Sunday Commentary II: A Tale of Two Consent Items

Council did not learn its lesson from the Mace 391 debacle

It was June 2013, school was about to let out and people were likely not following the happenings of the city council as closely as they might have. Placed on consent was an item entitled, “Options for First State Bank of NW Arkansas Property – Mace Curve 391.”

The item recommendation was that council make a determination to explore options for leveraging the Mace Curve 391 property in order to meet several policy goals that “outweighs the current value of a USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Natural Resources Conservation Service grant.”

The issue may have slipped past the community but for an email sent out over the weekend from Greg House which triggered a firestorm of debate and criticism over a proposal by the city to decline an NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) grant.

While staff argued there were a number of inaccuracies in Mr. House’s communications, they made the quick determination to pull the item off the consent calendar and move it to its own special meeting agenda.

Staff learned a valuable lesson that evening, as the firestorm over the process which avoided commission evaluations of the proposal, while putting it on consent, proved fatal to the proposal itself.

Councilmember Brett Lee may have epitomized the dilemma facing council on that Tuesday night, evaluating a reasonable proposal to swap one piece of land in a conservation easement for another against the backdrop of a public process that quite simply failed to meet even the most basic standards of transparency and open government.

“I met with Capitol Corridor Ventures last week about the proposal and it seemed quite reasonable,” Councilmember Lee said. Noting that we brought in a highly-regarded Chief Innovation Officer, “It does seem like we do have the possibility to develop kind of a robust job creation area – something that the people of Davis could be proud of.”

“But this backstory really makes it difficult to want to support this,” he said.

On the other hand, Rochelle Swanson argued, “I’d hate to see bad process kill a good thing.”  She added that she really thinks that had this come before the council a few months beforehand, it was something that the community could get behind.

That should have been a lesson learned by staff and council alike. By the time the public was able to analyze the proposal and argue it should be brought back for reconsideration, it was too late to change things and Mace 391 and its opportunity was lost.

But we have seemingly not learned this lesson, after all. I would argue, whether by design or circumstance, the ball was even more hidden this time than in June 2013. There was no warning that the MOUs were coming to council for a vote.

While the city council followed the legally prescribed process, they failed in the spirit of the law. The agenda item did not come out until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. By the time most people following the process knew about it, it was a few days before the council would vote on the item.

The Vanguard’s first article was not until Monday the day before council would vote on it, and the Enterprise did not have an article on it until Tuesday, the day of the vote.

There was no Greg House to sound the alarm the weekend beforehand, thus there was no outcry and many sat by stunned to realize that council had simply passed the item 4-1, with Robb Davis registering a no vote, but no one pulling the item off consent.

Back in June 2013 we wrote:

City staff, the city manager and everyone involved understand that this was a colossal error.  They certainly recognized it when Greg House sounded the alarm last weekend.  And while they can take issue with Mr. House’s description of things, in most ways he did the community a service and the council a favor.

Give the city manager credit – recognizing the error, he immediately decided to pull the item off consent, called a special meeting, and increased the information in the staff report, including the description of the land swap, among other things.

The damage was done.  In fact, the damage should have been done.  The damage needed to be done.  The message needed to be sent that this was not acceptable.

But while the mistake of Mace 391 was repeated, there was no lesson learned this time. No one had the foresight to pull back from it. The council failed to even discuss it publicly.

The Vanguard has learned from members of the finance and budget commission that the MOU never went there for them to offer the city a fiscal analysis.

The only fiscal analysis offered was a few sentences on the staff report that read: “The terms of the contracts will result in increased costs totaling approximately $537,000 for fiscal year 2015-2016 and $1,129,000 for fiscal year 2016-2017. The cost is calculated on the basis of total compensation (including salaries and associated benefits). These figures take into account projected CalPERS retirement increases and medical premium increases. Funds to cover the cost of this MOU will be borne by the General Fund as well as a variety of special revenue funds.”

That is the extent of the fiscal analysis we have.

Mark West, a commenter on yesterday’s article, put the problem squarely on council in writing, “The complaints about the City Council over the years (and the reasons many citizens do not trust the City) boil down to a few repeated occurrences.  First, taking tax monies raised for one purpose (parks, roads etc.,) and using them instead to increase employee compensation. Second, providing inadequate notice of important discussions (while meeting the ‘letter of the law’), including late postings of staff reports and other information, such that citizens do not feel they have adequate time to prepare. Third, scheduling controversial discussions/decisions around known vacation times and/or late at night in an obvious attempt to reduce public participation.”

