Analysis: The Unanticipated Power of the Mayor in a Weak Mayoral System

Dan Wolk was sworn in as Mayor in July 2014
Dan Wolk was sworn in as Mayor in July 2014

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

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. SODA

    Sorry David, I don’t see it. To me the change has been a slowing of agendas and a lack of urgency on the part of the Mayor. You are right that the selection of the CM which the Mayor endorsed if not suggested could have raminfications for years to come…

    1. Davis Progressive

      i don’t see that this is an article praising the mayor.  i think he’s actually criticizing the mayor’s direction but noting that he has influence the direction of the mayor.  if you read this in conjunction with the other article, you can see that the vanguard is criticizing the mayor on the budget for example.

    2. PhilColeman

      I’m left with the same impression as SODA on this one. There is nothing particularly dynamic with the current council headed by the current mayor. Lots of talk, very little action. The current mayor has had many set-backs as accomplishments so far. The sugar-beverage legislation was flashy and garnered a few headlines for its uniqueness, but in the end it was hardly a showpiece of legislation. Don’t forget, Dan took a real beating trying to support the Davis Fire Fighters’ agenda and their calling in of their diminishing number of markers. Watch the Mayor very carefully on that one in a couple of weeks.

      How the city manager was chosen, and who first proposed that name remains one of those “smoke-filled rooms” decisions. Even if the Mayor lead with this suggestion, it still required two additional council votes to approve. Every sitting council member in every city in the country looks at a CM candidate with a primary political need–what can this guy/gal do for me?

      The Mayor did use his honorary title to uniquely rise a half-step higher than his “equals.” He publishes that monthly newsletter containing news that’s a month old. But it did keep his name and picture in circulation. Where Dan got recent pushback on that device is when he asked the Davis citizenry to just give him a call should anybody have an idea he could consider. That did not sit well with the other 4 councilmembers, who have phones and E-mail addresses, too. Robb Davis, to name one, gave Dan immediate push-back on that one.

        1. hpierce

          Correct, Matt.  Unless you are the CM.  Outside the City, no harm, no foul.  Within the City, possible problem.  If you (as a private citizen) relayed the responses back to all the Council, possible problem. Low likelihood, but possible as “serial contacts”.

  2. Gunrocik

    You have to give Craig and Dan credit, despite having only one reliable vote on the Council, the machine has managed to put their operative in charge of the City — and begun to push through an agenda more focused on higher office for Dan than the long term health of the City.

    1. hpierce

      And so who was on the CC (and the vote) when Dan was appointed to fill Saylor’s vacancy (giving Wolk a huge advantage in the next election)?  And those CC members were part of “the fix”?

        1. Davis Progressive

          not at all.  you asked if the cc members were part of the fix, and the answer, no they weren’t. they were duped by the shiny lights.

        2. hpierce

          DP… I asked WHO was on CC at the time.  You did not respond to that question. I asked for the vote, by CC member at the time.  No response.  I asked if those who voted for Wolk were part of the fix.  You responded obliquely (to be charitable) about the “shiny thing”.  Technically correct, perhaps, but absolutely worthless information.

      1. Tia Will


        And so who was on the CC (and the vote) when Dan was appointed to fill Saylor’s vacancy”

        The objective answer is not hard to obtain. The council members at the time of the Wolk appointment were :

        Souza, Swanson, Krovoza, and Greenwald.

        Now the question of “being part of a fix” or “being blinded by shiny things” is of course, subjective.

        1. Gunrocik

          Good information from Matt on how the voting went.  The Vanguard archives also have a detailed narrative on how the evening went.

          Ironically, the swing vote was Sue Greenwald — who in the next election was the subject of a vicious negative campaign from the local machine.

          In addition, you will note that Stephen Souza didn’t support Dan in the final vote — and he was left out of the money in 2012 as well.

  3. Frankly

    Dan is certainly no Kevin Johnson on economic development.  I bet his jump shot isn’t as good either.

    There is some demographic weirdness about the weak mayor and our weak economic development showing in that if almost 50% of the residents are government workers, you would think there would be interest to grow the economy to grow tax revenue to help pay for the government employees.  Oh wait, that 50% are primarily State government employees with a sprinkling of Federal government employes.  And with that we can understand that greed in a common pursuit not just something on Wall Street.

  4. hpierce

    Are folk advocating for a ‘strong mayor’, City Administrator model? City Administrators usually get compensated less than City Managers.  The ‘strong mayor’ system does tend to downgrade the role of city staff as well.  They tend to become ‘minions’.

    I prefer ‘strong City Manager’, ‘weak’ mayor paradigm.

    1. Davis Progressive

      no i see this article as opposing a strong mayor and pointing out the ability of the mayor to set the agenda even in a weak mayor system.

      1. hpierce

        My comment also included the responses.  But, am sure you didn’t see that, given your predilection to negate anything I post.  Or others’ posts.

