Commentary: Is Davis Governable?

City Hall

Council is coming back from their winter break.  We have nine candidates on the ballot to replace Mayor Robb Davis and two-term councilmember Rochelle Swanson.  We figure to have a tax revenue measure on the ballot and probably Nishi as well.

We have not seen the official ballot measure for the tax revenue – decisions have not been made and nothing has been finalized and yet some are already threatening, at least behind the scenes, to defeat it.

In the meantime, the community continues to struggle for student housing with a 0.2 percent vacancy, and while the prospects for passage of a new Nishi project are probably better than they have been, still Measure J/Measure R projects are 0 for 3 with only the previous Nishi project even competitive.  And you have to go back to the 1990s to find a housing project that got approval in a community vote – Wildhorse.  Even that was a battle.

Even when projects do not require a vote, they have often been subjected to a lawsuit – Nishi, Hotel Conference Center, Hyatt House, the Marriott, and most recently Trackside.

And so the question that has been posed to me that I will now pose to my readers is whether Davis is ungovernable, as some have suggested.

If you want to find mistakes that city government has made – fine, it’s easy to do.  Some of them are objective mistakes, some of them subjective ones.

You want to punish city staff and the council for past mistakes, go right ahead.  That is certainly your right.  The stakes are fairly clear and the people who will suffer are generally going to be those who can least afford to suffer.

Part of the problem here is that the council has not laid out what the stakes are.  This is something the Vanguard has urged since 2014.  The city managed to pass the sales tax without a lot of heavy lifting, but that only yielded 58 percent of the vote.  If the parcel tax in June gets 58 percent of the vote, it goes down to defeat and it does so by what would appear to be an overwhelming margin.

Council will have the option, if they really believe that there will be organized opposition, to go to a sales tax or UUT (Utility User tax) route and go to a majority vote.  I still don’t believe that is in the best interest of the community, but I also don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community to go the cuts route.

It is time that the staff brings forth a report about what $8 million in cuts looks like and what $16 million in cuts looks like.  This is going to be much more painful that people think.

The first problem you have is that you can’t shed all of the costs that you think you can shed.  Much of the pension costs are already set in stone.

The council is not likely to cut from police or fire.  Moreover, the basic infrastructure pieces are not heavily staffed and effectively cannot be cut.

So what does that leave?  According to one source the most natural place to cut would be parks and greenbelts.  They could cut kids programming and recreation.  They can attempt to cut jobs and
send a number of these positions to outsourcing, although it is less than clear what it would require in terms of collective bargaining.

The city could cut a number of jobs like the wildlife biologist, IPM (Integrated Pest Management) specialist and the like.

The question at this point would be what that would mean for the community.  What would the community look like if we had to close down parks and greenbelts?  Council was talking about getting a 50-meter pool, well forget that, they’d be looking at closing down the rest of their pools and other recreational activities.

Basically you would have to put anything that is not a core service and not police and fire on a potential chopping block.  And, even then, it is not clear just how much saving you would yield.

In my view the city has made a good deal of progress since the days of 2008 and 2009.  Not just with cuts by attrition, but actually addressing some of the core issues of retirement benefits and staffing.  It has been a long and slow progress.

Is it perfect?  No.  Can we do more?  Probably.  But to get to the point where we won’t need a tax increase, I don’t think we want that city.  I know I wouldn’t.

One thing interesting to note is that in 2015 the Vanguard opposed the council extending a cost-of-living increase (COLA) during the MOUs.  However, even then, the difference between a zero-percent wage increase with no new positions, COLAs or promotions over a ten-year period, and a three-percent annual COLA would be just about one million dollars in pension costs (a not insubstantial cost).

And understand where this battle (if you will) has moved.  In 2004, the series of MOUs had between a 15 and 36 percent pay increase.  Those days are gone and probably gone forever.  Now the only question is whether we have a COLA or no COLA.

Again my preference is reduced to no COLAs because we end up not only paying the increase in salary but also the increased pension.  One way to reduce our costs is to allow inflation to do the work for us over time.

