Analysis: Gloves Come Off in Debate Over City Manager

City Manager Dirk Brazil delivered his first city budget report.
City Manager Dirk Brazil delivered his first city budget report.

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

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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20 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    if dirk brazil wants his friends to defend him, he might want to give them better facts.  this little letter bears some more digging.  while the vanguard did a good job on the facts, i expect that there are some interesting ties between dirk brazil, gregg cook, and steve pinkerton.

  2. Davis Progressive

    “Ask the folks in Incline Village, read the Incline newspaper”

    i’m sure they have a mess up there, but pinkerton helped do a lot of good things while he was here – the water project was pushed through as a compromise, budget cuts, fire reform, and more.  why is it necessary to attack pinkerton in order to defend brazil?

  3. Jim Gray

    Gosh Vanguard… Gosh Rifkin …The Headlines… the Column … the story don’t really seem to fit my view of reality as it relates to the current situation in Davis. If anything it appears to me that the City Manager is helping set a course for constructive change and civic engagement.  Dirk Brazil is hard working, honest, engaging, and trying to be a leader and team player in getting the City of Davis and City Hall pointed in the right direction.

    Davis like many California Municipalities is trying to recover from a major downturn and a brutal recession.  Revenue fell– pension and healthcare liabilities grew– needed reinvestment in public infrastructure got postponed or canceled.  Staff got cut, morale took a hit and that went on for years and years approaching a decade…Councils and Mayors and City Mangers came and went…

    So there is now a recovery underway– improvement but not booming.  A new Council and new budget forecast… The new Council  appear to work pretty well together and there is a good steady hand working as City Manager… There are more smiles present at City Hall and the level of service seems better.

    We still have plenty of challenges as a community.  And it is going to take leadership and collaboration and realistic and honest assessments of the problems and their solutions. But instead of using headlines like “Taking the gloves off” which is associated with a fight… A better headline that more accurately reflects the current City Manager I believe would be;  “Extending a Hand” or “Rolling up his Sleeves”.

    Dirk has years of proven experience in public policy, local and regional government, communication and team work.   He seems to be doing a great job as the City Manager in Davis… That might not be the headline but it is the non-fiction story!

     

    1. Davis Progressive

      with all due respect to mr. gray, i have to disagree with a lot of what he writes.  i don’t know dirk brazil, however i have serious concerns about his experience – he doesn’t seem to have experience in land use or budgeting.  i have also heard from a few concerned that he told them one thing and told another group the exact opposite.  still others had him tell them one thing only to have someone in their group completely undermine it.

      there is a recovery underway and improvement – but the budget projections demonstrate a lack of robustness to that recovery and the city is really at peril if the economy turns back south.

    2. Sam

      “We still have plenty of challenges as a community.  And it is going to take leadership and collaboration and realistic and honest assessments of the problems and their solutions.”

      “He seems to be doing a great job as the City Manager in Davis…”

      If the first statement is true then I think in order for the second statement to also be true Mr. Brazil needs to work on an actual solution to the current budget problems that the City has with capital spending and employee compensation. The only solution that he has offered so far is to underfund capital improvements and say he is not going to decrease employee compensation when given the opportunity. What kind of great leadership is that? What is his plan to make the City solvent? What honest assessment was made after he created the report showing the City diving into the red when the “emergency” sales tax revenue runs out? I have not seen anything that would show me that he is working to solve the City’s problems. Can you name some?

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        You forgot item three, he ousted a nationally well-respected CIO.

        Jim Gray previously has had some very good posts, but if I recall he has a decent-sized project coming down the pike and does good business in the city, so he would be gnawing off his own foot if he were to make critical comments.

  4. Tia Will

    If anything it appears to me that the City Manager is helping set a course for constructive change and civic engagement.  Dirk Brazil is hard working, honest, engaging, and trying to be a leader and team player in getting the City of Davis and City Hall pointed in the right direction.”

    I agree with this assessment of Mr. Brazil as far as it goes. However, I do not believe that it addresses one philosophic difference in people’s views of leadership. Do we value a confrontational, competitive, aggressive approach or do we prefer a more subtle, collaborative, respectful approach ? I would say that both styles have their merits and weaknesses. For me an optimal leader will have the ability to move along this scale of confrontational vs collaborative behaviors as the situation calls for. To my mind, Mr. Pinkerton’s style fell too far towards the confrontational end of the scale which may have made him a good “crisis mode” manager who “left the city better off” than when he arrived. But is that necessarily the best balance going forward ? I think that it is too soon to know whether Mr. Brazil with his more collaborative style will achieve a better balance when and if the time comes for him to need to do so.