  5. Anon

    If the current City Council wants a responsible budget, long term fiscal sustainability through well planned innovation parks, strongly desires to address the cities ongoing unmet needs in paying for infrastructure repairs and maintenance, it has the ability to override anything one member of the City Council may choose to decide on their own.  It only takes three votes to get something approved in this town.  I would urge the City Council as a whole to keep their “eye on the prize” of fiscal sustainability for Davis, because if they fail to do so, I wouldn’t count  on Davis citizens to bail out the city with continuing or more tax measures.

  6. Gunrocik

    Our Council majority is in a tough spot.

    You have three Council members who are here for all of the right reasons.  They want fiscal stability, a good quality of life for the community and understand the importance of promoting economic growth that is consistent with our community values.  You may not always agree with how they vote — but they are doing what they believe is best for the community.  They don’t have hidden agendas and they are doing this to serve the community and not doing this as a stepping stone to a higher office.

    On the other hand, the local machine believes that the Davis City Council is exists to further their own agenda — which has little or nothing to do with what is best for the community.  To them, the Council exists to train candidates for higher office, to curry favors with their union brethren, to dole out housing projects to those most connected, and waste precious Council time on items that help their chosen council members when they run for higher office. They are just interested in maintaining and accumulating power.

    And even though they only own two Council members, the machine has a cadre of individuals at their disposal to put massive pressure on the Council majority.  They have a thousand ways to get that third vote.  Sometimes, they pretend to be their friend or pretend to support initiatives proposed by the Council Majority.  They will call in chits from others who have influence with the council member.  They will call on their union brethren to round up the troops and pressure the Council member.  They will attempt to freeze out the Council member — make sure they aren’t invited to certain functions.

    Bottom line is that the machine will do whatever is necessary to get their way.  They are vicious, ruthless, mean spirited and singularly focused on maintaining and gaining power — and don’t really care who they destroy along the way.

    Well meaning, decent human beings like our Council majority are no match for them.

    1. Don Shor

      They are vicious, ruthless, mean spirited and singularly focused on maintaining and gaining power — and don’t really care who they destroy along the way.

      Funny, I know a lot of those people, and I don’t think they are any of those things. I think they just have different priorities.

      1. Davis Progressive

        it really depends on who you are talking about.  dan wolk is a nice guy, never seen or heard of him raising his voice.  lucas on the other hand is generally a nice guy but heard he can have a temper.  then there’s craig reynolds, he’s notorious for having a mean streak.  i’ve heard stories of sitting councilmembers who have been given the treatment.  then there’s bobby weist, as mean spirited as they come.  so there are peeople with honest differences and there are people behind the scenes who try to control them.

        1. Gunrocik

          Don Shor:  Funny, I know a lot of those people, and I don’t think they are any of those things. I think they just have different priorities.

          You may think you know these people, but you’ve never been in their way or opposed them.

          The Reynolds, Wolks, Saylors, Provenzas, Frerichs, Weists and their posse are focused on maintaining and accumulating power above all else.  Even if you remain loyal, they will drop you in a heartbeat if you don’t serve their purpose anymore and they will attempt to disparage and destroy the career of anyone who crosses them — or whom they feel are a threat to them.

          A number of folks at City Hall who weren’t pro-labor or aren’t blindly loyal to the new guard or simply are perceived as a threat to the new regime are getting worked over by posse member Brazil right now.

          Oh and yes, Dan seems like a nice guy — how nice was he when decided to attack our new Fire Chief, unprovoked, at a City Council meeting a while back?  Don’t kid yourself — if he is willing to get in bed with Reynolds, Weist et al, he can’t be that nice a guy.

          The machine realizes that if they seem reasonable on the surface, you will give them the benefit of the doubt.  I would think Saylor’s reign on City Council (where he nearly bankrupted us in order accumulate power and placate the fire union) would be enough to convince our populace that these aren’t nice people — and they don’t serve our best interests.


  7. Tia Will


    You may think you know these people, but you’ve never been in their way or opposed them.”

    The Reynolds, Wolks, Saylors, Provenzas, Frerichs, Weists and their posse are focused on maintaining and accumulating power above all else.”

    I disagree with your take on this. I believe that there is a distinction that you are failing to make between the character of individual people, and their belief in and devotion to policy with which you are not in agreement. My basis for saying this is that there are a number of people that you have named that I have worked with on certain issues and been in adamant disagreement on other issues. Even when the discussions and actions have been heated, I have never had cause to believe that there was anything other than an honest difference of opinion between individuals on the best way to proceed for the city.

    This would be the equivalent of me saying that Frankly or Don Shor for that matter are unethical, dishonest, mean spirited and selfish because they are consistent in their belief in the value of small businesses ( in which they happen to engage). I do not believe that any of those characterizations are true. I believe that both these gentleman genuinely believe that the points that they make are not only in their own best interest, but also in the best interest of the community. It is completely possible to believe that one’s own best interest and those of the community are aligned. It is also possible to disagree with that position without character assassination.


  8. Tia Will


    and they don’t serve our best interests.”

    Who are you referencing with the word “our” in the above sentence ?  I am a citizen of Davis and am making the assumption that you are also. And yet, you and I frequently do not agree about what is in “our” best interest because of different values. This leaves me to wonder who you mean when you say “our”.


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