The longer I do this gig, the more I find I become a voice not only for change, but also perspective and institutional memory. And I think that’s important because there are increasingly few people who were around and active when the Vanguard started in 2006.
In a way, a pivotal moment in Davis’ recent history occurred in January 2010. In a fight over – interestingly enough – employee MOUs, Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Sue Greenwald went to mat on the dais. The result was an angry war of words – which was by no means unusual for that council – and eventually a health crisis for the mayor.
As the Vanguard reported later, what happened outside was even more ugly and Councilmember Sue Greenwald baited City Manager Bill Emlen into nearly physically attacking her –to the point where I had to physically get between him and the councilmember, all while holding my infant daughter in a baby carrier.
That was definitely the low point in civility in Davis politics. It was also the culmination of about a six-year period where civility on the dais and in the halls dissipated. There was a seemingly permanent 3-2 majority on council that kept a lock on policies. There was a pervasive nastiness on the dais that I think lowered most of the participants to their personal lowest common denominators (Lamar Heystek was probably the only real exception on that council; ironically, the youngest member was largely beyond reproach in how he conducted himself).
Out of the ashes of that January 2010 debacle was fundamental change that occurred in Davis politics. Rochelle Swanson will be stepping down from the dais soon, but she was instrumental in helping to change the tone of city hall.
Agree or disagree with the council, they work hard as a five-person team to reach consensus on most issues. There may not have been a single 3-2 vote during the entire time that Robb Davis was mayor. Many issues were settled as 5-0 votes – which were the result not of single-minded thinking, but actual effort on the part of the council to find common ground among colleagues.
I bring up this fundamental change as a counterbalance to some of the points by Mayor Davis in his exit interview with the Vanguard.
He writes: “We seem to be growing older as a community, more change averse, angrier, and more cynical. There is very little celebration of what is good in Davis. I find that sad. Litigation on nearly every project we approve is the norm. It does not feel healthy to me.
“Accusations of wrongdoing and that we lack concern for citizens’ needs are an almost daily experience for a council member. We are frequently told that we caused harm to community members. I can’t count the number of times people have accused us of lying or hiding the truth.”
I am not going to dismiss some of the concerns raised by Robb Davis. I do think that this community is growing older and that we need to start thinking about how to make Davis affordable and accessible once again for families with children.
I do think it is concerning that most projects have drawn lawsuits, either as an effort to extract money from the developers or the city or an effort to attempt to delay, block, or increase the cost of projects in Davis.
But, at the same time, I actually believe that a lot of the divisions are more vestiges of the past than renewed hostility. There is a fundamental distrust in some quarters, much of it a holdover from the days where the council really was trying to pull a fast one on the citizenry.
I also think though – if we look at the election results – one reason we are seeing anger in some very limited quarters of this community is because the community is continuing to shift.
Groups that were once highly influential, and in power even, are on the outside looking in. If we look at the election results, we can see that the voters elected as the top two vote-getters two people who are unlikely to cause problems of incivility on the dais.
We see new coalitions emerge and that means that old powers may be on the outside looking in. The people who oppose some of the new developments did not fare well at the polls this year. Nishi won overwhelmingly, and the candidates who opposed Nishi finished in the middle of the pack rather than at the top.
The community did not buy into the scare tactics and misinformation.
Whether you agree or disagree with Gloria Partida and Dan Carson, they are likely to be people who attempt to build consensus and bring people together, rather than sit on the dais and polarize.
I will never forget going to my first council meeting and seeing Ted Puntillo waving the Human Relations Commission’s report on police oversight and saying that it is not worth the paper it is printed on. Even if the report was really bad, that’s just not appropriate behavior for an elected official and it creates divisions in the community.
I find it interesting that that very report served as a sort of blueprint for the interactions that we had this year on police oversight. There were indeed angry voices over the Picnic Day incident, but the council worked hard to bring the community together, to include a broad range of stakeholders, and to forge out of that a new plan that most people could live with if not embrace.
Watching the way this council handled the police issue versus how the 2006 council did is strong evidence that we have progressed as a community. We may still have people who are angry, but the council does a far better job of bringing them into the fold and attempting to address their concerns.
We have seen this rather consistently. Take the Hyatt House – the council had the votes to jam the approval of the hotel through. It may have been a 3-1 vote, but they took a few extra meetings to have a conflict resolution process that enabled the neighbors to have a chance to work with the developers to produce something that was, even if the neighbors didn’t love it, something they could live with.
You just wouldn’t have seen that in 2006.
Do we have problems in this community? No doubt. I am very concerned long term about the fiscal viability of this community and the long-term affordability of this community to even middle-income folks. We have a lot of work.
But I also see in the big picture that we have made a lot of progress. The council tackled long-standing issues in this session and achieved real accomplishments. Is there more work to do? Yes. Is there anger in the community? Some.
But I think Robb Davis and indeed all five on the council should be proud of what they have been able to achieve.
—David M. Greenwald reporting