Commentary: Critical Analysis Lacking in Recent Coverage of City

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

In Davis, the public rarely is in agreement on public policy issues. Often policy differences spark heated debate over critical decisions. It has been six months since the Davis City Council hired Dirk Brazil as city manager and, while there were some initial thoughts and concerns about the hire including the cost and his experience, for the most part the first six months have been a holding pattern, waiting to see what would happen.

If anything, the last six months has been a holding pattern for the city council in general. They have moved forward on some issues, but there hasn’t been a lot of critical issues of controversy. The exception was the series of 3-2 votes on the CFD (Communities Facilities District).

But now, for the first time, we are starting to see the direction of City Manager Dirk Brazil take hold. In the last week, we have learned that the city manager has effectively replaced Chief Innovation Officer Rob White with Diane Parro, the chief deputy to Supervisor Don Saylor.

Talking with people in the community, there has been a lot of confusion about the move. The people the Vanguard has spoken to have been somewhat mixed on Rob White leaving, though the sentiment tends to lean toward questioning the decision to remove him, but the view is far from unanimous. On the other hand, the view of Diane Parro has been more confusion than anything else.

Most people have very good things to say about her as a person and as the chief deputy to Supervisor Saylor, but have questioned why she was hired to this position when her background appears to be more marketing and public relations than economic development.

In a way, this is the first major shakeup by City Manager Dirk Brazil, one that puts his mark on the city manager position and that has led to a range of views as well. The Vanguard has had a series of discussions with people in the community who have expressed concerns over a number of recent events – but astonishingly little of this has made its way into the local paper’s coverage.

On Sunday, the coverage of the hiring of the new chief innovation officer, as we captured in our Monday Morning Thought’s Column (Shiny Happy People), seemed to completely gloss over critical issues and avoid any sort of critical analysis of either the hire itself or the fiscally challenging fact that the City will be paying the salaries of both Dianne Parro (the first year of her employment contract) and Rob White (the last year of his employment contract) for the next 12 months until Rob White’s employment contract ends in June 2016.

On Tuesday, the paper followed up that story with a story on the first six months of City Manager Dirk Brazil’s tenure. Again, the paper avoids critical analysis, or even differing views of the city manager.

Dave Ryan for instance writes, “Brazil’s bosses, the members of the City Council, have high praise for him, although some didn’t comment because they are part of a subcommittee currently analyzing his performance for his upcoming review.”

The paper quoted Mayor Dan Wolk and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, both of whom gave him high marks. Councilmember Frerichs would say, “Thus far I’d say Dirk (and city staff) is doing a good job of advancing the multitude of priorities and goals we’ve laid out before them.”

Mayor Dan Wolk said, “Brazil has done an exceptional job. He has worked effectively with the City Council, the city staff and the larger community to make significant and positive impact.”

Criticism was minimized and buried in both cases. In the Sunday piece, only Councilmember Rochelle Swanson seemed to offer a counter-narrative, and her comment was located at the end of the article.  “[She] applauded Parro as a hard worker, but said she was fielding some concerned phone calls about the departure of White.  There are a lot of people who put in a lot of effort into getting an award-winning CIO like Rob White,” Swanson said.

In the Dirk Brazil article the paper in the closing paragraphs noted, “Not that Brazil hasn’t committed any political faux pas. Some City Council members found out about his hiring of a new chief innovation officer when a news release went out. Usually, they’re given a heads-up well before something like that becomes public.”

Those remarks, given without attribution, are almost lost in the overwhelmingly positive story, during a time when the conversation in the community has shifted very strongly toward a more heated position.

Moreover, at least one councilmember complained to the Vanguard that more critical remarks – or at least different remarks – were offered to the reporter that the paper chose not to publish.  Where are the views of Robb Davis and Brett Lee, who are quite likely to have a very different perspective than Lucas Frerichs and Dan Wolk?