The Leland Model paints a bleak outlook of pension increases.  Some believe that is the worst case scenario and, if things got worse than that, it would lead to bankruptcies up and down the state.

The city as we have argued needs a cost containment plan.  Without one, we simply cannot raise revenue fast enough to overcome spending increases.  That is what happened in 2004, we passed the sales tax measure and gave away that money and more in pay increases over five years – and at the end of that five-year period we hit the worst recession in history.

We are still digging out from that.  My point here is that, while we are not perfect, we have gotten better.

But revenue is going to be a problem and a number of people warn that, even if we get the revenue measure passed, the sales tax money we have been receiving and keeping us afloat is in trouble.  We rely very heavily on the auto market.  As we have shown in other articles, the city takes in far less per capita in sales tax than comparable communities, retail across the nation is struggling and the auto market is probably not going to last as it has.

So, in ten years, where do we get our sales tax revenue?  But people do not want to consider these issues.

Last week I asked if Davis was sustainable and now this week I argue whether it is governable.  We have a lot of choices to make, but, if people love this community, they have to figure out a way to make it work – and right now we are sitting on the brink.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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. Tia Will

    Moderator note

    Marina, I am not going to pull your post since you have not made any directly personal racial or religious slurs targeted at specific individuals. However, I am going to request that you refrain from making racially or religiously based stereotypical comments.



      1. Alan Miller

        Given the context of the post, I have to say that I feel “jew and white vatican kids” is racist. I do not support that kind of post.

        As a Jew, I am not offended because the post is incomprehensible.  The true meaning can never be known except by the author.

    1. Neil Ruud

      Are you serious? The post claims that Jewish and Catholic college students are materialistic, toxic consumers, unlike Muslim families. Whether or not its directed at an individual shouldn’t matter if the content contains hate speech.

      From Section A of the comment policy:

      Hate Speech. Comments that constitute hateful speech will be removed. Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

      Not to mention that the comment violates the purpose of the comment guidelines overall:

      The primary intent of these guidelines is to ensure an inclusive, civil tone that will encourage greater participation in the community dialogue fostered by The Vanguard.

      Not only does the comment make broad generalizations (even if seemingly “positive”) about a common target of hate crimes in both our community and the country overall, it does so to make disparaging comments about another group that is also the victim of many hate crimes in the US and, again, here in Davis.

      1. Alan Miller

        Not to mention that the comment violates the purpose of the comment guidelines overall:

        Ahhh, but you forget the real purpose of the Vanguard comment section — to make money.  You may all notice Marina was “gone” for a long time — until she made a sizable contribution to the Vanguard recently.  Coincidence?

      1. John Hobbs

        “the muslims, the asians, the ones one actually SEES in classes… the ones getting ALL of the awards, .. . any white children are likely Slavic folks… the jew and white vatican kids do in the US of Z/V and toxic consumerism…”

        “Marina, I am not going to pull your post since you have not made any directly personal racial or religious slurs targeted at specific individuals

        So blatant racism (and misandry) are now the standard for the Vanguard?

        I can scarcely imagine a less moderate moderator than the retired doc, but to be accurate and fair, the other mod has given Marina and Claire free rein, so no real change to the practice if not the the policy. (Now as soon as Tia stops her head from exploding she can “moderate” this!)

        “You may all notice Marina was “gone” for a long time — until she made a sizable contribution to the Vanguard recently.  Coincidence?”


      2. John Hobbs

        “That statement is utter nonsense.”

        You would know what you’ve edited, but the archives reveal what you’ve allowed.

        I’ll stand by my statement.

  2. Tia Will


    I do not have any idea what you mean by the expression “ungovernable”. It is my impression that government in this country is intended to be a representation of the will of the governed. We live in a community in which many members are actively engaged in ensuring that their voices are heard. Since there are differing opinions in the community, this makes the job of elected representatives more challenging, but participation is key to our form of government. Homogeneity of thought would doubtless make governance an easier process, but certainly a less dynamic, diverse and creative one.


