Commentary: Trust Is Paramount if We Are Going to Move Forward


On the one hand, it would appear that the city gets it – with Nishi on the ballot, the city wants to appear neutral and not expend resources towards the project. But on the other hand, the city in the planning phases doesn’t appear to see the same need for neutrality.

We brought up this point when commenting on the hiring of Ashley Feeney, the former VP of The New Home Company and project manager for the Cannery, as assistant community development director for the city of Davis. The purpose of that commentary was not to attack Mr. Feeney, nor was it to question his credentials, rather it was to question the optics of the move.

If the city wants any possibility of voters approving new developments like Nishi, there needs to be trust that the analysis coming out of city hall is objective and accurate. This taps right back into the need for evidence-based decision making, and the first rule for reaching such a decision is the need for accurate information.

The problem we face right now is that many citizens are convinced that city staff is actively working to promote projects, rather than process projects and allow the council and the community to ultimately determine the direction in which to go.

To the extent that members of the community distrust the information coming out of city hall, it is likely to complicate rather than facilitate the progress of potential projects.

One example comes from the staff report for the MRIC that went to the Planning Commission this week. One reader criticizes the report as “aspirational,” arguing that the rhetoric “is over the top” and the reader questions whether the “Staff report is a parody of any sort of critical review of a development.”

One such example:


From Appendix F:


While the appendix comes from the developer, the staff report doesn’t distinguish between the material from the developer and from staff’s analysis. Moreover, it doesn’t offer much in the way of critical analysis.

As we know from the very extensive discussions on Nishi, the devil is in the details. Clearly this remains an early take on the MRIC proposal, but perhaps staff should be a bit more reflective of that in their comments. Stating that MRIC “is” a “low carbon district” seems very premature without a good deal more analysis and detail.

Stating that MRIC “strives to be” or “seeks to be” might be more realistic than stating “it is” – at this point.

Despite all that work on Nishi, there is still not universal agreement as to whether the sustainability features of the project move far enough.

None of this is a mere academic or theoretical concern. The public needs to trust that the analysis coming from city staff is objective, evidence-based and neutral. If staff is seen as an advocate or, worse yet, a “shill” for development, the public trust in the process will be lost.

Some will question, why is this so critical? We have commissions, we have community activists, and we have the council – all of whom have the capability to keep staff honest and, when they are not, they have the capacity to push staff to go back to the drawing board.

The problem is that we need good analysis going forward. We need to trust that this analysis is accurate and unvarnished. The reason we need to do that is that we face a real challenge and a real crisis going forward.

As we have been reporting, Davis faces a rental housing crisis. For years the vacancy rate has been absurdly low and now it is around 0.2 percent. At the same time, the university is expanding the number of students admitted. We are expecting about 1100 more new students next fall than we had this fall.

The university, as we have reported multiple times, has made it clear they cannot or at least will not build enough housing to accommodate the increased student population.

Some have suggested that the solution here is clear – that UC Davis simply “needs to drastically slow down their student population growth and drastically speed up the provision of their on-campus student housing.”

But others point out that neither is likely to happen, and many question whether the city has any real influence over that decision.

Others point out that the idea that UC Davis needs to slow their population growth is an anathema. After all, do we really want fewer kids to get a UC Davis education simply because it causes problems for our city planning?

The danger that the city faces is a demographic issue. As we noted, 57 percent of housing units are rental properties and 55 percent of Davis residents live in rental housing. Right now, the majority of those are students who do not vote or do not vote locally.

However, as pressures rise, that may change and, without a long-term solution, those renters could out-vote local property owners and make major changes to long-standing city land use ordinances, including Measure R, and they could have an impact on the viability of future housing projects like Nishi.

It is not clear if that scenario would happen, but if the pressure of student growth continues to hammer into a housing market that cannot or at least does not expand, something may have to give.

Those are the stakes. We need to be able to accurately assess the situation – to analyze the need for new housing, how much the city can reasonably accommodate and whether, how and where we should grow.

But to get to that point we need to trust that the information which comes from city staff is not simply being delivered at the behest of development interests. We need to be able to trust our city officials, but in order to trust, we need to receive good and accurate reports, trusting that council and the community can take that information and reach the right conclusions.

