Commentary: The Opportunity Presents Itself for a New Revolution in Local Government

In 1996, the internet was brand new and a friend of my aunt hired me to fly across the country after graduation and work for a cutting edge company that would revolutionize democracy by digitizing engagement.  It turns out the man was ahead of his time and the experience went a bit sour, but I learned a lot and it changed the way I saw the interface between technology and engagement and democracy.

In a lot of ways, we have come far over the last 25 years—everyone has email.  There are faster ways to communicate.  We have social media, video transmissions, and much more.  But, while we can watch local government from our homes, our offices, even our phones in ways that we could not have imagined in 1996, in a lot of ways we are locked in the same thinking we had in 1968.

We have basically built the entire governance system as though we have simply shrunk and mobilized our TV sets.  Sure, you can email the city council—but you cannot engage with them other than by coming down to city hall, utilizing your two or three minutes to say your piece and sit down.

Local government is a passive experience.  We have video, we have text messages, we have instant messaging and much much more, and yet our experience with a very few exceptions is not much different from the days when I was a college student and I sat in a school board meeting waiting for my three minutes to engage.

In a lot of ways, the local government experience mirrors the rest of society, whether it be school, companies or the like.  Yes, we have new technology.  Yes, we have used that new technology.  But with few exceptions we have really not revolutionized the use of that new technology.

Ironically, as we are forced to distance ourselves, we may finally be forced—unwilling as we are—to tear down the confines that bind us to past practices.

There I was last night, in a Zoom meeting with a group of interns I may never meet in person, communicating across the state about our next wave of coverage on the courts.  Here we have people participating from Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and I realized how limiting our concepts of location are to what we could do.

The city is no different.  Two weeks ago, I listened as public commenters came up during the public comment period and told the council what they couldn’t do.  We are preoccupied.  People are worried about their future.  The council should only take the time to do what is absolutely necessarily.

Then the meeting got Zoom bombed by people likely not part of our community, who probably don’t even know where or what Davis is, and their mission was to disrupt.

The response was shock, horror, and people throwing up their hands—see, we can’t do this.  Just take up emergency tasks and wait until the crisis clears to conduct the everyday business of the city.

But why?

All across the country, media woke up to the reality of Zoom bombing.  The New York Times was a precursor to this, but, since then, every major publication has had a similar story—including a number of remedies for the problem.

That’s right—the problem that we experienced is not because our council was foolish or that the city was irresponsible, it is the downside to trying new technologies under difficult circumstances.

But guess what—there really was no damage done other than to our sensibilities and perhaps our egos.

We get a second take.  Heck we get a third and fourth take if we want them as well.  We can keep going until we can get this right.

What I realized watching this meeting was not the disruption or the vulgarity, but the potential.

The lesson of optimism I learned as a youth was not looking at a glass partially filled and saying that glass was half-full and many decry it as half-empty.  But rather looking at the glass that is filled only a small amount and seeing it for the potential to fill it the rest of the way.

Or to put it into political terms, the great quote from Robert F. Kennedy, that “every major publication has had a similar story – including a number of remedies for the problem.”

We therefore have this chance to take a system of government that is good, but stuck in its ways, and make it better.

We are always talking about the need to get more people engaged in local government.  We always bemoan the fact that most people are busy in their daily lives and have little time to pay attention to things that will impact those lives until it is too late.

We now have an opportunity to change that.  We have the technology and, for the first time, many people have the time.

We have real challenges in our community and our world, but we have a real opportunity to change the way we do things for the better.

Should our council meetings be a passive experience where we sit, we watch, and we get up and we use our two to three minutes to say our piece and sit down?  Or can it be more?

The first step is allowing people from the comfort of their homes to participate.  The council has attempted to solve the Zoom-bombing problem by locking down Zoom.  But there are so many other ways to protect us from mischief while still democratizing the participation experience.

We have issues that this community still needs to address and we have a public that has the time to really engage in those issues.  Maybe over the next few months we can have our council, along with city staff, find innovative ways to create new opportunities for participation—right from our homes.

This is a tragic time—many of us will lose our friends, our family, and our loved ones.  But it is also a time when circumstances force us to find new and better ways to do things, and we can meet these new challenges and open up new opportunities.

