Commentary: Is This the Hill You Want to Die On or the Battle You Want to Fight?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – A few weeks ago I had separate conversations with former councilmembers about the commission flap—they largely agree with me, been there, done that, doesn’t end well.

Relearning from history seems to be the plight of succeeding generations of leader as they plod through their Sisyphean plight.

The problem probably could have been contained had the powers that be recognize the hole and conducted a hasty but dignified retreat.

Unfortunately, they seem to be compounding the problem by digging in.

One problem is that the disagreement has largely united factions within the community who often do not see eye to eye.

As one observer wryly put: “When Elaine Robert Musser and Collin Walsh and Chris Granger (are) agreeing in opposition, that can’t be good.”

Vice Mayor Bapu Vaitla said last week that “…either City Council is not proactive in asking the commissions what to do; or the membership of the commissions is such that people have interests of their own and they are kind of deviating from what Council is asking, outside of the authorizing resolutions of the commissions…”

In response in the Vanguard, Elaine Roberts Musser said, “If the City Council is not proactive in asking commissions what to do, whose fault is that? The commissions cannot read the City Council’s collective mind. The City Council needs to be more communicative as to what information it wants. Why should commissioners be punished by being forced to merge with another commission because of the fault of the City Council?”

She added, “If commissions are deviating from their authorizing resolutions, city staff will rein them in if so.”

I see this enterprise as a pointless and ultimately time-consuming and fruitless fight.

On the one hand, I can share some of the frustration of the council.  I have sat through commission meetings where it becomes clear that the entire commission or at least a good portion are simply not well versed in the underlying issues—and at times it is painful to sit and wait as the commission gets up to speed.

I also agree that there are probably too many commissions.

On the other hand, politics 101 suggests that going from more to less in the way of democracy is a recipe for trouble.

Moreover, you should pick your battles.

There are real battles ahead that are unavoidable.  We have the newly launched General Plan update that figures to be a long and drawn-out battle over shaping the future of Davis.

There will be a revenue measure which is becoming more perilous by the day.

There will be multiple Measure J votes as the four remaining Measure J projects jockey for voter approval.

There will be potentially a Measure J amendment which figures to be both necessary and highly contentious.

And there is the real possibility that still the state or another entity would try to take out Measure J altogether.

In other words, community conflict is largely going to be unavoidable in the next few years centering around issues directly involving the council (to say nothing of any number of issues that will not directly involve the council).

To succeed, the council is going to have to show leadership and figure out ways to bring the community together.

Starting out with contentious and at most peripheral fights is not a good way to begin this process.  That it would be contentious was predictable.

One need only look at the proposed merger of Social Services and Senior Citizens from 2007 to see that.

Moreover, as Musser points out, that was only two commissions.  This is a far-broader endeavor.

One of the biggest complaints is that the council proceeded without getting feedback and input from the stakeholders first.

In defending himself, Vice Mayor Vaitla explained that “the subcommittee and staff did consider going back to the commissions with specific ideas for a consultative process, but decided against this due to restructuring being vital going forward for the city and time.”

Why?

For one thing, time estimates that it would have taken another three to six months to do this, which would have made it more difficult to align with the General Plan update.

Musser responded, “Vaitla admits he and Chapman did not consult with commissions, then later insists he did. Vaitla can’t have it both ways. According to commissioners, they were never told about the merger idea.”

Musser argues, “Chapman and Vaitla took an entire year to finalize the merger concept, yet somehow didn’t have the time to consult commissions.”

But even if they were correct on the time factor, this controversy figures to not only slow things down, but to poison the water.

Already you have people like Matt Williams using this as another example to explain why “the level of trust in City operations and finances is so low. “

He argued, “If the Council wants to see the city tax increase pass in November it is going to have to drastically increase honesty, accountability, and transparency.  Otherwise distrust will produce far more ‘no’ votes than ‘yes’ votes.”

While I don’t completely agree on this point, I would argue that any time you spend this much capital on a peripheral battle, you have already lost the war.

The council should cut bait on this plan and figure out another way forward.  Instead, it appears they are digging—which figures to be mutually assured destruction.

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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12 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    You act like there is some giant outcry against this reorganization but in reality its simply a few people. Musser’s petition has how many signers? One hundred six in how long?  I doubt that most Davis residents care about commissions or the work they do. All this table pounding and worry about voter retribution depends on a lack of voter maturity. I’m inclined to think that the voters will assess each ballot decision on its own merits instead of on some petty dispute over commission structure that is unrelated.

    1. David Greenwald

      I agree with you that this is in effect an inside the beltway fight. But ignores the extent to which inside the beltway fights can be time consuming and damaging. Even if the average person doesn’t relate to the specifics of the fight, it helps to create a climate of cynicism, which is detrimental to the process. All the more reason to question whether this is the hill to die on.

      1. Ron Glick

        Not all, but some of the most cynical voices in town are outraged by this reorganization. You think this is going to lead to more cynicism? This is more like the molehill some want to die on but  I doubt that on Election Day in November the number of people who have commission reorganization as a top of mind issue will be less than the 106 people who signed Musser’s petition.

        1. David Greenwald

          I guess we’ll see what happens. To me the most important thing that council has to do is fix the housing situation and I see this as a major distraction for that.

    2. Matt Williams

      Ron, when the incident happened several moths ago at the Blanchard Room of the Library, it too was a small contained dispute, but between electronic news coverage here on the Vanguard and in print on the Enterprise, it quickly became an incident that the vast majority of Davis constituents knew about.  There isn’t any likelihood of bomb threats in this case, but there are very robust and well-established interpersonal networks that are already springing into action on this impasse.  Sunday’s Enterprise had a story on the issue on its front page.  The Vanguard has published three or four articles on it already.  Think about the respective networks that Elaine Roberts Musser and Colin Walsh and Chris Granger are part of.  Seniors, the Davisite and trees, and Cool Davis respectively.

      I understand your comment about the number of signatures, but as a point of comparison/context take a look at the Endorsements lists of the three candidates for Supervisor in the election we are in the midst of.  None of those three lists are as long as the petition signature list.  The vast majority of Davis constituents don’t proactively inject themselves into issues.  If you put “DJUSD Parcel Tax Davis CA Measure N” into google to find the endorsements list for the Parcel Tax we are voting on, Google can’t find anything. Bottom-line, we are largely a reactive community. So give this time to percolate, and I suspect your initial “no interest evident” take will have to be modified by you.

    3. Richard McCann

      I’m inclined to think that the voters will assess each ballot decision on its own merits instead of on some petty dispute over commission structure that is unrelated.

      Ron, you’re just plain wrong or naive. Voters aren’t well versed in most issues they vote on. They look for guidance from others that they expect have spend time looking at it. That’s why when there’s strong outcry by a particular group of citizens that is well known, they vote against an item. Dan Carson found that out (and Bapu owes his victory to that joint outcry.) DISC lost because the developers wouldn’t yield to the requests from the commissions which could have led to endorsements that would have swayed the voters. Nishii on the other hand gained from those endorsements by meeting the requests of the commissions.

      This “petty” dispute is really about whether the Council will try to sideline the several hundred people in this town that shape voters’ views. It appears that the Council, abetted by the Staff, wants to try to silence experienced voices with alternative views. We pointed out in our letter to the Council that I linked in the previous article on the need for greater transparency after a number missteps. From that letter the group wrote:

      The group highlights three key concerns. First, that the council provides little information about the nature of [Council] closed sessions. Second, there is conflicting guidance from city staff that makes it “functionally impossible for different commissions to collaborate on topics of mutual interest.” And third, “the city provides almost nothing in the way of commissioner onboarding and training.” 

  2. Colin Walsh

    Vaitla has criticized commissions for not working on what the council wants or working outside of their charter. Having served on the tree commission for four years (1 ½ as chair and 1 as vice chair) I have perspective on this.
    First the charter. The Tree Commission establishing resolution under “Purpose” states that “The Davis Tree Commission is to act in an advisory capacity on tree related matters, including review and approval of tree removal requests.” I think there are 2 main points there. The Tree Commission serves as an advisor to the council. They have no ability to make final policy decisions for the city, merely advise the council. Second, that advice must be limited to “tree related matters.” Additionally the commission has some specific duties as defined in chapter 37 of the municipal code. In the four years I have served I have never seen the commission go outside those boundaries.
    In fact, the vast majority of the work the commission has done has been requested by Council and staff and we have had no indication from council that we have worked on anything they don’t want us too. A large part of my tenure as chair was spent working on the 40 year urban forest management plan. The Council adopted that plan last year and heaped praise on the commissions work.
    As Vice Chair the commission worked on recommendations for Viatla’s development rubric at council request. The commission took the work we had previously done at councils request for the guidelines for DISC (that were adopted by the developer) and adapted them to be simpler and less specific in a way that they could apply to any development. I am confident that the advice from the tree commission to council was solid and appropriate.
    The Tree commission in the time I have been on it has always worked to give the council the best possible advice on matters the council is interested in, but I will admit there is one thing in particular that has hampered the tree commissions efforts – the lack of participation from the Council liaison. Council member Arnold serves as the liaison but has not attended a Tree Commission meeting in over a year and a half. He in the entire 2.5 years I served as chair and vice chair Arnold responded to 1 email from me when I asked to have a short call regarding the Urban Forest Management plan. He agreed, but then never answered another email and no call ever happened.
    Council member Vaitla is the alternate liaison to the Tree Commission and he has never attended a single meeting. Prior to being a councilmember when Vaitla served on the Social Services Commission he was appointed as a liaison to the Tree Commission to work on the Urban Forest Management Plan and also never attended a single Tree Commission Meeting and never participated in anyway. Ultimately the Social Services Commission had to appoint a new liaison.
    Neither Arnold or Vaitla have ever participated in the long range Calander portion of the meeting, or in the agenda setting meetings the chair vice chair and staff have once a month.
    In conclusion, I think it is very clear that the Tree Commission has always done its best to follow council direction as to area of work and has stayed inside the bounds of it’s charter at all times. If there is any failure of the commission to work on what the council wants worked on, it rests squarely with the Councils open neglect to interact with the commission.
    As postscript I do need to offer a counterpoint. In the time Council Member Partida served as liaison to the Tree Commission she attended almost every meeting, corresponded with me and others regarding the commission and even was gracious enough to have a more than hour long in person meeting about tree commission work.
    This comment represents my own point of view and not the views of the commission.

    1. Don Shor

      The Tree Commission is doing a great job and has, in my opinion, hewed to its mission. A healthy population of trees in our city is an end in itself — it is not a subset of climate change, parks, open space, etc. I suggest this commission should be left intact.
      I personally believe that the tree removal process is due for a review including input from outside experts, as the current policies don’t promote a healthy, evolving urban forest. But discussing that in a broader, merged commission would be both unlikely and unproductive. The subcommittee proposal may have merit, but not without a broader review of the goals and practices involved in maintaining that healthy population of trees.
      This comment represents my own views and not those of the board of Tree Davis, at least not yet.

      1. Colin Walsh

        Don, I agree with your perspective on tree removal process. There are several aspects of the current process and city ordinance regarding it that are due for update. The way you put it is exactly the way I think of it – the current practice focuses on individual tress one at a time not a “Healthy, evolving urban forest.”
         
        One aspect of this that needs adjustment is broader consideration for neighborhoods. Since many neighborhoods in Davis had one single type of tree planted as the city street tree at time of development, those trees are aging out and declining at the same time. Some of those tree species we would never choose to plant today for a variety of reasons including climate change considerations. Rather than tree removals being reactive, it would be far better if the city could plan to proactively diversify neighborhood tree populations. Similarly, heat island effects that can be improved by smart tree planting should be considered. I believe the commission is very interested in updating its approach on removals as you suggest.
         
        To that end in the fall of 2022 the tree commission had a joint meeting with the City Council and we proposed updating the Tree Commission establishing resolution to be an Urban Forest establishing resolution. The idea behind it was two-fold, one to better align with the City of Davis Urban Forestry Department and two, to focus on the bigger canopy of the urban forest rather than one tree at a time. This really would not broaden the overall mission of advising the council on tree related matters, but would change the view point from one tree at a time to all of the trees.
         
        The City Council at that time invited us to explore this change and the Tree Commission set up a subcommittee and began work on a new charter. Then Winter of 2023 the Council decided two things. 1) the council would have a subcommittee to review all commission charters. 2) no Commission could work on any issue any council subcommittee works on. The Tree Commission was thus told we had to disband our subcommittee on the commission charter. The subcommittee wrapped up work and submitted our suggestions to council and never heard back until the council instead decided that some Tree Commission responsibilities would be reassigned to staff and the rest would be merged with the NRC into the Climate and Environmental Justice Commission. I think this decision essentially disbands the 60 year old tree commission.
         
        Frankly this is a massive flip flop in council direction for the Tree Commission and was delivered without warning or any real consultation. Vaitla met with the Commission Chair fairly briefly and uninformatively before the Commission shrinking policy was rolled out at a council meeting and has since met with him but only to try to convince him that Vaitla’s Commission shrink was the right thing to do. Vaitla has refused to meet with me at all even though at the time I was the Vice Chair of the Commission, the immediate past chair and the longest serving member currently on the commission.
         
        As you suggest, I see no reason that a commission as broad as Climate and Environmental Justice Commission would ever focus on trees the way a tree commission or an urban forest commission would.

        1. Richard McCann

          Colin

          The NRC also got the directive to work only on topics brought to it by the Council. I took this as intended to stifle criticism of Staff work, particularly that work which has led to Council decisions emerging from opaque processes. It appears to be a move to take decision making out of the hands of citizens through a productive process and “professionalize” it. It rather causes citizen disillusionment that leads to such things as rejection of Staff and Council recommendations on Measure J/R/D votes.

  3. Alan Hirsch

    The argument, for consolidating commissions is to improve community engagement, yet there was no time to do community engagement to talk to members of the tree community, the Tree commission, or Tree Davis as part of developing this proposal,.

    it’s easier to fight for something .than to live up to it.

  4. Richard McCann

    I was reading the introduction to “Human Transit” and it had this passage that I think is relevant to the discussion of the role of the commissions:

    A core idea of this book is that we will have clearer conversations, and make better decisions, if we distinguish carefully between values and expertise and understand their interplay in our transit debates.
    Values are statements about your community’s ideals, goals, and priorities. Values statements are answers to questions like these:

    What is transit’s purpose?How should we measure the results of our transit system? Ridership? Emissions? Complaints?
    What counts as adequate and useful transportation? What, for example, is the minimum level of quality that transit should be aiming for?
    What kind of city do you want? Transit, like all transportation infrastructure, can have big impacts on the form, feel, and functioning of your city, so it’s important to understand those impacts in advance.

    Experts like me can clarify these questions but shouldn’t be answering them for you. My job in this book is not to make you share my values but to give you the tools to clarify and advocate yours. You, and your community, get to choose “what” you want and “why.” An expert’s job is to help with “how.” It’s a crucial distinction, one that often gets lost in transit debates.
    But here’s the catch: the expert gets to ask you questions that clarify what you want.Say you hire a man to fix your plumbing. He goes to work, but soon he encounters a point where he could do one thing or another and it has to be your decision. He says: “I can fix it up for now for $50, and it’ll work for a year or so. Or, if I replace the whole whatsit assembly and connect it with a new doohickey, it’ll be just like new, but that would be about $700 and it would take a week for the part to get here from Malaysia.”
    The plumber’s question reveals that values (“what”) and expertise (“how”) have to interact more than once. A transit planner working for your community is like a plumber: he’s there to implement your values, not his. But you can’t just tell the expert what you want and leave the room, and when a leader or manager does this (“Just do it this way–I don’t care how you do it!”), he’s likely to be unhappy with the results. The values and the expertise must engage in a conversation.
    Fortunately, as with plumbing, the questions that transit experts will have about your values are predictable. The same kinds of questions come up over and over. For this reason, the best way to form a resilient and credible opinion about transit is to think carefully about these typical “plumber’s questions” and to discuss them within your community. This book is designed to help you do that.
    By definition, these questions are hard, because they’re about choosing between different things that you like. Your plumber is asking you if you’d like to save money now or have a more permanent fix. “Both” is not a useful answer.

    Commissioners generally have been recruited for their expertise to some extent more than their values. Representative stakeholders who might bring community values usually are not appointed unless they have particular expertise. My experience on two different commissions (and several short term committees) is that the level of expertise was quite good. The rationale for the commission reorganization appears to be an attempt switch this to a values oriented representation. But this is not being openly discussed as should be, and the question isn’t being asked as to whether this approach is the best way to better incorporate a wider range of values. That’s the discussion that we should be starting with, not a rush with a purported solution.

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