My View: Changing the Culture of the Council, Our Town

Mayor Brett Lee with Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida at a recent council meeting

I made the comment to a former elected official that I really don’t understand why people in this town can’t agree to disagree without getting nasty about it.  I was referring to comments made on the Vanguard (not about me this time) about a former elected official.  But really, it could have been about anyone.

Their response to me: “It’s really an amazing spectacle to watch sometimes.”

Former Councilmembers Robb Davis and Rochelle Swanson had plenty of reasons not to seek reelection last year, but looming in their minds rather prominently was what they both separately described as the toxic atmosphere in this community.

In the last several weeks I have made a critical point about this current council – on the big issues, I have disagreed with them this year.  I disagreed on paid parking – as I don’t think their proposal went nearly far enough to address the parking and traffic concerns.  I disagreed on Mace Boulevard – I would not have gone back to four lanes and believe most of the problems on the corridor are related to the Waze app and impacts from I-80.

I disagreed on Pacifico – I would have worked more to make the current situation work without changing the target population.  And, while the issue goes back to the last council, I disagreed on Trackside – I think they should have waited to finish the downtown plan.

Speaking of the downtown plan, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that I won’t agree with them on that issue either.

Still, I don’t think this is a bad council.  I have seen bad councils.  I have seen toxic councils.  When I first started this in 2006, it was because I watched a bad council at work.

From 2004 to 2010, we had a very bad situation on council.  In my view, there were four members of council from 2004 to 2006, and then down to three from 2006 to 2010 when Lamar Heystek replaced Ted Puntillo – the three completely seemed to disregard public sentiment.  When they had their three votes, they rammed them through, they rammed them through over the objections of neighbors, the community and their colleagues.

Individually, that council had a number of good people – they did good things outside of council and even after council – but together on council they were toxic.

The council from 2006 to 2010 really embodied a strict and almost unyielding 3-2 split that ran through council to the community as a whole.  At times it was ugly.

When I started the Vanguard, three incidents really stand out.  First, the 4-1 vote for Covell Village where the voters turned it down by a 60-40 margin despite very overt and active work by some of the members of council.  The vote to approve Target that almost turned into a riot until the council put the matter on the ballot.  And, finally, the 4-1 vote at nearly 3 am to disband the Human Relations Commission – which finally precipitated my starting the Vanguard in July 2006.

The battles between Ruth Asmundson and Sue Greenwald became something of legend.  That culminated in the day that the two bickered on the dais until Ruth Asmundson fell ill.

The turning point, though, came moments later, out in the hallway, me with my then one-month old daughter in hand.  Sue Greenwald continued to try to make her case – even though it was not the appropriate time.  She managed to badger and bait former City Manager Bill Emlen into a near physical altercation that I was forced to, one hand on my baby carrier, break up.

We were probably as a community heading for a new direction anyway – but this cemented it.  Over the next two election cycles the council completely turned over, with Brett Lee and Lucas Frerichs being elected in 2012 to turn out incumbents Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza.

Whether you agree or disagree with the current council, we are night and day from that day in January 2010 when the entire region was tuning into the toxic atmosphere on the Davis City Council.

Last week, following our event, I had a chat with a current member of council.  He pointed out that this current group truly enjoys hanging out with each other.  That was not the case a decade ago.

The strength of this council is that they may not vote the way you or even I would like, but they will listen to the community.  Certainly, people were concerned about the staff proposal for paid parking in the downtown.  They listened to the concerns of business, the Davis Downtown, the Chamber, and they altered the plan.

If anything, they probably were too responsive to public opinion.  I think they did not go nearly far enough with the parking proposal, but they weren’t simply going to ram it through.

On Mace, I think the community that came forward might not have represented all of the stakeholders in South Davis.  I think some folks were intimidated to go against the crowd.  But the council did step forward and attempt to quickly resolve the situation there.

On Pacifico, as people started coming to council in the fall, they had staff give a report, and then acted at the last meeting.

Again, I point out that I don’t agree with their ultimate solutions.  But their approach has been to find consensus, to listen to the community, and find a path forward.

We have a lot of big issues that we are going to have to tackle.  I worry about the future of this community, both in terms of fiscal sustainability and in terms of economic development.  I haven’t seen much advancement on those issues this term and I fear we are going to have to major community fights in the future.

We have tough decisions to make and we have not scratched the surface on those yet.  Going forward, what would be nice would be if we as a community can proceed in a way that we agree to disagree on the issues, while keeping the discourse civil.

—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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32 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    Comparing the current council to one occupied with conflicts between Sue and Ruth is a pretty low bar. Also saying that the CC listened to the community on paid parking is truly putting lipstick on a pig.

