Analysis: Is It Time to Start Evaluating the City Manager?

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

It is perhaps easy to forget the world of 2008. It was just seven years ago that two incumbents won reelection, arguing in essence we had a balanced budget with a 15 percent reserve. Back then, there was only a handful of people pointing out the fiscal doom that the city would face – only three months after the election that changed the community’s thinking on the budget.

To his credit, long before almost anyone else, Rich Rifkin was the one who warned about the unsustainable nature of pensions, employee compensation, and the firefighters’ union in particular. It wasn’t until the collapse of the U.S. economy in September of 2008, the economic downturn, and a set of new elections that the community really caught onto the reality of the situation.

So the community would be wise to take note of the heavy dose of criticism that Rich Rifkin levels at the Davis City Manager Dirk Brazil in his column today. (Davis City Manager Fails to Lead, June 24, 2015). Mr. Rifkin opens, “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.”

Mr. Rifkin goes on to note that, over the past two decades, the city has increased its payroll mainly for employee compensation at a rate that is faster than tax revenues grew. The city was able to survive in the late 1990s through one-time construction tax revenues. During the last decade it was a half-cent sales tax coupled with the real estate boom that kept the city in the black.

However, “All the while, the unsustainable growth in employee compensation rates has caused the city’s debts and future obligations to balloon to unfathomable levels.”

Despite great efforts by the previous council to patch the holes, in the form of a transition to fully funded retirement medical and to put general fund money on badly needed infrastructure like roads, Mr. Rifkin writes, “We are roughly $150 million in the hole for unfunded medical care and underfunded pensions; and, as of 2014, our road maintenance debt was estimated to be $160 million over 20 years if the city hopes to keep the quality of our street pavement no worse than it is today. Bike paths that should have been resurfaced 10 years ago have been allowed to crack and disintegrate.”

Like many of us, Mr. Rifkin can relate a personal anecdote about walking his aging mother around the park with the path being perilous. As he put it, “Some potholes now have potholes.”

For me, it was my daughter tripping on a crack in the sidewalk, with several councilmembers quickly promising to see that the needs are fixed.

And yet it was a year ago the council had the opportunity to consider a parcel tax to fund roads and other infrastructure, but were scared off by polling that showed less than full support by the public. Instead of doubling down on public outreach, the council has sat back and allowed conditions to worsen.

The city is expected finally this summer to undertake a major roads construction effort, throwing as much as $15 million at the problem, though the city manager concedes that will not be enough.

Mr. Rifkin notes that we are paying more to get less in service. He writes, “To fund the raises we are giving city employees — largely in more expensive retirement benefits — Davis is providing less service in most departments. The city now employs about 100 fewer people than it did several years ago.”

We have yet to have any sort of analysis as to the impact of that loss in employees on city services.

Mr. Rifkin quickly shifts his focus to the issue of economic development and the labor negotiator.

He writes, “In recent months, Brazil has replaced two important city officials: the city’s chief innovation officer, Rob White; and the city’s chief labor negotiator, Tim Yeung.”

Mr. Rifkin writes, “When White was fired and and his job was given to a less qualified (and lower-paid) person, Diane Parro, I was told that Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor was pulling the strings. It was suggested that Yolo County was mad at White, because the county felt left out of the planning process for the peripheral ‘innovation’ business parks that White was promoting.

“Since Parro had been Saylor’s deputy prior to taking the CIO job, and because she does not have near the innovation experience of White, I had to wonder if my source might be right. However, I asked Saylor if there was any truth to this rumor, and he denies it.”

“… I had no involvement in the change in employment status of Rob White,” Mr. Saylor told Rich Rifkin in an email. “I also had no involvement in the city manager’s selection of Diane Parro as the incoming city of Davis chief innovation officer.” Mr. Saylor added, “I wholeheartedly support her in this new role and have great confidence that she will continue to be an asset to our community.”