He added, “The City Council did not want public participation in this decision and they arranged the agenda accordingly. The fact that they didn’t get any emails just demonstrates the success of their efforts. Had this been a regular agenda item I can guarantee that their email boxes would have been filled with missives, and the Chambers filled with people (some likely carrying pitchforks).”

Mr. West concluded, “Is there any wonder why so many people do not trust the City (or this City Council)?”

In our view, the council failed to learn from the lesson of Mace 391, except by perhaps hiding the ball well enough and long enough to get the MOUs approved before enough people recognized what was happening.

There is some recourse. Councilmember Brett Lee could heed his own words from June 11, 2013, where he acknowledged that the most basic lack of transparency made even a reasonable proposal nearly impossible to support. Councilmember Lee could go a long way toward restoring public trust by asking for a reconsideration of the MOU proposal.

Barring that, the voters do have the recourse of putting the MOU on the ballot as a referendum and approving or disapproving of the MOU. That would be a difficult task, but would definitely send a very strong message, both about the process and the substance of that process.

As Mark West pointed out later in the comment thread, it may be that the ten commenters on the Vanguard are not representative of Davis as a whole, “but a good portion of those ’10’ were strong proponents of the sales tax increase last time around, yet are now questioning the wisdom of repeating that decision.  What is going to happen to the next tax measure if a similar proportion of the Vanguard’s silent readership follows suit?”

That is a question that perhaps the council would be wise to ponder long and hard.

—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. Barack Palin

    Good article, I agree with you and Mark West.  I forgot about the whole Mace fiasco and how that was almost ‘snuck’ through.  Adding to your article is the fact that council knew that the public was apprehensive of any new sales tax money going to pay increases therefor the push for the advisory measure to try and ensure that wouldn’t happen.  The CC knew this was a huge issue but managed to ‘sneak’ it by us too.

  2. Tia Will


    The CC knew this was a huge issue but managed to ‘sneak’ it by us too.”

    This is yet another assumption of what “someone else knew” and then an assessment of their motive. Rochelle and Robb have already each addressed their thoughts on motivation and neither of them said anything about “sneaking” anything past the voters.

    Certainly “sneaking” something past may be one motivator for some, but can we not at least acknowledge that perhaps it is not the only driving force or the only way of seeing the issue and that perhaps we should listen when the elected officials are doing what we ask them to do, namely explaining their thought processes. If we are going to just not listen to what they have to say and insisted we know what they were thinking when they do explain, can we really blame them for not being more forthcoming ?

  3. Dave Hart

    David, there is very little in common with the Mace 391 issue and this one.  In matters of development where there is a general plan and public votes required on developing areas outside the city limits the use of the consent calendar is probably always inappropriate.  No argument there.   There is no equivalent set of circumstances when it comes to employee compensation.  There is no document like a general plan that sets the goals and objectives for employee compensation like there is for development issues.

    You are like a dog with a bone on the issue of city employee compensation.  If you want city employees to be compensated at minimum wage, or paid no higher than the second quintile of all public agencies in the five-county area, or whatever it is, just say it.  Lay out your guidelines and let the debate go from there.  But the innuendo of conspiracy to lavish great wealth on city employees at the city taxpayer’s expense in the absence of the facts is cartoonish and simple-minded.  It feeds the race to the bottom.  Your long-term feud with city employees looks more like a phobia or an obsessive-compulsive disorder and undermines your desire to be taken seriously as an analyst of local politics except, of course, among the famous “Vanguard 10” who agree with you on this one issue.

    1. Mark West

      “There is no document like a general plan that sets the goals and objectives for employee compensation like there is for development issues.”

      Sure there is, it is called a budget.  The first precept in budgeting is to not spend more than you take in, and if you need to pay for something you didn’t budget for, you cut somewhere else.  This is a really simple concept but apparently it is too complex for some to understand. We do not have the money to pay for these raises.


