My View II: Bad Decision to Hire New Home VP as Assistant Planning Director

Ashley Feeney, former New Home Company VP
Ashley Feeney, former New Home Company VP

As the city shifts gears to manage multiple development projects in various stages, it is obvious that the city and, in particular, Community Development Director Mike Webb needed additional help. However, the optics of hiring Ashley Feeney, one of the faces of the Cannery Project who was Senior Vice President for The New Home Company, are just way off.

First of all, this is not a personal criticism of Mr. Feeney, who was always professional in his conducting of business with the city. His resume shows he was an Associate Planner with the City of Sacramento from 2003 to 2006. Since then he has been in the private project managing and land planning side of the business, hired by The New Home Company in 2009 and promoted to Senior Vice President in 2014.

The April 2014 press release from The New Home Company notes, “Feeney has been with NEW HOME since 2009 and brings invaluable land acquisition and planning experience to the new position. As Senior Vice President of Land & Planning based in NEW HOME’s Roseville office, Feeney will contribute to day-to-day operations in the Sacramento region and will continue to be involved in the planning and development of new master-planned communities in the area.”

However, the problem here is that the city wants to be viewed as a neutral broker, especially once projects get to the Measure R stage and go to the voters, and Mr. Feeney is not a neutral broker.

He was one of the point people on the Cannery project in Davis. And, while advocates can point out that the Cannery won significant awards for planning and design excellence, in Davis, Cannery was always a controversial project. It was finally approved on a 3-2 vote. Many people believe that The New Home Company did not give enough back to Davis in the deal and many remain concerned about the lack of accessibility that the project has to the community.

Even more controversial was that Mr. Feeney was among those who made the request about the CFD (Community Facilities District), which also was narrowly approved with a 3-2 council vote.

Troubling were comments made by Councilmember Brett Lee that the Davis City Council essentially failed in Negotiations 101 with The New Home Company.

He said at the time, “It seems like the dynamics with us is that there is a proposal and we either accept it or we don’t.” He wanted to see more give and take, coming to something that would be a more workable solution.

“I think it’s important that we wear our city of Davis hats while we are up here,” the councilmember argued. “This first pass proposal is a good first pass proposal, but I view it as a first pass proposal. I’m troubled by the 40-year time frame.”

He would add that there is an issue with the amount and the time frame. But, moreover, he argued there is “nothing new for Davis” as “all of these infrastructure items have already been agreed to.” “There is nothing really in addition for the residents of Davis,” he said.

We have a big list of needs, but the CFD doesn’t provide for any of these other than perhaps the $750,000.

Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis asked Ashley Feeney, the applicant from New Homes, “What happens if we don’t approve the CFD?”

Mr. Feeney never answered the question directly, but responded that the CFD “has always been carved out as a section in the development agreement.” He argued, “It’s critical that we have that financing in place,” as well as important that they accelerate certain infrastructure requirements.

“It’s very critical to us that it’s funded, it’s something that’s called out in the developer agreement,” he added. “We’ve always been clear that it’s something we’ve been relying upon.”

Now, Ashley Feeney will be working for the city of Davis.

Many in the community are already leery of development and whether the city will go to bat for the community on these projects to get the best deal possible for the city.

The optics here get worse when you consider that Mr. Feeney gave Mayor Dan Wolk a $1500 campaign contribution in the 2014 election. In 2015, he gave Mr. Wolk an additional $250. That was part of nearly $14,000 The New Home Company donated to the Davis mayor as he attempts to get elected to the California State Assembly.

The CFD was a huge point of controversy. It was toughly fought and contested in council and in the community. In the end, there were were three votes to go forward with the CFD.

Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said that this was a long discussion that pushed the developers to put the amenities upfront and make them be real, not window dressing. “I think frankly for integrity from a public body, that when we ask for a really high level of services, and we ask for amenities, and we ask for accelerated time lines, then we have to do the other half of the equation,” she said.

“For me it’s about integrity and consistency,” she said.

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said he is “not totally sold that this is the exact right direction to go in, but I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.” He went on to call the assertion that this was a bait and switch, at best, unfair as well as untrue.

He said that there has certainly been a notion in the community that the CFD was not part of the conversation at all. It was something that came after the fact.

“I take umbrage with that, it was something that was actually part and parcel to the entire process. It’s in the developer agreement,” Mr. Frerichs.