Mr. Rifkin accepts his explanation reasoning, that “[w]hat I think is more likely is that White was viewed by Brazil as Steve Pinkerton’s man. I think Brazil simply wanted someone in that job whose loyalty was to him, not to his predecessor, and actual qualifications for the job were not his priority.”

Given that Mr. Brazil was perhaps looking for someone with loyalty, though to him, it still seems like a strange move to go to Diane Parro, who does not seem to have a background in economic development. After all, when Mr. Brazil was hired, people in the economic development community and the business community, familiar with his work, were pleased.

So why couldn’t he find someone with more experience who would be “his person”? One explanation is that Mr. Brazil, familiar with Diane Parro’s work at the county, identified her early on as someone he wanted on “his team.” Second, there is the cost issue and, while we can name some prominent Davis residents with extensive economic development experience, it does not seem likely that they would come in at the price at which Mr. Brazil ultimately hired Diane Parro.

Finally, while Mr. Saylor likely was not pulling the strings, that does not mean that the pick wasn’t made with him in mind – hoping to perhaps bring him on board in some city efforts.

Mr. Rifkin then discusses the replacement of Tim Yeung with Patrick Clark as labor negotiator.

Mr. Rifkin writes, “I think the same thing likely happened when Brazil canned Pinkerton’s labor negotiator and replaced Yeung with Patrick Clark. While everyone I have spoken with who knew Yeung’s work praised him, and said he was capable of driving a hard bargain on behalf of the city of Davis, Yeung simply was not Dirk Brazil’s man. He was ‘tainted’ by the association with Pinkerton.”

He reasons, “The great problem with letting Yeung go, however, is that now Clark, who has less experience, has to spend months to get up to speed. And it’s not as if Patrick Clark is going to rely on a real expert — see my picture above — to train him for this fight.”

Mr. Rifkin may not be correct on the issue of the labor negotiator.  I am informed that the decision on Tim Yeung was a decision by the Davis City Council.  (CORRECTION: I was previously misinformed that Robb Davis had dissented on the hiring of Patrick Clark.)

Finally, Mr. Rifkin takes issue with Mr. Brazil’s declaration at the Finance and Budget Commission meeting that he would not engage in further takebacks.

He writes, “Yet 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. Rifkin concludes, “So why should you or I or anyone have any confidence that Dirk Brazil is working to solve our city’s severe fiscal problems? Just let the unpaid bills mount and let our streets crumble. It looks like we lack leadership at City Hall.”

Rich Rifkin, as early as 2007 and 2008, was warning the city about the pending fiscal crisis long before most people saw a potential problem. Perhaps we should start taking a closer look at the city manager as well.

—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. PhilColeman

    Rich finds fault with the City Manager’s personnel changes as noted in his column. OK. Rich feels better decisions could have been made. That’s Rich’s view and he’s judging the City Manager accordingly. So, I’m still reading.

    Then, Rich mentions an unidentified source that essentially depicts the City Manager responding to the directives of a particular Yolo County Supervisor. We know nothing about this source but Rich, by his subsequent actions, obviously places full confidence in the source’s version of recent past events in county politics.

    The source tells Rich that Supervisor Saylor was displeased with Rob White because Rob failed to accept County and Saylor input while performing his duties on behalf of the City of Davis. In other words, Rob White’s primary allegiance was to his employer, a fatal flaw. So Saylor somehow directed the new Davis City Manager to fire Rob White. Then Saylor tells the City Manger to hire his chosen one, somebody that works for the County and is highly thought of by Don Saylor.

    Don Saylor is asked to comment, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Don categorically denies the story. Undaunted, Rich continues with what I have to describe as a vast county-control conspiracy where the Davis City Manager is obedient to one member of the County Board of Supervisors.

    At this moment, that story for me is completely unbelievable. I’ll move an inch closer to believing this story IF somebody can tell me how it is that Don Saylor has almost dictatorial power over the Davis City Manager. Meanwhile, where is the Davis City Council in all this? Are they working for Don as well? If Don has that much centralized individual power in Yolo County, I should probably go up to Woodland and wash and wax his car.