      1. Dave Hart

        I agree that an organization’s budget is a document that lays out goals for what is important to the organization.  But in contrast to the many specifics in the general plan, the budget says very little about what employee compensation should look like long term.  We don’t have five- or ten-year budgets.  It is also true that with the exception of the federal government, all other entities must balance their budgets.  I don’t think many of our fellow Davisites are realistic about all the things we expect from city government in relation to how much we pay in taxes and fees to fund it.  But people are the real source of value in any organization and I don’t believe we can continue to balance our city budget solely on the backs of the employees.  If we want to be in the bottom 10% of municipalities in how we compensate our city employees, then we had better be in the bottom 10% for our tax rates.  That’s not a good place to live.

        1. Mark West

          Between Matt and Frankly I suspect we could come up with a reasonably good estimate of our municipal tax rate compared to other Cities, and the percentage of our revenues that are used to pay compensation.  I suspect that we have one of the highest total tax rates for the region, and among the highest percentage of revenues going to pay compensation.  I would love to be proven wrong, but I won’t hold my breath.


  4. Barack Palin

    It looks like the council can always depend on enough sheep to shear when it comes to running through public pay raises even though we were led to believe that wouldn’t happen this time.  Just keep asking for more taxes as the sheep will give in.

  5. Tia Will

    It seems to me that in order to know whether an individual is over compensated, or under compensated, or “just right” one has to have the appropriate compensation level in mind. So for those who believe that this is a “sheep sheering” contest, I would love to see their assessment of exactly what the ideal compensation should be for each of the public worker groups involved and how they are arriving at that determination. Frankly has at least made an attempt at this in the past by equating some of the roles with similar positions in the private sector. The problem that I have with this approach is that some, although certainly not all, private sector company pay policies ( such as WalMart) represent a race to the bottom in terms of compensation and I certainly would not support such an approach for our public workers whether or not this is an expression of the “free market”.

    1. hpierce

      “each of the public workers GROUPS” doesn’t cut it, Tia…  some of the well compensated positions within the City have no real analogues in the private sector… within a given “work group”, there are a variety of skill sets, abilities, effectiveness… even in a particular job class, there are bell curves as to ‘value’ to the City… etc.

      In the private sector, an employer can sort that all out, if they choose to.  Not in the public sector.  Something about favoritism, capriciousness, etc.  Even then, it still occasionally happens even here in Davis.  Damn hard to prove/document, but employees know, but cannot “prove”.

      1. Tia Will


        some of the well compensated positions within the City have no real analogues in the private sector”

        Ok, I get it than in financial and compensation matters I am well outside my area of expertise. That does not in any way negate my central point that workers are either underpaid, at just the right point or overpaid and there still must be some objective criteria for what that standard is. This is what I am seeking when I ask this question. Given that there are no real analogues in the private sector, for those who think the staff is overpaid, what standard ( in specific numbers) are you using.

    2. Frankly

      The liberal mind is a very strange machine with it comes to business.

      If you don’t like what Walmart pays, then don’t work there.  If you don’t like their hiring and compensation practices, don’t shop there.

      It is all freedom in the private sector.

      Freedom to choose to work for a private sector employer, and freedom to choose if you will do business with a private sector employer.

      Walmart has it, and public sector business down not.  Public sector labor is a closed Democrat political cartel.  The customers of public-sector business not only do NOT have freedom to chose, but there is also no freedom to prevent the looting of more dollars from our pockets to keep over-paying the public sector employees.

  6. Don Shor

    “The Vanguard 10….”

    In the last 7 days (Nov 30 – Dec 6) 41 different people have posted comments on the Vanguard. Of those, 5 are new or infrequent commenters, another 4 comment fairly regularly but less than 100 times overall. The remaining 32 have hundreds or thousands of comments posted in their histories.

    How many people turn out at a typical city council meeting to make public comment?


    How many different people email the council members about any given issue?

    1. David Greenwald

      Thanks Don. To add to that, there are more than 750 people registered to post on the Vanguard, a majority of them have been verified as having legitimate and valid email addresses.

    2. Robb Davis

      How many different people email the council members about any given issue?

      Interesting question and QUITE variable.  Of course most issues garner not a single email.  Many items not on any agenda garner quite a few.  In the time I have been the CC (and using my faulty memory) a few of the issues that have led to a LARGE number of emails have been (in no particular order): the MRAP issue, Paso Fino, Trackside, 5th Street Affordable housing site selection process, recent downtown security issues, innovation parks (on and off), various street light issues, B Street parking/striping, various housing concerns…

      Budget gets almost nothing (except from FBC members) but I did receive a few emails from people I have never heard from before AFTER the MOU vote.