  3. John Hobbs

    No, not when everyone continues making their own voice heard without listening to anyone else. Davisites exercise a great deal of free speech, but seem very weak at listening and comprehension. Collaboration is a word used often on this site, but one sees very little room for that when there is so much scapegoating of one another.

    (I know that the contentious cadres that post on blogs and write letters to the editor are not really representative of the city and that most Davisites are too busy living to participate in such rhetorical Onanism, but the portrait painted by the Vanguard and the Enterprise shows a very unruly populace.)

    I think you should have a “Council Appreciation Day” to honor your neighbors who are willing to open themselves up to the sturm and drang of Davis politics.

  4. Sharla C.

    When you have people in the community who openly advocate for “direct democracy,” apparently have significant support in the community, and repeatly sue us in an effort to bypass our representative democracy, then nothing seems to ever get done.  I think we need clear options presented and the have our city leaders courageously move ahead on the best one.  Frankly, I’m losing interest in local politics and also any hope that our City will change direction, as long as this pattern continues unchanged.

      1. Ron

        The Vanguard article discusses demand for housing in Davis, which is impacted by regional demand. There are few articles which detail exactly how this demand unfolds on communities that surround Sacramento.

        Most of the reporting on the Vanguard examines issues in Davis in relative isolation, as if there are not broader forces at work.

  5. larryguenther

    I do not believe Davis is ungovernable.  If I did, I would not be running for City Council.

    I absolutely believe that the fundamental problem we are having with development comes from the lack of participation by the community at the beginning of the planning process and from diverging from community expectations.  Some evidence I would cite are the number of necessary amendments to city planning documents and the projects that are approved in spite of significant concerns and lack of support from our citizen commissions.

    Waiting until the plans are made – with all of the costs in time and resources that entails – brings sunk costs into a project and makes it difficult and expensive to change.  In my opinion, this creates a situation in which decision makers feel that they are presented with the choice of either approving a proposal with all of its defects, or getting nothing.  I believe this is a false choice, but I also believe that the process would work better with real community involvement early in the process.  I believe this because I have seen it work, right here in Davis.

    In my opinion, it is the proposals that diverge well away from community-established expectations that are creating an antagonistic environment between different groups in the community.

  6. Jeff M

    Direct democracy does not work for community governance.  Never has.  Never will.  Those that push it have an agenda to prevent change.

    This is why American-style democracy is of the representative type.   This model provides a balance between the totalitarianism or dictatorial style of governance where bottom-up influence is largely denied, and influence anarchy were everyone has a stake in the decision and the uniformed and incapable majority can block anything they are nervous about.

    But Davis is in even worst shape.  Davis has a direct democracy, decision anarchy, approach with a majority that is highly capable at protesting and blocking change.

    I think it is too early to say that Davis is ungovernable because I don’t think we have had the right leadership in position.  Our city council, although over the last few elections had been showing some signs of fiscal pragmatism including support for development projects that would ensure city economic vitality, fell back to their comfortable blanket agenda of social justice advocacy.

    And our city manger, although one of the nicest guys you would ever meet, was a proven system insider motivated to keep the city employee gravy train going.

    I think this next CC election is a key election.  We are losing a key fiscal pragmatist in Rochelle and Robb at least voiced concerns about the fiscal state of the city.   We need to elect two strong fiscal conservatives that will focus on this side of policy instead of heading down the old social justice pursuit path.

  7. Howard P

    May I suggest it’s not a good idea to feed (or feed into) certain creatures after midnight?  And it’s always near midnight somewhere.  Someone has gotten a whole lot more ‘attention’ than they deserve.

    If anyone thinks comments will change the behavior of certain folk, rather than just embolding/egging them on… well, not convinced of that…

    Something about getting into a urination contest with a member of the Mephitidae family…

    Just saying…

    1. Alan Miller

      May I suggest it’s not a good idea to feed (or feed into) certain creatures after midnight?

      It’s definitely not a good idea to listen to creatures that post after midnight.

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