Commentary: Is the Revenue Measure the Right Fight at the Right Time?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – On Tuesday night during the council meeting, Councilmember Will Arnold made a point that kind of jumped out at me.

In response to some rather pointed comments by Elaine Roberts Musser, Councilmember Arnold said, “One of the times that I ran a ballot measure campaign in this community more than a decade ago now, I was so pleased and privileged to work with one of our public commenters here, Elaine Roberts Musser, and she was absolutely instrumental in passing what I still believe to be the most important election that the voters in our community have ever faced, which was joining with the city of Woodland on this joint water project absolutely critical to the future of our community.”

While Arnold was clearly attempting to blunt some of her criticism, he inadvertently raised a critical point—at the last revenue measure, one that received a majority but failed due to Prop 13 requirements, there was Musser along with Councilmember Brett Lee sitting in for the yes side at the League of Women Voter’s Forum.

When the water measure hit in 2013, it was Musser along with folks like Alan Pryor and Matt Williams leading the way with Will Arnold trying to pass the measure for the water project.  It is possible that those three will now be leading the way against a revenue measure.

I know local politics is always shifting and changing, but that seems worth at least exploring.

“I never thought I would see the day when I would oppose a tax measure,” Musser said on Tuesday.

She said, “I was appalled at the reaction of some members of the city council when public commenters expressed concern about the state of the budget and evisceration of citizen oversight commenters who spoke out were gaslighted, accused of seeking revenge and engaging in hyperbole.”

This goes back to the commission issue.  And while I would argue the number of people angered by the commission issue is small, it is an inside baseball sort of issue, but it is an issue that impacts the exact people you rely on when you ask for something like a revenue measure to get approved by the voters.

There is more.

First of all, I would argue and I think most would acknowledge that the rollout of the commission issue was poorly executed.  A lot of this trouble would have been avoided had the council subcommittee started by engaging with current and past commissioners.  And then perhaps backed off when there was pushback.

Neither happened.

Relations have now been poisoned.

Will that matter?  It’s hard to know.  The city can pull up polling from November showing strong support for a revenue measure, but we all know that a poll taken out of context from a political fight can be misleading.

Would-be opponents of the revenue measure will roll out with a laundry list of grievances to take to the community.  They may not succeed in defeating the revenue measure—it only has to get 50 percent plus one to win—but this is a fight that the council didn’t need and didn’t have to have.

Remember, the council wanted to clear the lane for this revenue measure.  They pushed off a Measure J project to clear the way.  And they have also pushed off discussion of a Measure J revision for this measure.

Never mind that in 2018 the city passed two Measure J votes, and then ran two revenue measures on the November ballot.  One passed easily while the other got 57 percent, more than the majority but less than the two-thirds threshold.

All of this begs the question: why pick a fight on a relatively inconsequential issue of commissions when you are specifically and publicly trying to avoid a fight on the most important issue facing the city, but also the most contentious issue—housing?

If the revenue measure goes down, point to this mistake.

We have already seen that council conduct matters.  In 2022, mistakes by a councilmember on the DISC campaign cost the city a chance to pass DISC which would have been a big revenue generator and they also cost that councilmember, Dan Carson, their seat when the fall elections came around.

That should have been a strong message from the community.  Ultimately, it was the conduct not the issue position that was costly.  The two most visible supporters of DISC were Carson and Gloria Partida.  Partida avoided the pitfalls of getting personally tarnished with her conduct, and survived a contentious election rather easily, while Carson got embroiled in a mess, and couldn’t win a second term.

Personally, I am not all that happy with the decision to go after the revenue measure first—particularly after the city failed on three research park votes in 2016, 2020, and 2022.

I think housing is the far more pressing issue.  And I fear it cannot be solved unless we at least modify Measure J.  But that can’t happen in a climate where the council is picking fights with the engaged portions of the city.

As such, the commission issue and how it was handled could become an albatross that hangs around the collective neck of the council.  We’ll find out in November how much damage this has done.  At the very least it has created a contentious fight where there didn’t have to be one.

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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4 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    When the water measure hit in 2013, it was Musser along with folks like Alan Pryor and Matt Williams leading the way with Will Arnold trying to pass the measure for the water project.    It is possible that those three will now be leading the way against a revenue measure.

    A lot has changed in the eleven years since 2013, and almost all of it has eroded the amount of “trust” our City government had earned coming out of the Water Advisory Committee process.  Elaine listed just a few of those in her letter (published by the Vanguard, the Enterprise, and the Davisite) last week

    **  No city audit in three years;

    **  A general fund reserve of 7.5%, half the 15% it should be;

    **  One time gimmicks/delays: suspension of paying down $42 million in unfunded liability of employee healthcare benefits; reduction of $1.5 million originally intended for pavement management;

    **  A 1% sales tax increase, to offset general fund reserves and to pay for additional services/programs. What new services/programs is purposely vague.

