Oprah for City Council?

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City HallOr 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.

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

*   *  *  *

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.



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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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30 thoughts on “Oprah for City Council?”

      1. Howard P

        Take a gold star out of petty cash, Alan… right arm! [“pumping”]

        Kinda’ like dangling bait, then warning you cannot bite… see movie “Montenegro”… woman puts food (and poison) in dog’s bowl, then says ‘there is poison in that dish… if you eat it you will die… but, it’s your choice…’ [spoiler alert:  dog looks at food, looks at woman, then slinks away, disappointed that there is no good meal there…]

    1. aaahirsch8

      Tia.

      1. I think its unfair to say I “see” these  social needs as minor,
      I just observed, factually, that
      – council has has historically not address them much in the past vs time on issue
      – other levels of government have money, time, expertise, and entire department to address them.

      My opinion only creeped in when I suggest these different levels of Government might be more effective addressing them. as it would apply a more comprehensive approach vs a one-city-only approach.  This is certainly debatable.

       

      2. If council candidate want to shift council priorities, have any suggest how Government should be reorganize and/or how city should get $ and staff to address these social problem?   Did any of them get behind, or even make a public comment to support Robb Davis idea for a parcel Tax for the homeless?

      3. Funding these new priorities: Did the candidates in speak up in support of Robb  Davis’s idea for a parcel tax  fund city expansion of responsibilities in this area? I suggest this is/was a litmus test of the candidates rhetoric vs real sincerely.

      4. Tia states city already has the money for expanded social services….and implies that all those who say we are in financial short fall are wrong.  It is budget time, so I encourage her to write an Vanguard piece to help  Council, staff and finance and budget committee to understand where this extra money is being hidden/misspent so it can be reallocated to these new programs.

      5. As for changing where City staff and council  spend time, remember it is only somewhat flexible…if one thing goes on the plate another things falls off.    And council priorities are reactive:  unexpected things happen that consume time.  Time dealing with Picnic Day police failure cost the city not just money, but time that could have been focused on solving other problem.

       

      6. In the end, Land use is ONLY done by the City.

      Should city council and staff spend less time reviewing land use projected?  Or maybe reviews can be streamlined, done more efficiently so time can be spent elsewhere.  Did any of the council candidate suggest ways to streamline the process…or are they advocating the council/staff invest more time time on hearings, citizen input, etc.

      City Time and Money are zero sum games unless you are willing to raise taxes, So any new priorities can only be undertaken by cut back in other areas, or stream lining.

       

      respectfully submitted.

       

       

       

       

  1. Tia Will

    Alan

    I appreciate the thoughtful manner in which you have addressed this topic. I see the statistical breakdown differently. You have demonstrated how the city council has addressed its time historically. Not necessarily how that time might best be spent in improving our community. I will provide one example from my area of interest, health and well being.

    Cities do not have the legislative tools or money to address this area in a comprehensive matter”

    Let’s take the issue of the homeless. We do have both tools and money to address this issue. What we did not have was an entire city council willing to move on this issue until the current council which has worked extensively with downtown business owners and the interfaith community to finally provide the “Pathways” initiatives and downtown public restrooms and storage. These are steps that could have been taken years ago had city leaders chosen to focus on this issue. What we had prior to this city council was the classic “It’s not in my job description” approach to health and wellness issues.

    What Alan sees as a minor issue, I see as a community need. From that perspective, one might flip the charts and see low percentages as areas of opportunity for improvement. That could lead to a different assessment of which skill sets and values would serve us best on the council.

     

  2. Jim Hoch

    Totally confused. What money do we have to address this issue? SF spent more than $300M last year and only increased the number of homeless.

    1. Tia Will

      Jim

      We had money to spend on the Portland model public restrooms. These would have been unnecessary if downtown businesses would uniformly allow use of their restrooms as some already do. We had money to adopt a series of ordinances which may or may not have additional cost depending on police time required.

      1. aaahirsch8

        A good point.  But one time capital expenditure come from different pot than vs on going social service program. And are different level of commitment.

        How big a program are you envisioning, and where will the money and/or staff come from?

      2. Jim Hoch

        “These would have been unnecessary if downtown businesses would uniformly allow use of their restrooms as some already do”

        How many downtown businesses are open 24/7/365? The Vanguard?

      3. Jeff M

        “These would have been unnecessary if downtown businesses would uniformly allow use of their restrooms as some already do.”

        Yet another tax on business.

        I wish that the people advocating perpetual increased taxes on business actually had experience starting and growing a business that hires people… already gives back to the community… instead of using their excess cash to buy real estate where their no-growth activism helps them put more money only in their pocket.

          1. David Greenwald

            “Is OK to ask a business owner to open their rentroom to the homeless but not OK to ask a homeowner to open their restroom to the homeless (serious question)?”

            What does it mean to “ask”?

            My inclination is yes as a business is a public space even though it is privately owned.

            But again it comes down to – what do you mean by “ask”

  3. Howard P

    Alan… bravo!  Insightful, but not partisan…

    Along those lines, today is the last day to request a VBM (vote by mail) ballot.

    If eligible to vote, please vote, or keep your disappointments with outcomes to yourself.

  4. Tia Will

    Jim

    “What money do we have to address this issue”?

    Some city actions require minimal to no financial outlay such as businesses not offering soda as their default beverage, or the soda tax and yet previous councils have not been willing to entertain these options.

  5. Tia Will

    Howard

    Well do you care to share on the “strangeness” and “many levels” or are you going to join Jeff in simply making proclamations?

    1. aaahirsch8

      Tia is not being strange: Sometimes re allocating staff time and/or new process  can free up resources, so Tia may on to something here….or not?

      1. Howard P

        The latter…

        Except to the extent that yes, there are real possibilities to achieve process improvement and allocation of City human resources… but not for new “want’s”… we need to focus on “needs”… if successful, we can talk about ‘wants’.

    2. Howard P

      Some city actions require minimal to no financial outlay such as businesses not offering soda as their default beverage

      Maybe not municipal funds, but ‘financial outlays’ to the businesses…

      or the soda tax 

      Enforcement?  Admin costs to City to collect and disperse?  Choosing who to disperse to?  Vetting, getting community consensus from folk like you?
      [edited]

  6. Jim Hoch

    With the proposed $500K parcel tax for homeless and affordable housing. You could easily spend the entire $500K on one person if you focused on “greatest need” as was discussed.

     

     

  7. Jeff M

    A city council is similar in many ways to a board of directors.  Both have responsibility for governance of an entity.  Both follow rules based on best-practices developed over centuries of practice.  The members are stakeholders of the entity they govern.  And the members are all individuals with their own agendas that serve their individual interests.

    But one common malady affecting governing boards is when board members cross-over too far into the operational management space.  This can be tricky in some cases because familiarity with subject matter combined with the natural human interest to be useful and make a difference, can lead to this operational cross-over.

    This is why I dislike seeing activists on boards and city councils.  “Making a difference” is the base motivation of an activist.  Their base professional identity is generally wrapped up in their activism and creates a sort of tunnel-vision or myopia related to the entire book or business.  For example, when the book of business includes budgets and finance the activist tends to ignore the more comprehensive overview and focuses primarily on directing money to causes meeting the activism agenda.

    Ideally boards and councils are comprised of smart people with diverse backgrounds and experience, but that don’t have any individual agenda other than directing the entity toward optimum health and success.  Diversity also helps to keep other members in check.. preventing them from operational cross-over and selfish pursuits that might be harmful to the whole.

    Personally, I would like to see far fewer government employees elected to political positions because of the obvious history of spending conflicts of interest.   I would also like to see fewer attorneys elected to political positions where they participate in making of rules and laws that attorneys then exploit for billable hours.  I see that as another large and clear conflict of interest.

    Lastly, I don’t agree that knowledge and experience in government should be a primary criteria for selecting a council candidate.  In fact, I see it as a liability as those candidates would tend to have strong relationships with people having a vested interest in protecting the status quo.  Transformational leadership generally needs to come from the outside.  American democracy was designed to be by the people and for the people, not by the ruling class for the ruling class.

    1. Matt Williams

      Jeff said . . . “Lastly, I don’t agree that knowledge and experience in government should be a primary criteria for selecting a council candidate.  In fact, I see it as a liability as those candidates would tend to have strong relationships with people having a vested interest in protecting the status quo.  Transformational leadership generally needs to come from the outside.  American democracy was designed to be by the people and for the people, not by the ruling class for the ruling class.”

      I realize this comment is crossing over to the topic of another of today’s articles, but my personal opinion is that there is only one candidate in this Council election who fits Jeff’s bolded statement.

