Guest Commentary: City Council Doubles Down on Decision to Merge the Commissions

By Elaine Roberts Musser

I am sorry to say the City Council made the decision to approve the mergers. (Councilwoman Donna Neville was unable to attend the City Council meeting, so took no part in the decision.)

What problem exactly was the City Council trying to solve? Never were City Council members specific about what allegedly “wasn’t working” in commissions, so commissioners could try to correct any perceived difficulties. Instead, the Subcommittee on Commissions (Mayor Josh Chapman and Vice Mayor Bapu Vaitla) kept the accusations purposely vague, so there was no way for commissioners to defend themselves.

In law, there is something known as the “vagueness doctrine,” which rests on the due process clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. “By requiring fair notice of what is punishable and what is not, the vagueness doctrine helps prevent arbitrary enforcement of the laws.” Arbitrary enforcement is precisely what the City Council engaged in when approving the merging of commissions.

Because of this questionable process by the Subcommittee on Commissions, a petition was circulated, in which 159 citizens (21 of them current or former commissioners/City Council members) asked the City Council to immediately reverse moving forward with merging commissions.

Instead, Vaitla and Chapman doubled down, refusing to appoint any applicants to vacancies for more than a year, causing quorum problems. As a result, it appears the Finance & Budget Commission had been unable to meet for 9 months, the Senior Citizens Commission folded, and 6 commission meetings were cancelled in May.

Because of the FBC being put out of commission (pardon the pun), the city budget has had no citizen oversight for almost a year. Nor has the city had a financial audit for three years. City budget reserves have plummeted from $21 million to a mere $6 million in the last two years, according to the latest staff report.

How much confidence will taxpayers have to approve any tax measure proposed by this City Council, after the wanton destruction of the Finance & Budget Commission? Or was the purpose of destroying this particular commission to cut down on citizen oversight of the dire circumstances actually going on with city finances? (Citizen oversight can be a pesky nuisance when things aren’t going well.)

So, I have resigned my position as a commissioner on the Utilities Commission, in disgust. I want no part of the newly formed Fiscal Commission (a merger between the Utilities Commission and the Finance & Budget Commission). Why would I want to remain after being told by Vaitla that commissions are dysfunctional, don’t give information the City Council wants, and commissioners are somehow “privileged”? The vote in favor of the merged commissions in effect says the City Council that approved the mergers agreed with this disparaging viewpoint.

That is incredibly disrespectful and disappointing. And I would remind the City Council it was they who appointed those supposedly “privileged and useless” commissioners, and it is Vaitla and Chapman who made a number of commissions dysfunctional and severely restricted their missions.

And why should I be part of a merged commission requiring me to start all over the lengthy process of getting the commission up to speed, accompanied with: a heavier workload; twice as much ground to cover in subject matter I am not familiar with; longer meetings; and far less attention to critical matters?

I already went through that grueling process with the Utilities Commission, which took 10 years to become the well-oiled machine it was. I have devoted more than 20 years and thousands of volunteer hours to this city (I was voted Davis Citizen of the Year in 2014), as have many other commissioners, and this is the thanks we are to receive?

Apparently at least one commissioner was told he had suddenly “termed out” of his former position as a commissioner, so could not be on the newly merged commission. How does one “term out” of a newly formed commission before it even starts?

At least four other commissioners I know have also resigned. That is a lot of institutional knowledge walking out the door. And while the current members of the City Council who approved the merger pay lip service to supposedly wanting to “improve” commissions and increase citizen participation, instead their actions have done the exact opposite.

By cutting out several commissions, they have eliminated a number of positions for citizens to take part in local governance. So how the heck has their “solution” been a change for the better? A great quote by the writer Charlton Ogburn, Jr., sums up the current state of affairs nicely: “…we tend … to meet any situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

— Elaine Roberts Musser is a Davis resident and a former member of the city Utilities Commission

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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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24 Comments

    1. Matt Williams

      How is the issue of a Government that has lost the Trust of the electorate a “dead horse”? 

      or alternatively,

      How is the issue of a Government that has turned away from  democracy toward autocracy a dead horse?

