By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Six former Davis Mayors wrote a letter condemning the actions of a sitting councilmember: “We are concerned that Davis City Councilman Dan Carson’s involvement in the Measure H campaign and his efforts to pass Measure H set a terrible precedent for Davis and harms our citizen-based democratic processes.”
The mayors expressed concern that “Carson’s conduct in the Measure H campaign… has blurred the line between his role as an elected representative of the people of Davis and his advocacy for a development project.”
A letter from Ron Glick this week pushes back, expressing his “sadness with the level of discourse that our community has sunk to under the ordinance that requires a vote on annexation of land into the city.”
He writes, “The recent attack on a sitting city council member by six former mayors represents a new low.”
He also points out, “While condemning Dan Carson for breaking protocol to respond to public comment the signers were comfortable enough with the Chair of the No on H campaign using public comment to call Carson ‘A bully and a thug’ among other things, that their letter didn’t bother to mention what was said that provoked Carson’s response.”
I’m not going to say this is a happy turn of events, but I do want to caution people before we get into talk of new lows. It is unfortunately because any time we are not talking about the core issues, I think the voters are losing out.
But if we are talking about “new” lows—we really aren’t there yet. The six mayors have a collective institutional memory that extends back 50 years and so it surprises me a little to see a civil action by a sitting councilmember amplified as it has.
They note, “Councilman Carson’s lawsuit did not produce any meaningful changes to the citizen’s ballot arguments.” But how do you determine that before the fact?
I know in my time as an observer, I have seen much lower moments than this—the Gidaro letter, a meeting shut down and halted by a citizen basically refusing to move, council members and citizens getting into shouting wars, and much more.
Perhaps the remote meetings serve an important purpose of at least slightly turning down the heat.
But the main point I want to make here is one of the main points I have been making for a while—the fact that Measure J requires a citizen vote means that a land use issue becomes politics.
That’s really what the lawsuit was about. The opponents of Measure H in their published statement in the election guide, in the view of the proponents of the project, went too far in their criticism. Dan Carson and others believed the opponents took their advocacy too far and misrepresented the project and the facts.
There is a process to address those grievances and it was followed. In the end, as again I think the judge’s actual ruling is far more nuanced than the No side has argued, the judge left most of the argument intact. That’s as it should have been—the law says to err on the side of free speech. I would quibble with the notion that changing one word is insignificant, a single word is sufficient to reverse the meaning of an entire paragraph.
The larger point is that by making land use decisions subject to vote, you turn it into… well… politics.
Opponents have learned how to campaign against land use projects—basically scare the hell out of the voters. This is going to create traffic, pollute the air, destroy your quality of life.
Proponents have pushed back by making pie in the sky promises. This is literally going to save the world, Carson argued.
I don’t always agree with Keith Echols, but I appreciate his mindset on this stuff.
He noted in a comment yesterday, “It’s an incremental improvement and that’s important. You’re never going to get an ideal environmental solution.”
He’s an equal opportunity skeptic, noting, “I laugh when I hear the YES statements,” such as, “Yes on H restores and improves native habitat for endangered species, while permanently preserving farmland in Yolo County.”
He argues, “The real story is an incremental improvement over simply paving over the whole thing and doing nothing for the environment. But it’s kind of hard to sell that. So the message is that environmentally speaking…it won’t be great but then no development would be. Voters need to recognize that they’re sacrificing some of their environment and all the natural benefits that come with it for some much needed tax revenue for the city.”
But, as I would argue, Measure J is a campaign, and you can’t run a campaign with a slogan like “We marginally improve the environment,” or, as Keith Echols put it, “We’re not going to screw up the environment as badly as we could have.”
Instead, we get the Yes side talking about this is the best project ever, it will save the world, save the city’s finances. The No side argues this will pave over farmland, it won’t produce nearly the revenue we need, if any at all, and it will harm the environment by pumping new GHG into the atmosphere.
The voters get to watch this cat fight play out in real time and then have to weigh in on whether they are better off taking a risk on traffic impacts or finding another way to fund city operations—if they understand the fiscal peril faced by the community at all.
I don’t think the council has done a near good enough job of communicating the fiscal problems that the city faces, and there are of course good political reasons for that oversight.
Ron Glick will undoubtedly use his first comment to point out that this is the problem with Measure J and that I support it. And I’ll point out that the problem with democracy in general is that, sometimes, you don’t get what you want.
In the end, we should not be fighting democracy but rather fighting to make a more perfect union. At the local level, the voters have to make a crucial choice, and it’s not a perfect decision—there will be downside risk on both sides of the story. Ultimately the voters who are in the middle and haven’t already made up their minds will have to go with what they see as the lesser of the risks.