Commentary: If You Think the Community is Angry and Divisive Now… You Should Have Seen Twelve Years Ago

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City Hall

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


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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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24 thoughts on “Commentary: If You Think the Community is Angry and Divisive Now… You Should Have Seen Twelve Years Ago”

  1. Alan Miller

    If You Think the Community is Angry and Divisive Now… You Should Have Seen Twelve Years Ago

    I don’t think that . . . and I did see twelve years ago.

    Oh, talking to someone else again today?

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        It wasn’t just activists – things were a lot more toxic 12 years ago than they are now. You had open squabbles on the dais. People threatening each other in the audience. It was bad. Not just activists.

    1. Jim Hoch

      I was not here then but my neighbor told me it was all driven by a couple of haters on the Human Relations Commission and once that was disbanded things calmed down.

          1. Don Shor

            Her favorite complaint is the composting bins

            There is no single city policy about which I have heard more complaints, across the political spectrum, expressed with greater vigor and hostility, than the city’s compost bins and change to the street pickup policy.

  2. Jeff M

    So, 12 years ago, the politicians and officials were more in conflict with each other, but the people were more passive sheep.  Maybe the combination of fluoride and high boron in the deep-well water had something to do with that?  It has been the dream of all that would rule to drug their constituents into zombie-like compliance… so maybe…

      1. Alan Miller

        HP, I read Frankly’s posts pretty much like I read Donald Trump’s ‘speeches’.  It’s not the words taken literally that have meaning, it’s what’s behind the words.  You can take that any way you like.

        1. Alan Miller

          I also self-reported my comment… maybe it’ll get deleted…

          I hope not, because my comment on your comment is connected to your comment.

  3. Ken A

    Other than Ron and the pro Nishi UCD students it seems like everyone who posts on the Vanguard was around in 2006 and things seem pretty much the same with crazy right of center guys and crazy left of center gals on TV (the only difference is that left of center people don’t like Trump anymore and I’m guessing that unlike Trumps 3rd wedding the Clintons won’t come to his 4th wedding)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sOuBOsU20k

    P.S. I hope Don is happy that I did not make any comments about the expected weight (or age) of Trump’s 4th wife or comment on the weight of his “friends” that came to the David Letterman show back in 2006 in the video linked above…

     

    1. Alan Miller

      > I hope Don is happy that I did not make any comments about the expected weight (or age) of Trump’s 4th wife or comment on the weight of his “friends” that came to the David Letterman show back in 2006 in the video linked above…

      Except ya jist did . . .

  4. Jeff M

    Some of the collaboration vs conflict difference is explained by tribal macro crisis escalation.  The converse of that is tribal macro crisis de-escalation… which then foments reciprocal tribal micro crisis escalation.

    Basically political people jockey for power, relevancy and identity within the supply of cause resources.

    A macro crisis tends to foment more micro tribal alliances.  For example, a Great Recession, running out of other people’s money, world wars and Trump Derangement Syndrome… these macro crises bring political people together with a new common call for action.  Smaller political tribes that would otherwise go to war over micro twaddle without these macro shared interests are more likely to work in harmony and kumbaya to defeat such clear and profound danger (in their emotive-minds).

    Currently the Davis City Council can thank Trump for giving them ample cause resources.  Unfortunately it is also causing the City to focus on these things rather than the structural cracks that need to be repaired.   If we were really focused on the structural cracks, there would likely be much more internal conflict within the council.

  5. Mark West

    “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.”

    Holding a project’s approval hostage in order to exact another round of concessions is one of the most damaging actions a City Council can take in terms of economic development. We want developers to be able to estimate their costs and risk in advance without fear of additional demands late in the process.

    In the case cited, the neighbors had several opportunities to be heard prior to that point in the process, including a previous opportunity for conflict resolution which they refused, so there was no reason to hold the project hostage. Especially so, as the additional ‘demand’ resulted in a reduction in the revenues that the City will receive from the project going forward (fewer rooms thus lower TOT revenue). A properly functioning process would have seen the Council vote up or down that night.

    1. Jeff M

      Holding a project’s approval hostage in order to exact another round of concessions is one of the most damaging actions a City Council can take in terms of economic development.

      The “hostage” description is apt.   It is another consequence of too much growth-restriction… the scarcity bunch tries to extract more milk from that infrequent cow, and thus weakens or kills the cow.  And the cows talk among themselves and mark Davis as a “bad for cows” city and stay away.

  6. Matt Williams

    Here is a very interesting comment posted on December 5, 2015.  It rings true just as much today as it did then.

    The complaints about the City Council over the years (and the reasons many citizens do not trust the City) boil down to a few repeated occurrences.  First, taking tax monies raised for one purpose (parks, roads etc.,) and using them instead to increase employee compensation.  Second, providing inadequate notice of important discussions (while meeting the ‘letter of the law), including late postings of staff reports and other information, such that citizens do not feel they have adequate time to prepare.  Third, scheduling controversial discussions/decisions around known vacation times and / or late at night in an obvious attempt to reduce public participation.

    “if they hadn’t read the Vanguard, they would not know this was an issue for anyone in the community. They didn’t receive any emails on it.”

    The City Council did not want public participation in this decision and they arranged the agenda accordingly.  The fact that they didn’t get any emails just demonstrates the success of their efforts. Had this been a regular agenda item I can guarantee that their email boxes would have been filled with missives, and the Chambers filled with people (some likely carrying pitchforks).

    Is there any wonder why so many people do not trust the City (or this City Council)?

    .
    The issues cited in the quotation exist in full flower today, just as much as they did in December 2015.

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