    What happened was the CC got hammered by 5-1 opposition and the Mayor caved when it became clear he didn’t have three votes for street meters. Even after public comment the Mayor went on a long winded and exasperating monologue about how the outpouring of opposition wasn’t really representative of public sentiment and that he wasn’t going to be swayed by it and was going to lead us where we needed to go because that was what he was elected to do.

    Listening to him shocked me and others in the audience because of his inability or unwillingness to listen to the community. I can only imagine what the other CC members were thinking as the Mayor was speaking.

    If you think things are better now just wait. The renewal of Measure R is likely going to be as divisive and nasty as anything this place has ever experienced. Hopefully I’m wrong but time will tell.

    1. David Greenwald

      I’ll avoid re-opening the paid parking fight – although I don’t agree.

      On this point: “If you think things are better now just wait. The renewal of Measure R is likely going to be as divisive and nasty as anything this place has ever experienced. Hopefully I’m wrong but time will tell.”

      I definitely foreshadowed some of that. However, I don’t think Measure R is going to be that vehicle. Could be wrong. I see the tax battles and a maybe a project coming forward and definitely the council race depending on who runs as being contentious. On Measure R, given the passage of two measures last year, I’m not convinced there will be organized opposition to it. Nishi and WDAAC were the pressure valves that released a lot of potential fight over its renewal. Again, could be misreading the situation, but based on what I’m hearing, not seeing a real battle coming on that.

  2. Jim Hoch

    “I really don’t understand why people in this town can’t agree to disagree without getting nasty about it.”

    Have you walked over to the English department at UCD and asked the staff there this question?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Interesting comment… including the quote cited not being a question, but rather, a statement.

      But sounds like there is more to the story of the UCD English Dept.

    2. Alan Pryor

      Many people (myself included) feel that your coverage and treatment in your blog of people opposed to your views is rude, denigrating, and condescending and is a contibuting factor to this rancor – especially when they challenge specific development projects you favor and which spend thousands of dollars in ad money in your publication. These people (myself included) believe you not only constantly attack the viewpoints of these people opposed to these projects but also engage in personal attacks and challenge their intrgrity in print – and allow your advertisers to also do so

      Case in point: The CivEnergy Forum on WDAAC in which Jason Taormino repeatedly made personal accussations againt myself and Rik Keller and attempted to repeatedly mock us. Was it just me seeing things that way? I don’t think so because in the immediate aftermath 5 different people (including one member of your Board and 2 Council candidates) approached me and stated that they thought we handled the accusations and personal attacks professionally and admirably.

      Yet your coverage of the event the next day completely vindicated the personal attacks and antagonism they showed throughout the event justifying it as just routine election politics and that you had seen worse (and which coverage was bordered by their constantly running campaign ads). It reminded me of Fox News saying it was just locker room talk when Trump talked about gropping women and grabbing them anytime he wants.

      The Taormino’s personal attacks were nothing new, however. They just continued the confrontational thread you started in the Vanguard months earlier with David Taomino support’s which ran through the entire campaign (and which attacks were bordered by their constantly running campaign ads). And now you act shocked and hurt like some innocent puppy when some of the people you have maligned and attacked repeatedly question the integrity if the Vanguard in various ways.

      I really don’t understand why people in this town can’t agree to disagree without getting nasty about it.

      Try looking in the mirror.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Huh?  What staff?  Why in a ‘reply’ to my comment?

          Reminds me of Strange de Jim (one of Herb Caen’s famous sources)… [“de” is frequently translated “of”… en francais…

          Is your comment about a UCD English Dept faculty member?  I’ve never been a member of UCD faculty… never will be…

          I’m trying to connect dots, if there are any…

      1. David Greenwald

        Hi Alan – I don’t understand your case in point.  I called out the conduct in my commentary:

        https://www.davisvanguard.org/2018/10/view-measure-r-battles-get-devolved-campaigns/

        I called out Jason Taormino for instance for the ”Trump” comment,

        Jason Taormino then responded: “I love Rik’s statistics, I’ve got some of my own that I’ve made up.  I think if you take his 800 square foot house, on his more than 8000 square foot lot, and you invert and multiply it by the co-efficient of the water content of bologna – you’ll find out one thing, they just don’t want to take care of Davis seniors.”

        I also called him on saying his opponents saw ”no good in this world.”

        So I don’t really understand the point of your comment…

         

        1. Rik Keller

          Greenwald stated “I called out Jason Taormino…So I don’t really understand the point of your comment…”

          Go ahead and point to where in that article you linked to that you “called Taormino out”. You quoted him but did nothing to call him out.

          In fact you did the contrary. You stated that the “big picture” was actually that the “No” side  “poisoned the well” before the event began,

          You later said “Jason Taormino also lost focus during one of the audience questions.”