—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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46 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    There is no reason that council and commission meetings cannot go forward. If anything, this use of remote meeting technologies will lead to greater, not less, public participation. If there is a bottleneck in terms of access to facilities for commission meetings, the council can direct staff to find ways to alleviate that. The council may wish to rearrange priorities and revisit the long-term calendar, but there is no reason to defer projects that are in the planning pipeline.

    Any commissioners who find themselves unable or unwilling to participate in meetings at this time can resign and be replaced by others with equal skills who are capable of doing the job.

    In the private sector, we are adapting to the changed circumstances as best we can. Some are better able to do so than others. There is no particular impediment to city government continuing to function.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Very weird and biased comment… David was talking process… you speak of ‘content’… weird.

          Don’t worry tho’… at least a half dozen folk wanting to end ANY discussion on ARC until the ‘second coming’… or at least until the timing of any vote will be 2 years out, covid-19 doesn’t exist (or effective vaccine), or the ‘end of times’… probably the latter.

          Some are throwing their wooden shoes into machinery…

        2. Todd Edelman

          “weird.”

          It’s about content, because it’s about bandwidth.

          I am also curious about how many members of the public participated in the PAC meeting; I asked a similar question about the Open Space & Habitat Commission (OSHC) meeting yesterday, but the meeting had very short notice, which may have had some impact. OSHC also agreed on a minimum two- to four-week delay on their completion of the analysis of ARC.

          So far the BTSSC, on which I serve, has received no comments about the ARC review on the agenda for our meeting this Thursday. Given the significant and long-term community interest in traffic impacts of the proposed project including earlier comment on the scoping process, it seems fair to conclude that citizens currently don’t have the capacity to thoughtfully review hundreds of pages of documentation.

        3. Alan Miller

          WM, would I be right that you are retired?  Speaking as someone working full time and the challenges of setting up working at home in a small house, not to mention many others doing this with children at home going bonkers and being home schooled, not to mention those locked in with roomates they rarely saw, now 24-hrs and may not get along with – causing tension, or those having affairs now stuck with their spouses, whatever!  Yeah, Todd has it right, no bandwidth right now, and things are about to get very ugly.  World emergency people!  I’m not an anti-development Davisite, the point is, ‘they’ happen to be right – this is a time to put all this on PAUSE.

        4. Tia Will

          Todd,

          Would that not depend entirely on an individual’s prioritization of issues?  Some of us see health as a major issue for our community, some are more focused on judicial equity issues, some on economics. It is our realization that issues do not exist in isolation but rather in tandem that will be most beneficial at this time. None should be sacrificed on the altar of “comparative significance”.

        5. Todd Edelman

          Would that not depend entirely on an individual’s prioritization of issues?

          Tia, I was comparing David’s example of the PAC to two Commissions (just this week) looking at ARC… in a kind of…um…  gross, objective weight. The former’s main Agenda item was about the year’s work plan for their Commission; it was not an e.g. 25 year-work plan, also requiring a vote by the citizens, on a significant restructuring of the police.

          1. David Greenwald

            Todd – heard your public comment, would like to better understand why you think the bicycle commission needs more than one meeting to discuss the ARC EIR

        6. Todd Edelman

           would like to better understand why you think the bicycle commission needs more than one meeting to discuss the ARC EIR

          Because:
          * It’s the very first time we’ve seen it (even e.g. OSHC participated in a baseline features discussion last year).
          * We’ve been given one hour, so there’s pressure on those of who tend to have a lot of things to say.
          * For half of the Commission, and 4/7 of the voting members, this will be their first BTSSC meeting.
          * The Chair (elected as Vice-Chair in January and ascending due to resignation of the Chair) has only participated in a few meetings and with very little input (per the minutes).
          * There’s a huge amount of material to go through, and it’s confusing (two main variations of the project, the scoping thing, EIR passed before design…) even for experienced Commissioners.
          * The bandwidth in the community is low or at least quite uncertain. (I appreciate what  Councilmember Frerichs said about this at the Council meeting), based on so far nil comments. Consider that even at tonight’s Council meeting public participation was not very high, with a great share of the comments taking issue with the solar farm or ARC, in addition to those about citations for camping which Chief Pytel said were all based on a misunderstanding: The solar farm was passed non-unanimously at an technologically-irregular meeting in an arguably formally-irregular way; perhaps the UCD students who do great work for the homeless made that apparent mistake because of bandwidth (focus) issues. (Brett mentioned Mace and the flavored-tobacco ban as exempt business-as-usual things, but by the way I bet that Mace congestion will be light at least for a short time after any lifting of the Order due to homeworking, and probably taking what’s more than a symbolic stand against a tobacco product during a respiratory-related epidemic is fine… and both of those things are or were a lot further along than ARC.)

