By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It seems like every time the council votes to put a project on the ballot it’s usually a 5-0 vote (it has been each time since 2009 when it was 3-2) and the community have, more times than not, rejected the project—leading people to discuss the disconnect between the council and community on these issues.
I have a few theories on this.
Let’s go back to November of 2020. There were two city council districts that saw opponents of DISC running for council. DISC ultimately lost 52-48 in 2020. But in both the 2nd and 3rd Districts, the anti-DISC candidates did not fare well.
Colin Walsh, perhaps the more outspoken of the two, received 21.8 percent of the vote and finished third between two candidates, Will Arnold and Dillan Horton, who both supported the project. In District 3 it was a one-on-one situation and Lucas Frerichs bested Larry Guenther 64-36.
You could argue that Frerichs and Arnold were arguably two of the strongest and most popular candidates on the council. While that is a reasonable point, in the case of Walsh it doesn’t explain his third place finish and it reinforces the overall point that the voters are not just voting on where someone stands on housing/development.
I have, as I said, a few theories on this.
First, I think Measure J itself makes it harder for slow growth candidates to win. When Measure J was originally passed, there was a majority of the council that was slow growth. Since Measure J passed, there have been very few slow growth candidates who have run for council and won.
One reason for that is perhaps the voters know that they don’t need to put slow growth candidates on the ballot because they get the last say on at least peripheral developments.
The theory suggests that because the voters now have a fail safe, they are free to pick candidates for other reasons, knowing they can always veto an unpopular project.
Indeed, the first Measure J project, Measure X—Covell Village—was supported 4-1 by the council in 2005. The voters voted it down 60-40. And yet, in 2006 and 2008, when opposed by anti-Measure X candidates, the three councilmembers who supported Measure X all won. Ruth Asmundson finished first in 2006. In 2008, Don Saylor finished first, Stephen Souza second, and Sue Greenwald who opposed Measure X finished a distant third. (The fourth candidate, Ted Puntillo, didn’t seek a second term).
As unpopular as Measure X actually was in 2005, it had no impact on its proponents’ reelection bid it would seem.
But while that makes some sense, there are other projects that have been unpopular and are not peripheral. Look no further than the issue of Trackside.
One big difference between peripheral developments and infill projects is that peripheral ones tend to generate concern across the city, while infill tends to be very localized.
Trackside forms a nice case study here, because the Old East Neighborhood Association strongly opposed the project, the council passed it over their objections, the Neighborhood would take the city to court and initially even prevail.
In 2018, two candidates from that neighborhood would run for council—and they ran on a slow growth platform overall. But Ezra Beeman and Larry Guenther, in a large field of nine candidates, only finished in the middle, well behind the staunchly pro-growth candidates of Gloria Partida and Dan Carson.
But those were citywide votes and perhaps the issue of Trackside would resonate more in a district election, as in 2020 when Frerichs took on Guenther one on one, and again, the slow growth candidate came out behind.
I have another theory here. A couple of years ago there was polling done by the city, and it found that the most important issue for voters was actually the lack of affordable housing. At the same time, we have seen in internal polls conducted by the developers of projects that somewhere between 35 to 40 percent of voters are opposed to any project.
My theory those is that a large percentage of people in town are in favor of housing, at least in the abstract. That means that they believe we have a shortage of housing, are worried about affordability, and are probably even worried to some extent about things like schools and funding for schools (which is why the voters have consistently at a two-thirds level voted to impose parcel taxes on themselves).
So why are they voting against projects fairly consistently? There is a common denominator in the two projects that passed relatively easily and the last three that failed since 2016—traffic. When Nishi threatened to create traffic problems, in 2016, it failed. When traffic was taken off the table it passed.
WDAAC didn’t really threaten to create traffic problems, so it passed in 2018. DISC, in 2020 and 2022, threatened to exacerbate existing traffic problems, so it failed.
The voters therefore in this theory have no objection to housing as such, what they worry about is perhaps things like traffic impacts that will personally harm their quality of life. As we saw in 2020, the closer people lived to DISC, the more likely they were to oppose it.
Obviously there is something more than just that. In 2020, the larger DISC project failed by a narrow margin and, so far, the smaller DiSC project has failed by a wide margin.
Traffic alone therefore isn’t the only factor.
There is a letter published in the Enterprise that makes a point. Jay Feldman writes, “It must be noted that while all five current members of the City Council supported Measure H, the ballot initiative was soundly defeated almost 2-1 by Davis voters.”
He argues, “Clearly, our council members are out of touch with the citizenry, and we would do well to turn them out of office at the earliest opportunity.”
But as I noted above, that’s been the case for some time, and the voters do not appear to be moved.
He then argues, “Worthy of particular mention is Dan Carson, who, in a boldly autocratic move as honorary chair of the Yes on H campaign, had the temerity to sue six Davis residents for exercising their democratic rights and openly opposing Measure H. Carson, of course, was ordered to repay more than $42,000 in court costs to those individuals. For his blatantly antidemocratic action, Dan Carson deserves to be recalled immediately.”
Leaving aside my antipathy to the recall process, Dan Carson is already on the ballot for the fall—even if someone wanted to circulate petitions to recall him, by the time it’s gathered and certified, the recall wouldn’t happen any sooner than the regularly scheduled election.
That said, I do believe that a good portion of the wide margin of defeat was voter disgust for the process and actions of Dan Carson. It will be interesting then to watch and see what happens in the fall elections when two of the most visible proponents of the project face the voters.
On the one hand, Partida represents a district that contains the area of Mace most impacted by the project. On the other hand, Carson has become the face of the DiSC election, even though he represents a district that actually voted for the project in 2020.
If history is any judge, we would expect Partida to fair better than Carson, all things equal (assuming they both face opponents of similar quality). But overall, the voters in Davis have not been inclined to punish councilmembers, even those that support fairly unpopular projects. Where Dan Carson might have himself in trouble is going beyond mere advocacy—and that remains to be seen.