The closest the paper comes to any kind of sense that this decision is very controversial comes out in today’s “Cheers and Jeers.”

But even here the paper is overwhelmingly supportive, arguing, “We hadn’t realized how dysfunctional life had become at City Hall until Brazil began making some much-needed changes.”

Dysfunctional? While the paper notes, “Bolstered by former City Manager John Meyer’s top-to-bottom analysis of how the city is functioning, Brazil is reorganizing where necessary and smoothing out the rough spots in an organization that suffered greatly during the recession.”

John Meyer told the Vanguard that one reason for these problems was that the city faced the nationwide fiscal crisis that forced tough choices – choices that Meyer acknowledged in his report, and Dirk Brazil has also acknowledged in staff reports about the city’s fiscal condition.

When the city was facing a $5 million structural deficit in 2014, six years after the economic collapse, you might understand why there was some dysfunction in the structure. The city had accomplished a number of employee layoffs, two rounds of MOUs, two bargaining groups going to impasse, and a lot of very tough decisions on compensation, pensions, retiree medical, and the still unresolved infrastructure needs.

But the paper fails to note any of this and simply states that life in city hall had become dysfunctional and the current city manager’s “no-nonsense, direct approach to issues” is apparently the key to fixing it.

In the same “Cheers and Jeers” column, the paper gives less than flattering evaluations for the new chief innovation officer. They write, “However, JEERS to the continuation of the grandiose title of chief innovation officer for newly hired Diane Parro. With her connections throughout Yolo County and her background heading up the Yolo County Visitors Bureau and handling major accounts for a Santa Monica advertising agency, she seems well-qualified to lead the city’s economic development team.”

They continue, “But ‘chief innovation officer’? Parro does not have the technology background of her predecessor, Rob White, and that title implies that she does. We want her to succeed in this important position, guiding the two remaining innovation center proposals (Mace Ranch and Nishi) through the city adoption process and succeeding public votes. But that title just might get in her way.”

So the problem here is the title rather than the more serious questions about why the city would need to get rid of the well-respected Rob White, even though they were contractually obligated to pay him until June of 2016. The paper asks no questions about the secretive hiring process. And, while the paper acknowledges that Ms. Parro lacks the background of her predecessor, they fail to question whether she really has the background in economic development to run this position.

All of this would be fine, but the people who only read the local paper are getting a distorted view of what is going on and are not hearing the more critical voices who are loudly behind the scenes, questioning some of the changes in city hall.

And this is really the tip of the iceberg – there is far more about to come to public light.  Reasonable people can disagree on the direction of the city, but in order to have an informed discussion, divergent viewpoints need to be out there.

—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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24 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    And this is really the tip of the iceberg, there is far more about to come to public light. 

    I can’t wait.  It sounds like we have some juicy future articles coming.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Yes indeed. Unless there was a “personnel” issue at play.

      Wild guess … is it possible the campus tried to lure him away to lead their World Food Center?

  2. Barack Palin

     And while the paper acknowledges that Ms. Parro lacks the background of her predecessor, they fail to question whether she really has the background in economic development to run this position and then I came to this article.

    Funny, but I had just read the Cheers and Jeers Enterprise column and felt that they kind of gave her a backhanded slap framed in niceties and then I came to this article. IMO it was just a nice way of maybe saying she wasn’t qualified for the position.

  3. Tia Will

    Reasonable people can disagree on the direction of the city, but in order to have an informed discussion, divergent viewpoints need to be out there.”

    IMO it was just a nice way of maybe saying she wasn’t qualified for the position.”

    I think that there is a much bigger issue than whether or not differing viewpoints are being heard or qualification for this specific position. Prior to the decision to hire Rob White, a critical decision appeared to have been made that few seemed to question. That was the question of whether the best choice for Davis was “an innovation officer” with the compensation split between the city and proponents of a specific type of industry as was initially the case, thus predetermining who the big winners were going to be. Or whether the better choice for our city might have been a more general economic development officer with a broader view of the economic well being of the community.  Ms. Parro’s credentials might seem more in keeping with this broader approach while Mr. White’s were clearly tuned to one sector.

