Commentary: Sometimes Living in a Democracy Means You Don’t Get What You Want

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By David M. Greenwald

The number one lesson in any democracy is that you have to accept it that sometimes you will win and sometimes you will lose. Accepting a loss is actually more important to the democracy than winning..

That’s hard to do, but it’s important. I have made no bones about the fact that I supported the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus (DISC) in all of its iterations. However, I also support the right of the people to vote on projects and control the future of their community through direct democracy.

Some people suggested that this was flawed thinking, arguing that I was acting against my own interests. I don’t see it that way. I don’t think most voters in Davis did either. Just 17 percent of the voters opposed Measure D, the renewal of Measure J. On the other hand, 48 percent of the voters supported Measure B (DISC). Given that there are always some folks who vote against a project but oppose Measure J, it is likely that as few as one third of those who supported Measure B also opposed Measure D.

In a democracy sometimes you win but sometimes you lose.

In the last several years since 2016 we have seen two projects lose by narrow margins and two projects pass by modest to large margins.

A democracy does not mean that you have to like the result.  For example, when Nishi lost in 2016, the developers came back two years later with a new design that sought to address the reasons that they thought the project lost. It worked, and the revamped project passed overwhelmingly in 2018 by a more than 60-40 margin.

There is nothing wrong with attempting to understand why the project lost, looking at things that could be improved for next time, and attempting to education and persuade voters to your point of view. That’s at the heart of democracy.

Where I start having problems is when we start going outside of the electoral system to resolve policy disputes. In Davis, that has meant suing to attempt to stop projects. Suing has rarely worked. But it does delay projects, adds cost, and ultimately negatively impacts people living on the margins or struggling to find housing or affordable housing.

I have been very consistent that, outside of a very egregious error by the city and voters, we should allow the voters to decide and leave it at that.

That’s not to say that I think Measure J is a flawless process. I was on the record expressing disappointment that the council did not entertain discussion on potential changes. Even if it ultimately rejected any changes it would have been a healthy discussion. As it turns out, a huge majority of voters support the continuation of Measure J—as we predicted several times during the election. In fact, the overall margin was wider than in 2010, and somewhat wider than we even predicted (I said consistently at least 70 percent, and as it turns out it was nearly 83 percent).

At the same time, I wonder if a commercial project is the best format for such a vote. With a housing project, baseline features can narrow in—units, size, other requirements from sustainability features, affordable housing to mitigation measures.

That didn’t work as well with a commercial project. The project was able to set out some of the parameters we are used to voting on: size, density, FAR, square footage, even the roll out of housing to commercial. But other details were vague.

Some wanted assurances that the project was going to have suitors, but suitors were difficult to nail down when the process was so uncertain and the timeline extended.

A lot of voters didn’t like the fact that some of the assurances were more aspirational and less specific. In the end, it may not have affected the outcome. Voters seemed primarily concern about traffic impacts, even though the project would only slowly over the course of two decades build out—with plans by CalTrans to expand the freeway, perhaps resolving most of the traffic issues.

As such, the city may want to look at alternatives for handling commercial projects. One such alternative that would not require any changes to Measure J would be a pre-approval process. During the next general plan, the city could simply set aside land for urban development, the land could have baseline features to serve as parameters and, if the voters supported the plans, they could approve it in a vote and then allow a normal planning process to develop the land.

That would give a voters a say on where, how large and how fast to grow, but then allow a more normal planning process work out the specifics.

Are voters willing to do that? Hard to know. But at the end of the day, allowing the voters to control the city’s future growth still seems like the best overall policy. What that looks like is more up in the air.

—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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53 thoughts on “Commentary: Sometimes Living in a Democracy Means You Don’t Get What You Want”

  1. Keith Olsen

    Where I start having problems is when we start going outside of the electoral system to resolve policy disputes. In Davis, that has meant suing to attempt to stop projects.

    Isn’t that also part of democracy?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I noticed you eliminated my full comment on this:

      “Where I start having problems is when we start going outside of the electoral system to resolve policy disputes. In Davis, that has meant suing to attempt to stop projects. Suing has rarely worked. But it does delay projects, adds cost, and ultimately negatively impacts people living on the margins or struggling to find housing or affordable housing.

      “I have been very consistent that, outside of a very egregious error by the city and voters, we should allow the voters to decide and leave it at that.”