      I could do a finer analysis but outside commission members who write more frequently, there are about a 12 people in the City who write to me on a regular basis on more than a single issue.  There is no discernible pattern to their emails or the issues they care to discuss but most are what I might call quality of life issues.

      The most interesting/troubling email I have received is one from someone after the vote we had on the default beverage issue.  It was about 5 printed pages in very large type of some of the following (over and over and over): Stalinist, Marxist, Facist… After about three pages of this it got right down nasty cursing me and using language that my mom would have threatened severe punishment for (“He needs his mouth washed out with soap” she might have said.).

    3. Matt Williams

      Thanks for sharing that Don. I just got back from Davis Ace after buying a new Carbon Monoxide Alarm, and ran into one of those occasional Vanguard posters, (his last comment here in the V-10 was early in November). He told me that he not only sent the Council an e-mail of protest, but also got an acknowledgement of the receipt of his e-mail from one of the Council members.

    4. Miwok

      Does the Vanguard only prefer people that are landowners in Davis City Limits? Are people who work there eligible? Please tell us. I thought this discussion was for everyone who supported a better Davis and Yolo County?

      1. hpierce

        Doesn’t make no never-mind to me, unless a non-Davis person strongly advocates using Davis resources for non-Davis purposes.  If you do, please disclose status.

      2. Tia Will


        Speaking only for myself but for full disclosure as a member of the Vanguard editorial board, landownership doesn’t matter to me at all. It is the ideas being expressed that matter to me. I believe that ideas can be judged on their own merit regardless of the motive of the poster.

        I find it cowardly to make personal attacks while hiding behind anonymity, but feel that this objection on my part is trumped by first amendment rights to free speech as long as one is within the bounds of the Vanguard principles as posted and subject to the discretion of our mediator.

  7. Tia Will


    If you don’t like what Walmart pays, then don’t work there.  If you don’t like their hiring and compensation practices, don’t shop there.”

    It is very interesting that this is the comment you make here on the Vanguard while your evil twin said something quite derogatory about the WalMart  business model when we were speaking in person. I think that as savvy as you two are about business, you are well aware that for many, the job at WalMart may be the only job that they will be able to get. Yes, if there were better jobs guaranteed, everyone could just move on to a better job, but as we discussed, we both know that is just plain not true. I really don’t care about the finger pointing we could both do about why that is not true, that is the reality for many in our society who may have obligations that force them to work in these low paying jobs since they may have dependents to support and cannot afford our every more expensive educational system in order to increase their skills and move up economically.

  8. Tia Will

    Freedom to choose to work for a private sector employer, and freedom to choose if you will do business with a private sector employer.”

    And let’s not forget about the freedom to go hungry. Or the freedom to chose whether to pay your rent of for your medicine. Or the freedom of which friend of family members couch to sleep on since you have had no….zero…..job offers despite diligent attempts to find work and can’t afford a place to live.

    I do not doubt that the “free market” has some advantages. Can we please not pretend two things:

    1. That the free market is all good.

    2. That what we actually have is a “free market”

    1. Jim Frame

      Frankly’s daily rant about political party control and union evil notwithstanding, the surest way to determine whether or not City of Davis staff positions pay significantly below existing market value is to freeze compensation until a clear trend in staff turnover emerges.  While I can’t recommend this as a wholesale approach — the early exits are likely to be the  best performers — it can probably be used to tease the limit at which the departures start to degrade efficiency.

      Maybe that’s what the CM did before recommending the recent increases, but if he did I haven’t heard any mention of it.  And I think the city’s handling of the matter, from the holiday-week notice to the consent calendar vote, was unequivocally wrong and likely to imperil any future revenue measures.

        1. Jim Frame

          So, Jim, you have not seen degradation in efficiency/efficacy, in say, the last five years?

          I don’t have any reliable means of assessing that.  My hope is that the city does, and my disappointment is that I didn’t see any discussion about the matter prior to the quiet passage of staff compensation increases.

      1. Dave Hart

        Jim, I’m not a fan of destructive test methods as you suggest.  It’s sort of like driving your car without oil until the engine freezes up.  Yep, learned a lot from that:  the old car went 1,500 miles without oil!  That car had a lot of heart!  Now it’s in the crusher.

