Monday Morning Thoughts: When Civility Breaks Down

A new council in Davis continues to bring the hope of collaboration and civility
A new council in Davis continues to bring the hope of collaboration and civility

As I reflect on ten years of the Vanguard, one issue that I have always had a love-hate relationship with was the notion of civility.  The Vanguard came into being with almost a no-holds-barred approach to discourse, both on the articles as well as in the comment section, but over time we have taken a proactive approach to creating a more friendly space for discourse.

It is not that we have completely tamed the beast, but certainly the comment section is a lot more civil than it once was.

I think as I look back, part of my problem with civility was that it often seemed to be a guise for covering up vigorous debate on the issues.

When the new mayor and council were installed in early July, Councilmember Rochelle Swanson made it a point to note how much she enjoyed working with her colleagues, the atmosphere of mutual respect – and the fact that it wasn’t always like that.

The Sacramento Bee, in making their Davis City Council endorsements, noted, “Compared to the acrimonious Davis councils of yore, this is real progress.”  They added, “Incumbents Lucas Frerichs and Brett Lee don’t always agree, but both have stressed collegiality…”

Senator Lois Wolk, in the goodbye speech to her son, noted the positive working relationship between the city of Davis and the legislative offices. She noted his “positive outlook for the city of Davis,” stating, “You are upbeat and a champion for the city. It’s because you believe there is an important role that government provides.

“The other thing is the ability to work with your colleagues and your ability to work with others.  We don’t talk about that enough,” she said.  “Relationships are really the key to being able to achieve your goals.  We need that even more now in society.”

She pointed out, “Your ability to work together has resulted in tremendous advances for the city.”

It was a feel good moment for sure, and given that she was praising her own son, a bit awkward, but it does illustrate how far we have come from the days when the Vanguard first started.

In the spring of 2007, then-Councilmember Don Saylor pushed for a more civil approach to public discourse.  At the time, the Vanguard criticized the message as not only self-serving, but outright hypocritical.

In February of that year, during a discussion on the Cannery Park proposal, Mr. Saylor spoke from prepared text to suggest: “I want to make one small observation, in our council ground rules, under the first paragraph, it says that each councilmember should treat each other with respect and dignity even when disagreements arise. I feel disrespected and treated without dignity when my motivations are questioned and it is assumed that I am leading to something that I have not said.”

But when newly-elected Councilmember Lamar Heystek put forward a living wage proposal, something that he had campaigned on, Don Saylor was there to rebuke him, saying, “There’s just a number of questions about this. To bring it up as a discussion is appropriate. To bring it up as a full-blown ordinance for a first reading, that’s not talking about policy, that’s talking about politics in a lead-up to an election.”

The first four years of the Vanguard from 2006 to 2010, saw a number of angry exchanges on the council (with Mr. Heystek staying above the fray as a rule).  That eventually culminated in the public exchange between then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Sue Greenwald (as captured on the infamous YouTube video by the Vanguard).

The exchange left Ms. Asmundson badly shaken.  While many have seen the YouTube video, few will remember what happened behind the scenes in the lobby when the cameras were off.  I captured that moment in this article, that was a story I did not tell on Saturday, where I was holding my one-month-old daughter in her baby carrier in one hand while I physically had to separate then-City Manager Bill Emlen from attacking Sue Greenwald with my other hand.

The lack of civility that night was in a way far worse than portrayed in the press – because, at that time, I was the only one who saw just how bad it was.  But in another way, it marked a turning point for our community. We reached a low in our communications, in our inability to disagree without becoming disagreeable or personal.

There was a recognition that things had to change and I think it impacted the community and the council.  The incident happened in late January 2010, and by July of 2012, the entire council turned over its membership.

The environment on the council had been toxic at the time.  There is a saying that the whole is better than the sum of its parts, but in this case the opposite was true – the whole on that council was far worse than the sum of its parts.  The council was not just polarized 3-2 on virtually every issue, but the personal lines were far sharper than the ideological fault lines.

Bringing this forward into contemporary discourse, we can see how the lack of civility creates a feedback loop where it becomes a race to the bottom.  Disagreement on issues bleeds into a distrust of motivations, personal acrimony, and a lack of working together for a common good.

