Guest Commentary: Davis Council Fails to Support State Climate Policy

A secret plan to use 2021 Davis letter to support I-80?

By Alan Hirsch

On Tuesday March 5, the Davis City Council let stand a 2021 policy to “strongly support” I-80 widening for cars—ignoring 34 letters and public comments opposing the current city policy. In fact, only 5 citizens wrote or  spoke up in favor of some type of widening, but three of the five either opposed the tolling lane being proposed or called for an HOV instead. Even YoloTD Executive Director Autumn Bernstein when she presented a website survey of alternatives noted that HOV lanes were most popular, bus-only lanes #2 choice and the least favorite were two-toll lanes options, The survey could hardly be relied on by council to justify a turn to “popularism,” rejection of UC Davis experts, and selected a toll lane option.

In addition, council heard from two former YoloTD board members (both Davis mayors) Don Saylor and Ken Wagstaff.  These folks are the architects of the current auto dependent-transportation system in Yolo County. To no one’s surprise they urged the council to stay the course on the widening of the freeway.  UC Davis Administration also wrote a letter to council supporting the toll lane widening, thus ignoring research and public statements out of UCD’s own Institute of Transportation Studies on the settled science of induced demand.  Inconvenient truths die hard.

YoloTD /Chair Mayor Josh Chapman argued we could not vote for the letter, reversing policy without a side-by-side comparison of benefit and cost of the different alternatives—unaware of the irony that neither YoloTD or Caltrans has provided this comparison, much less  answered issues raised the City CEQA letter of the current proposal, like the failure to discuss if the project will address cut-through traffic or if the mitigation proposed is either effective or funded(time stamp 1;24:50). (In fact Caltrans has done a side-by-side that shows rail is 15x more cost effective if you study the entire corridor).

Neville’s Reasons to Reject Her Own Letter

The reason the draft letter to change city was not approved was that one of authors, councilperson Donna Neville, surprised everyone by arguing against her own letter.

In sharing her reasons, she made two points:   (see video 1:07:41)

The first was the lack of consensus in the community. She argued we need to reflect community consensus when we are “speaking to the highest level of government.” This seems a high bar when the letter was simply  an affirmation of both the existing state climate plans and Caltrans’ own position on freeway widening.  The argument that we need a consensus to speak to “upper reaches of government” must sound strange to many after city council passed a resolution calling for a cease fire in Gaza in December before a crowd of 150 in council chambers that was clearly polarized.

The second argument by Neville is the most revealing: She opposed the letter as “it does not serve any purpose, i.e.  she unpacked this to mean it would affect no government actions being contemplated.

However, contra to Neville’s statement, this is incorrect. Neville’s new letter, if it had passed, would have featured prominently on March 21 to challenge the new I-80 $105 million grant application before the California Transportation Commission (CTC).  But this fact was not known to the public until 3 days after the council meeting so people could not mention it in their public comment to correct her.

But I doubt Neville knew about this.

In her statement, Neville seems to have shown herself a victim of the Caltrans and YoloTD culture of keeping the public in the dark about the freeway project public process.

The importance of the CTC to fund projects is well known to insiders, as it is  the gatekeeper on all transportation funding in the state. It was mentioned previously by both Councilman Will Arnold and City Manager Mike Webb as a target recipient of the proposed letter. But no one but insiders at Caltrans and YoloTD knew the grant request on I-80 was imminent, making a new Davis letter “purposeless” as Neville believed.

This mistake in the importance of the letter by Neville stated was left  uncorrected at the meeting by both Yolo Chapman and YoloTD Executive Director Bernstein, who were both present at council.  Both must have known about a grant request going before the CTC for weeks, if not months, and could not but be aware a new policy letter from the city of Davis would change the dynamics at CTC. I contacted Chapman for a comment on this and he referred me to YoloTD’s Bernstein.

Deny your power and you deny your responsibility.

Josh Chapman at the 3/5 meeting gave a 9-minute speech arguing that the 34 people were misinformed (“riled up”), and stated there was nothing the city council could do—or should do, to affect the project. (Video time  stamp 1;21:20). His statement seemed to deny the agency city had if this letter were sent to the CTC, and directly contradicted statements by Bernstein. She stated on Dec 11 to the YoloTD board meeting that the body could withhold the federal money—$86 million—if Caltrans did not choose “the right  alternative to use the money.” (Video time stamp1:28:05).

