Vice Mayor Bapu Vaitla’s Commentary on Community Engagement and the General Plan

Transcribed by Alan Hirsch

I mostly want to talk about the community engagement piece. But I want to say a few words about the staff involvement (for a general plan process).

Both during the commission restructuring process, of which there was extensive staff engagement in fact, and the council retreat, it became apparent that there actually aren’t that many opportunities for staff to participate in long term visioning. That is primarily because they are working so hard all the time in an understaffed city to try to get the work done day after day after day. So, when you provide some space, given their professional experience, given their expertise, what could Davis look like, in our most ambitious vision, 20 years into the future. That’s a rare opportunity,

And I don’t think the community, the community (air quotes) at large is worried about transparency about staff; there is a small group of people who are always pointing fingers at staff, but it is not a community-wide concern, I think when you do surveys about satisfaction with staff they regularly receive high marks for their performance and their transparency. And their collegiality, their willingness to interact and answer questions to the community.

This is a piece I want to speak about in relation to community engagement. And I want to really caution us against being steered away from using the creativity of staff and prioritizing that in this visioning process. I think it is really, really important. I think a subcommittee (of council for public engagement)…maybe there are other ways to do it, but for me it is very, very important for staff to be centrally involved and feel the freedom to play one of the leadership roles here.

So with respect to community engagement, I had the pleasure of giving a lecture today…(at UCD Professor Catherine Brinkley’s Community Development class). To paraphrase, I was inspired and energized by students who “had such great questions, such great ideas, fresh ideas we don’t usually hear about, institutions and polices we have right now, whom are they serving, and whom they are not serving, Questions that are difficult to pose. I hope you will stay engaged in the general plan process…(offer to help them get involved). I bring all this up in the sense as this is your home, this is your community, a lot of time comments get prefaced by “I’ve been in Davis 20 years, I’ve been a homeowner for 30 years, and it’s great, it’s fine, it’s your home, yes.

But you don’t have more of a voice than someone who, say, just moved here yesterday. All of you (students in audience) have equal rights and equal voice and equal worth no matter how long you have been here. Because this is your home, and this is your community.

The larger point about community involvement and participation is I want us to be very intentional what community participation, public participation, what inclusivity means. To me, it means as many people, as many different people, as diverse people as possible. Diverse in terms of class, in terms of resources, age, sex, gender, race, are in the process and participating.

It doesn’t mean, once again, the quote unquote, leading citizens of Davis are monopolizing the policy conversation again, and again, and again. But more that new people need to enter the policy conversation and feel this to be enough their home too. The feeling they are entitled to participate, because it is their home. To me that is what it means to have public participation. It does not mean having 14 committees which are privileged and already have power and voice; it means inviting new folks into the conversation.

Like Gloria said, like my colleagues said, it’s not just about creating forums for people to comment, but going to where they are and understanding the constraints in their lives and making it easier for them to participate.

I want to stop there, there is a lot more to decide about this (general plan) process. I feel it very important that we are clear about our methodology for inclusivity. This can be worked out with commissions and try to build capacity in our commissions to go out and do the broad-based outreach. I also think there is a place for a (ad hoc council?) subcommittee to do that. So, I am kind of agnostic on whether subcommittees can be formed tonight…in advance of hiring the consultant…

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  1. Colin Walsh

    This can be worked out with commission and try to build capacity in our commission to go out and do the broad-based outreach

    This is a perfect example where Vaitla’s words do not match his policy proposals. Vaitla talks about building capacity in the commissions but is actually shrinking the commissions and eliminating about 25% of the community positions on the commissions. That is not just a handful of people who will no longer be directly involved, because every commissioner has a multiplying effect. Every commissioner is also a point of community contact in their neighborhoods, social circle, family network and beyond. Every commissioner brings with them a basket of other community voices.

    What’s more, because commissions have stable slowly shifting membership, discrete subject areas,  regular meetings and members with expertise in commission subject matter they are able to go deep on the topics they cover in a way one time feel good meetings or the council just cannot. 

    Vaitla is now attempting after the fact of his proposal to wrap it in feel good words about diversity and involvement, but the actual policy put forward shrinks community involvement. It is a sad display of typical politics. Remember don’t look at what the politician says. look at what they actually do. Vaitla is shrinking community involvement opportunities.

    If Vaitla was at all good to these words they would come with proposals for HOW to get more people involved, not policies that shrink community involvement.

    The last general plan had over 200 community members working on it in committees in ADDITION to commissions, council and staff. Vaitla is not serious about community engagement, and he is just trying to scramble out of a PR nightmare of his own making from trying to limit community involvement. If he was serious, he would be proposing something other than just shrinking avenues of engagement.

    Our community deserves better than Vaitla’s attempt at feel good words about inclusion. It deserves true community involvement in a commissions PLUS new avenues for involvement model. That community involvement starts with the Council subcommittee that appoints new commissioners. Vatla serves on that subcommittee. His criticisms of Commission composition are criticisms of himself for not doing more to recruit a diversity of commissioners. Instead Vaitla’s subcommittee has failed repeatedly now to recruit and appoint new commissioners. Just look at the work the previous subcommittee did – they did so much better than Vaitla.


    Even the way Vaitla came to the commission shrinking proposal without ever discussing the proposal with commissioners or staff or in any open community meeting before dropping it on the council agenda with no notice shows the real way Vaitla likes to work. 




    1. Richard McCann


      On point.

      I would go further to say that the most recent example of successful community engagement was for the Downtown Plan. The DPAC was populated with individuals who were very well informed. The product was pretty good (and would have been better if the City had fully adopted the sustainability guidelines from another citizen group appointed by the Council to address that issue.)

      If the Council wants diverse points of view, it’s not really going to find it by trying to appoint representatives. It’s going to have to PAY community based organizations to participate and bring their perspectives. These communities generally don’t have the time or money to afford to participate in community volunteering of this type. Gutting the commissions, which the subcommittee apparently is trying to do by winding down the current roster of appointees, won’t achieve Bapu’s goal. He’ll have virtue signaling without real effect.

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