The Davis City Council’s biggest decision on Tuesday night, with the deepest ramifications for the future of the city, came and went without a single comment by the council other than Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis recording a no vote for the new MOUs which will provide four bargaining units with a 3 percent COLA (Cost-of-Living Adjustment) over the next seven months.
Not one of the five councilmembers pulled the consent item to explain or discuss their vote.
That contrasts from the series of MOUs passed in 2009-10 where the council openly discussed the issues facing the city. In fact, it was the contract for PASEA (Program, Administrative and Support Employees Association) where Mayor Ruth Asmundson cut off debate on an MOU for a second time, where the infamous blow up occurred between the mayor and Councilmember Sue Greenwald.
A month before that blow up, the mayor along, with Councilmembers Don Saylor and Stephen Souza, were successful in cutting off the debate and passing the MOU by a 3-2 vote. Part of the issue was the degree of savings that the city would derive from those contracts and, in a heated discussion, Councilmember Sue Greenwald pressed the Finance Director to explain where the inflated savings figures came from. During the course of that discussion, Councilmember Greenwald demonstrated that the level of savings was actually considerably less in year three than the 3.6 percent trumpeted by city staff.
As Councilmember Lamar Heystek pointed out at the time, “This is not about what dollar amount certain employees may or may not deserve. This is about what we as a city can afford to pay and we have a responsibility to get the best deal for the taxpayers and the community as a whole.”
Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek turned out to be correct back in 2009 and 2010, and the council in the next round of MOUs was forced to make far deeper cuts.
The most interesting thing is that Councilmember Lamar Heystek’s comment from 2009 rings just as true six years later – the issue is not what the employees deserve, it is what we can afford to pay.
While some councilmembers may maintain that these issues were discussed during their closed session meetings, we never got to hear them publicly justify this raise that not only adds $1.1 million to the budget but also adds between 5 and 8 percent to the city’s contributions to CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System).
By failing to pull the item off consent, we never got to hear, on the record and in public, answers to important questions.
The biggest question that remains unanswered is where the city is going to get the money to pay for the additional $1.1 million being added to the budget – does that mean we cut programs? Does that mean we cut employees that run those programs? Is council planning to use some of the money from a proposed tax measure?
The council still has not figured out how it will pay for approximately $10 million in annual road maintenance needs. Currently, the council has carved out about $4 million in both road impact fees as well as general fund money.
Council is set to discuss a tax measure at its December 15 meeting, but already some councilmembers have told the Vanguard that the utility user tax is off the table.
In an email from Assistant Manager Kelly Stachowicz, the Vanguard learned that, while not completely off the table, there is no clear consensus about what the public will or will not support. This is a picture that has been made much murkier by the council’s actions adding to their payroll.
In the meantime, the Vanguard has heard from two councilmembers off the record that the MOU actions were about the need to recruit new police officers, while at the same time rewarding those employees who worked with the city during the budget crisis.
As we noted yesterday, City Manager Dirk Brazil seems to have a different take on the need to increase salary.
He noted in an email that, since 2009, take-home pay for the average city employee has dropped by 7 percent. At the same time, these employees have been asked to pay an increased share of their benefit costs (i.e. pay the employee share which the city had previously paid), among other cost increases.
According to the city manager’s view, “The 3% over two years agreed to between management and the employee groups that is before the City Council Tuesday night for consideration is an incremental move to improve overall compensation for our employees after a very difficult few years.”
But that brings us back to Councilmember Lamar Heystek’s comment that the issue is not what employees deserve, it is about what the city can afford to pay – and be responsible into the future.
Right now this deal looks completely irresponsible. The Vanguard on Monday showed city projections for how even a modest $1.1 million increase to employee compensation will impact the budget down the line.
Just a $1.1 million increase will push the city into the red, according to current projections, in 2019-20.
Maybe the council has a plan to deal with that – but because no one from the council bothered to pull the item and put the comments on the record, the public has no idea.
One councilmember suggested that they had almost no emails on the subject. Is there any wonder? The staff report came out on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The Vanguard did not even cover the issue until Monday and the Enterprise made note of it on Tuesday – when was the public going to learn about this agreement in order to weigh in?
We are not suggesting anything nefarious in this, however, there are reasons why the public was not engaged.
The Vanguard, however, received at least ten emails, text messages, and other instant communications from people angry about not only the MOUs but the failure of the council to pull the item from consent and publish it.
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson has agreed to speak with the Vanguard on the record later today, but three councilmembers – Dan Wolk, Brett Lee, and Lucas Frerichs, all of whom will be on the ballot in June, have said nothing publicly on this issue.
The Vanguard was extremely critical of the 2009-10 city council’s handling of the budget and the MOU process. That handling exploded in January 2010 with the showdown between Ruth Asmundson and Sue Greenwald.
But, at least in 2009 and 2010, the discussion took place on the record, in public, and Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek had an opportunity to explain their dissent.
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis did the right thing in opposing the COLAs that appear to us to be fiscally irresponsible. We commend Robb Davis for standing up for principle, both in the hiring of the city manager and now in the MOUs.
That said, it is perplexing as to why he would not publicly argue his case or explain his vote. This is for the public’s need to know and the benefit of the community. Moreover, it would have forced or compelled his colleagues to explain or defend their actions.
That is now twice that Robb Davis has taken a different approach from his colleagues but didn’t wish to publicly explain it. He did it on Dirk Brazil’s hire as city manager, and he now has done it on the MOUs. As much as I respect Mr. Davis, the public deserves to understand his reasoning – simply arguing his case in closed session is not sufficient for the public’s needs.
However, it is far more disappointing to see the actions of Councilmembers Brett Lee and Rochelle Swanson. Both have exemplary records on issues of fiscal responsibility. Rochelle Swanson teamed with Joe Krovoza and Dan Wolk in 2011 to push the city in a new fiscal direction. She continued that work with the former mayor and Brett Lee by helping to push through the fire reforms – critical measures occurring on 3-2 votes.
This needed to be a public discussion and we need to understand how the city plans to make fiscal ends meet. Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee failed to explain their rationale. They failed to do what Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek did, or even what Don Saylor and Stephen Souza did – which was to defend their vote. Maybe in the end they would have won us over, but now we’ll never know.
The bottom line: the public deserved a discussion last night and got silence. That will not soon be forgotten.
—David M. Greenwald reporting