Monday Morning Thoughts: Will the Council Buck Public Opinion on This One?

One of the biggest questions an elected official has to face is when and if the elected body should buck the will of the people and do what they believe is right.  It feels like it has been a long time since they’ve done it in an overt and thorough way.

When the Vanguard first started, it felt like the council did this repeatedly – there were times they were going to have their three votes locked in no matter what anyone said.  A good example was the 4-1 vote to approve Covell Village and put it on the ballot, only to have the voters reject it by a 60-40 margin.  The problem of course is that it was not necessarily clear at the time of the council vote that Measure X would go down as widely as it did.

You might argue there was the vote on the water that was rescinded after opponents gathered signatures to put it on the ballot.  The problem of course is that the voters, while wanting to weigh in and force in improvements, actually approved the surface water project.

You could argue the example of Nishi 1.0, where the council voted to approve it by a 5-0 vote, but the voters narrowly voted it down by 700 votes.  But again, it was not clearly going to go down at the time of the vote and the vote was narrow.

You could argue about Wild Horse Ranch – a 3-2 vote of council, a clear controversy at the time it was put on the ballot and a 3 to 1 margin of defeat.  That is pretty close.

Nothing else really comes to mind but the problem is that, in a town without polling where we can only guess about public opinion based on the people in the room and emails, it is hard to know.

It certainly feels like the majority of the public is against paid parking.  This is a case where the experts, as we pointed out in yesterday’s column, seem to be at odds with the stakeholders and the public.

Mayor Brett Lee indicated on Tuesday that emails were running about five to one against the proposal.  It wasn’t as overwhelming in the council chambers, but still 60 to 70 percent opposed the proposal there.

One of the problems that we have is gauging actual public opinion.  That gives the council considerable leeway, even if it is just in their own minds.

Mayor Lee noted that “council members are elected to make decisions based on their best judgment.”  He said, it is not “which side is the loudest. Just loading more people into the council chambers is not necessarily going to get the council to side with you.”

But let’s not be naïve – public opinion matters and it matters a lot.  Perhaps the clearest cut case was fluoridation.  I think if the council was left to make the decision based on staff and experts, they would have voted to fluoridate the water a few years ago.

However, after watching the public debate and listening to the passion of the opposition, I think the council realized that they could vote to support fluoridation but it would trigger perhaps recalls and bitter opposition, and the rest of their agenda would be bogged down for a long time.

They made a strategic decision on an issue that, while not quite peripheral to their duties, was definitely not in the core of their priorities.  Paid parking is different – this is a core function of the council and they have a duty to set policy on the Davis Downtown and parking.  In short, they could get away with bowing to public opinion on fluoridation but they can’t simply punt on parking issues.

The dilemma is one that columnist Bob Dunning discusses in his column on Sunday.

He writes: “An interesting position, to be sure. On the one hand, yes, you want an elected official with sound judgment. Lee passes that test with flying colors.  On the other hand, you want an elected official who’s responsive to the wishes of the people.”

He continues: “It’s an age-old argument playing out poorly in the halls of Congress, where our elected representatives seem to care only about what the voters in their district want, even if it’s not in the best interests of the country.

“As far as the validity of one side or the other ‘packing the chambers,’ if the council is not going to be impressed at all by the sheer volume of either support or dissent, then why have public comment in the first place? Just vote your conscience, council folks, and be done with it.”

He concludes: “Then again, any council member who routinely ignores a true public sentiment of five-to-one is not likely to be a council member for long.”

While I catch his drift, the problem in the halls of Congress is not the problem that the council faces.  The congressional representatives are elected to represent their districts in Congress, not necessarily the nation as a whole.  This would be a valid point here if we had district rather than at-large elections.

The need to weigh the risks of voting one’s conscience against an opposing public is a quandary for a democracy – especially if you believe that the public, while intelligent, does not have all the information that they need to make an informed decision.

That is, in fact, why we have representative democracy in the first place.  A long time ago, the founders of this nation were fearful of the passions of the people running away from their better judgment.  In modern times, the amount of expertise makes it more and more difficult for lay people to weigh in on certain issues.

We have attempted to have the best of both worlds by electing representatives who hire experts so that the policymakers are responsive to the public, but have the benefit of study and expertise.

The question comes down to this: can the council do what they believe is the right thing if they believe the right thing could get them voted out of office at the next election?  I don’t know that we know what will happen in this case.

I do, however, believe that council should do what they believe is the right thing – after all, if we simply run democracy by those who have the loudest voice, we not only stand to trample the rights of the minority, we also negate the reason we elected representatives in the first place.

—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. Ron Glick

    I’ve been working against paid parking since November 2017. Although I have argued with whoever would listen, and perhaps changed some minds, I have not had much luck getting people involved. Of the many people who turned out last Tuesday two were there at my urging, both will be adversely effected by paid parking, one spoke and one gave up shortly after the staff presentation, something that seemed to many like a filibuster.

    I haven’t had much luck getting people to contact CC members either. I have only had one friend tell me they would contact two members. I’ve turned up at numerous meetings at every opportunity, always by myself, to use whatever forum I could to make my case and to speak out against what I call a bad idea that won’t die.