          It’s not the “Bicycle Commission”. I realize that the real name is long and grammatically-fracked, and I tried to start a process to change it a year ago. The full name of the BTSSC was written incorrectly on the screen during the Council hearing on my status in the Commission in January, and the current Staff Report to the BTSSC for ARC also has the incorrect full name!

          1. David Greenwald

            I apologize on the name – I was asking it on my phone and couldn’t remember the exact initials. Appreciate your thorough answer.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Here’s the deal…

      If anything, this use of remote meeting technologies will lead to greater, not less, public participation.

      Noble goal, right?  But then one needs to face the issue the VG has yet to fully address, under, arguably, a more controlled environment… there are no ‘moderators’ in the public sector who can admonish, edit, nor delete ‘participatory’ comment… that is anathema, and against the Constitution (and many laws that support free speech).

      Greater… public participation”… volume/quantity or quality/pertinence?

      ‘Be careful what you ask for’, applies… I see both edges of the sword… I see the benefits, and the risks… I can see better community engagement… I can also see ‘vox populi’ (which can become ‘mob rule’… often ill- or un- informed) where professional staff, elected decision makers have almost no say in the course of the community… we will see…

      Remember ‘Pandora’s box’?… seems I’ll have to rely on the last ‘being’ in the box… “Hope”…

      1. David Greenwald

        I think there are solutions to it – just as most talk radio shows prevent trolls from disrupting.  You simply have screening mechanisms and at the end of the give the mayor the mute button if someone is going off the rails.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Who decides what is trolling, and what is alternate opinions?  Screening has “bias”, does it not? Who is given the right to screen?  Mechanisms? Who chooses those?  What biases: overt, or inherent, implied, whatever, do they have?

          What ‘metrics’ would the mayor use?  It is a “brave new world”, that you appear to promote (without reservations)… might be utopia… might be dystopia.  We’ll see…

      2. Don Shor

        But then one needs to face the issue the VG has yet to fully address, under, arguably, a more controlled environment… there are no ‘moderators’ in the public sector who can admonish, edit, nor delete ‘participatory’ comment…

        That is the job of the mayor or commission chair.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Yes… but the likelihood of ‘success’ is what I question… based on facts in evidence (other ‘media’), and more restrictions on what can be done by a public agency… guess you didn’t grok my point… probably my bad… would think any rational person would not take my comment as a ‘swipe’ as to the VG… but might be wrong on one or two accounts…

    2. Todd Edelman

      Any commissioners who find themselves unable or unwilling to participate in meetings at this time can resign and be replaced by others with equal skills who are capable of doing the job.

      So you’re suggesting we run Commissions under a strict military or corporate doctrine?

      1. Alan Miller

        I think DS is suggesting people suddenly finding themselves too busy to participate in this complete world shakeup should resign, leading to a bias not un-similar to juries – public servants and the retired and those too stupid to get out of jury duty.

      2. Don Shor

        So you’re suggesting we run Commissions under a strict military or corporate doctrine?

        That’s a very interesting interpretation of what I said.
        If one feels unable to perform a job, it’s best to move on and let someone else do it. One can always apply to be on the commission again in the future.

  2. Tia Will

    One point that has not been made explicitly here is that when most people, including myself, advocate for more participation, what we are actually hoping is that there will be more participation from those who see the world as we do, and maybe not so much from those who disagree with us.

    It will be interesting to see if this truly represents a paradigm shift, or just a blip on the screen.

    1. Bill Marshall

      First sentence is truly insightful… thank you… the other side of that is those who want to stop/defer public discussion, as they fear that voices, differing from their views, might prevail… two sides, same coin.

  3. Ron Glick

    “…what we are actually hoping is that there will be more participation from those who see the world as we do…”

    Spot on Tia. If Davis had any interest at all in broadening civic engagement we would annex the parts of UCD not already annexed into the city. But doing so would mightily increase the voting power of students an idea the locals abhor.