    1. Don Shor

      Obviously you meant: “In other words, Robb Davis’ White’s primary allegiance was to his employer, a fatal flaw. So Saylor somehow directed the new Davis City Manager to fire Robb Davis White.”

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Not exactly. I believe Mr. Rifkin implied that the county wanted heavy input, and “Brazil simply wanted someone in that job whose loyalty was to him, not to his predecessor”. 

  2. Jim Leonard

    Why does David Greenwald say this article was written by himself? It’s almost all Rich Rifkin, with very little David Greenwald.

    Aside from that question, the innovation officer position came through Pinkerton, as did the ill-conceived water treatment plant. The roads were bad under Pinkerton as well.

    The question is: what is the real reason Rifkin goes after Brazil? Is there a real reason, in fact, or is he simply being ornery?


    1. David Greenwald

      Jim: Just my thoughts on what Rifkin wrote which I felt were important enough to highlight here. I think you’re view of Pinkerton is heavily colored by your opposition to the water policy (which was done largely by the city council). I give him credit for his work to restructure city hall, create the atmosphere that allowed critical reforms to gain agreement from employee groups, and fleshed out the long-term costs of pavement repair and their escalation should we not implement them.

      I’m concerned about Mr. Brazil’s decision to terminate the contract of Rob White and replace him with a capable person who doesn’t have background or experience in economic development. And as my budget analyses have argued, I’m concerned that Mr. Brazil prematurely painted himself into a corner on employee compensation.

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        David wrote: “…prematurely painted himself into a corner on employee compensation’??

        He didn’t paint himself into a corner, he castrated himself and the city. Negotiation power and leverage is now compromised.

        Ask a seasoned business person how they would proceed. I promise you that when employees are over-compensated to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the lifetime of an employee agreement, cost reductions would be a major component.

        1. Davis Progressive

          “He didn’t paint himself into a corner, he castrated himself and the city. Negotiation power and leverage is now compromised.”

          well put.

        2. hpierce

          Not sure… might be an indication of a ‘zero-sum game’… in terms of ‘total compensation’.  To reduce total comp, what is the negotiation point? Loss of job?  If your total comp is “X” how would your employer, in a meet and confer context, entice you to take a reduction of total comp?

          Of course, the City could always “impose” reductions in total comp, but generally need justification(s).  From what has been written to date, “freezing” total comp is still in play as an option.

        3. TrueBlueDevil

          “We don’t have the money, we have spent unwisely, we have $300 million in unfunded pensions and infrastructure, and you make 150% more than the private sector when you count in total compensation. Here is what we can afford, adjustments have been made across the board, including myself. As a leader, I took the first reduction. This is the new offer; if it is not acceptable, we wish you well in the private sector or retirement. Best wishes.”

  3. Davis Progressive

    Jim Leonard: Pinkerton was not here long enough to fix the roads. He was able to get concessions in the last rounds of mous. He was able to reform the fire. He was able to assess the condition of the roads but needed taxpayers to agree to a tax to fund it.

    Why is Rifkin and by extension Greenwald going after Brazil – it seems obvious to me or are you just being ornery?

  4. Frankly

    The Sacramento Kings are rumored to be trading away their huge and hugely talented center Demarcus Cousins for lessor players in the hope of rebuilding.  But the team has been performing badly for years, and so fans are not only suspicious that the move is a bad one, they are very critical of it.

    But no matter what the Kings’ owner, GM and coach do, if they ultimately perform and win, the fans will stop cticizing and will shower the owner, GM and coach with appreciation and accolades.

    But unless and until the fans see the results, trading away our existing talent is not going to make team management popular in the least.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      The Golden State Warriors faced this predicament a few years back. They traded popular star player Monte Ellis for a talented, big, oft-injured player (Andrew Bogut). At first the owners were booed vociferously.

