me see value in economic development while being largely supportive of Measure R and slow growth policies on housing, there is still a pretty hard line between those supporting some development and those opposing most development.
Moreover, I would point out that, while the toxic atmosphere at the council meetings has subsided, the divide in the community has not.
The point I think the slow growth advocates made on Tuesday was that the venues were seen as tilted – and not safe ground. The discussion of the Innovation Park Task Force was not conducive to slow growthers wanting to come to express their views when they believed the meeting was predetermined on the issue.
So if we want real dialogue we have to create what might be called a safe space where all people feel welcomed and their views and contributions appreciated and productive.
We are not there yet and I don’t know that we can get there any time soon. I know the city has attempted some conflict resolution processes. I attended the one led by the police and while the process was good, the presentation there was certainly tilted.
I think people need to quickly recognize that if we wish to get land use policies approved, it will take some buy-in from the slow-growth, progressive elements of the community to accomplish that and the path that we chart needs to reflect that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting