Sunday Commentary: Is the Council Out of Touch with the Broader Davis Community?


By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – A frequent complaint that we hear a lot is that the Davis City Council is out of touch with the Davis voters—particularly on the issue of housing.

As the argument goes, the council voted 5-0 to put each of the last five Measure J projects on the ballot, but the voters rejected 3 of those 5.

While I understand where folks are coming from in this, I think they are defining the issue far too narrowly.

Moreover, for the most part who gets elected to council has not been an accident of history.  By that I mean, over the course of the last three election cycles, the voters have had options to select slow growth candidates who have opposed these Measure J projects—and have not done so.

Indeed, in four of the five district elections there was a viable slow growth candidate on the ballot, and in no case did the candidate come within even 20 percentage points of winning.

While you can argue that the current district election configuration may preclude candidates from more extreme positions from winning, even in the last at-large election, the slow growth candidates finished at best in the middle of the pack.

So, while I can understand frustration here, clearly the slow growth candidates are not reflective of the majority position of the community—even if they do at times coincide with the community perspective on individual projects.

I think part of the problem is that again we are looking at this too narrowly by looking at the project level.

We know from two cycles of polling that the affordability of housing is a top concern of voters and that about 70 percent or so of the voters are concerned about that issue.

On the other hand, in the past election about 83 percent of the voters supported Measure J.  And even if you think in a contested election that number might have been a bit lower, it’s probably safe to assume that the vast majority of voters support Measure J at some level.

From that perspective, if you look at the council, they tend to be in the large moderate bloc of voters on the issue of housing.  On the one hand, they all have supported Measure J’s continuation and the notion of the voters having the final say on housing.

On the other hand, they have not been on the extreme side of the growth issue to oppose most projects.

That largely puts the council in this broad group in the middle—they aren’t on the extreme slow growth side, but they aren’t on the extreme pro-housing side that is willing to shelve Measure J.

That’s about where the community is on housing as well.  They are not reflexively against all projects, but they don’t want the council to have the power to unilaterally approve peripheral projects.

Thus, ironically, despite its reputation for slow growth extremism, over the last 25 years or so Davis has really become kind of a moderate community.

Ironically both sides of the extreme have valid complaints about this ultimate arrangement.

The slow growth side will argue that the council has simply put all of the Measure J projects on the ballot, and the last five on 5-0 votes.  That’s true.  Still over the course of 22 years or so, that amounts to seven projects, or one project every three years.  The voters have declined 5 of 7.

On the other hand, many on the other side will argue that the Measure J arrangement means we have only approved two peripheral housing projects in the last 20 years plus, housing has become increasingly unaffordable, and it has priced families and middle income households out of this community.

They will argue that even with councils willing to put projects on the ballot, the slow growth side of the room has consistently carried the day.

I find myself within that broad middle group—though notably on the more pro-housing side of it, at least these days.  I often find myself attacked from both sides.

On the one hand, the slow growthers see me as a strong supporter of housing, while on the other hand those who believe that ending Measure J is the answer point to my continued support for Measure J as inconsistent with my general support for new housing projects.

However, my views are generally in line with the views of council here.  I think most agree that we have a housing crisis in Davis, in the region and in the state.  I think the council is looking for more housing opportunities but they also are in favor of letting the community be the final judge on housing projects.

It is important to recognize that with 83 percent of the community supporting Measure J in the last election, this is not an issue that is going to go away and that any housing policy needs to take that limitation into account.

The city in their response to HCD on Measure J argued, “While Measure J adds costs, extends processing times, and has been used to halt development projects that would convert agricultural land to urban development, it is only a constraint to meeting housing needs if the city lacks sufficient infill housing sites.”

The city added, “Had DISC passed, the City would have substantially more units to help meet the sixth-cycle RHNA. The City will need to rezone additional sites to meet the RHNA…”

One of my concerns however is precisely that—we have run through most of the easily developed infill spots in town.  We are now looking at expensive redevelopment and densification.  That’s not a recipe for affordable housing and it’s not necessarily a recipe for meeting the city’s market rate housing needs.

Thus, housing advocates need to increasingly navigate within the confines and constraints of Measure J to find ways to bring needed housing projects forward.  It is not realistic to expect or premise positions on Measure J going away.

Increasingly I see the path forward as more affordable housing carve outs and joint planning that allows for a pre-approval process concurrent with General Plan updates.  Failing that, the city is going to become more expensive and price more families with children out of the community, to the detriment of everyone in this community.


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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19 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Is the Council Out of Touch with the Broader Davis Community?”

  1. Ron Glick

    The people on the Council know Measure J has restricted supply and been a large contributor to our housing shortage but they are held hostage by the the idea that coming out against Measure J is considered, as one CC member told me, “political suicide.”

    But what is your excuse David? You are not constrained by the voters yet you have always supported Measure J while at the same time regularly writing about its negative impacts on housing supply.

    This is why I regularly call you out. Until people start challenging the status quo do not expect the local pols to lead. You have a big platform but you are either afraid to use it constructively to help change the conversation or you are a true believer. I’m not sure which is worse.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I have answered your “question” a number of times. It is not fruitful to push for impractical solutions. Since Measure J will likely be in place indefinitely into the future, the solution is to work within Measure J to get the outcomes that are preferred. Why would anyone who actually wants to solve the problem of housing pursue magical solutions?

      1. Ron Glick

        That is not a solution its a surrender. Taking on Measure J is only impractical as long as people refuse to do so. Especially people like yourself with a local media platform. It would be one thing if you admitted Measure J has been bad for the community but changing it is impractical but instead you have always supported it. One  can both accept that Measure J exists while at the same time being against it. Its a pity you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I disagree obviously. If the reality is that we have a constraint, a reasonable approach is to find ways to mitigate that restraint and work within it.

        2. Don Shor

          Its a pity you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

          Hey, Ron, did you write an op-ed about Measure J? I’m sure David would have published it. A letter to the editor? Submit a ballot argument?
          What did you personally do to oppose it?
          Everybody has “a local media platform.”

  2. Ron Oertel

    I would argue that (in the eyes of the “average” voter), the candidates have not differentiated themselves that clearly in regard to growth issues.

    For example, I believe they all ultimately support Measure J, and all emphasize infill.  Including Bapu.

    The “slow growth” candidates (like Kelsey and Adam) also did not consistently oppose the idea of peripheral development.  (Especially Adam, as I recall.) In my opinion, Adam was not a particularly-strong candidate in other ways (and did not even enjoy consistent support among the local “slow-growthers”).

    Kelsey was a strong candidate, however. It’s unfortunate that the council has apparently prevented her from being appointed to a commission.

    I haven’t seen a candidate lately who actually has a true, unapologetic “slow-growth” platform (as I’d define it, at least).

    Dan Carson “paid the price” for his legal challenge, however.

    Measure J ensures that candidates can only (directly) damage the existing city (if one wants to look at it in a cynical manner).

    Bottom line is that David’s article seems to be more in the line of “trolling”, than an actual analysis.

    1. Ron Oertel

      And here is “evidence” (from the Vanguard itself) which supports what I just noted:

      Commentary: A Look at Council Candidates on Housing – the Push for Infill

      When the candidates were asked about what type of residential development they favored, the answer focused toward infill and affordability.

      It’s also possible that bringing up Gloria’s record ultimately worked-against Adam (even though he had nothing to do with it). However, I doubt that this made any difference.

      Had that incident not been changed to a misdemeanor (which was apparently not reflected in the online record), the outcome would likely have been different.

      I can only recall one candidate whom I’d describe as (pretty-much) “slow growth” and that’s Colin Walsh.

  3. Ron Glick

    Yeah I spoke out and posted my objections as I have for over a decade. But remember we were locked down in the middle of the Pandemic. The difference is that David actually supported renewal and as far as I know still supports Measure J calling into question his laments at its failures as being disingenuous.

    1. Ron Oertel

      The difference is that David actually supported renewal and as far as I know still supports Measure J calling into question his laments at its failures as being disingenuous.

      In reference to the title of this artilce, it’s possible that David doesn’t want to be known as the blogger who is “Out-of-Touch-with-the-Broader-Davis-Community”.

  4. Dave Hart

    In my view, when one sits on a board of directors, (city council is one of those) and the board votes to support a policy directive, they have the responsibility to campaign and champion what they voted to support.  Far be it from me to lash our city council members for not doing that kind of work above and beyond sitting through endless meetings and having to listen to input which, at times, is clueless or simply uninformed.  We really do expect a lot from these five people, more than any of us sitting out here commenting on the Vanguard are willing to give.  But, all that said, Dan Carson was the only one who put himself out there on this last vote and while his method of using the court system was inadvisable, he indicated he was in support.  None of the others went to the mat and tried to convince voters to vote yes.

    Measure J is here to stay for various reasons.  You can’t talk people out of a tightly held emotional position on getting to vote on development.  Measure J votes are winnable, but the seeds for yes votes by the citizenry are sown well before the council votes to place it on the ballot.

    1. Matt Williams

      I agree with Dave Hart. The “yes” side of almost all the measures that have gone before the Davis voters in recent years have had either a woeful lack of education of the voters, or ham-handed education of the voters, or both.  How does anyone expect a voter to vote yes rather than no if they are given no clear compelling reason to do so.

      Will Arnold understood how to run a campaign and he was good at it.  We have good water in Davis in large part thanks to Will.  Unfortunately he hasn’t performed the same educational function since he stepped up to be on City Council.  I’m not sure why that is the case.

      Davis needs a coherent plan for where it is going.  The “wonky” word for that is having a “Vision.”  For close to two decades we have been wandering around in the wilderness.

      With that said, one of the significant challenges our community faces is that at the individual person level life for the vast majority of Davis residents is very good, and they really have no logical reason to worry about what goes on outside their property lines unless it is part of their personal social life.  For the most part the people who do get involved in the community affairs do so for moral/spiritual reasons.


      1. Mark West

        “The “yes” side of almost all the measures that have gone before the Davis voters in recent years have had either a woeful lack of education of the voters, or ham-handed education of the voters, or both.”

        You forgot to mention that the voters also were faced with the disingenuous attacks on proposed projects by anti-development advocates.

        1. Matt Williams

          Mark, if you consider those “disingenuous attacks” as education then I guess you are correct.  

          However, my personal belief is that the most effective education happens long before any political campaign starts.  Council and Staff have the opportunity to execute those educational steps as part of the consideration of the development application (or fiscal revenue measure).

          Then good community citizens build, like Will Arnold did with the water measures 10 years ago, on that educational foundation, and the result is a “yes” vote.  In the case of the water measures the public didn’t just know that their water rates were going to triple.  They also knew why that tripling was going to happen, and why it was the best alternative.

          It is worth noting that by the time the Council makes a decision to put a measure on the ballot, the proverbial horse is out of the barn, and the electioneering that either side deploys … be it lawsuits or “disingenuous attacks” … is all too little too late.

          With that said this most recent Council election had disingenuous attacks, but I don’t know of any disingenuous attacks that were part of The Measure H campaign.  What attacks did you have in mind?

  5. Richard_McCann

    Ron O

    I would argue that (in the eyes of the “average” voter), the candidates have not differentiated themselves that clearly in regard to growth issues.

    That’s quite inaccurate. Since 2018 we’ve had at least 5 candidates who ran strongly on limiting external growth over the last 3 campaigns. Kelsey and Adam both proclaimed strong opposition to Measure H; Bapu strongly endorsed Measure H as did Dan. Gloria was pro Measure H but didn’t emphasize it front and center as much as the other candidates. In 2020 no one could have a stronger no on DiSC candidate than Colin Walsh, but he finished 3rd in his district. It really isn’t possible for these candidates to differentiate themselves any further.

    The analytic conclusion is that there is about 15%-20% of the electorate who make no/slow growth a prime issue. The remaining 35% who make up the “no” on proposed projects are focused on particular project attributes but don’t object in general so they vote for pro-housing candidates. (I’m also not sure why someone from Woodland can tell us in Davis about who’s out of touch.)

    Matt is right that the project developers are not really running winning campaigns. They aren’t willing to make the last marginal deal that would be persuasive enough to swing key blocks of voters. Ramos’ unwillingness to move key attributes to the baseline features where they couldn’t be negotiated away created distrust just when he needed to show “trust me.” The lack of a real vision for the community doesn’t tell voters why they should say “yes.” We need real leadership to move forward.

    1. Ron Oertel


      Apparently, you didn’t even read the candidates’ statements (despite the reference I provided, to the Vanguard’s own article):

      Here’s what Adam said: 

      “With regard to any future peripheral development, which is going to be necessary. Davis needs to grow.”

      This sounds like something that any of the “usual growth suspects” might state.

      And here’s what Bapu said:

      Bapu Vaitla: “I think the focus initially should be infill housing, downtown dense, affordable climate friendly, transit linked infill. And we have some policy levers to make that happen, including increasing density bonuses, reducing, eliminating parking minimums, fast tracking permitting for developments with a high affordable percentage up zoning to allow these kind of modest increases in density and height.”
      Or, as Bapu Vaitla put in another forum, “we need to focus on dense, climate friendly, affordable transit linked infill in our downtown.”

      Baup (almost) sounds like a slow-growther, or at least someone more focused on infill.

      Then, David goes on to note the following (regarding ALL of the candidates):

      But the push for that housing was quite clearly away from housing on the periphery that tends to be contentious and requires approval of the voters.

      As I recall (from another Vanguard article), Kelsey Fortune (whom I wouldn’t necessarily describe as a “slow growth candidate”) stated that she might support Palomino Ranch.

      Any examination of all of these candidates would show that they all supported growth to some degree. And they ALL primarily supported infill, over sprawl.

      It is true that Kelsey (and I believe Adam) did not support DISC.

      The only candidate whom I’d pretty-comfortably describe as “slow growth” would be Colin Walsh, but even he is likely to support some development.

      The point is that there was not such a clear delineation between these candidates, at times.  At least, not to the degree that David presents.  Nor is there clear delineation among voters.

      Now, if someone like YOU ran for council, I’d describe your candidacy as someone opposed to 83% of the electorate (who supported Measure J), someone who wants to create housing shortages and greenhouse gasses (via developments such as DISC), while at the same time – forcing everyone to convert their homes (at great expense) to electricity, which isn’t even produced in a renewable manner in the first place. In short, you wouldn’t be running on a “winning platform”.

      If anything, YOU’d be more suited to Woodland (or perhaps some place like Natomas), than anyone else. Though truth be told, even they wouldn’t put forth such self-contradictory positions.



    2. Matt Williams

      I would add to Richard’s excellent analysis that Davis voters are smart enough to know that they get the final say in peripheral land development questions.  As a result they do not feel the need for their Council member to be their advocate on peripheral land use issues.

      I suspect that very few Davis voters have burning issues that they want Council to address.  For the most part Davis residents lead very happy and fulfilling lives, and the focus of their interests are contained by their families and closest friends.  As a result they vote for someone that they know is a good person, or they have heard is a good person.  A strident, confrontational candidate does not appeal.

  6. Mark West

    “Is the Council Out of Touch with the Broader Davis Community?”

    Whenever I have heard this complaint, it has been voiced by someone who was opposed to one development project or another (or perhaps several). In short, it was the view of the anti-development forces in town, and in my view, wishful thinking on their part.

    I think the individuals on the City Council are the best indicators of the desires of the broader community and since there has not been an overtly anti-development council member elected for a decade or more, then the simple answer is that it is the anti-development folks who are currently out of touch. I suspect that the majority in town support the desire to build more housing and expand our commercial base, they just want some measure of ‘control’ so we don’t end up with another Mace Ranch debacle.  That is why we still have Measure J on the books, even with its serious shortcomings.

    It is time to put this trope to bed and start supporting quality development proposals. There are no simple answers and no ‘silver bullets.’ Our problems in town are complex and require a multifaceted response. I believe we will find better results by supporting several small to medium sized projects that each address a subset of our shortcomings, not one large one intended to solve everything.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Whenever I have heard this complaint, it has been voiced by someone who was opposed to one development project or another (or perhaps several). In short, it was the view of the anti-development forces in town, and in my view, wishful thinking on their part.

      It’s actually David who is primarily “voicing this complaint” these days.  It’s an attempt to politically demoralize and isolate. In fact, I haven’t even seen it come up lately, anywhere else.

      Per the evidence provided in David’s earlier article (linked to and described above), there is less difference between the candidates than he’s now alleging.  A difference to be sure, but not to the degree presented.

      Now in YOUR case, there was a chasm between you and the electorate (as evidenced by the results of your own candidacy).

      In any case, perhaps voters understand that (despite unanimous council support for the proposals that have been presented), the electorate gets to decide regarding peripheral proposals. Much to the chagrin of folks like you and McCann. (And they did approve two of them, so there is that.)

      Of course, you (or a council member) can always attempt a legal action regarding ballot arguments (on behalf of a developer), and see how that works out.

  7. Ron Glick

    “…it is the anti-development folks who are currently out of touch.”

    But sadly we have handed the keys to the kingdom to these people. They can’t win a seat on the City Council but they can get people to do the easiest thing in California politics, vote no on a ballot proposal.

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