By David M. Greenwald
On Thursday at the Davis Community Chambers, the League of Women Voters held their candidate’s forum, with Michelle Famula serving as the moderator.
Running for District 1 is incumbent Dan Carson, challenged by Kelsey Fortune and Bapu Vaitla. In District 4, incumbent Gloria Partida is being challenged by Adam Morrill.
There were five league questions, here are questions one and two.
Question: Many residents have been surprised to hear of significant city policy proposals. For example, the climate action and adaptation plan and the downtown plan that will affect all residents. How will you regularly communicate and interact with residents of your district as well as all of Davis?
Dan Carson: Our city has a strategy on communications. We did, we did some research to find out what channels do people pay attention to city government through for example the newspaper is a big one, increasingly NextDoor Davis is a larger one, and to try to get a handle on what media will are people paying attention to. So I will pay attention to that as well. I know that letters to the editor and, and op-eds and letters in the Enterprise are often a good place to start, but you have to use social media. You have to use the emails. I’ve tried to be responsive, as responsive as I can be. When someone reaches out to me in my district for help dealing with weeds or a sidewalk that needs to be fixed, I try every chance I get to respond immediately and quickly within that same day. I may not have the answer to their question, but I will let them know I am working on it. I am reaching out to the appropriate parties. I am that chain in the communication between our folks and our state, our city bureaucracy. I can relay their concerns, I can pester them. I can follow up and make sure that they’re, the issues that they have raised are paid attention to. I cannot promise everyone that we will tell them the answer they want, but we will give them an honest answer and we will make sure they know what their city government can do and what it can’t do.
Kelsey Fortune: I think it’s really, really important that we get back to having regular conversations with each other. And that doesn’t just include council, but also staff. We need to be engaging our staff with our non-profit partners, our staff with our public, and, and our council with those within all of those groups as wellYou can regularly find me around the community. You just take a look at my website and there you, you’ll know where to find me and that won’t stop. I want to be available not just virtually, not just by email, not just in public comment. I want to sit down with you and actually hear what you have to say… I think I have really, really great example of, you know, getting people engaged in, in the process so that we don’t have to come to this point where there are these plans that come out and people are surprised by them. I am on the board of Bike Davis and we in the past year have created a relationship, a working relationship with staff where, where we actually can meet with staff and discuss the projects that they’re working on, the things that we’re concerned about, so that there isn’t that gap between the public and the city.
Gloria Partida: Communication is my jam. It’s the thing that I love the most about being on council. We get an overwhelming number of emails, not all of them positive, but I can say that I honestly enjoy answering those emails, understanding what the problems are. I’m often that person that people will approach usually like on public transportation for some reason and just have conversations with me. And I use that skill when we were working on the Healthy Davis Together program, and it was so vital to get information out to people and, and social media is great. We did do this study, but we learned very quickly that the most vulnerable in the community are essential workers and our seniors were not being reached. We had to really find ways to get the, that information. And we learned a lot of lessons there and those lessons we will take forward to use for communication and outreach. For instance, with our community that doesn’t speak English, we began advertising on Spanish speaking radio channels and just play in ways that we had never thought of before. And it’s going to be really important to use all of those lessons to continue.
Adam Morrill: I’m a down to earth people person. I have no intention of sitting in the ivory tower and just answering emails and phone calls. I actually had thought about this, how I would reach out to the public. I’d have monthly barbecues, picnics down at Slide Hill Park and invite the district, come down, talk, shake hands, get to know people. It’s a good way of getting a feel of what people are thinking and then also planting those seeds of, well, this is what we’re thinking about. And getting direct input from the people face to face. It would also help build community neighbors would actually be able to meet each other and people they don’t regularly interact with. So it would be a way of building communication and community from the ground up. Another thing with regarding staff and I’ve said this before on one of the first days, if I’m elected, I’m going to try and meet with any, as many staff groups as possible and see what they need to succeed in their positions and how they can better serve the community and what either council or management isn’t providing to them for them to be able to do their jobs effectively.
Bapu Vaitla: All of our commissions have the mission among other activities of doing community outreach. Very few commissions actually do this on a regular schedule, but this is an important principle of not just waiting for the community to come to you, but hold meetings so that you go to the community actually, and especially make contact with underrepresented groups. As we know it’s difficult to come to city council meetings, to come to commission meetings, express your opinion. So that kind of outreach in the community is really important through commissions and also through this amazing network of civil society organizations that the city is in constant contact with. The election also, this campaign has taught me that a lot of the way that information moves through this communities through word of mouth. So to continue holding neighborhood meetings to keep receiving people’s questions and their ideas is very, very important. And then we can do that on an issue basis both within the district, but also for the entirety of Davis because even though we’re elected by district, we represent the entire city. And who knows, I might just keep on knocking on doors. You know, it’s been it’s been pretty fun so far just listening to people’s ideas and hearing what they have to say and their concerns and hopes for the city.
Dan Carson: Our knocking on doors is a tremendous way to communicate and, and learn what the priorities of folks are in 2018. After knocking on 10,000 doors with my team, we came to the conclusion that fixing our roads and PI bike path was a huge priority, and we pursued that. I will also say our move to district elections, while it has some threat of leading us to becoming parochial also does make, potentially make us pay much more attention to neighborhood issues.
Question: First it relates to fiscal liabilities. Davis is facing major fiscal challenges with large unfunded liabilities in infrastructure, employee retirement costs, et cetera. How can the city meet its financial obligations in a manner that residents will support? Please be specific.
Kelsey Fortune: Most cities get the majority of their tax revenue from their downtown core. Davis is an exception to this because our downtown is relatively underdeveloped. There’s a community led downtown plan, which can help us create more revenue for the city and a more vibrant downtown for all of us without creating significant new infrastructure costs. This was drafted, I believe the draft was done in 2019. Unfortunately, staff time has been spread thin by peripheral projects as well as other things. We are just getting an EIR draft, an environmental impact report draft now which updates are downtown so that we can create that revenue. Second, I think we need a new general plan that reflects the community vision for the coming decades, including this exact issue. This should include concrete plans for increasing density throughout town so that we can create revenue for our city as well as provide housing for additional people. Third, I think that it’s very important as we go forward that we look back at our previous policies and any new policies we plan to implement to figure out if they’re just going to cost us money.
Gloria Partida: Our city does indeed face significant challenges and meeting our city’s financial obligations in ways our citizen support means. First, understanding what the expectations of our citizens are and then finding a balance between those expectations and what is feasible. For example, our roads have been in terrible disrespect, in terrible disrepair with a trajectory for decline. When I was elected in 2018, there was a roads tax, which our citizens rejected. And that same year I worked with others to put together a 10 year, $84 million plan to improve our roads. It’s not enough, it’s not enough money, but it threads the needle between expectations and feasibility. So the new road work that you’ve been seen is a, a direct result of that, of that work. Other ways I’ve advocated for citizen friendly financial solutions is supporting the search for grant funding. The city has initiated a very aggressive grant strategy resulting in $23.7 million in in grant funds. And lastly, we need to work with our nonprofits and our community organizations to fill the gaps that our city can’t service.
Adam Morrill: To start with we need to be paying our bills when they’re due. We have a pension liability because, not because employees weren’t paying their contributions, but because the city took a deferment on theirs to CalPERS and got behind in their payments. So that’s one area is to keep up with our current bills, like most people should. We need to also build a robust retail sector. Yes, we have downtown, but we need to do more. We need to encourage more investment in the downtown core and in the other established shopping models we have. We need to be a destination for people so that we’re not just using Davis resident taxpayer money, but we can actually bring in taxpayer money from outside of Davis. And that’s where you really bolster your budget. We need to spend more wisely. The city spends millions of dollars on consultants and contractors when we should be having staff to do these jobs. Yes, sometimes when you have a one-time thing, you need a consultant or a contractor. But speaking from experience as a city employee, there are numerous functions that aren’t being filled. We have storm water positions and IPM position that’s been sitting vacant for two years, and we’ve been paying contractors and consultants to perform these functions when a rank and file member would be more effective. We need to be utilizing technology a lot more effectively. We have disparate databases throughout the city and no unifying database that all departments can utilize.
