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