      Short-answer is without evidence of egregious errors, most of these suits are an abuse of process.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Keith… one of my favorite songs, as it explains much in my life… pretty much got what “I need”… of course, I’m a privileged white male, “fully insensitive to others” (according to some)… false assumption, but similar to the folk that still believe that Trump won in a ‘landslide victory’…

          My contribution:  your not trying, if you are not voting (assuming eligibility)… and if you are not voting, no whining as to not getting what you want

          Pretty sure the vast majorty of us will be getting what we (and others) NEED… I’ve gotten what I needed for the last 4 years, but not what I wanted … yet, there are many in the last 4 years (and before) who are not getting what they need,but progress was being made until 4 years ago… some stasis, but as to needs, set-baks, and/or threatened set-backs…

        2. Bill Marshall

          OK Keith remove the last clause (whch apparently has just been deleted, by others)… am I still talking about national politics?  Or, local (City, County) or State issues over the last 4 years?

          Or do you fundamentally disagree with,

          My contribution:  you’re not trying, if you are not voting (assuming eligibility)… and if you are not voting, no whining as to not getting what you want(need is a separate issue)
          Pretty sure the vast majorty of us will be getting what we (and others) NEED… I’ve gotten what I needed for the last 4 years, but not what I wanted…

          Arguably, many others are not getting what they need.

          If you fundamentally disagree, we can agree to disagree… no need to prolong…

      1. Eric Gelber

        Keith is right on this one. The courts provide necessary checks and balances on legislative abuses of discretion. All such litigation is motivated by underlying policy disputes. The lawsuits themselves, however, are typically based on procedural issues. The Keystone Pipeline litigation is an example on a much more significant scale.

        Yes, litigation is costly and causes delays. But who’s to decide if an alleged violation is egregious or if a lawsuit has merit if not the courts? Democracy means you don’t always get what you want. Democracy also means you have a means to seek remedies when decision makers fail to comply with the law.

  2. Ron Glick

    So economic development of any significant scale should wait for a new General Plan including a proposal for a project area with baseline features, then an election or two or three, then a proposal, then an EIR, approval by the CC, then the inevitable lawsuit.

    It would likely be shorter to wait until Measure D expires.

    Your solution is laughable. Development will happen all around us, but don’t count on any of it, or the resultant economic benefits, touching Davis.

    Davis made its bed and will lie in it for the next ten years with the CC limited to hissy fits about commission members and budget imbalances. You supported Measure D so suck it up and quit whining about silly workarounds.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      My solution is laughable? Shall we review yours for the past several years? Complain about Measure J incessantly. Do not write an opposition to Measure D. Do no create a campaign against Measure D. Watch and see as 83 percent of the voters support Measure D and then complain that other people’s solutions are laughable. Did I miss anything?

      1. Don Shor

        I think the incoming council needs to re-establish an economic development commission to review sites within the city limits, revisit the idea of peripheral locations, and propose a path forward.

        1. Matt Williams

          I agree with Don … and would add that one of the first focus areas of such an economic development commission should be to take the newly updated Downtown Specific Plan and put together strategies to

          (1) move the updated Plan from aspirational (the Planning Commission’s assessed it as a pretty binder that would sit on a shelf, but not be implemented) to an action plan for (A) getting the first redevelopment project in the works and (B) begin identifying potential office space tenants for the second floor flex space and the first floor commercial space

          (2) study the tenant mix of the Interland and Research Park complexes in South Davis with an eye toward a possible migration of current office space tenants into the newly created Downtown office and flex spaces

          (3) seriously consider the future of the 5th Street corridor from L Street to Pole Line.

          (4) evaluate the potential of A Street from 1st Street to 5th Street

        2. Alan Miller

          I think the incoming council needs to re-establish an economic development commission to review sites within the city limits, revisit the idea of peripheral locations, and propose a path forward.

          Or we could build a carousel and go round and round listening to that infernal music and the mechanical horses go up and down, up and down.

          In other words, we’ve been on that ride, and we know where it goes . . .

          1. Don Shor

            I don’t think there’s ever been an economic development commission. The ‘innovation park task force’ finished up in 2014. Innovation parks have been rejected so far by the voters, so I’d say a new approach will likely be needed.

        3. Bill Marshall

          And, we need a Commission to study the efficacy/value of the myriad of commissions we have… might as well start looking at ‘Town Meetings”, and dispose of commissions (that are not mandated by Law), and the staff hours/resources that support them… could save tons of money…

  3. Don Shor

    During the next general plan, the city could simply set aside land for urban development, the land could have baseline features to serve as parameters and, if the voters supported the plans, they could approve it in a vote and then allow a normal planning process to develop the land.