      1. David Greenwald

        Is there real evidence that the city has lost the trust of the electorate? While I happen to believe that the city council erred in their management of this issue, there is little evidence that anyone other than a small sector of engaged people are even aware of this issue, much less have lost trust based on it – and for the most part that was the group that was already lacking in trust/ support for the council. (This in no way is a defense of the council on this issue).

        1. Matt Williams

          Is there real evidence that the city has lost the trust of the electorate?

          How about …

          — The Mace Mess where the city went ahead like a bull in a china shop with a plan that caused broad swaths of the electorate to revolt.

          — The Mace Mess where a project budgeted at approximately $3 million has now reportedly cost over $10 million.

          — The three amendments to the Cannery development agreement, one of which cost the residents of the Cannery over $21 million in additional property taxes.

          — The fact that the City is three years behind in publishing an annual audited financial statement.  To put that in context, when making an investment decision with your own personal money, would you trust that money to a company that is three years behind in issuing its annual audited financials?

          — The purchase of a “new toy for Bobby Weist” in the form of the new ladder truck, which was/is redundant of the ladder truck at the UCD Fire Department.

          I will stop there, but as more come in to my e-mail box I will add them

          1. David Greenwald

            Matt – that is a laundry list of your complaints, it is not evidence of lost trust.

        2. Matt Williams

          They are not complaints David, they are factual events.  They are the root causes of the lost trust.

          Do you have any evidence that there is not a loss of trust?

        3. Alan Pryor

          Matt – Here is a few more instances of extremely bad governance by our City Council:

          The Council gave a no-bid, sweet-heart land-lease contract to a brand-new Folsom company (Bright Night) for a solar energy system on former City wetlands by the wastewater treatment plant against the strong objections by many members of the NRC and Utilities Commission. The land is still idle years later.

          The  City Council approval transfer of the waste-hauling contract from Davis Waste Removal to Recology without even attempting to renew the City’s option to acquire the 2nd St facilities to ensure an open and and honest bidding process when the Recology contract for waste hauling is renewed in the future. The contract approval was made against the strong objections by many members of the NRC and Utilities Commission.

          For the past 10 years the City Council has awarded employment contract increases with the City’s unions that are far in excess of prevailing inflation rates. This has cumulatively cost the City in excess of  $80 million. And they just awarded our entire fire department a 6.5% pay increase retroactive for 18 months based on a deeply flawed study of comparable fire personnel pay rates at neighboring City. In this study they only looked at the Fireman II position for comparison but completely neglected to look at our 10 highest paid fire department personnel (Chief, Captain, Lieutenantss, etc.) who are now paid in excess of $400,000 per year in total compensation which is about 35-40% higher than the 10 highest paid fire dept personnel in Woodland.

          David – Yes, these are just complaints by some now but you can fully expect that voters will be reminded of all of these complaints before the election in November to remind them why we cannot trust our City Council to behave responsibly.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            David – Yes, these are just complaints by some now but you can fully expect that voters will be reminded of all of these complaints before the election in November to remind them why we cannot trust our City Council to behave responsibly.

            That is a fair response.

        4. Matt Williams

          David said … You made the claim AND now are asking me to prove a negative. Funny.

          Yes I made the claim … and then addressed the concern you raised (concern pointing out that the items you referred to were not complaints, they were/are facts.

          With that response to your concerns dispensed with, I then asked you a question.  What is your answer to that question?

          1. David Greenwald

            You didn’t address my concerns, you listed your grievances, which is not what I asked.

