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Thursday, April 24, 2008

UC Davis College Democrats Host Forum for City Council Candidates

Last night, the Davis College Democrats hosted a candidate’s debate for the five City Council candidates that are registered Democrats (which means Rob Roy as a Green, was not at the debate). It was a lively debate at times that started out as a tightly formatted program where two candidates were each asked a question, but it morphed into a more loosely formatted program where others could jump in for a minute after the initial candidates were asked a question. It covered a variety of issues and topic but from a student perspective. In what follows will not cover every single question, but rather some of the more interesting answers.

The first question asked how they felt about promoting businesses that cater to UC Davis students and whether they had plans to do so. For Sue Greenwald, downtown was one of her main focuses—to make it vital. When she first arrived in Davis, the downtown was deserted on weekends and during the summers. She talks about focusing on more arts in the downtown area and Miskah’s café coming to the downtown. She wants it to remain bicycle friendly.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald wants to work with the business community to bring in more businesses that cater to students and that stay open after 9 pm. “We do need businesses that will stay open later, this is a university town.” She also talked about the downtown area remaining safe for bicyclist and bringing in more entertainment—bands, student nights once a month that will have music and entertainment.

The next question was directed to Stephen Souza and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald, it asked about councilmembers having the ability to take positions on major issues such as the war in Iraq. Stephen Souza’s answer was simply yes. “We have a moral obligation to take positions on issues that directly affect this community in ways that sometimes don’t seem as direct.” He talks about the direct impact of the war in Iraq on money that has been taken from the community, the cost of human lives some of whom are community members, and finally talked about the “degradation and reduction of the ability of the national guard to respond to potential emergencies that occur.”

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “Yes, definitely. We have members of the community that are impacted by the war.” Further, “I chaired the city of Davis’ Human Relations Commission and I was proud that I as chair of the commission and the commissioners that served with me, we took a stand when the war first started, we forwarded a resolution to City Council, the council was not in favor of it as a whole, there were some on the council that opposed it.”

Don Saylor and Sydney Vergis were asked: “What do you think the main source of revenue for Davis should be?” Don Saylor talked about sources for revenue. Mr. Saylor wants to look at creating a “balanced portfolio of revenues from all the sources.” Right now, sales tax revenue accounts for 30% of our general fund, half of that is from gasoline and automobile sales. Most cities it is around 20%. In sales tax, Davis ranks near the bottom in per person revenue. Without increased sales tax, we need to look at direct taxes in parcel and park taxes.

Sydney Vergis said that these are tough times. She first laid out in general the problem of finding where revenue can come from particularly emphasized increasing sales tax revenue. “I think one way is for the students right now you have a great meal plan set up where if you do buy a meal plan on campus you can go to vendors off campus and use your card; I would love to see that program expanded to all of not only our downtown businesses but to our businesses in various neighborhoods.” She said that will be a great way to increase business and student involvement.

How will you bring high-tech jobs or green collar jobs to Davis? Stephen Souza, “That’s a great question. We have to, we have to do it because of the answer to one of your prior questions, we have to diversify our sales tax base and we need to diversify our revenue base in Davis.” Talks about the need to set aside land to recruit spin-offs from this university. The land needs to be zoned and it has to be at least 100 acres. Souza wants to see an electric auto production facility, a photovoltaic production facility in this town, and a 30 megawatt facility on the edge of this town.

Sydney Vergis, “This is one thing that we’ve looked at hard on the BEDC, and that is, how do you attract good companies to Davis? Davis has an anti-business reputation” Talks about the need for zoning for such business—we need to create a green tech zone and to streamline the zoning process. “We are looking at bringing businesses to the Mondavi and showing them what a great place it is.” She then went on to say that “I personally outgrew the job opportunities here in Davis quite rapidly.”

The next question for Stephen Souza and Sydney Vergis asked about jobs and affordable housing. Souza talked about starting a business of his own and that the affordability of homes is far out of reach. “We on this council have passed the most stringent and fairest affordable housing ordinance in the nation. The problem is that if you don’t have any development of any potential size, you can have small little projects… you don’t have any of any potential size. The affordable housing ordinance that we passed has parameters within it right now that there has to be 45 percent of every project that is between the price ranges of $177,000 for a family of two, to 464,000 for a family of four in a three-bedroom house. That’s the ranges that you have to have for a homes within the Affordable Housing ordinance that we passed. We don’t get very many of those. We had 44 permits issued last year… You take the calculations and you find that the affordable numbers that you get out of that is even less because when the projects are smaller, that percentage shrinks. We did that so that the burden could be borne over a larger number of units. You need a large enough project to get a larger number of affordable units”

Sydney Vergis, “the common thread between jobs and housing is a lack of range of both. As I spoke before the range of jobs here is minimal and as I mentioned before, I outgrew my job opportunities here quite quickly and I’m now forced to work out of town [note: she’s a land use planner].” Also talks about a reverse commute to Davis by those who cannot afford to live in the city of Davis.

Sue Greenwald jumped in to argue that our housing choices are problematic. “I was the only one to vote against building the last three subdivisions with McMansions, I said let’s build smaller houses and get voted down.” She thinks the only that is really hopeful is “the collapse of housing prices, they’ve been ridiculous, they are going to come down… life is going to get a lot easier when they come back to the historical inflation adjusted average, which they will.”

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald also jumped in. “When we speak of affordable housing, for the most part we are really talking about housing for middle income people.” She then went on to talk about the fact that Measure X really did not meet the affordability needs of most middle income Davis residents. $464,000 is not affordable for most working people. And the average price in Covell Village would have been higher than that. There are also environment trade-offs for such developments. She also talked about building smaller but more affordable homes for people who live in this community.

Don Saylor: “I think we need to look ahead to what the solutions are… We have a housing supply problem in Davis that we must address.”

One of the more provocative questions for Sue Greenwald and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald. “Tandem properties owns the leases to about half of this group’s homes. What is your relationship with Tandem’s owner Mr. Whitcombe and have you accepted any donations from Mr. Whitcombe.”

Sue Greenwald: “My relationship with Mr. Whitcombe, I’d classify as very poor. I haven’t gotten money from any of the special interests—meaning the city employee groups, anyone who I am in the position to grant favors to in a major sort of way—not the fire department, not the major developers, peripheral developers... It allows me to not have to feel bad if I have to say no.”

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “I am proud to say that I haven’t accepted any money from Mr. Whitcombe. I haven’t been offered any money… I will not accept developer money; you will notice that on the back of my brochure. ‘Cecilia’s campaign is not financed with developer contributions.’ I think that’s important. We are here as council candidates to serve you. If people are coming to us and talking about projects, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest, I want the slate to be clean.”

Don Saylor responded: “I have received a $100 contribution from John Whitcombe and a $100 contribution from his wife. I have also received contributions from about 750 people from our community and beyond. These are people who for whatever reason or another have confidence in my ability to serve this community. We have a campaign finance limit, $100 is the maximum people can contribute. That’s a pretty small amount. My votes cannot be bought, they never have been.”

Stephen Souza: “Special interests come in many different fashions. My largest special interest group are retired people. If you look at my contribution list, you’ll see that the vast majority of those who have contributed to me are retired people, so I guess I’m going to favor retired people. No. I look at each and every issue on the basis of the issue not [who the group is]… I’ll take contributions from anyone who wants to contribute.” Mr. Souza also said that he was the largest contributor to his last campaign, so that would make him a special interest.

Sydney Vergis was the only one not to answer the question, according to her last disclosure, she had received money from Mr. Whitcombe as well.

Don Saylor responded again, and pointed out that Davis has among the most stringent funding requirements in the nation. He said in the last campaign, a candidate [presumably Lamar Heystek] spent $53,000, of which $37,000 came from his own money. He asked if that is what we want, for candidates to fund their own campaigns?

The candidates talked next about keeping Davis graduates in Davis after graduation. Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald talked about partnering with Sacramento and the Sacramento region. She referred to the UC Davis alumni center as a resource for students who are looking for jobs. She wants to see the city and the university to work together on this front. Sydney Vergis talked about the range of job issue and actively recruiting students to work here. But we need to produce more jobs here.

Don Saylor talks about the number of students, who have graduated, left, and then return ten years later and cites this as an extremely important factor. We need to retain that by producing housing and jobs. Stephen Souza talks about the fact that he went to school here and then stayed. “Right now thousands of students graduate every year, there is no way with 44 permits being issued last year, and even with a one percent growth rate if we were to do that, we would be able to house all of the students that graduate that choose to stay here, there’s no way that can happen.” We have to work to find more affordable housing and take the responsible for housing those who work for the university. “We can’t do all, but have to do some of it.” Sue Greenwald makes the pertinent point that we if were to take all of the people who want to live here or who graduated from here, we would be a city of millions. The Mayor talked about her experience of moving from Berkeley due to lack of jobs and housing.

There were three candidate specific questions. The mayor was asked how we could build more infill housing for students while at the same time accommodating those already living in Davis. “I still think that campus is the best place for student housing that there is because you won’t have to be competing with other people for houses, the houses can stay price regulated and there is price control. The university also has the most space for housing.” When the need for housing arises, we will find a place.

Don Saylor was asked about a promise he made to adopt a rental condition ordinance to monitor the quality of rental units. He was specifically asked whether this ordinance was adopted. “No, thank you for reminding me,” he answered. “We have not gotten off square one with that. We recently established a rental housing subcommittee which should be a place where that is grappled with.” He finished, “If you don’t get it done the first term, you always have the second term.”

Final candidate specific question was a pointed question addressed to Sydney Vergis. It said that the Yolo County Young Democrats was founded less than a year ago, and that she has been chair for less than that. It asked her about her previous Democratic Party experience. “My involvement with the Democratic Party is really recent. When I was an undergraduate here I was very involved in my sorority. I was the philanthropy chair and very much into how students could involve themselves with philanthropic activities.”

Four of the candidates responded to a question on Measure J: “Would you approve amend or repeal it?”

Sue Greenwald: “I would renew it. It’s been valuable, it’s a valuable tool. It’s democratic. If we do develop, what Measure J does is put pressure on the developers to offer more.”

Don Saylor: “Measure J is part of the environment. The idea of having people in Davis vote when we’re going to convert farmland to residential property, I think if it was on the ballot exactly as it was the last time, it would probably pass. We have only tested it once, we don’t know what that test means exactly.” We will probably have two future Measure J votes, one being the Wildhorse Ranch. “If the Nische Property, which is a great place for student housing right across the railroad from the Mondavi Center, if that comes forward as a project, then that would be a Measure J vote.” Mr. Saylor agrees that Measure J is tremendous leverage for the city, “but it’s only leverage if at some point a project actually passes.” The constitution he pointed out, has an amendment clause built into it. “I think you always have to keep in mind that maybe you didn’t get it right the first time. I don’t know if there should be a change to Measure J.” He finished, “I do know that Measure J is a part of our environment and should remain so because I think that’s what our residents want. The details of it, I don’t know yet.”

Stephen Souza jumped in: “Yes. Renew it in the form that it’s at. Put it before the voters as it was before the voters in the past. The voters will make the decision if they want to see it renewed.”

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “I support Measure J in its current form. It is important to give the voters the right to have a say.” She mentioned that she came before council and asked council to take a stand one way or the other on Measure J, “and some people said they didn’t want to politicize it. It is a political issue because the voters want to know where people stand on Measure J. Get me on the council and I will vote to keep Measure J in it's current form.”

Don Saylor: “One thing I think you should do when you listen to people articulate, ‘keep it exactly as it is’ is actually take a look at the language, it’s very complicated language. ‘Keep it exactly as it is’ that’s easy to say and maybe we should.” However, “it’s a pretty complicated thing and I don’t like to make decisions until I get the analysis from our staff and hear the commissions talk about it and what actually took place.”

Don Saylor and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald were asked about student–police relations.

Don Saylor: “There’s been so much heat, so much smoke, and sometimes a little bit of light as we’ve looked at this issue over the years.” Mr. Saylor talked about the student-police relations committee and the need for communication, talking, and ride alongs. He also mentioned the levels of review that are in place. “One of the challenges is that relationships are often based on perceptions rather than realities... The more we understand the culture that different people work within, the better off we’re going to be to improving relations between groups.”

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “I for six years was chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission, I had students, professors and graduate students come to the commission to express their concerns. And we did address those issues.” She talked about the review process that is now in place. “I think we have a police chief who is doing a better job of working with the officers… We’ll see them in and around the community more, communicating with people.” She talked about the improvement coming from the new police chief and the review process.

They were then asked what a living wage would buy people in this community. Sue Greenwald argued that that level of pay was not a lot, but it was an improvement over the current wages. “I wouldn’t want to have to live on that, I’ll tell you that. I have to be honest about it.” She said she would support a living wage with Lamar Heystek right now.

Stephen Souza said that $13.08 is the least that the city pays any employee which comes out to $21,000. They are talking about contracted out work and most of those pay a living wage except for cleaning services. He supports paying those workers as they do city employees.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald: “If elected to the city council, I would unequivocally support a living wage… We cannot as a city, ask the university to pay the Sodexho workers a living wage while not giving those who, even if they are cleaning people for the cit, a living wage. Everybody has to at least earn a living wage.”

Sue Greenwald: said that there was a motion to enact a living wage immediately, and that failed, only “Lamar and I voted for it.” What passed was coming back with more budget analysis.

Sydney Vergis and Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald were asked what issues were most important to them. Sydney Vergis talked about why she was running for city council. Her big focus is the environment. She wants go land use planning to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. She talked about looking at the innovative programs in places like Chicago and applying them to Davis in terms of building design and alternative energies.

Cecilia mentioned two key reasons. First, she talked about the future of our city and the need to protect Davis from sprawl development and preserve open space, agricultural land. “[Davis] is a beautiful town, it is a compact town, it is a town that has a character about it and I want to preserve that. We can still have affordable housing. We can still have urban design that is environmental, that is progressive, forward thinking and cutting edge, because we have a university, but we need to do that responsibly.” The other reason that she is running is that she is committed to building that bridge with the university, she wants to see a better collaboration and relationship with the university.”

Each candidate then issued a closing statement. This was the second public debate, however, after this the debate and forum schedule heats up. There is another candidates forum tonight, this time the Davis Democratic club is the sponsor, that will be a broader forum involving also the Assembly Candidates, the Supervisor Candidates, and the City Council Candidates—again only the Democrats among them. It will take place at 6:45 this evening in the Blanchard Room of the Davis Public Library.

Disclaimer: Doug Paul Davis is married to Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald who is a candidate for the Davis City Council.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting