Commentary: Hey Council, Leave the Commissions Alone

Mayor Josh Chapman

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Last week the council subcommittee presented a potential plan to merge and streamline the commissions.  The result was about what you would expect.

While I believe the subcommittee meant well, one of the problems is that there was not a lot of institutional memory on the subcommittee.

Bapu Vaitla was just elected in 2022 and Josh Chapman in 2020.  The surest way to bring back acrimony is to attempt to reverse-engineer democratic engagement.

I will use two examples from the past.

First in 2006, and still the primary reason I am involved in these discussions, was the decision by the city council on a 4-1 vote to disband the Human Relations Commission.

Why did that happen?  Because the council disagreed with their advocacy for a Police Oversight Committee or Civilian Review Board.  After much in the way of public rancor, at 3 am, the council voted 4-1 to disband the commission.

The council won that battle for sure, but the Human Relations Commission was reinstated six months later, and, by 2017, a very similar Police Accountability Commission was created.

The next year, the council proposed the merger of the Social Services Commission with the Senior Citizens Commission.  Elaine Roberts Musser emerged as a very capable and able spokesperson and after a few stormy meetings, the idea was ultimately dropped.

Commissions and their purview is always a touchy subject.

Here are the current proposals:

  • Create a Circulation and Active Mobility Commission by merging the Unitrans Advisory Committee and the Bicycle, Transportation, and Street Safety Commission.
  • Create a Fiscal Commission by merging the Finance and Budget Commission and the Utilities Commission.
  • Create a Climate and Environmental Justice Commission by merging the Natural Resources Commission and the Tree Commission.
  • Create an Equity and Culture Commission by merging the Human Relations Commission and the Civic Arts Commission.
  • Take initial steps to incorporate the Historic Resource Management Commission into the Planning Commission.

They also are looking into the creation of a “Community Health Commission,” with a strong focus on mental health, especially among vulnerable populations (aging adults, children, youth).

I don’t see a lot of upside to this approach.  I understand the desire to focus on the work of the General Plan Update—but this won’t facilitate that.  If anything, the opposite—it will distract.

Ther overlap between the commissions doesn’t make a lot of sense.  And certainly not from the perspective of the General Plan.

There doesn’t seem to be an understanding, for example, for the reasons why the city recently created the Utilities Commission or what controversy that was borne out of.

I suppose we could pick any of the proposals to criticize, but the one I am most familiar with is the Human Relations Commission, which I chaired a few years ago, and the Civic Arts Commission.  Frankly I don’t see much overlap there.

The HRC deals with social justice and human rights issues.  There might be some overlap between that and arts, but its overlap is small.  The city has done a great job of getting art around town and I would hate to see those efforts harmed by this merger.  Moreover, by merging the two, it is likely to politicize art—which has its place, but also could work to detriment to art overall.

Meanwhile, there remains critical work to be done on issues of race and equity in this community, much of which doesn’t involve the arts.

This is a similar problem in each of the proposed mergers.  There might be an environmental component to the Tree Commission, but much of it is about the management of the resources.

The issues involving the Unitrans Bus system might overlaps with bicycling, but a lot of that is very different.

If the city is hoping to embark on the General Plan update, it is going to be a contentious and fractured process to begin with.

If the Commissions Subcommittee seeks “to define significant, specific roles for the city’s advisory commissions in the process, especially around community engagement efforts,” that is certainly understandable.

But creating turmoil and controversy before embarking on a process that will have too much of both under the best of circumstances is not a good way to proceed.

A better idea might be to create the kind of commission that is specific and of limited duration much as it did, for example, in 2007-08 when it created the Housing Element Subcommittee.  Each councilmember made a certain number of appointments and each commission got to name a representative.

That process worked about as well as it could have been hoped.  It created a plan that had broad support and enabled the process to largely avoid the kind of infighting that we typically see.

That’s a better solution than toying with the existing commissions that have a history and function separate and distinct from the limited use that the proposed changes would achieve.

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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1 Comment

  1. Richard McCann

    A BTSCC member raised the problem of how to incorporate UCD members into the new Transportation Commission. There would see to be a different solution.

    I can see splitting the NRC into several parts and distributing certain parts to Utilities, Trees, Open Space and Parks, and then forming a new Climate Plan Oversight Commission that might take on housing and economic sustainability and transportation emission mitigation. The Planning Commission does not yet possess the expertise on these issues.

    I also think the Council should look for more working commissions. For example, much of the CAP advising could have been done by the NRC, especially if the Council selected members for that purpose. There’s other examples where the commissions have and can provide more direct expertise rather than just being rubber stamps which is where they are headed. (It’s not clear that the City didn’t violate the Brown Act when they appointed advisors on the CAP from UCD who are Davis residents. That seems like an attempted end run.)

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