At last night’s Vanguard event, we had a number of speakers come up and do brief talks. Mayor Robb Davis made the point that, while he appreciates the work of the Vanguard and the accountability it provides, he believes in a lot of ways the scrutiny we bring makes it more difficult for the community to trust local government.
On the other hand, later, Paul Boylan, a Vanguard attorney and a brief candidate for the Davis City Council, argued that we should not trust the government and instead we need to be vigilant in scrutinizing the government.
Trust is a difficult commodity in an age of cynicism, to be sure. The founding of the Vanguard came out of a troubling situation in the police department. Some of our first public records requests, filed in 2006, showed the police chief actively working to subvert the efficacy of the Davis Human Relations Commission by stirring up personal attacks against the commission and its chair.
Later revelations allowed us to learn that the chief fanned the flames of discontent and manufactured the controversy in order to shore up the support of the rank and file and the DPOA (Davis Police Officers Association), who were at odds with him over policies but mostly his own absenteeism.
The Vanguard’s work on the firefighters’ union found that the union had pumped tens of thousands of dollars directly and indirectly into local council races. They used their numbers to get around campaign limitations by bundling up to 40 $100 contributions, to make a $4000 rather than a $100 campaign contribution.
They augmented that with an Independent Expenditure campaign that would drop flyers and mail campaign brochures in support of favored members.
Did it work? Vanguard research showed that, from 2002 to 2008, seven of the firefighters’ nine preferred candidates won and the firefighters, up until the 2010 city council, always held a majority on council to support their vote.
As I noted yesterday, that situation lined things up so that in December of 2010, the council effectively voted 3-2 to not read the full investigative report of the fire department, written by the Police Ombudsman. Councilmember Stephen Souza would brazenly state, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”
In my 10 years of covering Davis politics, this was probably the most brazen display I have ever seen from public officials.
As Rich Rifkin would write several years later, “Not only did those three (Don Saylor, Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza) – who together had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions plus other support from members of the Davis firefighters’ union – not want to let the taxpayers and residents of Davis see what Mr. Aaronson had found. They decided no one on the Council should be permitted to learn its contents.”
Under that backdrop, is it really surprising that the Vanguard would be cynical regarding the trust factor, skeptical of the efficacy of public service, and interested in monitoring and reporting on potential public misconduct?
At the same time, I think it’s important to note that the Vanguard’s presence has had a profound and ultimately positive impact on the Davis political system. The power of the firefighters’ union is on the wane. Increasingly, the members of the city council have been independent voices, willing to take on the special interests.
I understand Robb Davis’ frustration but I think he has to recognize first that, whenever distrust of the council comes up, he has to take into account the history of this community. In a way, not only this community but also citizens across the country have been conditioned to be cynical and skeptical of government claims.
That’s a product of our post-Watergate world, where the country learned that the people in the highest reaches of power may act not in the public’s best interest, but diametrically opposed to the public’s best interest. The influence of money, political calculations, and personal immorality have led to a crisis of public trust that goes well beyond the city of Davis.
On the other hand, rather than blind distrust, as seems to be fashionable, a more nuanced approach is probably in order. Trust but verify. The words come from Ronald Reagan, referring to changes in the then-Soviet Union’s political system, but I think they are appropriate in today’s world.
I believe that we have five councilmembers who are devoted to the best interest of this community. That doesn’t mean that we are going to agree with them all the time, or even a majority of the time. Trust is not, or at least should not be, about agreement on policy issues.
I get it, a majority of citizens in June voted against Nishi. All five members of the Davis City Council voted for Nishi. For some, this is an indictment of the city council. Some have stated that they do not trust the Davis City Council because they voted to support a project that they believe was unsupportable.
That is, of course, a cynical view of the council’s vote, as though there were some unseen force guiding them to attempt to harm the community.
We could hold a more nuanced view. The members of council saw value in the project for varying reasons, we have a political system that gives the final voice to the voters on such matters and, in the end, the voters by a narrow majority decided that they disagreed with council.
If we believe that the values of council are out of alignment with the values of our community, we have a mechanism to correct that. It is called an election. I will point out that the opponents of Nishi put forward no candidates in this cycle that opposed Nishi. To me that is on them, not the current council.
Whether you agree with Nishi or not, whether you agree with the Vanguard’s coverage of Nishi or not, I think it’s important to point out that much of the public battle over Nishi took place on the Vanguard and, in particular, in the Vanguard’s comment section.
Our job was to provide transparency on this issue. When the public submitted articles and guest commentaries, we published it. When the public posted comments, within reason, we published them. And at the end of the day, the system worked for better or worse.
We do not have an outcome-based system of democracy. We have a process-based one. The job of the Vanguard is to report when the process breaks down. The process clearly broke down in the fall of 2008 when the council voted to not read the fire report for themselves.
But we had recourse. We filed a public records request and received literally pages upon pages of redactions. I mentioned this last night during my talk – we had pages upon pages that literally looked like this:
It took another request and a lawsuit in 2013 to get most of the report released and then Paul Boylan, this time with the Woodland Record in 2014, got the rest of the report released to the public.
The system broke down in 2008 because the council did not do their job. What happened this year is a policy difference. We can agree to disagree on policies, but unless we have evidence to the contrary, we should trust the people on our council to make an informed decision – even when we disagree.
That is the key to moving past our understandable trust gap. We need to monitor, scrutinize, and put our trust in our officials until and unless they show that we should not. Trust but verify. That is why the Vanguard is here and what our job is to do.
—David M. Greenwald reporting