Without trust, this whole system could come crashing down. The stakes are perhaps as high as they have been at least in the last twenty years, maybe longer.

—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. The Pugilist

    The city has damaged itself by hiring Feeney.  I’m supportive of more development, but hiring the project manager from Cannery was a stupid move.

    1. ryankelly

      I disagree.  This is inconsequential and only people who are involved in City Planning politics as a primary hobby would think that the hiring of one qualified planner would consider this damaging.  It is your use of the words “stupid move” that makes it clear that people like you think that this is all some sort of game that is being played.

        1. ryankelly

          I don’t think they are.  I think the City Planning staff are over-loaded and Feeney is a competent planner that will be able to ramp up quickly to carry some of the load.

      1. Matt Williams

        ryan, I believe “inconsequential” is swinging the pendulum too far.  The question that rattles around in my brain is how does any hire’s skill set match what the department’s actual needs are.  I have heard it argued quite actively over the past year (most recently by Alan Pryor last week) that the need is for “doers in trenches” rather than administrators orchestrating the big picture.  Given the position that Ashley rose to at New Home Company, my perception is that his typical day was dominated by orchestration and administration rather than digging trenches as “one qualified planner.”  I’m sure he has dug his share of trenches in his career, but how recently was it that he was actively dealing with the nuts and bolts of planning.

        What is not at all clear at this time is what the true “needs” of the Community Development Department are.

        The other key question for me centers around the dynamic between proactivity and reactivity.  For example with respect to the current Nishi process, if Ashley had been hired 12 months ago, would the Nishi process have been less “rushed” leading up to February 16th?

  2. Michael Harrington

    Trust?  Like staff set four City Council meetings to decide the issue of the CUP for the business next door to my home, when staff knew I could not be there?  I was traveling out of town and state for my aviation law practice.   Substantive decisions were reached at each of the four meetings, without me there.   Current status:  the Court agreed with me that the 20 foot front setback prohibited required ADA parking, but using a hyper-technicality presented by the City, thought the CUP was OK because there was a much smaller, owner-occupied business there years ago and it was “grand-fathered” in.  I am appealing that judgment now to the Third District Court of Appeals.    And the applicant is a sitting duck for any ADA lawsuit filed in Federal Court.  Did the City attorney, staff, or her attorneys tell her about that?

    (BTW, professional staff told the applicant she could not get the CUP because it lacked room for the ADA parking space.  She complained to her church buddy, Lucas, who then went into planning with the realtor who sold her the property, David Taormino,  Mike Webb, director of planning, and the applicant.  And suddenly … the CUP was forwarded to the Planning Commission for approval.  We have the emails in the record … Thanks, Lucas, for interfering with professional staff.)

    Trust?  Staff rammed Embassy Suites through on little or no traffic analysis, in violation of CEQA.  Staff knew it, but orders were to fast track that project, and they did it.   When I asked a friend on the Planning Commission why they rubber stamped the project when it obviously was too big and traffic intensive for the site, he/she told me that the fix was in:  it was a CC project from above, and the word was move it fast.  So that member viewed any opposition as being pointless.

    Trust?  I gave the CC two opportunities to process the Embassy Suites project in conformance with CEQA, and they approved it anyway, 5/0.  Friends and I even retained a professional engineer to analyze traffic, but our positive, helpful comments fell on deaf ears.

    Trust?  The August 2011 water rates approved 5/0 by the CC were obviously so screwed up that members of the Davis Chamber of Commerce asked me for my input.  Water rates staff had obviously pulled those rates out of their …. back pocket …. and there was no basis in reality for the rate package that we overturned via referendum.  Yet the City Attorney certified to the CC that the rates conformed to law.


    Trust?  the water plant was originally 18 mgd for Davis, based on two bogus assumptions based on old or non-existent data (city population growth rates and consumption data).  The challenge to the City produced a much smaller  and cheaper plant, 12 mgd, and forced them to go get public approval of the plant.  I’ve heard from city financial staff that the savings for the smaller plant and other improvements saved the rate payers over $165,000,000.  Someone else with solid knowledge of the numbers told me the other day that the savings probably exceeded $245,000,000.