        I don’t think that is a good management model or a decent way to treat people.

        1. Matt Williams

          Agreed Dave.  What is clearly needed is a comprehensive assessment of all the positions of the “reconstituted/leaner” 352 FTE City staffing model.  That assessment should be from two perspectives, (1) efficient allocation of employee resources, and (2) fair market compensation of the employees in their “reconstituted/leaner” roles.


        2. Barack Palin

          fair market compensation of the employees in their “reconstituted/leaner” roles.

          Are you trying to say that public employees deserve more pay because there are less employees per capita?

          Last time I looked they still work an 8 hour day and if they do have to work longer most get handsomely compensated with premium overtime pay.

        3. Barack Palin

          fair market compensation of the employees in their “reconstituted/leaner” roles.

          Are you trying to say that public employees deserve more pay because there are less employees per capita?

          Last time I looked they still work an 8 hour day and if they do have to work longer most get handsomely compensated with premium overtime pay.

          1. Matt Williams

            Not at all BP.

            The reason that I included the graphic was to show the current “leaner” 352 FTE staffing versus the previous “less lean” 464 FTE staffing. 352 is the “reconstituted” version of 464. The number of employees per capita is irrelevant when looking at an individual position’s value in the employment marketplace.

            The problem that exists in the current “leaner” staffing model is that the 102 FTE decrease was not accomplished with a comprehensive plan, but rather (for the most part) through attrition due to employee retirement or employees leaving the City for other job opportunities/promotions.

            Regarding your “handsomely compensated with premium overtime pay” comment, I believe that applies to one employee group a whole lot more than other employee groups. I would be surprised to find that (for instance) public works employees clock a lot of overtime.

        4. Jim Frame

          It’s sort of like driving your car without oil until the engine freezes up.

          Using your car analogy, what I was suggesting was more like this:

          The oil gauge in your car is broken, and the dipstick is stuck.  You need to reach your destination so you keep driving, but you keep a sharp eye on the temperature gauge, knowing that if the car runs low on oil the engine will begin to overheat.  If the temp starts to rise beyond the safe zone, you shut off the engine and figure out Plan B.

          What Matt suggested was to fix the oil gauge, and I agree that’s by far the better plan.  But in either case, you don’t keep adding oil to the engine without knowing whether or not it needs it.


        5. Jim Frame

          you don’t keep adding oil to the engine without knowing whether or not it needs it

          Oh, and I forgot to mention:  you don’t have any money with which to buy oil.  You have a credit card, but no unallocated income with which to pay the bill.

          (The kids don’t really need 3 meals a day, do they?  They can probably get by on 2, right?)


      2. Frankly


        But there is more to it.   The city needs to reach out to the greater labor market for recruiting.  And there needs to be an audit of job requirements to make sure that there are not any unnecessary requirements that prevent people lacking previous public sector job experience from being qualified.

        From you measure we already know that firefighters are over-compensated.  The last open position have over 300 qualified applicants as I understand.  With a more rigorous recruiting process, I would expect thousands of qualified applicants to apply.

    2. Frankly

      No system is “all good”.  Utopia is unattainable.   We need to pick the system that is the “most good” and work within its principles that make it the most good.  You, like many liberals, cherry pick the bad and ignore the good.

      The traditional US system of democratic capitalism is a flawed system… it is just better than all the rest.

      The US economic and political system has raised the standards of living of much of the world.  Yet you will always fret about that last person that “goes hungry” even as we spend trillions to help ensure nobody does.

      Here is some news Tia… you cannot save everyone.

  9. Tia Will


    The traditional US system of democratic capitalism is a flawed system… it is just better than all the rest.”

    Here is where we disagree. I do not believe that a system which provides extreme wealth for some but below poverty standards for others is “better than all the rest”. Maybe better if your measurement is who can achieve the most excessive wealth….otherwise not so much so.

    And here is some news for you. Even if our democratic capitalism were the best, that in no way means that there is not room for improvement. Even being “the best” does not mean that we should sit on our laurels, but as the highest achiever in the wealth accumulation game, have a responsibility to improve the quality of life for our own population as well as the quality of life for our friends and allies.

    No, we cannot “save everyone” what ever that is supposed to mean. But we could certainly devote our lives to make life as good as possible for as many as possible, an aspiration that we are very far from achieving.


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