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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Commentary: Concerns About City Staff Providing Alternatives to Preferred Direction

On Tuesday night, at the Davis City Council's Workshop on Water, Davis City Councilmember Lamar Heystek asked city staff and consultants to provide him with some of the disadvantages about using a regionalized water plan. Their response was that they couldn't think of any. Needless to say we could probably think of a number of drawbacks to a regionalized water plan, but therein lies the problem with this city's staff. They come to a conclusion and are often unwilling to explore alternatives to their preferred solution.

We saw the same dynamic at work with Mayor Sue Greenwald's repeated questions of staff. They were not answering her question. This force her to start "badgering" them in order for them to stop commentating and to start answering her actual questions. This drew angry responses from both Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Don Saylor. Unfortunately, the Mayor needed to ask tough questions to get them to start coming forth with information that did not fit into their preferred plan.

This concern is broader than just a problem with the water issue, however, this water issue illustrates it because none of the Councilmembers save possibly Stephen Souza, with his business background dealing with swimming pool cleaning, really have any expertise on water. So they are reliant on the evaluations of staff and other experts when attempting to understand issues of this type of complexity.

However, if staff is not willing to explore alternatives, even if the purpose of that exercise is to ultimately dismiss those alternatives, they do both the City Council and the city of Davis as a whole a disservice.

And yet that is exactly what we see over and over again, staff creates a report and makes recommendations. They present those recommendations to the city council. The council then asks questions of city staff. Those questions tend to lead the council in a certain direction and if a particular member opposes the direction recommended by staff, especially if they are in the minority, it becomes difficult to get cooperation from staff.

As is the case of the water issue, it may turn out that the staff's recommendations are accurate and the best choice. But there are a number of issues and concerns that need to be fully explored to determine whether that choice is the best or not. It would have been better if staff were prepared to address and open to discussing what alternative plans would look like. It would have been better if council could have received a full vetting of options. In the end, they may have come to the same conclusion as staff on this issue, but they as elected decisionmakers should not be limited by the opinions and recommendations of an unelected City Staff.

Furthermore, staff's reluctance to pursue alternative approaches should not be enabled by the council majority. Councilmember Saylor may have known exactly what approach he wanted to take on this issue from the start, but he should not have tried to prevent Mayor Greenwald from trying to pursue her line of questioning. Questioning the plan is a good and healthy exercise. Staff badgering occurs when the staff is unwilling to partake in a given line of questions--this is fundamentally a problem with the staff's reluctance to pursue alternatives. If the Mayor is "badgering" staff, then direct staff to address her actual questions and line of thinking rather than simply editorializing with preset answers.

It is concerning to watch this dynamic as there are a number of important issues that City Council simply does not have the expertise to address. Council should more fully direct staff to approach such topics with a wider variety of options and allow the council more discretion to select their option of choice.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting