Group Continues to Press for Reform and Transparency in City Decision-Making Process

By David M. Greenwald

Last month a group of citizens, citing a number of “alarming instances of secretive action, shortsighted planning, and disconnect between community and leadership priorities,” called on the city of Davis to improve the city decision-making process by making it more transparent.

On Tuesday, a number of public commenters came forward to push for the city to take up reform efforts to help improve decision making in the city.

Johannes Troost, speaking during public comment, said that “the proposal should be taken up soon.” He was hopeful it could be taken up by October 6.

Scott Steward Ragsdale asked “that the council continue to embrace the policy work that has come out of this working group. This group has been [dedicated] to an objective in capturing key experiences from City of Davis planning, utility, natural resource and other commission volunteers to develop a comprehensive decision-making policy for Davis.”

He reminded the city council of what drove the need to improve the city process, “Davis with a proud legacy has suffered from recent mishaps and misunderstandings such as the BrightNight pending solar lease and the Bretton Woods residential development.”

He said, “Some believe that these projects as conceived are unnecessary and costly.”

Ragsdale added that they are not pointing out problems without noting solutions, and so they are pushing for an improvement to the decision-making process.

“I am encouraged by the positive reception to the decision-making improvement process provided by our council and our city manager Mike Webb,” he said.

Dillan Horton, a candidate for city council, also spoke during public comment.

“I was proud to join many former and current commissioners in bringing this to the city council for consideration,” he said. “The proposal aims to make the city’s process more transparent, improve the involvement of many city commissions and decision making and improving communication between the city and the public on city initiatives.

“Ultimately I hope the city council accepts these proposals, but most importantly I hope that Davis residents stay engaged on this,” he said. “I believe that this proposal is yet another step in an effort to create a more transparent and accountable city government.”

Larry Guenther, also a council candidate, called on the council to hold public hearings on this matter.

“I believe that this proposal would lead to more robust community engagement and therefore would achieve better outcomes for the city and less divisiveness,” he said.

He also requested that the city allow commissions to appoint interim commissioners to avoid long-term vacancies that are leading to lack of quorums.

The proposal, dated July 23, noted, “An unparalleled level of civic engagement and civic pride is one of Davis’s greatest strengths. Over 120 Davis citizens participate on city commissions.”

Because of their role as conduits between the government and residents, “commissioners are sometimes referred to as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the city council. Unfortunately, distance has grown between the city’s eyes and ears and its core executive bodies.”

Their concern is: “Council and staff routinely make major decisions following only cursory consultation with relevant commissions.”

This, they argue, has led to, “in the most egregious cases, such as with the BrightNight lease option agreement, that relevant commissions are not consulted at all.”

They argue, “When commissions do have the opportunity to give input, commission perspectives are often given less weight than staff perspectives. This is evidenced in part by the fact that staff representatives regularly participate in council deliberations on key items, but commission representatives are rarely invited or allowed to participate.”

The group highlights three key concerns. First, that the council provides little information about the nature of closed sessions. Second, there is conflicting guidance from city staff that makes it “functionally impossible for different commissions to collaborate on topics of mutual interest.” And third, “the city provides almost nothing in the way of commissioner onboarding and training.”

The group has laid out a series of proposals to improve transparency in public engagement.

—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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14 Comments

    1. Alan Miller

      I’m guessing this is part of the “throw out the incumbents” movement, which includes the ‘letter erased from the history books’, however large or small that movement may be.  I’m not endorsing or condemning that – I take each on their merit (even if I only have a binary choice this time).  Without the power to vote for 4/5 districts, citizens find other ways to move the meters.  So part of the point, if so, would be to bring it up with the incumbents.

      1. Matt Williams

        You are free to guess Alan, but that particular guess would be wrong.  The last time that David ran an article on this subject, Don Shor “guessed” that “What I see is a cohort of individuals who are seeking to elect a slate to the council to replace those that they perceive as ‘pro-growth’. It’s largely the same group that signed the letter about commissions a few weeks ago.”

        David Greenwald replied to Don “Rare agreement with Ron. This is not a growth-oriented push, it’s a “good government” push.” 

        I agree with David’s assessment, but with the acknowledgement that since I am one of the members of the group, I may not be totally objective about the group and/or its members.

        Incumbents have both advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that they do not have to fight for “name recognition” the way non-incumbents do.  Something that can be a disadvantage … or an advantage … is that incumbents have a track record of votes that are on the record.  Opinions will differ on whether individual votes are “good” or “bad” but one thing that everyone can agree on is that the votes are there for everyone to see.

        I have a few questions for you:

        — Mike Corbett, who is one of the seven members of the group, has been very clear that he believes “New Blood” is needed, so he does fit your “throw out the incumbents” description.