  8. aaahirsch8

    re: The Idea that Experience is unimportant in elected officials, especiall for being one of 5 member Davis City Council

    1. I suggest productive transformation can come from someone who know the system, the players, and what parts work and what parts don’t work. For example, many of inexperienced outsides in the council race who call for more”transparency”.  They have not lived through the Internet’s transformation of availability of  government documents on video recordings/rebroadcast of hearing and council and commission meeting.  O I await discussion of how this dramatic increase in transparancy has improved things.  Or a discussion about how Brown Act as practiced by Council & Commission often limits its ability to negotate and respond real time to issues as the are raised by citizens.

    2. Relationships -which are built over time — matter if you want to build compromise and consensus to get change.   As one of five on council, this is especially important for City Council Reps. BUT even a top executives in government needs skill with relationships to govern, delegate and leverage.

    An outsider does not come in with those relationship, or any backlog of trust to draw on in negotiation/consensus building.

    Change is dangerous, so trust is even more important if you want employee and stake holder to take the risk of change.

    3. Skill sets of governing in a democracy with multiple independent stakeholder groups, activist, are unaccountable, and  and civil service government staffs  is different than governing a hierarchical business with employment-at-will control of stakeholders.

    There are exceptions, but creative and innovative human organization are build on trust and relationships.

    4. We put in elected term limits for state legislature.  I await an article indicating it has improved things.

    5.  What other endeavors would you hire someone based on their Inexperience in the critical skill set?

    Not to be partisan, but can I suggest those promoting the idea of “inexperience is a virtue” are either

    a) Anti Government.

    or

    b) Supporting candidates who don’t have experience.

    City Council is unlike the “Incumbents vs outsiders” races for  legislature or congress. Being inexperienced with Davis politics and reflect a choice not to serve on commissions, not to attend meeting to make public comments, not to take the time to writing op-ed in vanguard/enterprise.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    1. Matt Williams

      Alan, I found your article interesting when I read it in the Enterprise, and interesting again here today.  I was struck with the very narrow definition of experience you use.

      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.

      With that definition you appear to value part-time, volunteer activities within the City Limits over full-time, employed activities in the community.  Was that your intention?

    2. Jeff M

      It isn’t inexperience that I am advocating.

      For example, how many council members have actual experience in the private sector, have homes in Davis, have kids in the Davis school system, have started and run a business, etc., etc., etc.

      Experience in government is only important if you believe government is an institution in and of itself and not of the people for the people.

      Who are the people?  There are a lot more people out there in the community that are not government insiders.  In my opinion we should welcome and elect people that have experience that represents “the people” not the ruling class.

      Not to be partisan, but can I suggest those promoting the idea of “government experience is a virtue” either:

      a) Has their economic or identity self-interest connected to the “business” of government.

      or

      b) Are supporting candidates who are government insiders.

       

      1. Matt Williams

        Jeff, thank you for your response. It is very thought provoking.  With that said, my question was directed to Alan Hirsch. Hopefully he will weigh in with a response.

        1. Jeff M

          Thanks Matt – I welcome Alan’s post here.  I think it is very thought-provoking and timely.  Frankly, it is one of my pet peeves.   Human nature is such that it will strive (invest) to master the status quo and then shift to defend the status quo as it is protecting the investment.

          IBM had to hire Louis Gershner – a tech industry outsider – to transform the company into a new model of success… basically save it from itself.  Gershner had a lot of enemies at IBM during that time… people that had invested their careers to be masters of a certain domain/system/standard/status.  People – especially older people – don’t like having to reinvent themselves and lose their status in the process as they shed their mastery of the existing system.

          Bureaucracies form this way… people with decision authority making decisions that protect their obtained power thus blocking access from those lower level people that wish to ascend and have the capability to do so.

          We see the same in industries that lobby for new government regs and laws to block competition… thus protecting their market share that they had previously invested to win.  But doing so they risk being left behind the next market shift as they are playing defense and not offense.

          Some organizations can survive this way if their business is stable and requires great mastery of subject matter.  The practice of law is an example… it does not transform but it just keeps adding to the existing book… which tends to favor the old master and restricts the power shift from new progressive talent.

          The business of government – especially at the national level, but state and local too – where the argument is that governing has grown so complex that only those with existing mastery need apply.

          I think that is a sign of democratic dysfunction.  Why even have elections then?  Why not just add up the points of government experience and give it to the highest scorer?

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