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Friday, May 09, 2008

League of Women Voters Hold Candidates Forum Last Night

Last night, the League of Women Voters held their candidates forum at the Davis Community Chambers. It was an interesting format in that they allowed for an opening statement of three minutes, three prepared questions, and then after a break, five one minute questions from the audience.

This time instead of recording the entire forum and then transcribing portions of it, I took notes throughout. I have few quotes, a lot of observations and paraphrasing.

The opening statements by the candidates are pretty much the same statement each time. Don Saylor went first, he laid out his professional background, his arrival at Davis and then a litany of accomplishments. One thing that really struck me this time, that I had not quite picked up on before was a line in his statement: "we brought to the voters the first test of Measure J." This was listed in a long string of accomplishments by him. The first test of Measure J was Covell Village that was rejected by a 60-40 margin.

Sydney Vergis talks about her background and her passion for land use planning. Within that she cites herself as someone "who has the land use and community consensus building experience" and that she is "offering the community [her] professional background as a land use planner." She says it as though she had twenty years of experience in it rather than less than one.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald talks about her values. The fact that she was raised in Chico, the changes that have occurred in Chico since she left, and her commitment to preserve the character and small-town feel of Davis.

Stephen Souza cites his back ground and offers for the voters his platform of green, safe, and smart. One the accomplishments he has cited is an annual balanced city budget. He says that they have had four years of a balanced budget with a fifteen percent plus reserve. As we shall see, this is disputed by three of the candidates.

Sue Greenwald talks about her love for city planning. She is driven by that love rather than aspirations for higher political office. She cites her background in a variety of other cities and states that she is happier in those cities that have a sense of community, accord, and a center. She sees this as a great town that she wants to maintain. Her goal is to bring jobs closer to housing and housing closer to jobs. She would like to see a major infill condo development at the PG&E property. Finally she wants to break from the sense of being a sprawling bedroom suburb from the 1950s that recent peripheral developments have created such a feel.

Rob Roy is also worried that Davis not become more of an anywhere USA. He stood against Measure X as a student. Was a student coordinator on No on K. Helped on Measure L--Choice Voting, and want to continue and renew Measure J as a means to protect open space and agricultural land. He believes that Davis has for too long rested on its laurels as a great progressive community. He stands for renters rights and bike safety and wants to increase bike riders from 14% to 25% where it was in the 1990s. Finally he wants to keep Davis unique with businesses and what we do.

The first question asked the candidates to describe their experience working with large budgets and multiple departments and also how might their budgetary experience help with meeting rapidly rising prices for gasoline and goods needed to run our city?

Sydney Vergis went first she said this was something she feels passionate about as a professional financier. Wants to bring the kind of perspective and experience that we need to meet financial challenges. There is a tenuous nature of sales tax which is heavily reliant on automobile sales and gas sales tax. She wants to Work to diversify tax base, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. She claimed, “Currently our budget is balanced.” Range of long term needs that we need to start thinking about specifically capital improvement and transportation. We to think about about longterm.

Cecilia cited her experience as a representative for state workers in 53 different departments. She has a growing concern about the wage and benefit scale among high level employees and management in city government. The city has agreed to sign on to very generous contracts with a number of these top level employees and the resulting contracts along with generous pension plans are threatening to break the system.

The city of Davis provides its residents with a high level of city services. Given the current structure of these salaries, the city faces the prospect of tax increases to its residents. Already in 2006, the voters of Davis approved a parks tax. In the coming months and years, they may be asked to shoulder more of the tax load with the possibility of an additional public safety tax, a sales tax, and other taxes—this on top of a recently approved parcel tax for the schools and one for the libraries. This fall, the school district which is in fiscal crisis may ask the residents for additional help through another parcel tax. These possible additional taxes may occur on top of a rate hike for water as the result of a new waste water treatment plant and water supply plan.

As councilmember, she is not opposed to taxes, but it is clear that we cannot continue to rely on the generosity of our resident to bail us out of past fiscal mistakes.

Stephen Souza cites his experience working wit the city budget. He claimed the general fund portion of the of the budget was balanced and that they have put aside money into a reserve. "We have a strong fiscal budget, but we do have unmet needs that we started planning for two years ago with quarterly meetings." He described those needs and talked about looking into ways to deal with those unmet needs. Suggested that we need more revenues--all cities do. Not just by taxes but by economic growth as well. Looking toward a green technology plant to produce high paying jobs and revenues. However, also listed some other forms of revenue generation through fees and taxes--9/11 fee; property generation tax; .25 cent sales tax.

Sue Greenwald made a passionate argument that experience itself is not the most important question that we should ask. She then cited numerous examples of leaders and budget directors who had tremendous experience and yet led their cities, counties, or companies into ruin. She argued that rather than a balanced budget we have an all-fund deficit of nearly $1.5 million. We have unmet needs. We have basically used a shell game to claim that we have balanced the budget. She flatly stated that she disagreed with her colleague on the shape of the budget--"it's in bad condition."