        5. Mark West

          Alan P. “Here is a few more instances of extremely bad governance by our City Council:”

          All of the listed complaints occurred while the existing commission system was in place and functioning. How exactly did our many commissions act to prevent these decisions? I agree that the City is often poorly managed, but I don’t see how a bloated and expensive commission system is making things better. The CC is right to make changes to the commission system, and if members of the commissions do not like the results, then the CC should find new members.

        6. Matt Williams

          Good question Mark.  Looking at Alan’s list

          For the Brightnight situation both the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) and the Utilities Commission (UC) advised the Council not to proceed.  The Finance and Budget Commission was not able to formally meet, but several of the members of that commission joined with the NRC and UC in making public comment at the Council meeting.  The Council chose not to listen.

          For the DWR transfer to Recology, again the NRC and UC gave Copuncil formal advice not to proceed.  The Council chose not to listen.

          The employee contracts did not fall into the remit of any of the commissions, and Council never asked any for their input.

        7. Mark West

          “The Council chose not to listen.”

          That is obvious Matt. So if the CC is not going to listen to the advice of the Commissions, why have them? Are they really making the City function better?

        8. Alan Pryor

          To Mark West: The NRC and the Utilities Commissions extensively discussed and then howled to the moon to stop the Bright Night sweetheart deal and to stop the Recolgy waste hauling transfer without safeguards in place. It was all over the Vanguard and the Enterprise then so I can’t imagine you did not hear about it if you were paying attention to local affairs.  But the Council simply chose to ignore the protests. But at least the matters did not escapeVERY close scrutiny.

          Re: Your claim of the “bloated and expensive commission system“.  On what are you basing your statement? Do you have any facts to support that assertion at all or are you just parroting the  Council’s unsubstantiated claims?

          1. Don Shor

            The NRC and the Utilities Commissions extensively discussed and then howled to the moon to stop the Bright Night sweetheart deal and to stop the Recolgy waste hauling transfer without safeguards in place. It was all over the Vanguard and the Enterprise then

            All of which made seemingly very little difference in the subsequent council elections.

        9. Mark West

          Alan P. “so I can’t imagine you did not hear about it”

          Oh, I heard the howling (your word, not mine), but that was likely the problem. Howling is simply not an effective approach to getting things done, especially if you are perceived as acting in a condescending manner while you are howling. I’m not surprised that the CC is not listening.

          The basic problem here is a misunderstanding about how the City operates. The day to day manager of the City, and therefore the person making most of the operational decisions, is the City Manager. That is the person whose opinion needs to be influenced, not the CC. By the time you are howling at the CC, you have already lost.

          bloated and expensive commission system“.  On what are you basing your statement?

          What basis? Common sense. If the Commission are not offering advice that the CM or CC are willing to listen to, then they are a waste of resources. The purpose is to obtain valuable advice, not simply to provide you with a soapbox (or moonlit hilltop) to howl from. You have frequently commented on the cost of payroll, but you seem to forget that fact when you are discussing the commissions. Do you really think that the City Staff members dealing with the Commissions (and howling Commissioners) are working for free?

        10. Richard McCann

          All of which made seemingly very little difference in the subsequent council elections.

          Not true – Brett Lee who had initiated the BrightNight deal chose not to run again based on the growing opposition. I suspect another of these influenced another council member not to run again as well. In addition, the Council and staff failed to adopt the NRC’s recommendations on DiSC I in 2020. It lost by less than 2%, a margin that likely would have tipped the other way if NRC commissioners had come out in vocal support because it had the sustainability features requested. And that ultimately led to Dan Carson losing his seat.

          As to Mark’s assertion, the fact is that the City is now in a worse fiscal situation thanks to those decisions to ignore commission input. And they have to ask for a tax increase as a result.

        11. Mark West

          “As to Mark’s assertion, the fact is that the City is now in a worse fiscal situation thanks to those decisions to ignore commission input.”

