The Sacramento Bee ran an article this week on Roseville, Citrus Heights and Davis switching to district elections. In it they have a discussion of Davis’ recent vote and the fact that some believe “their town does not have the same degree of racial and economic segregation as other cities hit with voting rights lawsuits.”
While I do not necessarily agree with that view, here I focus on an important point that Mayor Brett Lee makes, stating that he “is concerned that moving to district-based elections may exacerbate existing NIMBY, or ‘not in my backyard,’” tendencies in the city.
“If I’m focused on my little segment of an already small town … I will feel pressure from my constituents to not accept a homeless services office or housing,” Mayor Lee said.
We see a little of that with the pushback against Pacifico. But like much of this stuff, the relationship here figures to be complex. On the one hand, contested projects will have a councilmember there to represent the views of the constituents living in that area. On the other, there will be four other councilmembers to weigh the pros and cons more objectively.
A key point here is that many of these projects have been passed on 5-0 or 4-1 votes. Having a councilmember there advocating for the neighbors might not be the worst thing, as it will raise critical issues that the neighbors have early in the process, it will compel more compromise – and having a single councilmember is not going to be sufficient to kill a project.
I have pulled out for consideration five of the more contentious projects in the last decade – each with serious near-neighbor complaints.
Wildhorse Ranch was a problem from the start, as the developer originally put forward a project that the neighbors vehemently rejected. They eventually came to council with a re-worked project, but the neighbors still objected.
It managed to get through the council on 3-2 vote but the voters, in the middle of the Great Recession, were not interested in a housing project and rejected it by a 3 to 1 margin.
In a way, the council acted as though there were district elections because Stephen Souza, himself a resident of Wildhorse, joined with the strongest opponent of growth, Sue Greenwald, to oppose the project.
The Paso Fino project nestled near a greenbelt and along Covell Blvd. also drew near-neighbor concerns. There were objections to density, but also to an idea of swapping a portion of a greenbelt for another portion. After several iterations, the project was approved in a scaled down version that avoided greenbelt entanglements.
More recently we have seen local opposition to Hyatt House, Trackside and Sterling.
Hyatt House in a way is a model for how contentious proposals could be resolved. But there is another dynamic at work here. The councilmember who lived in the neighborhood – Rochelle Swanson – was actually within the 500 foot radius and thus recused from voting.
It was then Will Arnold who insisted on one more effort at conflict resolution that brought the neighbors and developers into a compromise.
This experience raises two important points. One is that in a small town like Davis, it will often be that a district representative will be conflicted off discussion for a given project. That may not be a problem right now with four other at-large councilmembers, but could pose a huge problem in a district alignment.
The second point is that looking at ways to bridge the gap between the neighbors and developers could be the function of the district representative, especially if the rest of the council is supportive of the project.
Often there are two levels to these discussions – one is support-opposition but the other is, given that the project will be approved, how do you mitigate near-neighbor concerns?
The Sterling case illustrates how having a district representative might be advantageous to the process. Ultimately in Sterling there was conflict resolution, with some of the folks from Rancho Yolo meeting to find compromises. This again is a role that could be facilitated by the district rep, assuming they are not conflicted out.
Finally, the biggest case that might scream for the benefit of having district representation might have been Trackside. The neighbors were bitterly opposed to the project, the process was bad, and the council ended up supporting it anyway.
Would having someone who was elected to represent folks in the core have been an advantage? Maybe. It would not have been enough to block it, but perhaps it could have gotten one more round of compromise before going forward. Hard to know.
The dynamics of these projects might have been different had there been one councilmember who was an advocate for a given neighborhood.
The impact, though, is really going to depend on how that councilmember operates. If they are someone looking to obstruct, first of all, in most cases they would be outnumbered – but second, they would produce a more hostile atmosphere.
On the other hand, a collaborator who represented the interests of the neighbors and the district might have taken a different approach. Instead of looking to “kill” the project, they might have looked at impact mitigation and conflict resolution, in which case a district representative could actually be a benefit to both the neighborhood and the city.
One issue that the city needs to resolve now is how to handle conflicts. As pointed out, under at-large systems, it doesn’t really matter that much if one councilmember is conflicted out.
But with district representation, if the councilmember representing the neighborhood is conflicted out, that’s a problem and one that the city needs to figure out before it becomes a problem from a legal and political standpoint.
—David M. Greenwald reporting