Commentary: Optimism Is About Laying Out a Vision To Meet Our Challenges

Dan Wolk State of the City 2016

Dan Wolk State of the City 2016

Many people view optimism in a descriptive manner. They assess it by looking at a glass of water and determining whether that glass is half full or half empty, as though someone who saw the glass as being half empty was the pessimist and those looking at the glass as half full are the optimists.

The reality is that those are semantics. Optimism is not about looking at a given situation and giving a static assessment, it is about assessing the situation and envisioning a way to a better future. Or to put it in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”

Leadership is not about offering a rosy assessment of the present but about offering a better way forward into the future.

On Tuesday, in his concluding remarks, Mayor Dan Wolk stated, “The bottom line is that things are going very well for our city, we certainly have our challenges but we have a good council, a great staff and a great community and things are certainly happening.”

He added, “I never felt more optimistic about the direction of this city – it is a very exciting time to be in the city of Davis.”

In the last two weeks, we spent a good amount of time discussing the claims made by Mayor Wolk. Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis would offer a different assessment of the city’s fiscal situation than the one that Mayor Wolk shared. As some have suggested, this could be considered a glass half-full/glass half-empty argument.

But I see it somewhat differently. While I agree with Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis’ assessment more than Mayor Wolk’s assessment, the real problem I see is that Dan Wolk really has not laid out a vision for the future.

He says that while “things are going really well right now,” he also acknowledges “that’s not to say we don’t have challenges.”

For some it seems that acknowledgement lets him off the hook. But it doesn’t. The question is not one of assessing where we are, but rather where we need to go in the next year to achieve our goals. Last year the mayor laid out what he called “Renew Davis,” it was a vision, it was a call to action of sorts. This year, that vision seems to fall flat.

The reason that it fell flat is that the mayor never really lays the foundation for his agenda of renewal. I will focus on three examples – economic development, infrastructure and a sports park.

Mayor Dan Wolk said that he put forth last year the theme of “Renew Davis,” and he said that 2015 was really a year of renewal. “I think that it starts with economic development,” he said.

He noted that the John Meyer report urged the city to “double down on economic development,” and he called the hiring of Diane Parro as the new CIO to be a key piece of that.

But what is the call to action here? For many of us, we saw economic development, especially in the form of the innovation parks, as a way forward to a better future and a more sustainable economy. The city doesn’t generate the sales tax revenue of other communities – it wishes to avoid the peripheral retail development that could imperil its inner core and the downtown, and so we saw innovation parks as the way to capitalize on UC Davis’ investment into technology transfer and a way to generate revenue.

The problem is, if the message is “everything is awesome” and we have never been better, where is the energy going to come from to convince a public – that is primarily a bunch of slow-growthers who are reluctant to develop on the periphery – to change their point of view?

Without laying that foundation, it is difficult to see that the innovation park proposals are going to be successful. My view is that the prospects for passing a Measure R vote for an innovation park have greatly diminished in the past year.  It is not too late to regain that momentum, but it requires laying a more solid foundation than we have.

Mayor Wolk also pointed out that reinvestment in infrastructure was a key piece of renewing Davis. “If there’s one thing that’s really defined 2015 for our community it’s all the building that you’re seeing,” he said. “And boy did I hear it especially from Jamima (his wife) about the roads.”

“This council has really been dedicated toward reinvesting in our roads. We have seen the federal government and state government essentially pull back to zero in terms of their investments in our roads,” he said, noting that the legislature has failed to come up with a funding mechanism for roads, and so “we have really come to rely on funding our own roads.” He explained, “This council has put $4 million of our own funds… into the roads. We essentially have a $12 million two year program to improve our roads.”

This investment, he said, is paying off, as Bob Clarke a few weeks ago showed that the investment has reversed the decline of our PCI (Pavement Condition Index) on our main arterials and collector streets.

“That’s not to say we won’t have challenges and we certainly will have more challenges in the future,” he said. He noted they are exploring more revenue on infrastructure.

The mayor has the same problem here – they have $12 million, they have improved the main arterials, but he is vague on the challenge. The mayor does not – as Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis did – lay out the fact that we actually have a substantial ongoing shortfall in the amount we are spending versus the amount that we need.

The council is going to put a revenue measure on the ballot, presumably for June, and yet the mayor never laid out the foundation for why we need that revenue. He didn’t make the case for why we need to pass a tax in June. If he is not going to do that at the State of the City nor did he do that in his December column – when is he going to do that?

Finally, we have been discussing the sports park. While I have been a skeptic of trying to fund that expense, I think the mayor had an opportunity to lay out a strong case for why we need to upgrade our sports facilities. Again, he talked about the task force, but never laid the foundation for the need.

In short, we can argue about the extent to which everything is going great or is improving, or the extent to which our challenges are larger than the mayor is letting on. But the true measure of leadership here is not tooting our horns and patting ourselves in the back for where we are or the great community we live in, but rather to inspire the community in the next year to dig a little deeper so we can meet those challenges.

While I do not see eye to eye with the mayor on the former, the latter is where I see deficiency, not just in the mayor, but in much of the community right now. We lack a vision. In fact, we lack a foundation. Most people in the community think we are doing well and do not understand the depths of the fiscal challenges.

Earlier this week we debated whether we were in fiscal crisis, but to me the bigger question is whether we have a vision crisis – we have not laid out a vision, even a really modest one going forward, and to me that is the biggest challenge we face.

—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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11 thoughts on “Commentary: Optimism Is About Laying Out a Vision To Meet Our Challenges”

  1. Tia Will

    “we have not laid out a vision, even a really modest one going forward and to me that is the biggest challenge we face.”