    Trust?  The CBFR rates certainly would have soaked the homeowners who watered their yards in the summer, giving certain business groups a huge subsidy.  The rates charge 7x (!!) more per unit in the summer than in the winter.  Approved 5/0 by our CC, and defeated at the polls with Measure P.  CC then adopted fair rates.

    Trust?  Nishi …. the traffic model they are using lacks fundamental data.  The City refuses to provide the field notes or the data matrix to support their conclusions that all is well with traffic at Richards and Olive if Nishi is built … our expert and team has concluded that the failure to produce the basics to support their model suggests that the field studies weren’t actually done … or at least not properly.  The Mayor Pro Tem commented from the dais that the model probably needed to be litigated since it was used all over town, so he might get his wish.

    We asked the CC numerous times to push the ballot measure back to November so they could address our concerns and update the data, and the CC refused.

    I could go on and on from things I knew when I was on the CC, inside deals and stories.

    David, your article is spot on.


    1. ryankelly

      Mike, If you hate living here so much and feel so wronged, why do you stay?  Your job allows you to live anywhere in the world.  Why here where you feel City government and the citizens of Davis are so corrupt?   Don’t say it is because you love your little community, because your actions show that you don’t.  The water rates issue is resolved.  Your neighbor is not hurting a fly.  Your Council stint is over. Why continue to rage?  Why do you think that the City should listen to someone who continues to sue us?

      1. The Pugilist

        I disagree with most of what Mike is doing, but he does have the right to do it for the most part.  I hate when people use the love it or leave it line (If you hate living here so much and feel so wronged, why do you stay?).  The Vietnam war is over and the people on the wrong side of history were those saying love it or leave to the protesters.

        1. ryankelly

          His actions will never resolve the rage in his heart that he has toward people in this community.  This is not just political action – it is personal for him. Even when issues are resolved, he dwells on them.  There seems to be no possible chance resolution for him.  He is engulfed by hatred and resentment and he hurts the people around him.  He has the ability and opportunity to do this, but I don’t think it is just.   If he feels so abused, why does he stay?  This not a command to “love it or leave it.”

    2. hpierce

      Yeah, like the “inside deal” you ‘managed’, to keep a charitable organization from replacing the food closet next to your downtown properties [you were successful, even though your fence encroached on City property]… or the inside deal you tried to make with City staff, years ago while you were a CC member, to coerce a developer to essentially “gift” a portion of land to a friend of yours…

      Trust? Anyone who has dealt with you frequently, when you try to “strong arm them”, as you did in the past, and are apparently still doing, knows you for who/what you are.

      Hope all your Form 700 forms were timely filed when you were on the CC… I hope to look them up and post them.


      1. ryankelly

        or the inside deal you tried to make with City staff, years ago while you were a CC member, to coerce a developer to essentially “gift” a portion of land to a friend of yours

        I am aware of at least one project on the corner of Catalina and Covell where he was successful in his demands for and his vote was dependent on the developers gifting land or land use to the project’s neighbors and I believe that there was another – the apartments near the police station on 2nd Street –  that I think that this also happened.

      1. hpierce


        The subject/issue is TRUST, and the actions of City staff, which, in my view, includes CC members, compensated by the people, to faithfully do the people’s business.

        When someone impugns staff, as to trust-worthiness, their own credentials/history, during the time they were, in effect, staff, should allowed to be “in play” as well.  And, I’d add, subsequent actions they take, using their former roles to ‘leverage’ such subsequent actions.

  3. Ron

    “. . . and didactic awareness of interaction of local and global ecological processes”.

    Wow – that some mighty fancy writing!  (That entire statement, really.)  Where’s my dictionary?  Are you sure that we’re talking about a proposed development?

    Another hotel on Second Street (Residence Inn)?  Oh yeah – that, combined with MRIC, won’t create any further problems on Second (or surrounding streets).  And Embassy won’t create a problem at Richards, when combined with Nishi and the other proposed complex on Olive.  (Must be a really “special” interchange/intersection that’s being planned, there.)

    Regarding Mike Harrington, I’m glad that he’s there to challenge us.  Based on the strong reactions of some, it seems that he consistently strikes a nerve.  It doesn’t matter if one always agrees.

    Stay tuned – it promises to be an entertaining period in local politics!

      1. Ron

        ryankelly:  This is not just a game for your entertainment.

        I found the statement (in the article) regarding MRIC amusing.  (Not Mike Harrington’s statement.)  But, I do think that Mike provides some intelligent and challenging statements, regardless of whether or not we support all of his activities.  If any particular statement has no merit, it will ultimately be disregarded.

      2. The Pugilist

        “Ron, Mike Harrington doesn’t just challenge us.  He hurts people.  This is not just a game for your entertainment.”

        I think Mike should have not fought the lady who lives next door to him.  However, for the most part he’s not hurting people, he’s challenging policies – again I disagree with him, but I have a big problem with trying to shut him down.

    1. The Pugilist

      But you’re also not a family wanting to live in Davis or a student trying to find a place to rent.  And you also have to take more seriously the idea of alleviating some of the pressure that the increased number of students is producing or else you may end up destroying what you are trying to save.

    2. Frankly

      I think the CC is just facing reality Mike, and you, like other older residents, don’t like that reality.  There really isn’t any feasible model of Davis existence at this time that meet your demands.

      For those that expected Davis to remain a small rural college town with a sleepy little downtown, they are just unlucky that they:

      1. Live in a city with a very successful and thriving university with aggressive growth plans already executed.

      2. Live in a region that has experienced significant growth and is poised to be one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation over the next 20-30 years.

      Mike, you keep trying to put your finger in all those holes in the growth dike, but the pressure is too strong and your efforts are futile.  Davis has to grow.  It has to grow its local economy so it can pay its bills (wait until you see some coming reports on the true accounting of the cities unfunded liabilities!).  It has to grow some housing to meet the needs of students and young people that cannot afford the inflated home purchase costs.

      Your best strategy would be to sue the university to stop its growth plans.  Good luck with that!

  4. Odin

    I knew something was amiss when I went for a walk near Nishi to see signs saying “Join the Nishi conversation” that provided a link to their website encouraging me to convince the city council the project was necessary.  So much for being part of a “conversation”.

  5. Tia Will


    So much for being part of a “conversation”.”

    And yet it had enough of a negative impact on you to cause you to join this “conversation”. I guess it had some benefits after all.

  6. Michael Harrington

    To Frankly and Others:  You actually make a good point:  the rapid UCD growth is unprecedented, and the City is not handling it well.  It’s something the CC has not dealt with, other than wringing its hands, complaining, and trying to jam too-large infill projects down the throats of neighbors, when those projects will make little difference to meeting the needs of UCD for housing of students.

    If the City actually had an effective response, and drew a line, and used its political pull in state government, I think UCD would react to solve the problems and build a lot more housing on campus.

    But have you heard the CC really really raising heck?  No.  How about our state electeds?  Nope.  Oh, and our County Supervisors?  Not a peep.

    So why so little response?

    Because if UCD builds all that new housing on campus, rather than the City allowing it within the city limits, the developers and apartment owners who “own” the CC (and they do, trust me …) wont get the money from large new complexes.  Simple math, and dirty politics.

    Yes, Frankly, as usual you are mostly right.  Plugging holes in the dike is only a short term thing.  But that doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t try.

  7. Michael Harrington

    hpierce:  I did little or nothing to oppose the STEAC project next to my home on D Street.  I didn’t even go to a commission or CC meeting.   They got their City approval, then radio silent ,,, for years.  The City offered them a steal of a deal on a large storage and distribution facility in the City Corp Yard, and STEAC turned them down.  That was such a better deal than what they wanted to do on D St on city property.  I really don’t know why STEAC did not develop their project;  they got full approval for it.   You should ask them, since you know so much.

    1. hpierce

      We both know only a part of what you just said is true.  And we both know a good portion of it is untrue.  Particularly your part, directly and indirectly, in the process.

  8. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “The problem we face right now is that many citizens are convinced that city staff is actively working to promote projects, rather than process projects and allow the council and the community to ultimately determine the direction in which to go.”

    As has been discussed by a number of Vanguard commenters (Anon where are you?), the City is doing very little planning (with an inclusive, holistic/community-wide perspective), rather it is processing applications (with an exclusive, siloed/parcel-specific perspective).

