Last week, we noted and analyzed Rich Rifkin’s column, “Davis City Manager Fails to Lead” (6/24) where he wrote, “Next week, Dirk Brazil will mark the start of his ninth month on the job as the Davis city manager. Sadly, there is already good reason to think that our City Council made the wrong choice in picking Brazil to replace Steve Pinkerton.”
This week, Gregg Cook comes to Mr. Brazil’s defense, charging, “Once again, Rich Rifkin ignores facts to chastise his ‘victim du jour'” and that Mr. Rifkin “blames Brazil for continuing two decades of ‘crushing fiscal crisis.’”
While Mr. Cook leads with a strong point, “I’m surprised that Rifkin isn’t aware that the city manager is not the final voice, in fact he/she doesn’t have a vote, in finalizing the city budget or determining employee compensation.” Indeed, as we noted last week, Mr. Rifkin blamed Dirk Brazil for replacing lead negotiator Tim Yeung with Patrick Clark, when in fact it was the council that made that decision, not the city manager.
However, Mr. Cook never makes that point and his argument quickly slips away from facts and toward absurd and ad hominem attacks.
Mr. Cook writes, “As Bob Dunning pointed out, the new chief innovation officer’s salary will save the city’s general fund $100,000 a year, funds that can be used, and I’m confident Brazil will recommend, to fill potholes to protect Rifkin’s 93-year-old mother.”
Mr. Rifkin makes the stronger point here – that Rob White, the Chief Innovation Officer was “fired” and “his job was given to a less qualified (and lower-paid) person, Diane Parro.” Mr. Rifkin adds that “she does not have near the innovation experience of White.”
Mr. Cook is correct that it generates a cost savings, but the idea that putting $100,000 a year into a $100 million problem (and that’s a conservative number) is absurd. It leads the informed reader to wonder if Mr. Cook really understands the magnitude of the problems.
But he continues, “Rifkin points out that bike paths have not been resurfaced in 10 years, interesting; Brazil has been on the job less than a year.”
This point is true – Mr. Brazil has been on the job less than a year. So is Mr. Rifkin blaming Dirk Brazil for the existing problems? No. It appears when he raises the issue of $150 million for unfunded retiree medical and pensions as well as the $160 million in deferred maintenance on roads he is pointing to “the unsustainable growth in employee compensation rates (that) has caused the city’s debts and future obligations to balloon to unfathomable levels.”
He is not blaming Mr. Brazil for these, he is questioning whether Mr. Brazil is committed to fixing them and he used the firing of the CIO Rob White and the change of chief negotiator as key examples to argue otherwise. His biggest indictment comes at the end of his column: “The worst part of this story came several weeks ago at a meeting of the city’s Finance and Budget Commission. Brazil showed his cards and declared how weakly he planned to play his hand. He told the commission explicitly that the city will not ask for any concessions from city employees, when their contracts expire on Dec. 31.”
Mr. Cook never addresses any of these points that Mr. Rifkin makes.
Instead, he shifts his focus, from current city manager Dirk Brazil to former city manager Steve Pinkerton.
Mr. Cook writes, “Who had the job and ignored the bike paths? Oh yes, Steve Pinkerton; and Rifkin seems upset that Brazil is not Pinkerton.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Cook doesn’t seem, from his writing, to understand the history of this issue. When Steve Pinkerton was hired as city manager, he faced a myriad of problems. The two most immediate were the water issue that he was plopped down in the middle of on September 6, 2011, and the cost of labor.
For years public works staff had been warning the city of an impending crisis on the deferred maintenance of road maintenance. The Vanguard in 2009 and 2010 was warning the public about this crisis, but it was largely ignored by the city council at that time.
When the new council came to power in 2010 and 2011, one of the first things they did was attempt to get an assessment of the pavement situation. Mr. Pinkerton was hired in September 2011 and immediately had to deal with the water issue, but, by 2012, he had commissioned a report on the magnitude of the roads problems.
That was finally presented to council in February 2013. In May 2013, the council approved the so-called B-Modified plan for road repairs which came with the concessions that the city would have to reduce its Pavement Condition Index (PCI) goal normally set at about 70 to 63 on average, with higher scores and better pavement on arterials and main thoroughfares, and lower scores on lesser used residential streets. It would see the frontloading of payments at $15 million in year 1 and $10 million in year 2.
One problem – the city did not have the money to do that. So in January 2014, the city council, facing both an immediate crisis of $5 million in structural deficit and a longer term roads crisis, put the sales tax measure on the ballot while deferring discussion of a parcel tax until the fall.
Mr. Pinkerton would then leave in the spring before the council could act on the roads. But the bottom line here, Mr. Pinkerton did not ignore the bike paths – he commissioned the consultant report that informed us about the extent of the problem involving roads, sidewalks and bike paths. Council, under his leadership, passed the B-modified plan, but the city did not have the funding for that plan.
However, it was under his leadership that the council set aside about $4 million annually for roads, which marked more than a fourfold increase over what the city was setting aside in 2009. So nothing could be further from the truth about roads.
Mr. Cook then shifts the focus directly to Mr. Pinkerton: “We should be pleased that Brazil is here as Pinkerton’s successor. Ask the folks in Incline Village, read the Incline newspaper; Incline’s General Improvement District Board is wrestling with its growing mountain of red ink, the reduction in employee morale and lack of community collaboration, and that’s being attributed to Pinkerton, who left red ink behind in Davis.”
While the situation is volatile in Incline Village, we don’t have to look at Incline Village to assessment Mr. Pinkerton’s performance here. For better or for worse, Mr. Pinkerton was hired to get the finances of Davis in order, and he left Davis in a far better position than he arrived. The idea that he left behind “red ink” is false and unfair.
In his critical assessment of City Hall, former City Manager John Meyer was quick to tell the Vanguard that, given the magnitude of the fiscal crisis facing the city in 2011-2013, the changes made by Mr. Pinkerton clearly put the city in a far better position.
Mr. Cook closes his piece: “And now Rifkin is blaming Dirk Brazil for letting ‘the unpaid bills mount and let our streets crumble,’ amazing! According to a recent article in The Enterprise, Brazil is restoring leadership, employee morale, credibility, fiscal responsibility, communication and collaboration in City Hall; let’s celebrate that!”
My assessment is somewhat different. We had to make tough choices from 2011 to 2013. The economy has improved, which has put the city on better ground right now, but our assessment of the budget is that it is no time to celebrate. We are in a very fragile position.
Mr. Cook is correct that the city manager is not the final decision maker, but I remain very concerned that the city manager was the one to publicly take the option of more concessions off the table. That point was never addressed.
I do think that it would be better to shift away from the blame game and the personalized attacks and focus on policy issues. There are a number of key issues with which we must grapple in the coming months and turning this personal is not helpful.
—David M. Greenwald reporting