    If we were truly interested in civic engagement we would allow non-citizen residents to vote in local elections. The notion that Measure R provides direct democracy is belied by the fact that it does so only for those that can vote but not for many of those who pay the rents.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Measure R provides direct democracy is belied by the fact that it does so only for those that can vote but not for many of those who pay the rents.

      I must be missing something… renters within the City, if they register (same day, even, now) get to vote… ‘renters’ on campus can’t vote on City issues, but that doesn’t bother me much, as the City can’t do anything about their situation.

      If you mean residents who are not ”citizens”… then that is a whole different discussion… yet, they are entitled to speak in public forums (be heard), but just can’t vote.

      I must be missing something…

    2. Tia Will

      Ron,

      I am fine with students being able to have a vote on local city issues.

      I wonder if you would be fine with residents of Davis having an equal say with regard to on-campus issues that affect us? Because at present, just like the on-campus students, we do not have such a voice.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Then Ron G, I respectfully agree to disagree… not there yet as to having convicted felons, undocumented immigrant folk voting… but am open to a discussion of those documented ‘non-citizens’ who are actively working on becoming citizens…

      But, no way would I support having a separate “renters” ballot that could ‘trump’ an election… I chose not to vote in Davis as a “temp”… but I support those who reside in town, otherwise qualified to vote, to do so… actually have acted on that support… I do have concerns about MF renters voting to compel HO’s to pay for things they do not pay for… that is also true… but it is what it is… and I accept that…

      I also accept, tho’ I do not believe in the policy, that Seniors can be exempted from DJUSD levies… at least if not ‘means based’… but, again, it is what it is… have my exemption forms ready to go… why not?  Have not decided to submit them…  we have decided that if we do, the same money will go to DJUSD (if we can call them a ‘charity’… if they can, we’d probably do that), or other charitable purposes (no net difference to DJUSD)… we came to that view, not to “save money”, per se, but to at least be able to deduct the contribution… due to the SALT legislation (won’t be ‘partisan’ as to who did that, altho’ they did so for clearly ‘partisan’ reasons) we “left money on the table”… couldn’t get full credit for our state income tax, property tax, etc. payments on behalf of the common good.  Ticks me off.  Am concerned that charitable contributions will be next on the block, to make up for gov’t losses in the economy… perhaps, to resolve that issue I have, we should eliminate ALL deductions/exemptions, and/or go to a ‘flat tax’ (one version is all, regardless of income, pays the same… whether they be a NFL player, CEO, or ‘burger flipper’)… I don’t want to go there… but SS contributions are actually regressive… capped much lower than professional athletes, CEO’s, top public employees, etc.

      So feel free to disagree with my views.  Your right, your call…

      1. Tia Will

        In keeping with the principle that I always feel free to disagree with anyone’s views, including one’s I have previously posted…

        at least if not ‘means based’… but, again, it is what it is… have my exemption forms ready to go… why not? “

        My answer to your “why not?”, is because contributing to community needs if one has the ability to do so should be a no brainer. Whether our own children have gone through the public schools or not, it does not take much thought to realize that educating ( in the broadest sense possible) as many children as possible benefits everyone in the community. If everyone contributed according to ability, not age, we would not need to accept ever-increasing taxes. But our society does not accept contribution as being as important as personal wealth accumulation.

  4. Bob Schneider

    Public participation on community issues requires communication on many levcls.  First, there is the ability to communicate with friends and neighbors informally generally meeting in small groups.  While meeting places like zoom can help they are not a replacement for face to face.  Groups actively working on an issue need to meet.  This often occurs in kitchens or living room and again zoom is not a replacement.  Various larger interest groups often have public meetings on issues such as League of Woman Voters or the Sierra  Club.  Zoom is again a poor replacement to personal interaction where different viewpoints can be brainstormed and discussed.  And, then there are commissions and the council.  On-line meetings can work but they are no panacea and they exclude a segment of our community.  Personally, while many of us are adapting to a life with coronavirus and facing new fears with friends and family it is difficult to focus on community issues as important as they are.

    I would recommend a 6-month moratorium on non-essential issues.  Let’s deal with our personal essential matters of safety and health with all. of our attention and we can learn about and get used to the issues involved with on-line meetings.

