Sunday Commentary: Why Does a Slow Growth Town Elect Pro-Development Councils?

Covell Village was overwhelmingly defeated in 2005 but its advocates were returned to council overwhelmingly in 2006 and 2008
Covell Village was overwhelmingly defeated in 2005 but its advocates were returned to council overwhelmingly in 2006 and 2008

Given the level of contention on the issue of Nishi, it is perhaps somewhat surprising on the surface that there would be no opponents to Nishi on the ballot running for council.  All four candidates indicated levels of support for the project.

The closest any candidate came to opposition was Matt Williams, with his nuanced and at times muddled explanation of why he opposed the project being on the June ballot but supports the project.  In fact, I would argue he probably did himself more harm than good in this approach, but that’s neither here nor there.

The interesting thing is that this is really not a new phenomenon in Davis politics.  Two years ago, while Measure P was winning to repeal the water rates, only one of the five candidates favored it and finished third, and therefore was not elected.

We can trace this phenomenon back to the early days of Measure J.  In 2005, the Davis City Council put Covell Village on the ballot with a 4-1 vote.  The voters of Davis promptly voted down that project with an overwhelming 60-40 vote.

However, the voters apparently saw no problem with that vote to put the matter on the ballot.  While Ted Puntillo decided not to seek a second term on the council and was replaced with a slower-growth official, Lamar Heystek, the other three were reelected in their next term overwhelmingly.

In fact, Ruth Asmundson (2006) and Don Saylor (2008) were top vote-getters while Stephen Souza, in 2008, finished a strong second.

In other words, despite being misaligned with the voters on Measure X, all three candidates who chose to seek reelection did as well as they possibly could.

I recall a conversation I had with Sue Greenwald in 2006 after the election, who said that Measure J was a barrier to a progressive council because now the voters could elect whomever they liked without worrying about their position on peripheral growth.

While there is some truth to that, history suggests an alternative explanation.  For a brief time in 2000 there was a progressive majority as Ken Wagstaff, Sue Greenwald and Michael Harrington were all elected to council – but if you look before and since, the progressives have largely been out of power.

Measure J was enacted by the voters in 2000 by a very narrow margin.  It was a progressive innovation that gained popular support in response to the large peripheral subdivisions the council were approving in the 1990s and it effectively closed the door to new peripheral development.

But while Measure J was renewed by a near 3 to 1 margin in 2010, the voters were electing more moderate councilmembers.

In 2009, a divided council with a strange coalition of Ruth Asmundson, Don Saylor and Lamar Heystek, put Measure P on the ballot with Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza dissenting.  Measure P

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was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.

Unlike Covell Village, none of these candidates would win reelection.  Ruth Asmundson and Lamar Heystek declined to run in 2010.  Don Saylor moved to the county Board of Supervisors.  Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza, the dissenters, were defeated for reelection, likely for other reasons, in 2012.

In 2013, the non-Measure R project, Cannery, was approved by council on a 3-2 vote with Dan Wolk, Rochelle Swanson and Lucas Frerichs voting yes and Brett Lee and Joe Krovoza voting no.

In 2015, the same three pushed through the Cannery CFD over the objections of Brett Lee and newly-elected Councilmember Robb Davis.

Now in 2016, a unanimous council voted to put Nishi on the ballot.  Perhaps a surprise supporter of that is Brett Lee.  Brett Lee was elected with strong support from the slow growth community.  While he canvassed for signatures to put the water project on the ballot, he ultimately supported the water project.  He then voted against Cannery and the Cannery CFD.

In his response on Friday, he writes, “I was skeptical that I would end up supporting the Nishi Project.”

He said, “I met with the developer and expressed my concerns, which were basically ‘Traffic is bad enough already, why would we want to make it worse? We need the new access point to the university and also the redesigned freeway interchange in order to improve the traffic flow before we talk about a new project. I think those things are years off.’”

A few days later the developer asked “what if we agreed to not move onto the site until both pieces of infrastructure are complete? Both the grade separated access point to the University and the I-80 interchange?”

“And that agreement changed my mind,” he said.

While there are some who feel that Brett Lee has disappointed the constituency that helped put him into office on the issues of growth and water, the problem that they ultimately have is “and replace him with whom?”

That ends up being the strange variable in all of this.  From a strategic standpoint, it seems like Matt Williams should have taken a stronger negative position against Nishi – but, clearly, that’s not where his views align.

Unlike in 2014, the anti-Nishi side did not find a candidate that could have coalesced the anti-Nishi votes.  This is surprising, given the alignment of the electorate and possibility that Nishi would not pass.

In 2014, the Measure P campaign put John Munn on the ballot.  He came close to getting elected.  Had he been more progressive overall or willing to engage on non-fiscal issues, he might have been elected and the composition of the current council would be markedly different.

But it remains a bit of a puzzle that the no or at least slow growth side has enough numbers to block projects at the ballot, but lacks the organization and personalities to compete for council.

—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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12 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    The closest any candidate came to opposition was Matt Williams, with his nuanced and at times muddled explanation of why he opposed the project being on the June ballot but supports the project. In fact, I would argue he probably did himself more harm than good in this approach”

    I disagree that complex decision making capabilities are likely to harm a candidate.

    I think that Matt made it very clear that it is possible to favor a project, while still believing  that the timing is wrong and that more specifics are needed. His ability to separate out his own views from the pros and cons and timing of a particular project speak very strongly to Matt’s objectivity and belief in evidence based decision making and is, in my mind, one of his greatest strengths as a potential city council member.

     

  2. Anon

    “Why Does a Slow Growth Town Elect Pro-Development Councils?”

    Perhaps slow/no-growthers don’t represent the majority or even a significant minority in this town, especially with the city’s dire fiscal situation in the way it is.

    1. Don Shor

      I think they represent a majority of the voters with respect to housing development, but not necessarily all development.

      The core slow-growth activist group is aging. Running for council and being on council is very nearly a full-time job. It isn’t very rewarding, honestly, to be in public service in this town. The criticism is relentless and unpleasant. We should be grateful anybody seeks the council seats.

      And I think Sue Greenwald is correct. The voters probably feel that Measure R does, in fact, give them sufficient leverage over development proposals regardless of who is on the council.

       

      1. hpierce

        The criticism is relentless and unpleasant. We should be grateful anybody seeks the council seats.

        Or any city employment… particularly jobs inter-facing with the public…

    2. Ron

      Anon:  “Perhaps slow/no-growthers don’t represent the majority or even a significant minority in this town, especially with the city’s dire fiscal situation in the way it is.”

      It could also have to do with how one defines “slow-growth”, and where some might fall within the spectrum.  (And, the fact that Measure R does provide some protection.)  Slow-growth does not mean that one is automatically opposed to all development.

      I will try to refrain from engaging in an argument regarding the fact that (residential) development (which ultimately doesn’t generate sufficient revenue to cover costs) is the primary cause of the city’s financial situation (that you mentioned).  (Not just in Davis, but throughout the State.)  (Yes, I agree that it’s also important to curtail costs.)

  3. Frankly

    The analogy is a husband voting against domestic violence while being beaten by his wife.

    When over 50% of high school grads go to college now, there needs to be somewhere for them to go.

    Either the UC system needs to build more campuses or all the existing campuses need to absorb the kids.

    The Davis no-growthers need to turn their attention on UCD… because otherwise they are just shouting at a wall… a wall of people that UCD is continuing to stuff into our tiny little city footprint.

  4. dlemongello

    First of all the most important part of Matt’s answer was his HONESTY.  Honesty should not be held against a person.  But also, I do not agree at all that Matt’s arguments and stance on Nishi are muddled. He explained quite clearly that there are pros, but that the project should have been worked out more fully before we were asked to vote on it. Now if we vote yes, the developers are at the advantage of not having to give anything more in further “negotiations”.  But if we vote no, all the positives (for those who believe there are positives) go out the window with the negatives that could have been better addressed before the vote.  I also think the developers have taken a big risk of losing everything here because of their finagling.  And what is UCD doing sitting on the sidelines, looking for a free pass?

    As for the issue posed by Frankly; essentially the entire history of this town is a response to the existence and growth of UCD.  That is clearly not going to change any time soon, both in regards to the advantages and the disadvantages.

    Opinions will always differ and measure R is crucial to keep these big, contentious growth decisions in balance. So often people vote for who they “like” and the way candidates answer questions often makes them all look more similar than they really are.

  5. Tia Will

    delemingello

    Opinions will always differ and measure R is crucial to keep these big, contentious growth decisions in balance. So often people vote for who they “like”

    Agreed. And for some, who they like may depend more upon how a candidate seems to think about a variety of issues rather than their specific stand on any given issue. I have not agreed 100% with the positions of any of our current council members but I do find that some use the processes of evidence based decision making more than others. Because I value this approach, I am more likely to support these candidates over those who seem to be more driven by weighing the emails for or against any given proposal which to me is often nothing more than a political calculation.

  6. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “From a strategic standpoint, it seems like Matt Williams should have taken a stronger negative position against Nishi – but, clearly, that’s not where his views align.”

    I believe the above by David gets to the heart of what ails Davis.  His assessment of what I (as a candidate) should do is all about political strategy rather than making a decision that represents the best interests of the community.

    During a break in our tabling activities at the Farmers Market yesterday, Brett Lee and I took a moment to talk to one another about a number of topics . . . one of which was our respective responses to the Nishi question in Friday’s article. Brett had no problem understanding that I had addressed two separate and distinctly different issues.

    To start, let’s deal with the first issue. Deciding when/whether the electorate should have the opportunity to vote is a process decision and that decision speaks for each and every registered voter.  I strongly believe the Nishi evaluation process was prematurely ended.  David appears to believe that my belief that that process decision was “rushed” is muddled.  I look forward to hearing how/why he thinks that is the case.

    Now let’s deal with the second issue.  The Measure A decision we all face on June 7th is very close to 100% political and 0% process.  Further, for the most part, both the Yes on Nishi and the No on Nishi arguments are directed primarily to our hearts, not our heads.   Here too David appears to believe that my thinking on that political decision is muddled. And here too I look forward to hearing how/why he thinks that is the case.