In fact, even the public was not informed of plans for the CTC grant application: it wasn’t until the Friday after the council meeting that the  existence of this grant application for $105 Mil for widening was publicly noticed via the CTC agenda for March 21.  And even then, it was far from obvious the funding request, while big for Yolo, was just one of the 163 items  in CTC’s 22-page agenda. It could have easily been overlooked—and in fact it took until Sunday night for the sharp eyes of a community activist picked it out and start asking questions.

This omission of disclosure by YoloTD—even if legal—would seem to contradict one of YoloTD Board’s ‘core values” they put in every agenda: “To be transparent, inclusive, and accountable to the public stakeholders and partner agencies.” So, while YoloTD may have been legal, the reality is the  Brown Act is a floor, not a “best practices” level of disclosure.

Pattern of Strategic Omission of Information

In fact, the existence of this CTC grant application was kept secret for months from the public and maybe even from most of the YoloTD board members: A review of the last 8 months of agendas and minutes shows no mention of it  until a meeting 6 days after the council meeting—an omission confirmed by an inquiry with YoloTD ED Bernstein herself.  It is possible some or even all the board might have known, as it is not illegal for staff to brief their board behind the scene, but it is a violation of the Brown Act for staff to get their board to agree to actions behind the scene in one on one meetings, creating a “circular meeting” to support a re-submission of a new grant for a different amount from a different pot of money they approved previously 10/10/2022 in resolution 2022-17.

That grant application approved 10/22, was submitted and rejected at the June 28, 2023, CTC meeting. But is another story of secrecy.  At that meeting  Yolo80 was rated last—24th of 24—by Caltrans for funding and 30 out of 49 by CTC staff.  In fact, YoloTD board never debriefed its member— at least in public—why their project was rejected or why it would be different if resubmitted. I was curious also, so made a public record request to get the detail and the methodology. Yet 9 months later I have still not gotten a response. But I wasn’t forgotten; the very day the CTC issued its agenda with I-80 on it, I got an email from Caltrans saying I would finally get the information—but it would be two weeks after the 6/21 CTC meeting, when the information would be largely mute.

The idea of things happening behind the scenes to inform YoloTD board members in advance of meeting is also consistent with observations like the board reviewed and approve the 1000+  page EIR plus  chose an alternative only required in 16 ½ (!!) minutes at it its December 11, 2023, meeting.

While it is possible some YoloTD board members, like alternate Neville, have largely been kept in the dark, after the July 17th  board meeting there were no  questions by the board members at meeting as to what the funding plan was.  This silence seemed so incongruous . especially for project advocate Chapman, I even called it out as part of an article in the Davisite on February 19, 2023.

One wonders how Neville will handle either Chapman or Bernstein’s failure to disclose his full knowledge of the importance of her letter.  I even wonder if Neville might have been lobbied by Chapman to drop the letter as she did: Chapman and Neville are ‘Brown Act buddies” on the project—as they are paired as Davis representative and alternate on the YoloTD board.

Recalling the Brown Act’s guarantee of transparency:

Source: ACLU vs City of Fresno

  1.  “Under the California Constitution, the people have “the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.” Cal. Const., art. 1, § 3(b)(1). To that end, “meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.” Id. The Constitution further requires that any “statute, court rule, or other authority . . . shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.” Id. at § 3(b)(2).
  2. The Brown Act provides that “the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.” § 54950.
  3. As the Brown Act declares, “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” § 54950.
  4. The Brown Act was designed “to facilitate public participation in all phases of local government decision making, and to curb misuse of [the] democratic process by secret legislation by public bodies.” Cohan v. City of Thousand Oaks, 30 Cal. App. 4th 547, 555 (1994), as modified on denial of reh’g (Dec. 21, 1994).
  5. The rights of the people to instruct their representatives and petition the government for redress of grievances depend heavily on opportunities to attend public meetings, observe and speak at such meetings, and access information pertaining to how local government conducts the public’s business. Without such opportunities, these rights are significantly impaired.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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