However, for those in the community that regard these kinds of deals with suspicion, hiring an industry person who helped to push through the Cannery is going to be not only bad optics, but more confirmation that the system is rigged.

Again, nothing personal against Mr. Feeney, but this is a critical time for the community and a bad time to bring an element that will cause more skepticism about the fairness of the process.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Added note: The city has sent the Vanguard the following statement:

“After a lengthy search, in which a number of qualified applicants were considered, I’m pleased to announce that Ashley Feeney will be joining our team as the Assistant Community Development Director.  Ashley (or Ash as he likes to be called) comes to us with a background that includes both public and private sector experience in planning and community development.  Ash served several years with the City of Sacramento in both the current and long-range planning divisions on a wide variety of projects and community engagement initiatives.  Ash has also served in executive leadership roles in private community development firms, most recently as the Senior Vice President of the New Home Company.  Many of you will know Ash from his former role as project manager for the Cannery neighborhood here in Davis.  Through his experience in planning, environmental review, community engagement, design, economics, real estate, construction, and team leadership, Ash brings a unique and well-rounded perspective of local community development.

“Ash has proven himself as being proactive, a creative problem-solver with strong analytic skills, a caring and thoughtful leader, enthusiastic, and a consensus-builder in the community.  Moreover, Ash has come to know the Davis community over the last few years and comes into this new role with a sound understanding and appreciation for the values of Davis and the City organization.  Ash is a graduate of Humboldt State in Economics and Business and has long-established roots in the Sacramento Valley.  We’re fortunate to have him on board.  Ash’s first day as Assistant Community Development Director is expected to be March 14th.

“Ash’s initial responsibilities will be to lead the Current Planning Division of Community Development.  Ash will report to Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director, Mike Webb.”

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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53 Comments

      1. Barack Palin

        So already there goes in part a chunk of any revenue gain the city is going to realize from Nishi.  Will this cost also be factored into the Nishi numbers?

        1. Barack Palin

          As the city shifts gears to manage multiple development projects in various stages, it is obvious that the city and, in particular, Community Development Director Mike Webb needed additional help

          Sounds to me like Nishi is part of why they hired this guy.

  1. Misanthrop

    “’It’s very critical to us that it’s funded, it’s something that’s called out in the developer agreement,’ he added.”

    Well this is not true. At the time New Homes had a $140 million in untapped credit lines. They wanted it but it wasn’t critical.

    As for a conflict related to measure R this is also not true because Cannery wasn’t subject to measure R. He worked for a developer and now works for the city. People go in and out of government all the time. Notice David doesn’t say the guy is unqualified. But this does give David another chance to attack Dan Wolk because thankful people at the New Home Company now support Dan in his political aspirations. Another day another Vanguard hit piece against Dan. And David hit a double by bringing Lucas into it too. This makes at least two hits on Dan this week.

    I think the question is did Dan Wolk support Cannery because he believed the project was good for the city? I think the answer is pretty unequivocal that Davis needs the housing and Dan understands that need.

    1. 2cowherd

      Why isn’t there a law/ordinance/ regulation that says a politician cannot accept a contribution from anyone who has been before them for a vote-Not before the vote, not after the vote-or ever. Where is the FPPC/ legislature when this is happening?

  2. ryankelly

    I would hope that the City hires people who they feel has the best education and experience to fulfill the needs of the job. It sounds like you don’t want anyone with development experience.  Like baseball, I expect the new recruit to do the best job for the team that they are on.  I believe you are wrong in your assumption that that he won’t be a good public servant.

     

    1. The Pugilist

      You would support the county hiring the chief tobacco lobbyist as the public health official?  I mean come on, we need a person who can represent the community, not the put the lever on development.  You’re going to undermine public trust in this process.  You can be so tin deaf on this stuff and the city almost always is.

    2. hpierce

      Ryan, agree with you, but would add “professional integrity” to the criteria… nothing shows Mr Feeney lacks that.  Internet security folk hire serious, successful, hackers to advise them how to avoid hacking… why wouldn’t the City hire someone who knows how developers try to game the City/public, to protect against those games being successful?

      Time will tell, but I won’t lose sleep…

  3. Alan Pryor

    So already there goes in part a chunk of any revenue gain the city is going to realize from Nishi.

    The whole amount of the speculative income from Nishi was already given away to employees in last year’s secretive MOU pay raises. We’re already further behind the economic 8-ball and Nishi will not even begin construction for 5 years. This new salary will be deducted from the general fund leaving probably $200,000 less for roads and parks every year.

    This CC and City Manager are spending money on employee compensation like drunken sailors and then pleading the only solution to fixing our roads is to develop our way out of it. This directly lead us to flawed projects like Cannery and Nishi and MRIC (the Mace Ranch Industrial Complex) where the City ends up looking like the gambler walking out of the casino with just a barrel around him.  Look no further at how well that strategy has worked out than in Stockton…great profits for the developers, huge salaries for the City employees, and crumbling infrastructure and bankruptcy for the City. It is always the same story when the developers control the City governments.

  4. Alan Pryor

    What the City should have done instead of bringing on a high-priced permanent employee is retained a professional outside firm to act as their negotiator for these projects instead of relying on Staff who always has a confirmational bias. This strategy of using an outside professional negotiator worked very well in the 2013 employee union negotiations and in the 2015 DWR contract extension. Millions of dollars were saved each year during the duration of the subsequent contract terms and the outside negotiator cost a fraction of the cost of bringing on full time senior employees. Contrast those outcomes with when the City tries to negotiate any deal for itself – last year’s employee MOUs, Cannery, Conference Center, Nishi. In every case the City was left with a deal where taxpayers got short shrifted but the counter-party made additional millions.

    1. Anon

      “...Staff who always has a conformational bias...”

      Condemning city staff with a sweeping generalization is hardly fair or helpful…

      It is these sorts of derogatory comments that have driven me and others away from the Vanguard… JMO

  5. Tia Will

    hiring an industry person who helped to push through the Cannery is going to be not only bad optics, but more confirmation that the system is rigged.”

    This is way more than “bad optics”.  And it says nothing about the competency of Ash. What I am most concerned about is not whether or not he will serve in what he believes is the best interest of the city. It is that his view of what is best ( a grow as fast as we can philosophy) is not in alignment with my vision for Davis.

    Would any of you believe that someone who holds my slow growth views would be a good choice for this position. I, myself, would say obviously not since my views are very far skewed towards ‘slow growth” and it is my belief that the city staff should act as “neutral parties”. Do any of you believe that Ash with his pro growth view point would be any more “neutral” than I would with my perspective ?

    1. hpierce

      No problem, if they have “professional integrity”.  In public service, you are expected to “leave your personal beliefs at the door”, and follow the ordinances, rules, procedures, etc.  Doesn’t always happen, but at a 85% confidence level, it does…

      1. Tia Will

        hpierce

        you are expected to “leave your personal beliefs at the door”, and follow the ordinances, rules, procedures, etc.  Doesn’t always happen, but at a 85% confidence level, it does…”

        You are way more optimistic than I am. While I do not believe that most in “public service” don’t try to leave their personal beliefs at the door, it is that I believe that this is basically impossible. As people, what we believe to be right and wrong is determined by our world view. So, whenever there is room for interpretation, one will almost invariably make that interpretation in line with their predetermined biases. I believe this to be true regardless of what ideologic stand one takes.

  6. Misanthrop

    “What I am most concerned about is not whether or not he will serve in what he believes is the best interest of the city.”

    I agree but do we have any reason to doubt that he can serve the best interests of the city? Lawyers do this all the time. They often start careers as prosecutors and finish them as defense attorneys.

    The problem with this article is that there is nothing unethical going on but David wants to paint it that way so that he can make another gratuitous attack on Dan Wolk.

    1. Matt Williams

      Misanthrop said . . . “I agree but do we have any reason to doubt that he can serve the best interests of the city? Lawyers do this all the time. They often start careers as prosecutors and finish them as defense attorneys.”

      Very reasonable question Misanthrop.  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 this 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.  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?

       

  7. Anon

    First of all, this is not a personal criticism of Mr. Feeney,”

    You could have fooled me.

    …who was always professional in his conducting of business with the city.”

    “His resume shows he was an Associate Planner with the City of Sacramento from 2003 to 2006.”

    …the Cannery won significant awards for planning and design excellence…”

    By the Vanguard’s own admission sounds like Mr. Feeney is eminently qualified for his new position with the city.

    “it is obvious that the city and, in particular, Community Development Director Mike Webb needed additional help…”

    Appears the position is necessary – not window dressing.

    Explain to me where the controversy is? Or this a matter of those who opposed the Cannery still have an axe to grind, and will continue to complain about the Cannery ad nauseum because they never agreed with it?  The Cannery is built, the project has been approved.  Time to move on.  Reminds me of the folks that still complain about Target… despite Target saving the city’s proverbial butt during tough economic times.

     

    1. Miwok

      This person may have “worked” for the City of Sacramento, giving him plenty of access to the Planning Process, able to be valuable to the New Home Company as they looked for opportunities. As SENIOR VP, he has excelled, obviously, and those guys at this level usually have stock options and many perks with their job.

      So, my question is, can he wear two hats? Does he have the integrity to turn off his portfolio for a while while he performs “a public service” and scouts new opportunities for the old company? Getting a job with someone he has recently negotiated with for business, is, to me, a conflict of interest. Too bad people in the City of Davis cannot see it.

  8. Tia Will

    Anon

    Or this a matter of those who opposed the Cannery still have an axe to grind, and will continue to complain about the Cannery ad nauseum because they never agreed with it?”

    For me, this is not about continuing to grind the Cannery axe, but is a cautionary note about not repeating what we see as past mistakes. I feel that the city chose to give away far to much to the Cannery developers for far to little in return. You are absolutely correct that this particular development is a done deal. But that does not mean that we cannot learn from it and prevent further such losses to the city.

    1. Anon

      What you chose to see as past mistakes.  That doesn’t make anything that happened in regard to the Cannery a “mistake”.  There were pros and cons on each side, which the City Council weighed in on with sometimes split votes.  I will never understand why people insist that others are somehow “wrong” who dare to disagree with a world view/particular viewpoint.

      1. hpierce

        To amplify, although I may be repeating myself, who better to hire as a internet security person than a very successful ‘hacker’, if the hacker commits to security… and the new role?

        1. David Greenwald

          I don’t believe that your “hacker” example is an apt comparison. In the analogy, the hacker possesses technical expertise to help the new employer to safeguard their computer systems. In this case, the concern has to do with whether government-industry connections are appropriate. There is a good deal of debate and discussion over the appropriateness of a legislator moving to the private industry as a lobbyist taking advantage of his connections and there would certainly be a lot of questions about such an individual moving the other direction from lobbying to staffer or legislator. In Davis, we already have a healthy debate over the connections between city and development interests, and this is a far more direct connection than I have seen previously in the ten years of coverage.

      2. Tia Will

        Anon

        I will never understand why people insist that others are somehow “wrong” who dare to disagree with a world view/particular viewpoint.”

        And neither can I. Which is why I have posted many times that when I make a statement, I am not considering it a statement of fact unless I specifically say so. Otherwise, what I write should be considered as my opinion only.

        1. Anon

          Tia, your words: “For me, this is not about continuing to grind the Cannery axe, but is a cautionary note about not repeating what we see as past mistakes. I feel that the city chose to give away far to much to the Cannery developers for far to little in return.

          What YOU see as a mistake.  What YOU chose to see as the city giving away far too much for far too little return.  That doesn’t make it a “mistake” on the city’s part, just because YOU believe it was.  I and many others view it quite differently.  Frankly, I don’t see the Cannery as a mistake, or a matter of “right” and “wrong”, but a matter of viewing things from different perspectives.  That does not make any particular perspective “right” or “wrong”.

    1. ryankelly

      So what does it matter, who the City hires? In your mind, everyone loses credibility just as soon as they accept the job, submit a plan, discuss a project.

  9. hpierce

    Thinking about it more…

    Does David violate the VG policy by singling out (?) an individual?  Or, is his target the employment process?  It ‘feels’ like the former…

    I believe the position is “at will”, as ‘executive mgt’.  If there is a problem with the individual, they can be dismissed, without cause during their probationary period… after that, if I am correct, they can be dismissed at any time the CM desires…

    Should all City employees, particularly Mgt., be “vetted” by the VG or the public in general (Measure E, for ‘Employment’?) before hire?

    The City’s press release was ‘transparent’ as to the employee’s background.

    “Sweeps week”, to generate ‘hits’, David?  Sure doesn’t seem to be just “reporting”… given the “title”…

    1. David Greenwald

      I wasn’t aware that the Vanguard had a policy for its news articles. Nevertheless, the editorial expressed concern about the city hiring a person who had worked on behalf of a project before the city. Not everyone shares that concern, but enough do that it seemed like a relevant issue to raise.

