By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – On Wednesday the Davis League of Women Voters hosted a virtual candidates forum between Donna Neville and Francesca Wright.
Michelle Van Aiken, who is secretary of the Board for the Davis League served as Moderator of the forum.
The first set of questions were questions that the candidates saw in advance. Candidates have 90 seconds in which to give their initial response and 45 seconds for any follow-up response.
Question number one relates to experience. What specific lessons have you learned about city governments from your experience working with the city of Davis and the Davis community?
I served on the city’s Finance and Budget commission for four years, where I was chair for two and I’m currently on the planning commission, and I also chaired the school district’s Measure M Bond Oversight Committee. And as I mentioned, I currently serve as board president for NAMI Yolo County. Here are my lessons. Be bold and try new ways of doing things. Governing effectively is about adapting to change. Be accountable. If you say you’ll get something done, do it. Good governance is about action. Listen, everyone’s voice matters. Always remember that you serve the entire community. Be engaged with the people you serve. Be out there and connect with people listening to their concerns. Communicate honestly, good governance means having honest conversations with the community about the issues we face. Understand process. To govern effectively, you have to understand the processes cities have to use, including public finance.
You can’t get anything done if you don’t understand process. Be persistent at making change happen. Good governance takes hard work and follow through. And given the challenges we face, there’s no room for the status quo. We need to act now to address our fiscal and housing challenges. Partner with the experts. We have an extraordinary community of citizen volunteers, nonprofits and experts. The more the city partners with these experts, the stronger we will all be. I understand what it’s like to be a community member advocating for change as well as what it’s like to be the decision maker listening to community concerns.
In January, 2017, I responded to a call from the National A C L U. Our People Power group found evidence of inappropriate use of force within our police department force that was disproportionately directed at people of color. I worked with then Mayor Rob Davis, who demonstrated deep listening and responsiveness and courage. Together we supported a civic engagement process to collects stories and develop solutions. Our group researched best practices for civilian oversight and police accountability. This collaborative process led to a redefined role of the Independent Police Auditor and a Police Accountability Commission. From this, I learned the power of a council member who took residents seriously, asked us, asked us to do our research, and partnered with us through a multi-step process for an effective outcome. I will emulate this type of leadership. In my process for advocating for public safety. Since then, I have attended many city council and commission meetings. I see how respectful process is so important. The best decisions I have seen are when problems are well framed, when they are supported with data, and when the appropriate commissions and community experts have the time to review the material and have a voice…
Donna talked about the status quo and the importance to not be content with just the status quo. And I’d like to say that’s something that I have certainly demonstrated in this town. Not many people would take on what we take on to organize. And I really believe that that the courage to address difficult issues is key to whoever is elected in this position.
Question two: How would you assess the current and long-term financial health of the city of Davis? Given your assessment, what are the most important actions you would advocate for to improve the city’s financial health?
I actually, in my professional life, I actually drafted the criteria that are used by the California State Auditors local government high risk program to assess the fiscal health of all California cities. Davis falls pretty much in the middle when it’s ranked against other cities, but let’s be in the middle. Let’s find creative ways to address our fiscal challenges. We know we don’t have enough money to do all the things we want. We know our roads are in bad shape, and we have a significant funding gap between what it will cost to repair them and what we reasonably expect to take in in revenue. We also know that we have what feels like an overwhelming unfunded liability that we need to pay down related to our employee pensions and other benefits, but there are ways to address it. First, we need more revenue.
This requires a robust economic development plan that sets out our priorities for attracting and retaining businesses in our downtown and other commercial hubs. We can’t flourish if we have empty retail spaces. Second, we need to find ways for the innovative businesses that want to locate and stay in Davis to stay here. This doesn’t need to be a large innovation park, but we need to tap into the talent produced here at U C D and make sure that those innovative businesses that want to locate in Davis can do so. These businesses and the jobs they create will invigorate our economy. Finally, I’ll promote more transparency and community involvement in our budgeting process. We should hold public budget workshops where each city department presents its budget and the community has the ability to weigh in on spending priorities. This will provide greater community awareness of the constraints that we face.
The city is required by law to submit a balanced budget. But that does not mean we have filled sufficient staff vacancies to deliver high quality services, nor have we set aside sufficient reserves to provide for the long-term maintenance needs of our roads, parks, and facilities. The annual shortfall is $7.6 million or about 10% of the annual budget. Clearly, and I’m in agreement here, we need strategies to maximize revenue, and that includes property taxes, sales taxes, hotel taxes, while preserving the character of our town. This will require restoring vibrant retail, attracting tourism, and facilitating ease of building, permitting upgrades. I will support the arts attractive public spaces, local business, and improve customer service in our building and permitting and land use planning. For example, we could increase property tax revenue by accelerating permitting of real property upgrades and infill. We could use smarter permit application screening tools that require less staff time, and we could add fees for expedited services that could pay for the additional staffing. I will face the harsh reality we don’t have the budget for the roads. I’ll skip to my third point. We need a champion to help our local businesses revitalize and our innovators to plant roots to grow the enterprises of the future. This city is in the process of hiring an economic developer. This person will need to meet our business leaders to identify barriers to break and opportunities to create.
Question three: Question number three relates to the downtown and it reads as follows. The Davis downtown plan has the potential to bring significant changes to the city. Tell us about your highest priorities for implementation of the plan and why.
First, let me address the premise of the question. The downtown specific plan is the first area in our city to be regulated by form-based code. This new model promises to accelerate the permitting process. It has opened opportunity for increased building height, up to seven stories in the core and densification along G Street, and is projected to provide 1000 more units of housing. This is not an action plan to be implemented, but rather a land use planning guide for developers as they consider potential projects. The ability of developers to get financing is currently the greatest limiting factor for its implementation. As a city council member, my priority for the downtown plan will be to address two key missing areas, which are one, planning for the trees and two, envisioning streetscapes and transportation options. The relationship between the tree commission and nonprofit Tree Davis and other tree advocates got a boon with the hiring of our city arborist. This is now a model of excellent staff and community collaboration, and I have confidence our downtown forest will be well-planned. The issue of imagining transit as we densify currently lacks the people power needed to problem solve. Four of our six positions in our planning department have been vacant for over a year. The climate emergency demands, we plan for a future of clean transportation.
Our new downtown plan positively transforms the way we do land use planning in the downtown area. It provides project development applicants certainty about what they can build and where it also removes many of the barriers that previously discouraged the development of multi-story mixed use developments that include housing barriers such as parking density and setback requirements. But the downtown plan alone won’t revitalize our downtown economically, nor will it ensure that the housing we desperately need gets built. I have two key priorities. In terms of housing, we need to put additional tools in place such as revenue stream for a housing trust fund, and possibly housing impact fees or commercial linkage fees that will truly serve as incentives to building the housing we need in the downtown area. Without these tools, the city has no leverage to require that a project applicant actually builds housing on any given parcel. If elected, putting these tools in place will be my top priority. Economic vitality. The downtown plan needs to be accompanied by a robust economic development plan that sets out a proactive approach for attracting and retaining businesses to downtown that will bring in additional revenue and reinvigorate our downtown. We need to reach out to the owners of those vacant downtown spaces and work with them to find viable tenants. This is important because we absolutely need to generate additional revenue and our downtown is the key place to do this.
I’d like to just finish the concept of transit orienting planning because I think the downtown plan was a great specific plan, but we need to start looking at other areas of our community where, and we need to look 20 and 30 years down the road of what our transportation solutions will have to be. And I think had we done that, we wouldn’t have had the (Brixmor) decision that recently occurred where we lacked a specific plan for that area to address both transit-oriented development and mixed use.
I think it’s really important to actually understand the nature of the Brixmor decision and having had a better transition plan would not have aviated that decision. The reason that decision was so constrained was because there were no tools in place to provide leverage for the city to really incentivize that developer to build housing on that property. Had we had in place a commercial linkage fee or housing impact fees or some other ability to really exercise some leverage that would have motivated that developer to build housing, that would’ve been what would’ve made the difference.