    1. Davis Progressive

      one problem with tia’s thoughtful post is that while dirk brazil seems to pay lipservice to a collaborative approach, his actual actions suggest otherwise.  he’s willing to collaborate but wants his people in place.  he also takes options off the table before he needs to.  so i see him less collaborative and more confrontational just towards different people, groups, subjects in the community.

  5. Tia Will

    DP

    he’s willing to collaborate but wants his people in place”

    I am wondering if this is any different from any managerial position. In our department, every change of chief has also been followed by a change in the assistant chiefs. Building a compatible team seems to be part of the duties of a responsible manager. Are you seeing this as a negative or merely making an observation ?

    1. hpierce

      Seems it is meant as an “indictment”… a demonstration of ‘impropriety’… “unlike” Pinkterton, who encouraged Navazio to leave, then hired Quiring, who he was familiar with… and others.  In one case, it is “wants his people in place”, in the other, it’s “team-building”.  Can’t you see the difference?

      1. Davis Progressive

        navazio had been interim city manager.  he put in an application to become the fulltime city manager and was supported by the odd-couple of souza and greenwald.  however, they were outnumbered by the majority and so navazio quietly pulled out and the council “unanimously” approved pinkerton.  navazio got hired to be woodland city manager which allowed him to move back up to be city manager without having to uproot his family.  to blame that on pinkerton is ridiculous.

        1. hpierce

          You are the one who is being ridiculous (or dissembling).  I deliberately used the word ‘encouraged’.  I did not say ‘forced’, because that would have been untrue.  That Navazio “pulled out” of consideration is patently false.  Navazio did not come in first, but he did not remove his name from consideration.

          As to your next post, watch out how you seem to compare apples and… you said,

          ” but at least in hiring quiring, he brought in a person who had previous experience with city finances as opposed to someone as cio with no experience in economic development.”  Experience of Quiring?

          See:  http://www.davisvanguard.org/2012/09/city-finance-director-hire-comes-with-a-history-of-no-confidence-votes-poor-employee-morale/

          Are you comparing Quiring to White, as you seem to be?  I wouldn’t.

          I know you react strongly to any thought that St Pinkerton wasn’t truly a god-send, but a lot of folk would not rank him highly compared to predecessors.  He did a lot of damage, including two CH remodels where staff was instructwed to ‘hide’ the true costs.  He created a “bunker” at the far end of CH.

      2. Davis Progressive

        another point that i would make is that the complaint here is not that dirk wants to hire his own guy, but rather that he chased off a qualified person for an unqualified person.  i don’t think pinkerton chased off navazio so much as the situation did and the fact that he wanted to be city manager and had a golden opportunity in woodland, but at least in hiring quiring, he brought in a person who had previous experience with city finances as opposed to someone as cio with no experience in economic development.

        1. Davis Progressive

          actually not.  we know that rob white was effectively fired by the city manager, he did not leave on his own accord.  in fact, he had a year left on his contract – what happened to that?

          in terms of his replacement, we saw her resume and the job description. i suppose we can draw our own conclusions from that, but i conclude that she’s not qualified for the position.

        2. hpierce

          “We know”, or the “rumors are”  or we “surmise”?  I can believe White was ‘asked to consider other career options’, or a lot of other nuances, including perhaps a ‘deal’ on the final year compensation, but that doesn’t rise to “effective firing” unless you have an axe to grind, which you apparently do.

          Was Quiring “effectively fired”?

  6. skeptical

    It is common knowledge that Brazil lacks the skills to do his job.  Unfortunately, to meet his shortcomings, Brazil has called on even less qualified people.  Seriously,  John Meyer??  Meyer charted the course to the city’s current financial and managerial wasteland.   It’s unlikely Brazil will leave the comfort zone of his own political circle to secure the talent the city needs.  this is the theme correctly identified by Rifkin, and Rich should be applauded for taking on the politicos and their selfish ways, which have done so much damage to the city and the community.

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