    Reasonable people can certainly disagree about which is the best approach for Davis. However, I don’t believe that the conversation should begin and end with whether or not Ms. Parro is the best fit for the job specifically carved out for Mr. White. One critical question would be, was that the best way to proceed to begin with ?

    1. Davis Progressive

      the beauty of measure r is that the community gets to voice its opinion on the matter.  i happen to have deep reservations about the inclusivity of the process early on.  i think the vanguard suggested that some of the meetings were an echo-chamber but the listening tour was a step in the right direction.

      the problem i think you have though is that the enterprise is not providing a different point of view, it seems more like a cheerleader for the cm and the establishment.

      1. DurantFan

        “..That was the question of whether the best choice for Davis was “an innovation officer”  …

         

        This has  been in the cards for Davis for a long time.
        The City of Davis is one of 544  American cities that  are participating members of  the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI*).   ICLEI is  a private, non-profit foundation dedicated to helping local elected officials (mayors, city councilmembers, etc.) implement progressive regional and international planning within their community as well as in adjacent, unincorporated areas. Because of  extensive unfavorable local reaction to a variety of ICLEI’s “Sustainable Development” and “Innovative Development” proposals, ICLEI has had to rebrand itself  as” Local Governments for Sustainability” to continue to gain access and  support of community  staff and residents.  Once support is gained, ICLEI can then provide numerous resources to the community.  An essential step is to recommend that the community hire a full time “sustainability (innovation?) manager,” to implement relevant ICLEI policies. Once that is done, other benefits follow.  Some of these include: (1)access to a network of Green experts, newsletters, conferences and workshops; (2) software programs to help set the goals for community development; (3)  toolkits, online resources, case studies, fact sheets, policy and practice manuals, and blueprints successfully used by other communities; (4) notification of relevant grant opportunities conforming to ICLEI objectives; and, (5) training workshops for staff and elected officials on how to develop and implement ICLEI programs.
         ______________
        *Please see http://www.iclei.org (ICLEI) for more detailed information concerning this massive, multi-tentacled, international organization.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Broader view, like what? Davis most likely won’t become a manufacturing mecca, and we have enough yogurt and sushi shops. Many also dislike “big box” retailers, … all I hear and read is what we don’t want.

      In contrast, it is perfectly logical to go after more hi-tech centered businesses and start-ups given that we are a university town.

  4. Davis Progressive

    fascinating the enterprise made more errors on their coverage and had to issue a correction: “A Wednesday article on the Davis City Council’s vote to pursue a Community Choice Energy model misinterpreted Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis’ position on a local control model.  Davis made no statement specifically supporting local control in his opposition to City Councilman Brett Lee’s substitute motion to pursue a model to solely investigate joining Marin Clean Energy, an existing CCE. Davis made a motion to investigate all options equally.”  dave ryan is definitely one of the worst reporters i have seen covering the city council.

    1. Gunrocik

      Agreed, after reading the Brazil piece, I’m wondering whether or not he isn’t lobbying for a future job as a press aide in a future Wolk administration.

  5. Frankly

    Any CEO worth his/her salt will make staffing changes when taking on a new leadership role.  I would expect an incoming new CM to roll some heads.

    That in and of itself is not too big of a deal.  In fact, I would be worried if changes did not occur.

    The real indication of leadership is the newly hired people, and the newly formed organization.  And here I have concerns.  I don’t know the CM, and I don’t know specifically anything about his leadership style.  But when any leader hired under-qualified people in critical positions, it is indicative of three possible troubling concerns.

    One concern is that he is “dumbing down” the position to give it less authority and less emphasis as part of an inside agenda.

    The other concern is that he is an insecure leader and wants only weaker and less capable “yes” people under him so as to not create any challenges for his aims.