Everything is called an unmet need rather than part of the budget. There is no capital replacement fund--she thinks that is a time bomb waiting to go off. She says she had the courage to stand up to political pressure and special interests. Voted against lowering retirement age of desk workers to 55. She saved money when opposed demands for pay increase to fire fighters. The plan provided for no new fireman and yet would have cost $400K.

Rob Roy is also concerned about the benefit packages for city employees--specifically the fire fighters. Does not believe that the lack of increase to the wage and benefits package will reduce either the quality of service or our competitiveness. He supports the living wage for the lower level employees. On the other hand, he believes the fire fighters should earn a comfortable wage but points out that they are public servants and that that wage should not harm the city's ability to meet the needs of its citizens. For many state and city employees, their retirement benefits are 2% at 55 or 60, but for fire fighters it is 3 percent at 50. This is one of the reasons that Vallejo recently declared bankruptcy. Talks about the term unmet need as another word for deficit. He said that if he doesn't get enough money to live by his means, and decides not to pay rent this month, he has an unmet need, which means he gets kicked to the curb.

Saylor cites his budgetary experience in the workforce and as a school board member. He also claims we have a balanced budget--a balanced budget and a 15% reserve. Yes there are things that we are not spending money on. When he came into office, we had a $2.2 million deficit, we don’t have that today. We have taken steps to take that away—budget reforms, quarterly budget reviews, personnel cuts. He believes the budget can be balanced in the future with money from economic development. He hopes to have some new state revenues—barring state budget cut. We will face the expiration of parks and sales tax will need to be removed. He argued per capita sales tax revenue is in bottom third statewide.

The next question asked about cannery Park and the prospect for a housing development.

Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald expressed her concern that development at Lewis Properties might facilitate development at Covell Village. Overall there are several aspects of residential development at Cannery Park that are appealing. First, it is already paved over, so we would not be developing on prime agricultural land. Second, it is located within the current city limits, which means there would be no Measure J vote necessary. Third, it is in a location that is relatively near the core of downtown.

That being said, any new development, in order for me to support must have several key components. First, it must pay for itself. Second, it must be on the cutting edge of green building urban design. Third, it must be extraordinary. To use the words of one of my fellow candidates—there needs to be an extensive “wow” factor along with it. "We need housing that meets the needs of the middle-class and workforce citizens." We do not need a continuation of past sprawl developments that cater to the wealthy by building McMansions that could be found in any city.

Stephen Souza said Cannery Park’s proposal is going through the process of determining whether it is a site for high tech use. The plan that he has seen has a third of it which is a business park development that will enable high tech development. He spoke about the loss of high tech jobs. In order to have revenue from a high tech project which will have housing next to it, we need to make it environmentally friendly.

Sue Greenwald said while there are nice features of the housing proposal see wants to keep it zone as high tech. She was responsible for that land use designation to begin with. Cited the loss Genotech who is building a research facility in Dixon, halfway between Davis and Dixon. Would have liked to have Hunt-Wesson as a possible location for high tech. She has concerns about the cost of the land which she said no one will lower the value of the land as long as they believe they can get housing which would be more lucrative. Wants to turn Davis into a high tech center.

Rob Roy was against Measure X but he understands the need for development of housing communities that live and work in Davis. With Cannery Park they can put housing in. We need to put pressure on Lewis to avoid $641,000 housing and call it affordable. Wants to put housing in back of a high tech facility. He believes we should have enough space for both. He believes that we should have community driven, not developer driven housing.

Don Saylor sets about in general his vision for when we have housing some of which includes it must address true community needs, the benefits outweigh the costs, no costs to existing residents, mitigate traffic costs, it must be green and good affordability. The housing element committee determined Lewis met some desirable elements including a close proximity to downtown. They ranked this site 21 out of 37 which put it in the middle, but it was the second highest preferred site that was 25 acres of more. Saylor also cited problems: traffic is a problem; land locked with railroad tracks on one side and empty field on the other, and it has limited bike access. Saylor never committed either way on this issue, he simply stated his general principles.

Like Don Saylor, Sydney Vergis never stated her actual view on the issue. She laid out a bunch of general principles and wants to study it to see if it viable. "Good opportunity here to meet a range of housing needs and business needs."

The final question was one of civility. The moderator introduced it by citing numerous examples in this community of non-civil discourse.

For Stephen Souza he said when 11 pm strikes at the council meeting there tends to be a shortness with all of the council and there becomes a disconnect between the civility that all carry in their everyday lives and the activity on the dais. There is a tendency to think that each and every one of us has the truth on growth. This leads us to denigrate the opinions of others. We need to at times agree to disagree. All of us love this town. We cannot ask of others what we cannot ask of ourselves—how can we ask people to get along when we cannot get along on this one issue basic to humanity on all issues. How we get there—that’s the age old question—first and foremost he says 'I respect what you may believe and we may have differences.'