    On this point we are in complete agreement. I do think that the problem is a little more complicated however. I believe that there are many in our community who do have visions for the community, but the visions are in competition and their seems to be little willingness to find a common ground acceptable to all ( or at least a convincing majority).


    1. Mark West

      The prevailing ‘vision’ in Davis is one of stasis in an attempt to protect our current lifestyle and quality of life. Our approach is to raise taxes on residents in an attempt to maintain the services that we require. The basic problem with this vision is that the City cannot remain in stasis, as standing pat simply leads to decay and decline while increasing taxes on residents just makes everyone poorer.

      Renewing Davis requires change, and by that I mean an active change to make things better. This doesn’t have to mean ‘revolutionary changes’ but it does require evolutionary ones. The path is through redevelopment, rebuilding our infrastructure, and expanding our economy through economic development. We don’t need to bulldoze neighborhoods, but we should allow them to evolve one parcel at a time. We don’t need to pave over thousands of acres of farmland indiscriminately, but we do need to provide space for businesses to establish and grow, providing jobs for our neighbors and children. We don’t need to build thousands of detached single family homes, but we must expand our rental housing stock with new high-density housing. We cannot predict the future, however, so renewal requires that we embrace risk and accept that not every project will be perfect. Our goal should be a multitude of small steps, most forward, with some backwards, but none of them standing still.

      Change is not the enemy; stasis is. If we want to maintain our lifestyle and the quality of life in Davis while reducing our risks in the future, we must embrace change through economic development and job growth. All we will accomplish otherwise is more decay and decline.

      1. Davis Progressive

        Where I think I part ways here is your jump from why people resist change to the assertion that lack of growth is going to lead to decay.  Now, an important caveat to that is that I support the notion that we need to reinvest money into the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we need residential growth and I’m not completely convinced that we can’t survive a small college town.

        1. Mark West

          If you haven’t noticed, UCD is no longer a small college.  It used to be back when my parents came to town to go to school, at a time when it was possible to know everyone on campus.  The campus has changed, and so has the world around it, but some in town seem to think that Davis should stay the same.

          Open your eyes, Davis is not the small-college town of your dreams and hasn’t been for some time.

  2. Frankly

    You nailed it here, and it demonstrates some personal growth in understanding this thing called leadership.  Real leaders take risks establishing a vision and then working with stakeholders to drive a community toward that vision.  Fake leaders shy away from risks, or else use dictatorial methods to force change on a community.

    As the term implies, “leadership” is to lead others toward a future state.

    You can easily spot the fakers by their propensity to talk about the past or the present and to steer clear of future targets and commitments.

    And this last word is key… fear of commitments.   Fear of establishing goals and accomplishing them and then it turns out you were wrong.  The benefits of leadership come at the cost of taking risks for being wrong.  True leaders get it and accept it.  Fake leaders attempt to fly below the radar of commitment and dress up their accomplishments.

  3. Tia Will


    “You can easily spot the fakers by their propensity to talk about the past or the present and to steer clear of future targets and commitments.”

    I simply do not believe that this is a way to “spot the fakers”. This implies that it is not possible to respect the past, appreciate the present and embracing a plan for a desirable future

  4. Tia Will


    “Open your eyes, Davis is not the small-college town of your dreams and hasn’t been for some time.”

    I agree with this statement, but interpret its meaning differently. Davis is now a small city, not a small town. There has been a great deal of change during the entire length of time that I have been in Davis. I perceive a very big difference in acknowledging that there will always be change, which is of course inevitable and in saying that we must always grow, which of course is not an inevitability at the rate of change that many would like to see and are pushing for.


    1. Mark West

      If we as a community look at the desire of others who wish to move here and proclaim that we do not want the City to grow, we are placing a higher value on the desires of current residents over everyone else.  Why should that be true?  Under what basis or authority (legal, moral, other) do we say to ‘outsiders’ that our desire to keep you out is more important than your desire to live here? I don’t see any reasonable justification for that position.

      As long as there are people who want to live in Davis, we should be endeavoring to create space for them to do so. To do anything else is socially unacceptable.

      1. Frankly

        The absolute worst city planning idea put forth to date is the urban limit or urban growth boundary.  First, it makes the invalid assumption that outward expansion is 100% bad for a city.  Second, it constrains or prevents needed growth that then results in other problems with urban planning (e.g. taller buildings that people don’t like).

        It was/is an instrument of the nincompoop.

        Peripheral expansion is not automatic sprawl.  Smart growth can and does add tremendous value to a city and maximizes the utility of land use.

        We need to rid ourselves of this concept of putting a farmland moat around the city… or even to prevent contiguous development… and replace it with an demand that all growth be smart.

        1. Don Shor

          As we’ve discussed before, an urban limit line is not necessarily a constraint on growth. Woodland has an urban limit line and is happily growing right out to it. Developers love urban limit lines. Your disparagement of it is simply an ideological distortion.

  5. Bob Fung

    “We lack a vision. In fact, we lack a foundation. Most people in the community think we are doing well and do not understand the depths of the fiscal challenges.”
    There has been a recent attempt to create a vision.  The City commissioned a small pilot study by William McDonough + Partners, a community design firm that specializes in sustainable development in local communities. See Enterprise article.   The full blown study was not funded.   
    Other cities like Palo Alto have ongoing long-term planning efforts.  See link

    I advocate a long-term, ongoing effort to develop, update, analyze and contrast multiple visions (e.g., no-growth, sustainable development etc.)  with significant community involvement.

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