          Richard could benefit from having an editor if he wants his comments to be understood, even a rudimentary one, or perhaps he could simply take the time to read what he has typed before posting. The role of a Commissioner is to give advice, period. Once a Commissioner publicly criticizes the decisions made by the CC, they have admitted that they failed in their role as a Commissioner and should immediately resign. You cannot offer quality advice at the same time you are publicly criticizing the decisions made by the panel you are advising. Richard is not the only one posting here who is guilty of this fault.

        12. Richard McCann

          Once a Commissioner publicly criticizes the decisions made by the CC, they have admitted that they failed in their role as a Commissioner and should immediately resign

          Mark, what insulting BS. You lack context for your comment. Why are you out to blame the victim? Why should a commission only provide advice that agrees with the Council’s and Staff’s perspective? Why is it a failure to disagree? Why is the Staff blameless for being unwilling to accept alternative advice or to include alternative recommendations in the Staff Report to the Council?

          In most of these bad decisions, the Staff decided to either bypass the commissions or ask for input on an extremely short timeline that often allowed for only 1 or 2 meetings (due to the Staff’s interpretation of the Brown Act that differs from other cities’.) BrightNight is a prime example where the City gave up millions of dollars in potential savings if it had instead pursued a RES-BCT-eligible project instead. The two key commissions only found out about this about a week before it was brought before the Council.

  1. Alan Pryor

    The most important asset a City Council has when asking the citizenry to give them more money (as our Council intends to do in November) is trust…trust by the citizens that they are not being lied to by our government about the need for the new money and trust in our leaders that they will handle the money responsibly.

    Can you imagine our Council doing anything more destructive to any trust that existed between the citizens and the Council than to functionally dissolve the watchdog Finance and Budget Commission for the entire year leading up to the election that will vote on a new tax?  And then they neuter a new merged Commission supposedly formed to make it more efficient with inexperienced accolytes that have no institutional knowledge of the City’s finances and with a restrictive charter that limits the amount of time and the scope of any inquiries the new merged Commission may undertake.

    Like I asked above, can you imagine our Council doding any thing more destructive to the trust granted to them by the citizens?

  2. johncooper

    I attended the recent CC meeting regarding Council Member Vaital’s de-structuring of our city’s Commission system. From my perspective, the Council sat dispassionate and bored during public comments. In my 44 years in Davis, I feel badly I haven’t attended more meetings. My take away was that the public concerns posed by commission recommendations were somehow interfering with letting the CC do way they wanted.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    Commissions are set up to advice the Council.  If the Commissions aren’t providing the info or functions that the Council wants then the Council makes changes to the Commissions.

    I know when I’ve hired consultants; that if they didn’t provide what I needed, then I hired new consultants.

    It seems to me that many Commissioners forgot their primary role and believe they have some sort of directly representing the people kind of mission….forgetting that it’s the Council that are elected to represent the people….and that the Commissioners are simply appointed to provide advise to help the Council.

    Now my uninformed understanding of the situation is that the Council hasn’t been doing the greatest job at coordinating with some (all?) of the Commissions.   So if that’s the case then reorganizing (and getting some new commissioners) might be how or why the council is then able to better communicate and engage with the Commissions….so the Council can get what it wants from the Commissions.

    1. Richard McCann

      Keith

      The relationship is not one way. The Council does not rule uber alles.  The explicit mission of the commissions has been to provide citizen input, often backed by an above average level of expertise, to the Council. (That’s written down; on the other hand your characterization is not.) It also has been to act watchdogs on Staff actions because the Council can’t be everywhere. The commissions are not consultants (and I’ve spent my career as one and I know very well that those boundaries differ substantially) so the analogy is inappropriate, especially in a democracy.

      The real problem isn’t the commissions communication with the Council, but rather the Staff’s increasing efforts to cut commissions out of the advising role. The Council has often not even heard the commissions’ advice due to Staff actions. Staff also takes it upon itself to directly rebut commissions’ recommendations, even when staff members do not have sufficient qualifications to express such opinions. Why should the hired help have greater sway than citizens?

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