    1. Bill Marshall

      In the first paragraph, I agree… you and I have benefited with face-to-face ‘work’… not just written, audio word, but reading the personal interaction.  Solved many issues.

      I do have a problem with the term “non-essential”… the “eye of the beholder” thingy… it is clear that some believe no development proposal (and arguably no remodel, building permit) should proceed, as those are “non-essential”… others may disagree…

      “Essential” includes having water when you turn on the tap… watching your wastes go ‘bye-bye’… not flooding… getting a quick, effective response when you have a fire, or are facing a crime… might be others…

      Stopping city business for what “some” think are non-essential, is in my opinion, non-sense.

      This, like a kidney stone, will pass… the only question is when… and what we can reasonably do to shorten the duration and reduce ‘pain’… just my opinion… based on experience and knowledge…

    2. Tia Will

      Bob,

      I see merit in the points you have made. And yet, would point out one obvious problem. There is no unanimity regarding what constitutes “non-essential issues”. If you are an individual with either a financial interest or future career interest in a major project, it may seem essential that it not be held up for an unknown amount of time. Some people may see police oversight as “non-essential”. I do not. Likewise one such discrepancy has already been decided. Most on the City Council saw the issue of flavored smoking materials as “not COVID-19 related” and thus worthy of postponing a prohibition of sales as reasonable. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, I saw the two as intimately related and worth of prompt initiation. I lost that round, but am using it only to illustrate the point of differing assessments of “need”.

      1. Alan Miller

        I would argue that cookies, ice cream and frozen yogurt are non-essential and create needless potential nodes of transmission.  Yet our government has deemed them essential while closing parks, beaches, trails and oceans – all open air.  Thanks for promoting weight gain, disease transmission and poor health during this crisis, oh wise and benevolent ones.

      2. David Greenwald

        This is a good Tia. For instance, there are people who believe that we have a bad housing shortage and fiscal crisis, likely to be compounded by the current downturn, for them they may see housing or economic development as essential. Others are going to oppose new housing and economic development, or see them as non-essential. There is no agreement on some of this stuff. That’s why we live in a representative democracy.

  5. Alan Miller

    While making sure everything is functioning and contracts are moving forward is important – development proposals really aren’t that important in an world emergency.  And there is a good chance the economic crash will put this off further than a delay by the City will.  Take a pause, City, until at least we’re a few weeks past the first hump.  More or less participation isn’t the issue – many people are freaked out right now – haven’t y’all noticed?

  6. Alan Miller

    This is a tragic time—many of us will lose our friends, our family, and our loved ones.

    Promoting the active participation in city government during the upcoming mass grieving; never saw that one coming.

  7. Alan Miller

    The Opportunity Presents Itself for a New Revolution in Local Government

    What an amazing thing, to listen to a dozen young people, probably from the same organization, read the exact same script, almost word for word, on back-to-back voicemails.  It’s a revolution.

      1. Alan Miller

        Yeah, that’s what I was saying – young people are wrong.  ‘Alan Miller says young people are wrong and shouldn’t participate in politics’ – hey thanks, DG, for that most accurate interpretation.  With fiends like that, who needs enemas?

    1. Don Shor

      What an amazing thing, to listen to a dozen young people, probably from the same organization, read the exact same script, almost word for word, on back-to-back voicemails. It’s a revolution.

      I watched once as members of the electrical union did that about a project, about twenty of them. It was an interesting diversion from the same few people who always comment about everything that they’re always opposed to.

      1. Richard McCann

        I just wish they had been better informed about the issue and knew the ordinance they were complaining about was not being enforced as it was unconstitutional. However, that raised a different question–if the ordinance isn’t valid, why doesn’t the City Council rescind it?

         

        1. Alan Miller

          I would a imagine because the police would like the power to remove people in situations where the campers were causing problems.  I doubt our city would ever wholesale remove people from all camping areas.  But today if someone chooses to camp in a place where they are directly affecting others, the police are very limited in what they can do, or have to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hurdles to remove those campers.  This isn’t so much about the mass removal of all campers, as the ability to do so.  I am not unsympathetic to people camping, but there are numerous situations/locations at which doing so effects others and/or the environment and doesn’t balance conflicting needs.  That’s where the activism (and it’s evil accomplice – the homeless advocate lawyer, or HAL) has gone too far.

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