    They don’t have to wait for a General Plan update to do this. Just identify the sites to LAFCO as being in the city’s Sphere of Influence (they probably already are), and go for it. Assuming the property owners are interested. I consider it very unlikely to pass, but if it was presented as applying to commercial property proposals only, and the residential component was removed from DISC, it might fly.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Funny though… of the vocal opponents of Measure B, many of them said here was too much residential in DISC… many, not enough, and/or of a specific ‘type’… there were several who made both those arguments… ‘covering their bets’, to see what had most traction with the voters… smart… not useful for policy, thoughtful discussions, but smart politics… if you want to nix any development on the site… pretty much that would apply to anything that involved “growth”… anywhere…

  4. Ron Glick

    “My solution is laughable? Shall we review yours for the past several years?…Did I miss anything?”

    Yeah a few things.

    First there is a deadly pandemic going on yet you want to criticize me for keeping myself safe instead of trying to organize a campaign.

    Additionally I actually tried by asking the Council to put renewal on the ballot for two years so that a no campaign could be run. My request was ignored so I gave up on my long time desire to mount a campaign against renewal.

    Also since the election I haven’t been bitching about the renewal and have limited my criticism to those who now seem to regret the outcome they supported like yourself and the City Council.

    1. Bill Marshall

      85% agreement with Ron G, but was not as ‘active’ as he… I definitely would have jumped on the bandwagon to question a 99% renewal… could have strongly supported modifications… also would not have opposed repeal… Wildhorse (main) was a referendum petition to overturn CC… they easily got the signatures they needed for a vote, failed miserably in the vote…

      So here’s where we are… folk can oppose any development at the commission levels (and Don S and Matt W seem to suggest we need another), particularly Planning Commission, can oppose CC approval, force yet another automatic ‘bite of the apple’, then bring suit (and in at least one case, appeal the (negative) decision of the Court to a higher level of the Court system.  The altter being done a bunch, (State and local, as I’d been admonished, we cannot talk Fed!) when folk don’t like how the vote turned out…

       

  5. Richard McCann

    First, we are generally a representative democracy, not a direct one. The mostly poor law that comes out of our state’s initiative process illustrates how direct democracy doesn’t work very well. Making it impossible to amend these decisions through legislation compounds this problem. The decisions to be made are too complex for the entire citizenry to have enough time and resources to digest all of the important, relevant information. That’s why we have divisions of labor in our society–no one is expected to build their own car. We instead assign that task to our elected officials. Perhaps they need more accountability, but solving that takes us down a different path than voting individually on everything.

    Second, there is an intermediate solution to Measure J/R/D elections which does NOT involve designating parcels that owners may not be interested in developing. We can specify the required baseline conditions and development agreement parameters, have all of the commissions approve them along with the Council, and then have the electorate vote on those. Then projects coming forward can bypass the election vote and rely on a Council vote instead (perhaps requiring approval by all relevant commissions as another check) so long as the development meets those parameters.

    1. Matt Williams

      Second, there is an intermediate solution to Measure J/R/D elections which does NOT involve designating parcels that owners may not be interested in developing. We can specify the required baseline conditions and development agreement parameters, have all of the commissions approve them along with the Council, and then have the electorate vote on those.

      .
      Isn’t that a lot like “form-based code” for commercial development?  It is an idea worth considering.  Add it as item (5) to my list for Don’s suggested economic development commission above.

    2. Eric Gelber

      I’m in full agreement with Richard’s first point. On the second, however, I’m not sure how one crafts a development “agreement” without involving the actual developer. The effect would be that all parameters would be non-negotiable baseline features.

  6. Ron Oertel

    No cities that I’m aware of along the coast are expanding outward, anymore.  And they are surviving (some might say “thriving”), though some businesses are expanding beyond it (partly due to the newly-created opportunities for telework).

    If continued survival of cities is dependent upon ever-expanding boundaries, we’re all in a lot of trouble – in more ways than one. But again, this does not appear to be the case, as noted along the coast.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        I too am baffled by the comment. We have seen Woodland and Vacaville propose similar innovation centers to DISC in the present, so I’m not sure the relevance of Ron O’s point.

      2. Ron Oertel

        We have seen Woodland and Vacaville propose similar innovation centers to DISC in the present,

        If those are your “models”, I think I see what the basic problem is.

        Has anyone ever conducted a survey to see which cities in California continue to expand their boundaries, and which do not? (And then, compare them in various ways?)

        Of course, Davis has been expanding its boundaries, regardless. That’s’ what Measure D allows, as demonstrated.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          “If those are your “models”, I think I see what the basic problem is.”

