By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Unsolicited, several people this week who don’t normally follow the land use side of Davis politics messaged me to in effect to say “what’s up with Dan Carson.” Understand that I am an unabashed supporter of DiSC and I don’t have a particular problem with using the legal process to ferret out whether ballot statements are factual or misleading, but the optics of a sitting councilmember leading the action was never great, and has been compounded by attempting to get fees and also by some other comments.
This week six former mayors admonished the actions of Dan Carson. While some of them are clearly against DiSC, not all of them are or at least were.
I quibble with some of the language, but the message resonates.
They write: “Just the possibility of another developer suing the citizen opponents of a project could scare Davis residents from standing up and speaking out. That’s not the Davis way. Winning a political debate shouldn’t depend on the size of your pocketbook. Instead, make your best case and then let the voters decide.”
They continue: “The problem with Carson’s conduct in the Measure H campaign is that he has blurred the line between his role as an elected representative of the people of Davis and his advocacy for a development project. This conflict of interest was on full display at the April 5 City Council meeting, when he took up a Measure H matter that was not on the agenda and gave a lengthy political speech. Even Mayor Gloria Partida admonished Carson this was improper.”
They add, “As past mayors of the city of Davis, we can assure Davis citizens that Dan Carson is charting new political ground and that it is not good. We would ask that Councilman Carson carefully reconsider what he is doing with respect to Measure H.”
It actually could have been worse—at least one other former mayor told me this week that they were approached to sign the letter against the measure and, while having issues with Carson’s involvement, had issues with the language of the letter and could not sign on.
As I have pointed out in previous columns, Judge Maguire actually took issue with a number of the claims by the No side beside the one that he ordered changed. He rightly erred on the side of free speech. And I would argue the limited changes that the writ asked for are not an infringement on free speech—but the point that Dan Carson, a sitting councilmember, would be leading the way does create a much bigger problem for supporters of the project than many would like to acknowledge.
Yes, Dan Carson does have the right to lead the initiative and the right to speak as a private citizen.
“I am an elected official, I’m allowed to be a political leader as well,” Carson said during the council meeting. “Is there any problem with an elected city council member who voted for a project supporting the project he helped to put on the ballot?”
City Attorney Inder Khalsa pointed out that conflict of interest provisions are limited.
“You do not have a financial conflict with respect to the project and you don’t have any other legal conflict interest,” she said. “Councilmembers do have First Amendment Rights and can be advocates of a ballot measure.”
However, this isn’t just a court of law now—it’s a court of public opinion and, more importantly, it’s a political campaign.
And I’m sorry but those on both sides of the issue who are arguing about overblown rhetoric and legal nuances have forgotten that the fact that we have Measure J in place in this city turns this from a land use discussion to a political campaign. For better or worse.
As bad as the optics are for the initial action, a few things have helped drag this out further. One is the battle for legal fees. It really was a split decision—especially if you parse the considerable nuance of Judge Maguire’s carefully crafted decision, both sides should have let sleeping dogs lie at that point.
That has dragged this process out for another month at least.
The second was Carson’s decision a few weeks ago to respond to public comment.
Carson said following the public comment session in early April, “In light of some of the comments we all heard earlier during public comment, I do feel a need to respond.”
He continued, “We ordinarily don’t focus on politics in this chamber, um, but we live in a troubling world now of alternative facts that are spread and endlessly recycled on social media until folks end up believing things that just plain aren’t true.”
Carson continued for another minute or so, but his colleagues clearly were not comfortable with his responding to public comment on purely political matters.
Mayor Partida jumped in, “I appreciate that you want to defend yourself, I absolutely support you in the campaign for Measure H. If you can maybe keep…”
Carson assured her he was almost done.
Mayor Partida added, “It’s a little unusual I think…”
Following Carson’s comments, Lucas Frerichs, the Vice Mayor, said, “This council performed its role and obligation which is to vet a project and potentially place it on the ballot. And we’ve done that.”
He continued, “There’s an external political campaign occurring which also happens particularly for this Measure, but honestly I’m uncomfortable with… We can’t prohibit what was said in public comment, but I do think this sort of politicalization of this particular issue as it relates to… I think we’re getting far afield from our roles and responsibilities particularly in conducting the people’s business before us this evening.”
He added that people can go out into the political world and lob their accusations, “I think that’s all fine and appropriate, but I do not think it should be a part of the city council meetings as far as the city council side of the equation is concerned.”
I don’t know how deep this actually goes. The letter by the six mayors probably heightened the public awareness of the incident. I saw a Nextdoor complaining about Councilmember Carson, but the comments were kind of split—a lot of usual suspects raising the issue and a lot of people who aren’t as engaged seemingly unaware of it.
In my opinion this is an important issue.
I think Keith Echols said it very well, “To me the NO Camp has to be able to convince me that there is a viable alternative to improving the city’s fiscal situation. “ And, “The YES Camp has to convince me that they’re not going to completely muck up Mace Blvd. “
That cuts to the quick and really has little to do with Dan Carson and whether he made a mistake or not getting involved in the legal action. I think it’s time to have that debate and discussion.
If Measure J is to work as hoped by supporters, we have to have meaningful discussions over the core issues and allow the citizens to weigh between the two competing perspectives.