    So, because of my lack of ability to motivate people on this issue, I was encouraged by the strong showing of opposition voiced both at the meeting, through emails to the CC and in other venues throughout the city; Downtown Davis’ online petition, letters to the editor, a public meeting of the DDBA, in Bob Dunning’s columns and the recent Davis Enterprise Editorial .

    As a result, I believe the outpouring of opposition to not be some sort of rent a mob. In fact, I believe what you saw was a genuine showing of organic grass roots opposition from people who feel, for one reason or another, that they will be adversely effected by the implementation of the staff recommendation.

    In my opinion, the shocking and insulting statement that Mayor Brett Lee made after receiving input from the public last Tuesday was a total miscalculation of what had transpired. The notion that the overwhelming opposition was somehow contrived and that it therefore doesn’t matter, because he elected by the broader community to do what he believes is in the best interest of the people, misread the room in front of him and the community sentiment at large.

    When he finished and took a recess the discussion in the back of the room by the opponents was one of complete incredulity. Near the end of the recess Brett walked by me and started to engage with me in a conversation. I told him he had insulted the people. He denied it. I told him I had just heard it from the people in the room themselves. He explained doing so wasn’t his intent. Our conversation devolved into an argument until one of the other members pounded the gavel. The rest of them had returned to the dais and were waiting for the Mayor who was arguing, with a member of the public, on the Mayor’s own initiative. I have never experienced anything like that moment and I have been involved in politics since the Vietnam War.

    For some reason the Mayor is so deeply invested in paid parking as a solution that he has become blinded to other opinions. He reminds me of Custer, in the movie Little Big Man, who upon being warned by his scout that if he rides down into the Little Big Horn he is going to get massacred. Custer knows the scout is sympathetic to the Lakota and yells, CHARGE!


    1. Darell Dickey

      >> In my opinion, the shocking and insulting statement that Mayor Brett Lee made after receiving input from the public last Tuesday was a total miscalculation of what had transpired. <<

      I did not hear your personal exchange with Brett, but I was at the meeting, and have since re-watched the proceedings on video. I contend that you have miscalculated what Brett said about elected officials. Did he not state fact? I don’t see where he implied that the opposition was contrived, nor that the comments from the opposition didn’t matter. He clearly didn’t misread the room either, or he wouldn’t have made that comment, and he probably would have called for a vote that very evening.


  2. Matt Williams

    You might argue there was the vote on the water that was rescinded after opponents gathered signatures to put it on the ballot.  The problem of course is that the voters, while wanting to weigh in and force in improvements, actually approved the surface water project.

    A whole lot was changed between the Council vote on water and the eventual 2013 Measure I approval.  As Lucas Frerichs pointed out in his 2016 campaign literature, the community saved over $60 million on the water project.  The Measure I vote reflected appreciation of that before/after difference … as well as the fact that the Council and staff and the Water Advisory Committee (WAC) had done good work in right-sizing the surface water project to the community’s actual water needs.

  3. Alan Miller

    You could argue . . . . . . . that getting to the subject of an article in the 7th paragraph, much less the headline, is poor journalistic writing.

  4. Darell Dickey

    >> at odds with the stakeholders and the public. <<
    What is a stakeholder? Are we using this as a synonym for “downtown business owner?” The reality is that the “public” is also comprised of many stakeholders. Certainly all the ones who pay taxes, or who visit our downtown for any reason. I guess I’m getting tired of the “stakeholder” phrase as it makes it sound like the business owners own our downtown and are the only ones who are effected by our poorly-managed parking. Many of the  downtown business owners have a “feeling” that paid parking will be bad for them. It would appear that subsidized parking should be a fully-subsidized right that’s enjoyed exclusively by motor vehicle owners who travel to our downtown. In the meantime, we charge for bus service. The current “free parking” is a burden on our budget.

    Of course I’m also getting tired of the idea that metered parking is somehow bad for business, when in fact businesses are losing out (I know this personally and anecdotally from others) because of the current “free-for-all” at the street parking level. I go through great pains to purchase locally whenever I possibly can. But the street parking situation makes my downtown visits miserable in a car, and less comfortable and enjoyable when on a bike or on foot. I *really* don’t enjoy my downtown visits.

    And then there’s “we don’t want to change the character of this town.” What does this even mean? We should tear up the pavement and get rid of the automobiles? Because man, the character of this town has never been changed more than with the addition of paved roads, paved parking lots, and motor vehicles. I guess wherever we are at any point in time is where we should remain without changing… because now we are enjoying the previous character changes (that were doubtlessly fought against at every turn)? Don’t even get me started on the concept that circling to look for parking is just one of the wonderful things about our quaint little town that we should preserve.

    1. Bill Marshall

      I agree with your opening question… looks like a possibility is that a stake-holder is someone who brought a piece of wood from Hibbert, a hammer from Davis ACE, and is considering using those, against those decisions that they fear will suck the blood out of DT Davis…

      Something about a tempest in teapot… paid parking is not “social justice” for those who would have all only use bicycles or walk (one suggested that means getting rid of pavement, ostensibly so pedestrians, bicycles and cars can wallow in the mire equally? ), nor is it a death knell for DT business, unless they ere/are so marginal, it might be a ‘mercy killing’.

      Again, I say unto you, I neither advocate, nor oppose paid parking.

      Seems like silliness is in the air… cloaked in other terms…

    2. Don Shor

      My use of the term stakeholder was in the most common sense, as in one who has an investment (stake) in the situation. That means the property and business owners who have invested in their properties and businesses, who pay special assessments for the parking areas in town, who pay a special tax due to their presence in the tax assessment district that constitutes the downtown and for which they belong to Davis Downtown (formerly DDBA). Their stake is in their investment.
      Obviously everyone has some kind of ‘stake’ in the downtown, particularly the residents, the taxpayers, the customers, those who pay for car parking, as well as those who travel by other modes than vehicles. ‘Stakeholder’ can be used very broadly to include everyone. But my intent was to describe those who have a direct financial interest in the outcome of this debate.

      1. Alan Miller

        ‘Stakeholders’ could also be defined as those who are holding a wooden ‘stake’ that they hope to drive through the heart of the vampire parking proposal.

      2. Mark West

        “But my intent was to describe those who have a direct financial interest in the outcome of this debate.”

        Otherwise known as the direct beneficiaries of the public subsidy known as ‘free parking.’

        Everyone who pays taxes in town is a stakeholder as they are the ones paying for the subsidy. Everyone who owns property or runs a business in the downtown is both a stakeholder and a direct beneficiary. For some of those downtown stakeholders, the benefit received from the subsidy is far greater than the taxes they have paid as a stakeholder. That fact should be taken into account when considering how to evaluate who the CC should be ‘listening to’ on this topic.

  5. Todd Edelman

    It certainly feels like the majority of the public is against paid parking 

    Has there been a credible survey in town which also gauges knowledge?

    Also, parking is already “paid” (!), much of it by people who rarely or never use it, and with under-management resulting in the bad results that we see, feel and breathe every day.

    1. Bill Marshall

      The silliness continues… there has no paid parking on-street, in Davis like, forever… and now it is a crisis, and affront to ‘justice’ (economic, social or philosophically)?  What changed?

      And if paid parking is implemented, there will still be the economic, social philosophic injustice over widths of streets, structural section, etc.

      Rant on, folk, you have little real clue.


  6. David Greenwald

    From Michael Harrington…
    Spring is here …. I smell a referendum in the air!
    You know, from the article Don Shor kindly linked to, I think most of that paid parking is going to result in most of those spaces going to blue placard drivers.   Many are legit, but many are scammers.   Why help scammers?   What’s the CC going to do with strong enforcement?    Ask for parking enforcement volunteers, to monitor who scampers out of their car and runs blocks to buy bags of dirt?   How is the City going to look behind those placards as to are those people really handicapped?   You know for sure there will be no strong enforcement:   the police department is already understaffed for downtown services.
    No to scammers!  No to paid parking!

    1. Richard McCann

      To Michael Harrington:

      Really? The opposition is because a few people are going to scam the system with illegimate handicap placards? People are really going to go to all that trouble to avoid paying a dollar?

      There is way too much pure speculation and hyperbole in these discussions. I have yet to see anyone come forward with actual EVIDENCE who opposes the paid parking proposal. Where are the studies that show that business decreased some where else, or that the number of illegal placards increased dramatically, or any of the other ills that are listed. On the other hand, the proponents have laid out many studies showing the advantages.

      The only question I see in play is that of the potential net revenues from the program. If it’s too costly, then we need to rethink it, but from what I’ve seen it can be configured to be net positive.

      1. Bill Marshall

        but from what I’ve seen it can be configured to be net positive.

        It needs to cover all costs to implement… and sustainably maintain… but should not be viewed as a “cash cow”… revenue/cost neutral or slight net positive revenue compared to all costs

        1. Richard McCann

          In my comment posted on the Sunday article, I pointed out that the net cost of this option should be compared to that of the other options on the table. (And I presume “do nothing” is not one of the options.) Against a parking garage, this is clearly much more cost effective. What about the other choices?

      2. Robert Canning

        I totally agree. And anyway, who cares about disabled placards, the DDBA parking survey results suggest that a fair number of time-limited spots are taken up by employees who do not bother to move their cars.  Question No. 26 – 54% of 56 respondents report that their employees do not move their vehicles when parked in time-limited spaces during working hours. See the results at

  7. Jim Hoch

    This is the type of situation where incrementalism pays dividends. There is no point in passing legislation that is widely opposed.

    They should proposed a phased rollout.


  8. Ron Glick

    An interesting paragraph from a piece by Joe Stiglitz today at Project Syndicate strikes right at the heart of the economic rational for paid parking in Davis:

    “Over the past half-century, Chicago School economists, acting on the assumption that markets are generally competitive, narrowed the focus of competition policy solely to economic efficiency, rather than broader concerns about power and inequality. The irony is that this assumption became dominant in policymaking circles just when economists were beginning to reveal its flaws. The development of game theory and new models of imperfect and asymmetric information laid bare the profound limitations of the competition model.”

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