On the other hand, we can also see by the city of Davis microcosm that these fault lines are not irreparable.  Changing the personalities on the council created a new mix that was much more positive.

That change does not fix all of our problems.  We still see a community divided on key issues.  There are issues that we have not found a way to address to this date.

But the tone and tenor of the council has changed markedly for the better, and that gives us hope that perhaps our leaders at a more national level might also reach their low point and realize that things have to change.

—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. ryankelly

    I, for one, shy away from voting for someone whose incivility is a tool to badger their way into office or to win their political argument.  Unfortunately, this at times extends to a candidate’s or measure’s vocal supporters.   I believe that the citizens of Davis have tired of having a circus every other week in the Community Chambers and started electing representatives that could engage in public discourse without looking like they were attacking each other.  This goes for the school board too.  If anyone is wondering why they’re feeling excluded, this is likely why.

  2. Davis Progressive

    while i think things have improved, i still worry that too many times differences are covered up or glossed over on 5-0 votes in the name of consensus and false civility.

    1. ryankelly

      Are you saying that there should be more 3-2 or 4-1 votes?  Why would it matter?

      If you are looking for factions on the City Council – a clearer division and a “council majority” (a common phrase by the “Progressive” crowd), you won’t find it with the current Council.  It doesn’t mean that there is not tension between members or differing ideas.


      1. Davis Progressive

        i am saying that if there are disagreements it is okay to vote against the project.  no need to paper over different viewpoints in the name of civility.

    2. Frankly

      There are two ways to look at this.  First, I think that any of these five feeling strongly for or against something would tend to vote their principles.  But there are leadership optics to consider.  Lacking a strong opinion, why vote against or for something when it would not change the outcome… when the optics from the voting public might be construed as a divided body?

      This gets to basic principles of governance.

      It is the same with any board of directors.  Conflict and division over trivial differences is destructive to overall cooperation.  It is better to save conflict for those issues where there is strong difference of opinion.

      This isn’t like a higher court that sets legal precedent for eternity… this is city governance… making politic decisions and then moving on to the next item on the list.  There is no public benefit in showing division when there isn’t much.

      The bigger problem I have is decisions that support an individual political career… and other CC members cooperating with that.  That might be professional courtesy, but I think it is a crappy standard that needs to stop.   And it is not just city politics, this is the standard up and down the political spectrum.  Politicians should vote their principles and let the election chips fall where they fall.

    3. Michael Harrington

      DP:  I call it “looking for the love” when there are two distinct positions in the motions, and then they blur the lines and water down the policy to get that 5th vote …

      Once CC member always looks for the love, and is relatively ineffective because of that as to policies …

      Nishi was far from ready, and it had three strong votes.  So the other two CC who should have voted hell no as to its status and process, “looked for the love” and we ended up with the worst project ever proposed in Davis …. I would vote 5x for Covell Village before 1x for Yes on A.  The damage, the traffic, the horrible giveaway example for affordable housing, toxic soup air, lack of publically disclosed mitigation land, non-final tax sharing agreements, no real plan for solving the traffic gridlock, the idea that THIS CC, in our fine city, would support a project whose business model relies on duping foreign parents to send their kids to this filthy air for school is as close to immoral as any city policy I have ever seen.

      Nishi is a direct result of the overriding desire for civility, and the “looking for love” process that we see, meeting after meeting.

  3. Grok

    David’s Sue story is compelling and I can understand why he so often repeats it as an example of incivility. It is important to keep in mind that the scene he describes was the total break down and culmination of long standing incivility and bad behavior by more than one council member.  When I think of Council incivility though I think back to the way Julie Partansky was treated. Week after week she was ridiculed and badly treated on the council and in the press and my gosh she was one of the nicest and more visionary council members Davis has ever had.

    I hope for much better for the current council, but I also hope that any minority opinions don’t get stifled by an over zealous drive for consensus.

    1. Barack Palin

      I would often watch meetings and in my opinion Sue Greenwald was often berated by three members on that council for years.  I think that needs to be part of the story also.  The final blow-up was a culmination of years of bantering back and forth and both sides were guilty of it.