        — I am another of the seven members.  Do I fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        — Scott Ragsdale, who is quoted extensively in David’s article, is another of the seven members.  Does he fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        — Johannes Troost, who is also quoted in David’s article, is another of the seven members.  Does he fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        — Richard McCann is another of the seven members.  Does he fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        — Mike Webb has scheduled a meeting on Monday to discuss the proposal with Kelly Stachowicz, and group members Scott Ragsdale, Richard McCann, and Lorenzo Kristov.  Does Lorenzo fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        — The seventh member of the group is Alan Pryor.  While Alan is a pretty good match for Don Shor’s “replace those that they perceive as ‘pro-growth’ comment, does he fit your “throw out the incumbents” description?

        1. Alan Miller

          You are free to guess Alan, but that particular guess would be wrong.

          Thanks, MW!

          I have a few questions for you

          I have no answers for your questions.  I hope you enjoyed the time you spent writing them.

    2. Bill Marshall

      I agree.  In the meantime, discussion would still be appropriate now, and an opportunity for those seeking the dais to weigh in (would help to inform voters, a good thing)… as to decision/action, it would be best to wait for the newly seated CC…

        1. Bill Marshall

          Thx…

          To go further, I think it is important to get the candidates views NOW… before November… but then, I have to disclose that I have no opportunity to vote on CC this year… [thanks again, M-Rex! NOT!](allusions to T-rex as in ‘tyrannosaurus’ is fully intentional)

      1. Matt Williams

        Tia and Bill, one of the interesting things that happened last night during Item 6, the discussion of Leaf Blowers, was that the Council and City Manager implemented one of the elements of the Proposal.  Specifically, they had the chair of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), Hannah Safford, available to (1) come forward to the “staff table” and provide the Council with background on the NRC’s recommendations on the issue, after which Hannah sat down again in the audience, and (2) come back up to the “staff table” and answer Council member questions, specifically from Will Arnold, during Council’s deliberation/discussion of the alternatives. The same questions were posed to Stan Gryczko, the staff member for the item.  The individual and combined answers from Stan and Hannah proved useful to the Council, and clearly affected Council’s final decision on the item.  That was good collaboration on the part of the Council, the City Manager, staff, and the commission.

        So, bottom-line, at least in this instance, the Council and the City Manager … after discussion … decided not to wait until after the election and seating of a new Council to address the recommendations of the Proposal.

        In addition, Council has placed a discussion of the proposal on the October 6th Council agenda, and the City Manager and staff are busily preparing a staff report for that October 6th item.

  1. Todd Edelman

    On September 10th at the monthly meeting of the BTSSC I put forward a motion to support the NRC’s letter supporting this process that was sent to the Council late in August – it was seconded with a friendly amendment by Ayush Patel to discuss it once there is a staff report on the matter, and then supported by unanimous vote.

    Before making the motion I mentioned how the BTSSC – and other Commissions – were pressured into having special meetings to react in time to the DISC proposal and more specifically how the City Council’s subcommittee on DISC – Carson and Partida – refused to meet with the BTSSC’s subcommittee on DISC.

    There’s perhaps a related mechanism that doesn’t seem to be emphasized so far in the proposal for a new process, which is how bodies external to the City interface with Commissions and their work. Also at the September 1oth meeting their was a regular agenda item – which most of the BTSSC had no idea has coming until the packet was out at the end of previous week – for a redesign of the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and freeway egress points on the south side of Russell as it crosses 113. The design – led by UC Davis – was at a level well beyond the 30% typical for when the BTSSC sees something, the UC Davis rep on hand was seemingly ignorant of City of Davis Street Standards that related to one part of the design, perhaps also because UC Davis is a using a consultant with both multiple Commissioners and Former Mayor Lee have publicly criticized – Mark Thomas. When it came to a vote – my motion again to support it with one significant modification, seconded by Elizabeth Hare – there were only six Commissioners present and it lost on a tie vote.  My feeling is that if we’d had more time with it – based on a concept rather than a final design – we’d have had a much better chance for consensus.

    Finally, the video of the meeting is not yet online. I was told that it was in a queue to be uploaded, and that Staff tries to put everything up within a week. While I appreciate that the COVID-related Zoom videos etc are an additional task, we’re already a few months in and seems that to fully respect the Commission process meeting videos should be uploaded to the City’s website no later than the next day.

    1. Bill Marshall

      48 hours after end of meeting not good enough?

      For most meetings, they end late at night… so you ‘expect’ results within 8 business hours?  Sooner?

      You want fries with that?

      1. Matt Williams

        Bill, I believe you misread Todd’s comment.  The BTSSC meeting he was referring to was on September 10th, so it is not 48 hours after the end of the meeting, but rather more than 144 hours after the end of the meeting.

        With that said, I just checked the City’s meeting video page at https://www.cityofdavis.org/city-hall/commissions-and-committees/bicycling-transportation-and-street-safety-commission/meeting-videos  and the video of the September 10th BTSSC meeting is now there.

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