      The team made large gains, made other strategic moves, and then even fired a coach who won a lot of games. But it appears that this coach (Marc Jackson) had personal motivations that equaled or surpassed the needs of his team an organization. Team management let him go, Steve Kerr arrived, and the rest is history.

      1. Frankly

        The problem with the analogy is that we are not seeing any positive strategic moves with the city.  In fact, all signs are a return to business as usual giving city employees raises we cannot afford and hiding the bad budget news in a field of rosy short-term revenue increase reports.

        But, in the end all they have to do is deliver and the criticims stop.

        Back to the Rifkin story.  Before Rob White there was a move by Saylor and some other Davis business-politicos to start a Yolo County Economic Development Center (EDC) and have the city’s help fund it.  I think there is some bad blood that developed when the City of Davis did their own thing with Rob White.  I’m not sure how other CC members are connected, but I suspect a coordinated political move to get back to that EDC pursuit.

        1. Davis Progressive

          and it was not just saylor supporting the edc, but a whole group of davis business folks.  michael bisch was among the ringleaders and i believe some have told me was their candidate to head up the edc but was undercut by swanson and eventually pinkerton moving in a davis-focused direction.

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    Am I missing something here?

    So the City Manager has fired a highly qualified economic development / chief innovation officer because “he was not loyal to him”?

    Shouldn’t the city and it’s leaders seek employees who are loyal to the city? Loyal to doing the best job possible? Not simply hire them because they are part of the good old boys / girls network.

    I wonder if anyone has filed a FOIA regarding these position changes.

    Can someone here educate us on the previous relationship between Brazil and Saylor? Did Saylor help land Brazil the job, how far back does their relationship extend? Who knows, it could be innocent.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Is it not clear that we fired a highly experienced CIO who was even invited to the White House, and has 20 years of direct experience, in exchange for an inexperienced political appointee?

      And what did the buyout of White’s contract cost us? This may be the first potential blemish on his resume, so I can’t imagine he was happy with this move, especially given geographic concerns (where he lives).

  6. ryankelly

    From what I understand, Rob White was actively applying for and interviewing for another job, so it was only a matter of time before he left.

    I’d like to give the new City Manager more time before we condemn him.  I also would like to give Diane Parro more time before we jump all over her.  When does she actually start her job…July 1st?

    1. Davis Progressive

      rob white (one b) was actively applying for another job because, as i’ve been told, when brazil took over, he basically said, you’re pinkerton’s guy.

  7. Davis Progressive

    my one criticism of rifkin here – and it’s a minor one – is that he didn’t dig far enough on the saylor angle of hiring parro, there’s a lot more there as the edc comments (i had completely forgotten about that) above demonstrate.

  8. Gunrocik

    Giving Brazil and Saylor the benefit of the doubt is exactly what they were hoping when they make this blatantly political move.  Most people (including more than you would expect on the Vanguard) are reasonable and have good intentions — and they assume others are of a like mind.

    Brazil and Saylor are full time politicians who are more worried about power and control than whether or not one job is ever created in Davis or Yolo County.  If they did care, Rob White would still have a job.

    Connect the dots — Reynolds, Wolk, Brazil, Saylor, Parro, Provenza…and on to Bisch and Pope, Whitcombe and the rest of the gang.  There is zero question that Saylor was not happy about White, Swanson and Dave Morris stealing his thunder and killing the County-based EDC led by Saylor and Bisch.

    The really disappointing part is the fact that our business community –which pumped a lot of cash into TechDavis– just got punked and they aren’t saying a word.

    Frankly, I couldn’t be more disappointed.

    These folks deserve zero benefit of the doubt! They are assuming that our community is a bunch of chumps–and that as long as they smile and say the right thing–we will ignore their poorly disguised political moves.

    This town has zero hope of ever reaching its economic potential if the business community fails to call out Brazil and Saylor for sinking the U.S.S. White!

    1. Davis Progressive

      there is another strand here – not just those people but also former school board member richard harris who is best friends with dirk brazil and played for years on a softball team with several of the above mentioned people.  will richard run for council?

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