      We haven’t vetted all city employees in the past but you will recall we have scrutinized some: Yvonne Quering and Diane Parro come to mind.

      The city press release as you put it came to me after the article was published in an email from Mike Webb. As far as I know it wasn’t released to the public prior to our article.

    2. Anon

      hpierce: “Does David violate the VG policy by singling out (?) an individual?  Or, is his target the employment process?  It ‘feels’ like the former…

      There is not one piece of information in the VG that would indicate Feeney is not qualified for the position.  In fact the VG essentially concedes Feeney is extremely qualified to hold the position.  So that leads me to the conclusion the VG’s criticism comes from its own dislike of the Cannery project, which is an extremely biased point of view and an unwarranted personal attack on a particular city staffer, before that city staffer has had even a chance to perform.  Or is the VG advocating that no developer shall ever be allowed to become a city staffer?  What would be the basis for such a ban?  Advocating such a ban in and of itself would indicate a huge bias against developers.  Furthermore, there is no such ban now, so the hiring of Feeney was perfectly ethical on the city’s part.

      1. The Pugilist

        I read it that the problem is not bias against the Cannery, but rather the fact that Feeney is an industry guy.  “Or is the VG advocating that no developer shall ever be allowed to become a city staffer?”  Or at least no developer with a recent project in front of the city – which leads me to the question – have we ever? occasionally?  frequently? hired such people in the past.  My memory suggests that this is something new, but maybe I’m wrong.

        1. Anon

          Since when did the city have a rule that says no developer with a recent project in front of the city shall not be hired by the city?  Where is the conflict of interest?  Are you assuming Mr. Feeney will further the interests of the New Home Company in other city projects?  The conflict of interest usually runs the other way – if a city staffer is hired by a developer, there could be a problem…

          By the way, know of a former city employee, hired by a private company fairly recently, who was then hired back by the city. Also know of a city employee hired by another city, then hired back by our city.

        2. The Pugilist

          How come the legislature has rules governing such transitions but not the city?  Where is the conflict?  (1) Industry ties (2) Pro-growth bias (3) Potential favors from past associations and (4) Potential future favors from potential future associations.

        3. hpierce

          The answer is “occasionally” but rarely… maybe 3-4 times I know of in 30 years… all of the ones I’m aware of were not mgt-level hires.  A lot of folk were from the private sector, where their firms worked for current/recent developers, but that’s a lot more indirect.

    1. hpierce

      So, are you saying he is still on his previous employer’s “payroll”? A ‘mole’ if you will?  Am thinking NOT.

      This is a management position… require to file Form 7oo with the State… disclosing ALL pertinent income/financial interests.  The filing deadline is April 1, for the previous year.  He’ll have to file the statement next April (at latest), and every year thereafter.  Last time I checked, the form needs to be signed, “under penalty of perjury”.

      Also, last time I checked, political party/opinions, philosophy, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), etc., are not bars to public employment.  Even criminal records are not a bar, except for certain classifications and/or pertinence.

      Profiling?  Stereotyping?  Given recent news stories, Ron Reagan, a cradle Democrat, should never have been an icon of what it means to be a good, conservative Republican President.

       

  10. frostydiablo

    Davis residents need to realize that this is not considered a “cherry” gig in the local Community Development world. Davis is a lovely community to live, but is generally considered a miserable place to work in this field. The job is thankless in most communities, but down-right hostile in Davis. There’s no upside to this position. You get what you give.

    1. The Pugilist

      There is a smell test here that is not being met.  If the job is so bad, why is he giving up a VP position with The New Home Company to take it.

      1. frostydiablo

        I am offering an explanation of why the selected candidate does not have a traditional background in the field. As for his move, the residential development industry is notoriously volatile, while government is/was very stable. There are many reasons to switch into the public sector. Common sense, leadership, and temperament are the most valuable professional assets at this level. At least it sounds like he’s a good negotiator.

        One thing to remember – planning leaders are often lured into the development with dreams of big money, glamorous jobs, etc. ,which never pan out. Leading up to this move, they are tempted to buddy up with the developers and that’s when the impropriety begins. Mr. Feeney knows the industry and will likely not be quite so impressed.

        1. hpierce

          Some I have known, who went from private sector to public, also like the fact that they have to wash their hands/shower less often, and sleep better at night… they were all folk of high ethics.

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