    Whether intentional or not, the result is that the applicant and staff work closely, interactively, and iteratively together, working through the challenges/issues associated with the application.  As the application goes through those staff/applicant steps, the public is held at arm’s length.  Metaphorically, it is a process that is very much like the recent events at Folsom Lake.  Water is held behind the dam until suddenly the calculations of flood risk exceed the water storage incentives and the flood gates are opened.  It is reminiscent of the sign over an administrative assistant’s desk, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part…”

    Unfortunately, if the public is not paying close attention, the opening of the flood gates simply overwhelms them, or passes them by.

    The solution is a commitment to proactive, repeatable, reliable, and inclusive processes.


  9. skeptical

    The issue in the article is trust.  The community rightfully has very little trust in the City, and the City continues down a counterproductive path.  Hiring Feeney was exceedingly poor judgment, he brings very little to the table, and he certainly doesn’t deliver what the City needs.  Mr. Harrington provided a list of trust issues, which noone has countered.  Disagreeing with or disliking someone doesn’t hold water.  Need we say more?

    1. Matt Williams

      skeptical said . . . “Mr. Harrington provided a list of trust issues, which noone has countered.”

      Looking at Mike’s trust issues, I’m not going to “counter” any of them, but a few of them need to be put into context . . .

      The first one exists for the most part on a personal level only.  I suspect that very few Davisites know anything about the CUP for the business next door to Mike’s home.

      The Embassy Suites CEQA traffic issue hasn’t come out of the far end of the legal process, so Mike’s opinion about legality is just that, an opinion. The same can be said for traffic at Nishi.

      Mike did indeed take two opportunities to “warn” the City Council about his legal intentions, but again the legal process is far from over.  As they say, “Pardon our dust …”

      Regarding the August 2011 water rate, Mike is on firmer ground.  However, it took the 15 members of the Water Advisory Committee (WAC) months and months and months to sort through all the conflicting data.  The problem wasn’t the 5-0 City Council vote.  Rather it was the flaws in the information provided to those Council members.  Given the data they were provided, their votes made sense at the time.  Further, the rates conformed to law, so the City Attorney certifying them as legal was not wrong.  What those rates did not conform to was either fiscal sense or common sense.

      To the credit of those five Council members, when they were provided additional information, they quickly rolled back the rates and initiated the WAC process.

      The water plant was indeed resized by the WAC from 18 mgd down to 12 mgd based on a number of factors, not the least was how the passage of time meant that two additional years of data from the Great Recession became available, supplementing the original plant sizing data.  The original sizing data was neither old nor bogus. With that said, the resizing did indeed save Davis (and Woodland) a boatload of money.  Mike was one of many people who contributed to that savings.

      The rates wars were indeed a journey, and also a tribute to the fact that the community spoke and the final rates have proven to be politically and fiscally resilient, as well as drought resistant.  While other water districts are raising their rates because of the drought, the Davis rates have absorbed the 27.3% cumulative reduction without any need for an increase.  That is an outcome that Mike should be celebrating rather than criticizing.


  10. Misanthrop

    The irony of not trusting the city council that is trying to dig the budget out of the mess Mike Harrington created when he voted in 3% at 50 pensions with unfunded retroactive jackpots for all the public safety worker is hilarious.

    I think the CC is being totally transparent. I think the trust issue is nonsense used to impugn people by those who  simply  have a different vision of where the city needs to go.

    Robb Davis has said he is shocked by the mistrust he has experienced since getting elected to the CC. I doubt that I have known anybody in my life who I think of as having a better moral compass than Robb yet because he recognizes that we need to grow our business base to address our budget shortfall and build housing to address our housing shortage he gets attacked. So Robb who is trying to address the city’s needs based on the evidence is now an untrustworthy sell out to the developers. I think this tells us more about the reality of Robb’s critics who act as though no attack is too vile than it does the trustworthiness of the city. Just look at Harrington’s rhetoric above and try to argue that his issue is trustworthiness. That’s a dog that will not hunt. He simply is against growth of the city but he will use any argument he can muster to hold back development that incidentally might effect a housing imbalance that favors landlords like Mike. Mike probably isn’t driven by his own interests in rental property here in Davis but it is an interesting coincidence.

    Mike says he is appealing the ruling favoring his neighbor in his dispute about his neighbors property. What kind of a neighbor does such things? One you wouldn’t trust.

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