It was a change that caught us off guard as we saw Dan Wolk become mayor last July, replacing Joe Krovoza as mayor. After all, we have a weak mayoral system that requires three votes to accomplish much of anything.
As recently as 2006, we saw how ineffective the mayor could be in this kind of system. Sue Greenwald ascended to mayor, but there was a three-member majority in lockstep that drove the agenda. In fact, there was a time – albeit brief – that her ascendancy to mayor was itself in doubt as the council majority pondered the idea of using their numerical numbers to deny her mayorship.
However, the potential backlash was huge and unnecessary. So, instead, they allowed her to become mayor but blocked her from serving on agencies like LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) and SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments).
With that in mind, it seemed unlikely that we would see a huge policy change. After all, the composition of the council from June 2014 to July 2014 was similar. The council saw Robb Davis elected to Joe Krovoza’s council spot, two men with similar views, and we figured there would not be a tremendous amount of policy difference.
But we underestimated the power that an active mayor could accumulate, especially with a council make up that was not in the kind of lockstep that we saw from 2004 to 2010. At first the changes were small – the city settled on water rather than fighting the litigation.
The biggest change came when the council hired a new city manager – Dirk Brazil – who seemed to have a very different focus from the previous city manager who was charged with making the cuts necessary to keep the city solvent. With improving times and a new sales tax measure, Dirk Brazil wanted to come in to smooth the rough edges, improve employee morale, and perhaps show a kinder, gentler city hall.
These subtle changes have brought some key changes to direction. For instance, despite looming doubts about the long term viability of city finances, the city manager has seemed to rule out further employee concessions. While the city has presented a relatively conservative budget, the lack of analysis of the end of taxes, impact of employee contracts, and potential for another recession were omitted from the budget analysis, causing some observers to wonder why the city manager would present such a rosy projection that would constrain him come negotiation time.
There have also been shifts on the direction of economic development. And probably more to come.
Blogger Chris Jackson, in “Growthology” which explores entrepreneurship research, has discussed how “how local policymakers can build entrepreneurial ecosystems.”
He notes that an “important force in fostering such an ecosystem is the role of mayors as cultivators of the entrepreneurial spirit in their communities. And this cultivation can expand beyond simply policy implementation.”
“Mayors generally are the highest ranking government official in their city,” he writes. “Because of this, they often get both the majority of the credit and the blame for the successes and failures of the city. While perception of credit and blame can distort their true impact on cities, there are some benefits to this perception that allows mayors to positively affect local entrepreneurship.”
Mayors, he writes, possess the power to facilitate “contact between different groups of people to come together to solve problems.”
This observation easily extends beyond the ability of the mayor to effect entrepreneurial ecosystems and can extend to policy realms itself.
At the beginning of the year, Dan Wolk put forward the concept of “Renew Davis.” As Mayor Wolk put it, “To paraphrase Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., we in Davis drink deeply from wells that we did not dig. That is to say, everything we have in this community — from the university to our downtown to our roads to our parks and pools — is due to the efforts of previous generations of Davisites.”
He wrote, “We’ve been resting a bit on our laurels. We need to challenge ourselves to think bigger and to renew our commitment to what makes Davis Davis and to ensure that we leave our children and grandchildren with a stronger Davis than the one we inherited.”
It was a call to action in a lot of ways and put forward a policy agenda on economic development, reinvesting in roads and infrastructure, securing clean energy, and promoting healthy families.
He has seen some success. A year ago, for example, the city put forward an overly-ambitious POU proposal to create a publicly owned utility. However, there was pushback from PG&E and the community, and it was shelved.
Through the work of many stake-holders in the energy community, the city has come back with a scaled back CCE (Community Choice Energy) that represents a bit of a compromise – PG&E would still own the infrastructure, but the community would have far greater autonomy on things like renewal energy sources and costs.
The promotion of healthy families led to Davis becoming the first city to change the default beverage for children away from sugary drinks and towards more healthy alternatives.
At the same time, we have seen the limitations of mayoral power. The mayor still is but one. And so, when a Davis Enterprise article reported that “Mayor Dan Wolk, as part of his ‘Renew Davis’ philosophy, will recommend that a 100-acre site on County Road 102 be considered for a multi-field complex; a site that would host AYSO soccer, Davis Youth Softball Association and Little League teams,” it was clear that he had overstepped.
It is unclear that he has the support of any of his colleagues on the issue. The council has created its series of goals, and a sports park was not presented as one of them.
So, while the mayor was able to bring together health officials and community leaders on sugary beverages, even the hint of renewing the fluoridation debate caused the council to quickly head for the hills.
Still, despite some limitations, it is remarkable how much a change of mayor has impacted the direction of the city council without really a change in the overall composition of the council.
—David M. Greenwald reporting