Bapu Vaitla: There is some good news on the horizon with both infrastructure and pensions – to give credit where credit is due to the, to the previous city council there is a transportation and infrastructure plan in place that devotes a certain amount of investment going forward for the next 10 years, but also in pensions, the cost curve is going to start going down towards the end of the decade. All that being said, we do need more revenue. And the clear opportunity, and Kelsey did mention this, is that we get a smaller percentage of our general fund revenue from sales taxes and commercial property taxes in other cities of comparable size in California. Cities grow economically and thus generate revenue when they have a clear economic identity that attracts small businesses, that attracts investors. We already have a cultural identity that can be transformed into an economic identity that’s sustainability. So sustainable energy systems, sustainable food systems, sustainable housing systems. What we need to do is fast track permitting for those entrepreneurs who satisfy our criteria around equity and sustainability, work with the university, create small business incubators, and generally support this idea that sustainability can be the catalyst for economic development and thus revenue to help us with our unfunded liabilities.
Dan Carson: This is an issue I focused on my four years very heavily. When I ran in 2018, we had about an $8 million a year annual funding gap through good policies and collaboration we’ve got it down to about $4 million. We can get the rest of the way with several measures. One is in fact, following through that on that downtown plan, economic development will generate a property and sales tax that will help close the ga. As Gloria mentioned, going after grants aggressively. In some cases they pay for improvements, but that also can take the place of money we would otherwise have to spend from the general fund on maintenance. The other thing is that $84 million road and bike path repair plan that Gloria and I wrote as a subcommittee, we’re in year four of that 10-year plan. We have insisted every year in fully funding each next year is allocation of money from the budget. And the key here is that you can spend a lot of money on reconstruction, but you can spend a lot less money over time if you simply maintain your facilities. And we’re investing money in parks and we’re investing money in other kinds of infrastructure in this community. We are catching up to where we need to be, but we’re not done. We have work to do. And part of my argument to folks is if you want somebody who’s going to sit there every year and insistthat that road money go in the budget, you might want to reelect me. If you don’t, you might be taking your chances.
Adam Morrill: A couple other things about cost savings with the city and spending money more wisely. We opened the Respite Center to help with the homeless situation, but we had nonprofits and faith-based organizations within the community already providing a lot of these services. Paul’s Place being an example. What the city should have done is sat down at the table with all the stakeholders and say, you know what? We have some money. Can we help you? Because a nonprofit is going to be able to stretch that dollar a lot better than government. Government is not good about spending money and nonprofits are.
Dan Carson: I think the city does have a very good partnership with nonprofits. Paul’s Place is being built in most of the funds were raised privately. It will be operated by Davis Community Meals and Housing. We did kick in a million along with the county to help them get across the finish line to build it. We did vote to zone it so they could be built. I, in many places across the social services we are involved in, we are working with organizations like Communicare at the Respite Center. I think it’s a good partnership and I hope we continue it.
Gloria Partida: As the executive director of a nonprofit, I have an experienced perspective on which issues are best for nonprofits to handle and which issues are best for the government to handle. And I know that you know, being non council, we’ve worked with many nonprofits and, and there are times when nonprofits reach out to us and say that they need our help. And we’re always eager to help. And it’s not something that, that sometimes a nonprofit can do because they don’t have the infrastructure.
Bapu Vaitla: Just to make the quick point that housing is a critical part of this equation as well. If we want to catalyze our economy, if we want to have entrepreneurs starting new businesses, then we need to have places for those folks to live, for young professionals to live. So housing is critical to our economic health going forward.