For Sue Greenwald she believes we have actually come a long way toward civility. That there have been rougher times and democracy has survived. We need to avoid lecturing since that has the implication that my behavior is good and yours is bad. The public can make up their own decisions about who is right and wrong. Each of us should concentrate on our own behavior. She is proud of fact no complaints about shoving and hissing when citizens come to the microphone. It is important that we find that balance between carrying out a vigorous debate and not carryover it over to personal reactions. She also believes that it is important to question staff very hard--that's the tough part of job but they get paid very well. We need back and forth debate when there is disagreement. The important thing at end of day is to separate personal from political.

Rob Roy joked that the Enterprise and Bob Dunning might be supportive of a less civil council since it would sell more papers. He says that there are passionate folks in Davis and he tries to get along with everyone. They all have their theories on how we get along in our community but at the end of the day we need to get along even when we disagree. He then cited common ground with each of the other candidates.

Don Saylor argued that this was an extremely important topic for our community. He wrote an op-ed piece a year ago on it and he had tremendous response to it. Never had that kind of response and agreement. He said he was humbled that in the Davis Enterprise endorsement that it cited his attention to civility. Then cited two books to read. He feels that this is a different world than 100 years ago, and that we are very isolated in our every day life. We need to improve the tone and interactions in council chambers. People should not be afraid to speak one's mind.

Sydney Vergis believes that civility in community needs to start in the council and really with the council race. She has run a clean campaign with no ad hominen attacks. Cited her professional experience as extensive experience working with diverse interests.

Cecilia believes one should always treat everyone with polite deference even in the face of disagreement. She intends to uphold the best standards of conduct, as epitomized by the behavior of Councilmember Lamar Heystek, a strong supporter of mine.

The candidates then took a brief break. They answered five brief questions. I will briefly outline the candidates positions and when possible refer people to other sources of information.

The first question was on improving the downtown parking situation. Sue Greenwald argued for the mixed-use redevelopment parking lot on E and F between 3rd and 4th. Rob Roy agreed with that and also liked the idea of timed parking lot in the E Street Plaza. For Don Saylor, this was a long process that may bear fruit down the line but he favored a parking structure across from the railroad station with access from Olive Drive. Sydney Vergis did not want to make parking more accessible because she wanted to avoid the incentive to do more parking and instead wants alternative forms of transportation. Cecilia cited her proposal for a multilevel parking structure by Design House which could go over the tracks. It would take traffic from going under the Richards underpass and put pedestrians within a few blocks of all of downtown. Stephen Souza looking toward UDASH, a shuttle between the university and downtown during the lunch hour as a means to reduce traffic in the downtown.

There is a better discussion on water in the forum that was posted yesterday. The one minute format did not do justice to this issue.

They were then asked about choice voting. Saylor believes most people in town have difficult time understanding what choice voting is. We have a lot more work to do to define and how it will work. The education of voter is a critical factor. He is not sure that problem will be fixed by choice voting.

Sydney Vergis was not in favor of choice voting because it would lead to us becoming a charter city. She was concerned with this since it might remove prevailing wage and competitive bidding requirement.

Cecilia said that once she understood choice voting, she supported it. Saw it as the will of the people. She would ensure to minimize the impact on binding arbitration and prevailing wages.

Souza has been a strong supporter of choice voting for years. Cited numerous examples of its successful use. Sees it as the next step in the democratic process.

Sue Greenwald favors district elections with instant runoffs--a form of choice voting. She was skeptical of choice voting, she joked, until she had two Greenwalds on the ballot, now she felt this would force people to look through the ballot more than once.

Rob Roy favors choice voting and believes we can educate people about how we operate rank preference of voting.

There is a fuller discussion of bicycling in the previous forum.

The last question was about housing. I tie in her a statement that kind of struck me during the closing statements, Sydney Vergis suggested that if people want zero growth, she is not their candidate. What struck me about this statement, is that while some of the candidates opposed adding housing on the periphery of Davis--namely the two Greenwalds and Rob Roy--none of them talk about no new housing.

Sue Greenwald talked about utilizing existing cites and likes the PG&E site and talked about on-campus location at Toomey Field as a bookend counterpart. Cecilia talked about looking to meet our housing needs within our current boundaries but also toward expanding on-campus housing, working with the university to provide housing for students and faculty. For Saylor we cannot have affordability with only 44 units and he seems to disparage Sue Greenwald's plan as interesting but neither cheap nor easy.

Sydney Vergis during her comments talked about having community discussion on the detrimental impact that occurs from limited growth. She wants to ease the no growth demand. However, she does not favor sprawl.

There is a clear difference between the candidates on the issue of housing and growth, that I do not know is accurately or adequately treated through these discussions. Everyone it seems wants or at least talks about a compact urban city, smart growth, and new urbanism. No one is for sprawl. No one is for zero growth. Or so they say. Three candidates supported Covell Village, three opposed it. For me and many others, Covell Village is sprawl, aligned with what we saw at Wildhorse or Mace Ranch. There are competing visions for growth--one of which looks at more housing at a rate of 1% per year and a willingness to consider peripheral projects. The other offers a slower rate, looks toward our existing boundaries to fill our immediate housing needs. In the end the voters must decide which is for them.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting