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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Analysis: A look at the Council Majority

Every so often, a good letter to the editor of the Davis Enterprise provides some food for thought. Such was the case with letter to the editor that questioned the divided citizenry of Davis and discussed the Council Majority, juxtaposing it against what she called the "Greenwald Faction."

Much to my amusement the council majority of Ruth Asmundson, Stephen Souza, and Don Saylor have repeatedly and publicly objected to the use of the term "Council Majority" as though it were an epithet rather than an accurate descriptor. Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmunson at a recent workshop not only only objected to the use of the term "Council Majority" but actually suggested it was inaccurate. As evidence she drew upon the various coalitions that voted with each other in a 4-1 vote.

A 4-1 vote of course is hardly the appropriate test of any coalition, the real question is what a 3-2 tightly divided vote looks like. I agree there is not a typical 4-1 vote, except in the last council when the pro-developer councilmembers held a 4-1 edge, you would not expect a consistent 4-1 coalition to emerge on a 3-2 council. It is also true that many issues end up with a 5-0 vote. Many of those are non-controversial votes on non-controversial issues, as such they do not define the council nor the coalitions. Those claiming otherwise know it. What is interesting is that even within some of those 5-0 votes, the coalitions and voting blocks hold in terms of efforts to amend and shape the final vote.

However, even a cursory look at the hot-issues, those most tightly divided issues, reveals a starkly consistent pattern. There are two basic coalitions--the "Council Majority" (Souza, Saylor and Asmundson) who primarily represent and support development interests, and the Progressives (Mayor Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek). (To imply that this is somehow the Greenwald faction suggests that Heystek follows the lead of the Mayor and I guarantee even the Mayor would agree that this is not an accurate description).

This council was installed in July of 2006, and since then there has been exactly one 3-2 vote on a major issue that saw one of the Majority join with the Progressives, that was Stephen Souza who voted as a swing vote to block the lowering of the windows of the Anderson Bank Building. That's it. That's a stronger coalition than the ones that hold on the US Supreme Court.

So the descriptive power of "Council Majority" is completely accurate. Is it pejorative and leading to incivility on the council? No more than a whole host of things that the Council Majority seemingly has no problem with. Then again, Mayor Pro Tem Asmundson once complained that the use of the term, surrogate, was pejorative.

The writer of the letter to the editor goes on to suggest, "Like it or not, the majority on the council suggests that the Greenwald Faction is supported by a somewhat smaller number of citizens than is the majority."

That's possibly true, but it is very close. There is also a further question as to whether the majority on council are also supported by a large number of citizens on key issues.

To explore this question, we have to go back actually to the 2002 Davis City Council Election. There we saw Ruth Asmundson and Ted Puntillo overwhelm the progressives to regain a council majority that would eventually grow to 4-1 in the next election. However, other than the 2002, most of the elections have been very close and turned on key but small factors.

The nucleus of the current council majority is Don Saylor and Stephen Souza, each elected in 2004, each finishing behind Sue Greenwald. The key to that election was Steve Gidaro whose Independent Expenditure campaign helped to defeat sitting incumbent Mike Harrington and Stan Forbes. Without that last minute intervention, would the council look different today? We cannot say for sure, but it seems likely.

Another key to look at are two initiatives, both of which were strongly supported and backed by the then-council majority with 4-1 votes, first Covell Village in 2005 and then Target in 2006. Covell Village was not only supported by the council majority, they openly campaigned for it. And it went down by a huge margin of nearly 4000 votes and nearly 20 percent. So you have 80 percent of the council supporting the measure but only 40 percent of the public voted for it. That is an indicator that the council majority is not exactly aligned with the general public on these kind of issues. Target won its vote by just under 700 votes or 3 percent of the vote. And while it did win, 80 percent of the council supported it compared with just over 50 percent of the public. Had the opposition not just had to run against Covell Village and also for the Council Elections, it is quite possible that Target could have been defeated as well.

The point here is that with two public votes, the council is not necessarily aligned with the broader population, thus putting the point made in the letter in doubt.

Looking at the 2006 council election, the vote was heavily split. Ruth Asmundson the only incumbent finished first by 123 votes and .5% of the vote over Lamar Heystek. Mike Levy supported by the council majority finished around 300 votes and one percent of the vote behind Mr. Heystek, and Stan Forbes aligned with the progressives finished 68 votes or .25% behind Mr. Levy. That would appear to give the Council Majority a small advantage. But Rob Roy was also in the race, and he was most closely aligned with the progressives in this race particularly on the police issue. When you add it all up, it's very close, but the progressives probably had a slight advantage in 2006.

Regardless of how you want to interpret that result, it seems rather clear that the divide is pretty close between the two sides at this point and that the public is clearly not as pro-development as the council majority and clearly not as slow-growth as the progressives.

The letter suggests a strong divide between old and new Davis as a culprit for this bitterness. There is a clear divide between old and new Davis, you can see it clearly on any map. On the other hand, it is not clear it is a steep divide. It is also not clear that the degree of contentiousness on the council is matched in the community. That seems to be more the function of individual personalities on the council. Each side will point the fingers at each other.

For my part, I would place some portion of the blame on all parties except for perhaps Mr. Heystek who generally stays out of the personal frays. At the end of the day, one side has been talking a lot about civility, but they fail to practice it themselves. They also fail to police their allies when the issues get heated. So from what I can see this is less of a point about civility as opposed to a point about politics.

I do not believe that a division on key issues necessarily has to lead to the kind of bitter divide and rancor that we have seen in the last few years in Davis politics. The fact that it has needs to focus blame on those participating in it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting