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