    Three, he is more a political puppet CM and is having his strings pulled by certain politicians.

    It could be all of these things, or some of these things, or one of these things.

    Or else I could be completely wrong and the CM is working on a particular staffing plan that is different than what we had before, and he himself will step in to fill the gap in capability between the new ED Director and the outgoing CIO.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Agreed. Or, #4, said person is incompetent, and they couldn’t tell the difference between a go-getter and mediocre talent. There are some BS artists out there who surprisingly snow a number of people. I recall a sales person who was hired who repeatedly claimed “I sell C-level individuals all the time.” (CEO, CTO, etc.) Months later, this hire was an absolute disaster. I was out of the loop. I told my co-workers I knew he was a bust before he entered the front door. “Why?” Who wears Joe-Cool sunglasses into an interview with their suit? And the products he had sold, and would sell, would never be pitched to a C-level executive! It was utter horse manure.

      FWIW, I don’t think the CM fits this bill.

      1. Gunrocik

        As I’ve said before, our CM doesn’t have ANY relevant experience running a City and very little experience working outside a legislative office.  Even the job at the County was to stroke the egos of the Board of Supervisors and not to get involved in the day to day operations of running a local government.

        If you read the Enterprise article closely, you’ll see that he is far more likely to emulate Willie Brown than Ted Gaebler (godfather of CMs) in his management style.

        And his moves to date reinforce the fact that he is setting up this up like a state Senator’s office — stocking up on loyalists–instead of an operation that is supposed to provide a high level of service to the community.

        He’s already run off some of the few people in the City with the experience needed to run the city’s very complex group of operations and develop a long range financial plan for the City.

        In addition, he’s eliminated the contracts for department heads — so that he can eliminate them without recourse if they ever fail to show loyalty, he’s restructured so that he doesn’t have to do much if any hands on management,  and brought in folks that will be more loyal than competent.

        The job of a legislative chief of staff is to protect their boss and get them re-elected — they don’t have to accomplish anything of substance and don’t have to provide service to the public.  You can be a tyrant and hire a bunch of yes men and women.

        If you follow that model in city government, you’ll end up with roads that continue to deteriorate, public facilities that are crumbling, and an ever dropping service level for your operations.

        It is pretty obvious where we are heading with Citizen Brazil at the helm.

         

        1. hpierce

          Pinkerton “ran off” several of the best/key employees.  Haven’t seen significant losses (and some ‘gains’) with Brazil.

          I’d chime in with TBD… where’s the evidence of negating department head contracts?  He might have the power to not renew/extend, but to negate/eliminate?  I’m thinking NOT!  But then again, I have relatives in Missouri… show me.

  6. Alan Miller

    the fiscally challenging fact that the City will be paying the salaries of both Dianne Parro (the first year of her employment contract) and Rob White (the last year of his employment contract) for the next 12 months until Rob White’s employment contract ends in June 2016.

    I’m in a ponder here over which is worse:  paying Rob White an exorbitant salary to work “for” Davis, or paying Rob White an exorbitant salary to do nothing for a year.

        1. hpierce

          Yes, and that helps make your point, which I agree with.  Can you not see that “unless the position remains vacant for the year.” was meant as affirmation of the gist of your post?

        2. Alan Miller

          Can you not see that “unless the position remains vacant for the year.” was meant as affirmation of the gist of your post?

          Damn, foiled by my own style of dry humor.

  7. Alan Miller

    the fiscally challenging fact that the City will be paying the salaries of both Dianne Parro (the first year of her employment contract) and Rob White (the last year of his employment contract) for the next 12 months until Rob White’s employment contract ends in June 2016.

    Has the Sacramento Business Journal yet retracted their inaccurate report (and who gave them this information?) that the contract ended this June rather than next June.  Only off by a year and $165K to $240K or with bennies $XXXK, but who’s counting?

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