      1. hpierce

        Except, a certain CC member, who you seem wont to defend, was manipulative and publicly disparaging of staff whose professional analysis and recommendations didn’t conform to the point that certain CC member wanted them to make.  Only a few were ‘brazen’ enough to stand up to that CC member, yet did so politely, and professionally.  That CC member prided themself as “bluffing” playing Scrabble.  That CC member’s ‘scowls’ and “whatever” body english was extremely obvious.  Am really trying hard to be civil and still speak truth.

    2. Davis Progressive

      my read of the point was in fact that this was the culmination of years of incivility and after that incident, there was a recognition of the problem and ultimately things started to improve.  i agree on julie as well – she was extremely harshly treated over her time on the council.

      1. hpierce

        As to Julie P… I disagreed with her ~85% of the time, but never spoke a word against HER… I dearly respected how she approached things (a few exceptions), and genuinely loved to be around her when she wasn’t focused on CC matters… I’ve always told folk that she is/was the one I’d most like to take a spring hike in the Sutter Buttes with.

        Part of the perceived problem with Julie was the bad ‘coaching’ she listened to, and often acted on, from certain folk in the “progressive” movement.  You could tell, usually, when it was truly Julie speaking, or her ‘mentors’.  Julie would have been a lousy poker player.

    3. Michael Harrington

      I ran in 2000 for two reasons:  one, to allow Julie to retire and recover from the horrible abuse she suffered.  I saw her face up close at her last meeting, and it had PTSD all over it.  One of the worst abusers even sent her a big bouquet of flowers, which she held on the dais ….  the image of her face with those flowers is burned into my memory forever.

      The second was to save the city schools from the overcrowding.  Done, and I will continue to work towards this goal.

      1. ryankelly

        You may have had your own reasons for running, Mike, but you paint Julie as an abused, beaten woman.  PTSD? A bunch of malarky.  I think she had put in 8 years and wanted to do something else.  She did run into opposition with her efforts to change the cities use of pesticides, street lighting, and land use zoning.  Way ahead of her time in some areas, which made Davis seem quirky.   City Council and your participation on it did nothing to solve the overcrowding of our schools.  Some of your “Progressive” friends and allies opposed a city parcel tax that was on the ballot at the same time as a school bond.  Both failed after the campaign sewed the seeds of discontent and distrust.  A whole generation of Junior High school students suffered, with 1100-1200 students at each Junior High for 3-4 years after, until a new bond could be voted in and Harper was built.    I can tell you right now that our schools are suffering from declining enrollment that we are solving by educating children from neighboring cities – Woodland, Dixon, Sacramento – to maintain enrollment levels.

        1. Michael Harrington

          Ryan:  say what you want, but you were far from the discussions that led up to Julie handing the torch over to me.   The city parcel tax was in 1998, and other than making sure that Frankly’s building fit into the neighborhood, I had had zero involvement in city politics.  I ran in 2000, and there was no parcel tax issue on that ballot.


          The vehicle to stop the school overcrowding and other planning disasters was Measure J.  The rest is history.

          Julie was beat to heck by your crowd.

          Then you guys beat up Sue all the time.

        2. Marina Kalugin

          Julie (RIP) the angel that she was was beaten down by the likes of many who didn’t understand her, and her heart and soul, which she gave to this city..

          For those who may have a clue, she died of the stress that she was under for way too long, as she battled for liberty and justice for all.

          Cancer took her, but as a young person, she would still be alive, save the constant onslaught by the same names on this thread, who are now on the other threads bashing the Chancellor….

          I find all of this truly fascinating…..

          and I am sure, the moderators will remove my comments as they are “off-topic”….

      2. MAli

        “The second was to save the city schools from the overcrowding.  Done, and I will continue to work towards this goal.”

        How has that worked out Mike? Declining local enrollment masked by inter-district transfers from people who live in nearby communities but work in Davis. If it wasn’t for you and your friends efforts many of these people would live in Davis, pay parcel taxes and property taxes to support our schools, while driving fewer miles.