    **  In other words, the City Council wants us to approve a 1% sales tax increase, in essence a blank check with virtually no accountability, insisting we trust them to make responsible decisions. Their conduct has hardly inspired confidence!

    On that last point and the second point, compare 2013 to 2024.  In 2013 the Council created the Water Advisory Committee (WAC) with 15 citizen members, which met every two weeks in public meetings in Council Chambers , which were well attended by the public.  The end result of the WAC process was a “right sizing” of the water treatment plant and a proposed water rate increase that tripled the then-current water rates.  The WAC was created by Council as their response to the same kind of “inside baseball” concerns/complaints raised about the “wrong sized” treatment plant proposed by Council.  There was no defensiveness by Council when they were challenged.  They listened to the concerns being raised, and created an open, honest process that clearly illuminated all the financial realities of the then-current water situation.  In 2024 we have a general fund reserve that has suddenly dropped to 7.5%, half the 15% it should be, but absolutely no explanation of why that has happened, or what it means for the future.

    On the first point, for those of us who don’t enjoy working with numbers, let me put “no city audit” into personal terms. It is the equivalent of someone with a sizeable six (or seven) figure income not filing their IRS or CA tax returns for three years.  If you son or daughter introduced you to the person they were seriously dating, and you were told that that person had three years of unfiled tax returns, how would you feel?  Or imagine that you were given a tip about a “great” stock purchase opportunity from a friend, only to fiund out that the company hadn’t published a financial statement for the most recent three years.  Would you be comfortable about purchasing shares of that stock?  How confident would you be with that company’s honesty?

    The difference between 2013 and 2024 is one of honesty and defensiveness … a decerase in one and an increase in the other.

     

     

  2. Richard McCann

    I and many others were disappointed in how the Council rolled out the commissions’ reform proposal. In 2020 a rather large group of commissioners across many commissions wrote to the Council asking reforms in commission management. That letter was published here. More recently Natural Resources Commissioner John Johnson suggested several times that the Council should form a commission focused on implementing the Climate Action Plan. (CAP) Other than some acknowledgement it appeared little came of these efforts.

    And then suddenly, the proposed changes were unveiled as fully formed. No commissioners had been asked directly for input despite the obvious interest expressed earlier, and any suggestions for revisions fell on deaf ears. There was no real attempt at community engagement on this question. There were even insults directed at those who tried to engage in the process. My sense is that many in the community are open to significant changes in commission organization, but their voices were never heard. That’s not a fruitful way to coalesce unity around solving the several challenges the City faces on the budget, housing and sustainability.

     

    1. Mark West

      “I and many others were disappointed in how the Council rolled out the commissions’ reform proposal.”

      As mentioned before, the purpose of the commissions is to offer advice to the CC. Through the subcommittee, the CC announced to the community that the current commission system was not providing the appropriate support and needed to be changed. The public response from many long-term Commisioners has essentially been, ‘no, the commissions are fine, it is the CC that is at fault. We would have had better outcomes if the CC had only listened to the commissions.’

      When your boss announces that the status quo is not working and consequently needs to be changed, and your response is to bluntly defend the status quo and attack your boss, you should not be surprised when you no longer have a job. Commissioners need to remember that they were appointed, not elected. Their job is to provide advice, not to make decisions. Anytime a Commissioner is seen publicly whining about a ‘loss of trust,’ it should be understood that the fault lies entirely with the whiner.

      This issue, however, has nothing to do with the proposed new tax. The tax increase should be rejected by the community due to the City’s abject failure to implement a sound economic development plan at any point over the past six decades. Any new revenues from the proposed tax increase will be squandered, just as they were with the past several tax increases. Trust that the City will respond exactly as it has done before. You will not see a meaningful change in behavior by the City Manager and Staff until we cut off their easy source of new funds.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    I guess raising taxes is easier than economic development to generate more sales tax revenue.

    As for the whole Commissions thing?  I dunno….seems like the commissions are treated like consultants who are there to serve the City Council.  So I guess they can dictate how they want the commissions to serve them.  The commissions believe they represent the people.  But I believe it’s the elected officials that represent the people.  But the city’s own website states:  Commissions provide another important avenue for determining the community’s feelings about an issue.”  So yes, the I guess the commissions do represent the people in theory?  But that’s not the same as oversight.  That’s a whole different issue.  It sounds to me like the council isn’t getting what it wants from the commissions and isn’t communicating what they want or to hear from the commissions.  I don’t think’s it’s such a controversial deal to realign the commissions if that’s how or what the council wants from the commissions.  But the whole lack of communication and respect for the existing commissions seems to the key problem; even if the council has the right to change the commissions as they see fit.

    As for oversight?  As Matt and others have stated; it seems that the city’s fiscal status isn’t completely clear and that’s a big red flag.  I don’t think oversight is a commission responsibility since they’re there to serve the council.  But someone’s got to have some oversight; Maybe an independent commission (one not assigned by the Council)?

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