Or Trump? Does a candidate need relevant experience?
By Alan Hirsch
With nine candidates running for council, Davis voters have a challenge. But I believe this decision is made overly complicated by the decision framework suggested by our numerous “good government” candidate forums: we need to compare each of the nine candidate’s policy sound bytes, in multiple areas, and then choose “the best.”
Who could possibly keep this multi-variant analysis straight?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so I suggest there is another way to hire someone for a job: look at their past performance. Look at proven expertise and results. Using this framework, at least in part, can make it easier for voters to see thru rhetoric to what each stands for and might do for the city.
I have attended 80% of the council meetings over the last 4 years and I have only seen two of these candidates at more than 1 or 2 council meeting before late last fall. And only four have evidenced any governmental service to the Davis community by serving on any commission before last fall. I also interviewed most of these candidates over coffee last December and January, and it was striking most could not name the top 3 revenue sources for the city, which reflects they have not watched the city struggle through even one budget cycle. So, who these candidates are is really untested.
But beyond this, it’s interesting that some candidates have chosen to feature their inexperience as a benefit. If you look at the candidate literature you can see embedded the ideas like: “Vote for me, I’m inexperienced!” “Elect me, I haven’t been involved.” With a little critical thinking you can see they are claiming to be in possession of new ideas and values that would fix things—but have not bothered to share this in the past by attending council meetings, leading a stakeholder group, or getting on a commission.
Maybe this is smart politics as it echoes the zeitgeist seen in Donald Trump’s successful run as an outsider. Or the idea that “values” matter above all, the logic that favors electing Oprah, or helped elect the Evangelical Christian George W. Bush.
But if you believe experience counts, follow me below as I suggest what types of experience we might look for, and how voters can evaluate the candidates along these parameters.
- What Experience Counts?
To understand what the key decisions council & community struggled with over the years, I looked as what issues Davis Enterprise and the Davis Vanguard blog focused on. This was surprisingly simple: first I used the preexisting top-level categorization of over 5600 of Vanguard blog articles from the last 11 years. I then confirmed this, reviewing the headlines of top 82 articles Enterprise council articles from 2017.
These are the categories:
- Political Skills: City Process and Elections were 24% and 25% of coverage of council in Enterprise/Vanguard respectively. I call this the “navel gazing” or “meta” category as it is internal to city governance process.
- City Land Use Policy Skill: This is by far the biggest “external” topic discussed. 38% and 40% of the newspaper coverage (Enterprise/Vanguard). This topic area includes housing, zoning, economic development, open space, downtown revitalization.
- City Budget, Taxation & Labor costs: 16 & 20%. However, if you consider the city’s revenue is dominated by sales tax and property taxes, you see the power of zoning/ i.e. land use with an eye for revenue (and minimizing infrastructure costs) underlies the “business model” of the Davis municipal corporation.
- Health & Welfare issues: 4% and 6%. (toxics, senior issues, park programs, homelessness, etc.). This is a surprise for most people, but in fact this issue area is most often addressed at county or state level. or even by the School Board. Cities do not have the legislative tools or money to address this area in a comprehensive matter, and the problems “spill over” from one city jurisdiction to another.
- Infrastructure (roads, bikes, water, utilities): Only takes up 6% or 5% of council discussion/newspaper coverage. While residents rate this #1 in importance, these low numbers reflect that the limited number of policy-level choices in this area – beyond finding the money to fix stuff.
So, to net this out: If you remove the 25% of “meta” issues like elections and city process discussions, the council spends 75% of its “quality” time on land use, economic development and budget issues. And to better fund infrastructure (e.g. roads) or expanded health and welfare program, it’s clear that land use for economic development is the tool council has at hand also—unless you want to impose even higher parcel taxes.
- Who has the Right Experience?
I have my preferences, but I suggest voters can easily do their own weighing of experience and accomplishments by simply going to each candidate’s website and clicking their “about me” sections. See what they have worked on in the past and if it is related to core city issues listed above. And also see if they list any concrete accomplishments. When reading their websites, please don’t be taken by generalized claims of experience backed with no details: For example, I have found a few candidates make claims of “small business experience.” I asked them about this and often it only meant they work as independent contractor service providers (consultants, lawyers, food cart operators) with no significant expenses beyond what they pay themselves. Not typically what we think of as a “business,” and certainly is not indicative of having any experience managing employees, payroll or maintaining capital assets like the city has.
- A Backup Plan: Ability Listening and Hard Work
Let me leave my fellow voters with this final chart, from our current Major Robb Davis. Though he was an activist in city government for many years before running for council in 2014, his major efforts then were in the transportation area, not land use or finance. Starting his council campaign in 2013, he was well aware of his limits to his knowledge, and drew this chart (and humbly posted it on his Facebook page).
If you consider Robb a model mayor, as I do, you know that the initial lack of subject area knowledge can be overcome by hard work, buttressed by an inherent ability to listen and build consensus and trust with people outside the council meetings, people you disagree with and even oppose you. I suggest again, past performance is the best indication of this.
Mayor Robb Davis’s aspirational growth chart from his Facebook 2013
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Alan Hirsch works with Judy Corbett and others to facilitate the Davis Future Forum speakers’ series and passes out “Love your Neighbor” and “Support Science” signs in the Farmers Market.