          There is nothing resembling a condemnation of the uncivil discourse from the Yes that many observers including Vanguard Board members, as Alan Pryor documented in his comment, pointed to. Indeed, you merely pulled the “both sides” card: “but too often this conservation devolved into attacks.  Attacks on the project by the opposition, and attacks on the opponents by the proponents.”

           

           

           

           

  3. Eric Gelber

    Going forward, what would be nice would be if we as a community can proceed in a way that we agree to disagree on the issues, while keeping the discourse civil.

    I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on this point. Agreeing to disagree means acknowledging that there’s no middle ground to be had and that continuing to discuss an issue would be unproductive. That’s fine for discussions of politics, religion, etc., but not for situations in which the goal is to reach consensus on solutions to practical problems. The latter is not quite so simple.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Eric… do not disagree in the main, but as to “middle ground”… to discuss, attempt to educate, be open to being educated, persuade, and being open to persuasion are good goals… often leading to “common ground”…

      middle ground” as a goal, in my view, only encourages folk to take extreme initial positions… hoping to compromise (in a perjorative sense)[compromised position/situation] to get what they really want/need/believe.

      Feel free to agree to disagree with the nuance I’m attempting to make. No need for common ground/middle ground

        1. Alan Miller

          We appear to agree…

          Too bad it’s not agreement on a situation in which the goal is to reach consensus on a solution to a practical problem.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Alan…

          “one small step…”

          Hard to ‘solve’ a problem until there is some common agreement as to the nature/definition of the problem…

  4. Alan Miller

    Whether you agree or disagree with the current council, we are night and day from that day in January 2010 when the entire region was tuning into the toxic atmosphere on the Davis City Council.

    Toxic, but always entertaining.

  5. Alan Miller

    I really don’t understand why people in this town can’t agree to disagree without getting nasty about it.

    I was referring to comments made on the Vanguard .  .  .

    And there’s the rub.  Perhaps your view of Davis is a bit “Vanguard-centric”.

  6. Alan Miller

    the toxic atmosphere in this community.

    Perhaps the Vanguard intentionally or unintentionally enables comment toxicity in order to criticize Davis toxicity.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Reminds me of someone who lives back east… but it’s via tweets…

      Not just enables, but actually encourages (yeah, a nuance)… like adding gasoline to a fire… sometimes the gasoline drips along the way, and the fire heads back to its source… actually seen that, with real fires, real gasoline… pretty scary…

      Am basically agreeing with you, Alan.

  7. Alan Miller

    this current group truly enjoys hanging out with each other.

    In violation of the Brown Act, no doubt . . .   (kidding, totally kidding!)

  8. Craig Ross

    “He got booed from the audience and someone yelled out “Mr. Mayor: that’s beneath you and your office.””

    That was Mike Harrington.  The same person who spoke with Keller in their little protest a few weeks ago and the same person sitting at the table with Keller at the Vanguard event last week.  He wants transparency from others, but never for himself.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Verrrrry interesting… and very telling…

      And Craig, you don’t even know the half of the truth of your last sentence… and it is true.

      Thank you (seriously), for sharing that.

    2. Sharla Cheney

      The divisiveness and incivility stretches further back. Some will remember Mike goading a fellow female Councilman during a meeting until she finally told him to ____ off. He immediately responded, “You wish.” The mics were on and the whole room heard the exchange.  He should not be the one determining proper behavior for those on the council as he is part of the problem.

      1. Rik Keller

        Sharla: yet Harrington was exactly right to call out Robb Davis in that Measure J forum, and the Mayor subsequently apologized for his uncivil behavior to Colin Walsh and Matt Williams.

  9. Alan Miller

    [S. Greenwald] managed to badger and bait former City Manager Bill Emlen into a near physical altercation that I was forced to, one hand on my baby carrier, break up.

    God knows what would have happened if our be-babied hero had not stepped in with their free arm.  A physical altercation may have ensued that could have altered the future of Davis — maybe for the better.  It’s like the “would you go back and kill baby Hitler” question:  would Davis today have:  a balanced budget?, Nishi I already built?, Trackside Tower (6 stories)?, UC Davis with full on-campus housing for all students?, no potholes in the roads?, Pacifico Luxury Apartments?, Mace Boulevard re-configured with bouncy rubber bollards?, an Amtrak station at Mace Boulevard?, two fully built-out industrial parks?, a statue of Woody Allen in Central Park?, bike lanes in front of the Redwood Barn?, a Homeless Shelter in El Macero?, the Binning Tract annexed by Davis?, fresh Hetch-Hetchy water as our primary source? . . . and, wait for it:  Mayor Rob Roy!

  10. Ron Glick

    Its a low bar comparison like saying the US Senate is so much more functional today compared to when Preston Brookes caned Charles Sumner in the lead up to the civil war.

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