          I thought I was offering them as examples, not necessarily models. Ultimately Davis is unique because of Measure J and the need to pass a vote of the voters.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Davis is “unique” only in comparison to other cities in the valley, in that regard.

          It is not so unique when compared to many other places closer to the coast.  Many of those cities don’t expand their boundaries at all, as noted.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            That’s why we allow the voters to make the call on expansion. Davis has had exactly one project expand its borders in the last 25 years – btw.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I would argue WDAAC expanded the boundaries. Nishi filled in a sliver between the town and the freeway.

  7. Alan Miller

    two decades build out—with plans by CalTrans to expand the freeway, perhaps resolving most of the traffic issues.

    As we have seen, expanding the freeway has done such a great job of “resolving most of the traffic issues” to date.  And your Plan B?

      1. Alan Miller

        People love to say that so they look like they are doing something.  The reality is, effective public transportation is expensive and a major logistical challenge, especially a peripheral site.  A token bus does not mean a significant number of people will use public transportation.  Let’s say 5% of the people use the bus; that’s 95% using cars.  Reality, man.  What a concept.

        1. Bill Marshall

          To paraphrase a former President, “what is effective public transportation”?  Effective would mean (to me) that folk could have reasonable expectations on transit time, at less cost to them, and the public at large (subsidies)…

          I get the advantages as to ‘congestion’… I get the ‘carbon thingy’… public transit is currently good for the individual, as to cost… I long ago figured out that taking Amtrak to Denver was either a ‘push’ or cost effective as opposed to driving (if you do a mini-sleeper, and get free meals), as opposed to wear/tear on vehicle (and driver(s)), hotel/motel in SLC, gas, meals, etc. …

          What it gets down to is “subsidies” for public transportation… yet, if I had good public transit, I’d trade more taxes for a subsidy (to a break-even point.. beyond that, it would be ‘charity’, and we spend a lot on that (outside taxes) already… might well come out ahead… and less wear and tear on me…

          The truth appears to be, economics will drive public transportation… and it is a chicken/egg thingy… I’d roll the dice towards leading with supporting more public transit, but in exchange I’d expect better service, and I’d leave my car @ home, except to go out into the ‘country’, where public transortstion travels not…

          Again, am willing to roll the dice, financially support public transportation, “on the come”… but would expect those risks to ‘bear fruit’…

  8. Ron Oertel

    “. . . when folk don’t like how the vote turned out . . .”

    . . . they sometimes attempt to change the rules, instead.

    Every 10 years or so, in this case.

    1. Bill Marshall

      . . . they sometimes attempt to change the rules, instead.

      Or, every 2 years, 1 year, 1 -2 months… locally, of course, as we are not discusssing national politics… as poll worker saw a dude who wanted to change the rues in 10 minutes… flying a ‘&&&&&’ flag from his big truck, wearing a red “2nd Amendment T-shirt”, refused to mask, demanded quick treatment, not willing to follow rules about doubling distance if you were un-masked, and then when we processed him anyhow, he insisted on filing a formal complaint.  Nah, he wasn’t trying to ‘change the rules’ (much), but he was certainly “trying” to thosewho were just trying to vote… he was loud about it… we had coplaints, but we treated them as de minimus…

    1. Bill Marshall

      That well could be, John… famous saying, “be careful what you ask for… you might just get it”…

      Applies not just to Davis… thinking that it has somewhat universal application(s)…

      Sac City/Sac County are not so different…

      Historically, Germany in the ’30’s wanted “order”, ‘containment’ of certain people who were not ‘unified with’/same as them… we know how that turned out…

  9. Ron Oertel

    Just happened across this article:

    The state growth rate in the year leading up to July 2020 was just 0.23%, the lowest number in modern recorded history, dating back to 1900. It is the third year in a row that the state has recorded a record low population rate increase, according to the state Department of Finance demographics unit. The 2019 July rate was 0.35%. The previous year was 0.57%.

    Sacramento-area Realtor Erin Stumpf, nevertheless, says most of her buyers are people coming to Sacramento from the Bay Area for the affordability, and bringing their Bay Area jobs with them. Many of her sellers are people leaving Sacramento for other states.”

     “Much of California’s revenue policy, especially at the local level, is built around an assumption of growth.”

    The last sentence cannot be more clear, regarding the actual reason regarding the perceived problem (and the reason that these proposals even get this far).

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/no-longer-a-boom-state-new-data-shows-residents-fleeing-california-in-near-record-numbers/ar-BB1bZ9xJ?ocid=msedgdhp

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