  4. Michael Harrington

    Does anyone here have a clue what it was like to go to those CC meetings for two years, with Suzie and Sue and the bickering?  It was ghastly.  I hardly said anything, I wanted to run so badly.

      1. Michael Harrington

        Ryan:  Sheryl was a nice person and tried her best.  She and I tried to stay out of the bickering that surrounded Mayor Wagstaff between Suzie and Sue.  It was ghastly.  Ruth was very nice to work with, a kind person.

        Suzie:  I hardly talked to her.

        So yes, the last couple of CC have been more civil, but look at the damage they are doing to the city because one or more of them are “looking for the love” and not standing their ground and voting NO when needed.   For some reason the voters have reversed 3 major 5-0 votes in the last five years.  The voters did that … Nishi was the third.  I’d rather have the clear voting on policy positions than what I see up there now.   If we had had a strong dissent by one or two CC members, much of that damaging and draining political fighting would never had happened.

        Declining enrollments in schools?  I’d rather have that and backfill with Davis workers bringing a kid from Woodland, than what was taking place when my oldest son was in elementary, junior high, and high school here.  Jammed like fish in a can.  His elementary had 900, design capacity was 600, if memory serves.  Lines too long to buy lunch.  Lockers not available.    The Wolk conservative developer Democrat coalition that blew the borders of the city  nearly destroyed the Davis schools by allowing the home construction before the schools were built.   The lives of many students were damaged by the overcrowding.   I heard those go-go developer CCs were civil, too.

        Don’t get me started …



        1. ryankelly

          A school was supposed to be built, but the bond failed.  I don’t recall you participating at all in getting that bond passed.  All it takes is an aggressive campaign full of lies and half-truths, with a few kernels of facts and the concerned voters of Davis will vote No.  The recent failed schemes are more about the way campaigns are run, than about the honesty or civility of the City Council.

          You seem to have a very different memory about your contribution to the lack of civility of the Councils when you served, than I do.



  5. Marina Kalugin

    now I can just sit back and get out the popcorn….as someone who campaigned for and supported most of those “ladies” at one point in time…

    he he….now we are hitting some buttons of those who sat up at the podium…   LOL….

    I missed some of that as a new manager I was working 24/7….and didn’t hae the time to hang at the meetings as much as I used to….LOL….

    And, truly, when Sunder capitulated to the majority consensus on the GATE issue, well she dropped down many floors to below basement in my mind…

    How am I, as a truly overloaded, yet concerned citizen supposed to figure out who to trust????

    not by actions of that nature…..

    1. Don Shor

      And, truly, when Sunder capitulated to the majority consensus on the GATE issue, well she dropped down many floors to below basement in my mind…

      Her vote for the majority position on GATE enabled her to bring the item back for reconsideration at a future time. It was a parliamentary maneuver, not an expression of support. She made that clear at the time.

  6. Marina Kalugin

    Don and Matt, as someone who rarely had time to attend school board meetings

    and barely even had time to gloss over the DE headlines much of last year…

    please explain why her siding with the majority meant it could be brought back later….

    why couldn’t she be honest and vote no, and then bring it back???

    what am I missing????

    1. Don Shor

      A motion can be brought back for reconsideration by one who has supported it. It cannot be brought back for reconsideration by one who voted against it. Roberts Rules of Order.

      1. Marina Kalugin

        I see…it’s been a while since I studied that in HS>> more than 50 years ago…..LOL….  thanks for the clarification Don!

        And, was there no-one else on the board who could bring it for a revisit?

        What if parents request it?  what if parents call for a recall election?

    2. Matt Williams

      I concur with Don’s answer Marina.   It is an element of parliamentary procedure.  In effect it allows one of the winners of any vote to say “We won, but new information causes me (as one of the winning voters) to feel we should reconsider our vote.” That opportunity does not exist for a voting member who was on the losing side.  The logic is that losing voters would always want a reconsideration, which would clog the process with a continual stream of  reconsiderations and revotes that rarely, if ever, produced a different result.

      The parliamentary procedure allows a “yes” voter to ask for a reconsideration, but the reconsideration is only granted if a majority of the voting body agrees to hear the reconsideration.  If a majority is not in agreement, then the reconsideration doesn’t happen.

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