    Brett’s assessment of my answer was that it was admirable because “It was honest.”  When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that I didn’t try and play the political angles as part of an election strategy, rather he felt I explained the background and logic that supported my positions on the two issues.   I thanked him for sharing that opinion with me.

    Speaking of decisions that were “rushed,” Brett and I also discussed the Cannery CFD decision, which he opposed outright.  We talked about the rhetoric that the Council members who voted for it used to explain their vote.  One of their points was that the $8 million being paid to the developer would cause the developer to accelerate the construction of certain project amenities forward in time.  Their argument was that the City needed to avoid a repeat of the situation that had happened in Mace Ranch when the housing portion of the project was complete.  At that time, the construction of a considerable portion of the Mace Ranch amenities (parks and greenbelts) had not even started.

    Now that we are 11 months past the May 5th Council approval of the CFD, I felt it is worth checking the milestones and metrics associated with the completion of those “accelerated” amenities, as well as the payments that the City has made to New Home Company.

    Based on the public record documents filed and processed by staff to date, $5.9 million has so far been paid to New Home Company under the provisions of the CFD, and construction of 100% of those $5.9 million of amenities had been completed by New Home Company before the CFD was approved by Council.  That means that it was impossible for those amenities to have been accelerated forward in time.  Said another way, the Council vote meant that the City paid New Home Company $5.9 million and received $0 in value for that payment.  According to staff, construction of the remaining $2.1 million of amenities is not complete as of this date.

    Robb Davis argued in the Cannery CFD situation that the decision should not be “rushed.”  He asked that a value analysis be included in the decision process.  Dan, Lucas and Rochelle did not feel that a value analysis was needed.  If that value analysis had been completed, Brett’s position that there was no need for a CFD would have been supported.  All those $5.9 million of amenities were already covered/included in the Cannery Development Agreement.

    As I stated on Friday, I believe the Nishi ballot decision should not have been “rushed,” and if I had been on the Council I would have voted not to put it on the June 7th ballot.  I also would have voted against approving the Cannery CFD without a value analysis . . . an analysis that would have shown evidence that the City was going to pay $5.9 million and receive $0 of value in return.  Bottom-line, $5.9 million was a terrible thing to waste.

  7. 2cowherd

    The answer to your question is: while there is a subset of Davis voters who pay attention to local issues, there is a much larger set of voters who don’t. Example: I have neighbors who didn’t even realize that there is a City Council election coming up. I was canvassing for one of the city council candidates recently and had more than one person tell me that they didn’t know there was a city council election in June.

    My sense is there are a whole lot of voters who are not engaged. They don’t read the Vanguard, the circulation of the Davis Enterprise is very small for a city of this size-and many voters don’t make an effort to educate themselves on the ballot issues.

  8. DavisBurns

    I don’t see any slow growth candiates to vote for.  I have mixed feelings on the Nishi project.  My daughter used to live on Olive drive and it was a nightmare that hasn’t gotten any better yet they are planning a large apartment complex called Lincoln I think.  I haven’t kept up with that project–just read about it in the paper.  The only pro for Nishi is the proxmity to the campus and the cons are air quality, the traffic nightmare on Olive and the complete lack of affordable housing.  The university should be held accountable for housing the new students they are admitting–that is what is putting the real pressure on Davis.

    I have lived here since 1988 and I feel like there is little that is progressive left in the town.  The council and every publication I read including this one, are drowning in innovation parks and catering to some version of high tech ideas that involve using a land grant college, inputs of lots of money by corporations to fund research on their behalf and then the town somehow feeling obligated to create creative synergy meeting places for their precious ideas to ferment and make a heady brew of something that will result someday in some kind of income stream for the city.  There will be pie in the sky someday.

    The Cannery site gave us the opportunity to build something for the next century.  Instead we allowed a state of the last century subdivision.  That dutch junction we crowed about has none of the essential features of a real dutch junction.  The bikes/peds don’t have the right of way and it has a signal eliminating the most important features–reducing gas consumption from idling cars and reducing air pollution.  It is just a very big signaled intersection. The last cutting edge thing we did in this town was the lighting ordinance back in 1998.

    I bought 28 acres in capay valley–no lights, no traffic, no noise and no crowding.

     

    1. tribeUSA

      Yes, my sense is that the town has been transitioning, especially over the last five years or so, to a “big town” in terms of how the town is managed and how town politics work. I agree much of the growth in town has been a response to UCD student growth and the failure of UCD to accomodate a large fraction of this student growth with new campus housing (at least for freshman and sophmores and some grad students). Because of an emerging greater degree of complexity, it seems to me we are in the midst of the “MBA-ization” of town management and politics; wherein a more specialized language of business/finance is being used more routinely by city leadership. I don’t necessarily fault the leadership for this, it is in large part a response to the growing complexity of managing a ‘big town’–with regard to my personal tastes, this is a dreary change and is bringing the town into a tighter embrace by the corporate fold–goodbye small town Davisville and small town politics; I’ll miss you!

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