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Friday, August 01, 2008

Analysis: Examination of the Council Feud from Tuesday Night over Water and Process

Everyone is talking about the city council meeting on Tuesday night and the dispute that erupted during the questioning period by Councilmember Sue Greenwald.

From my standpoint, Councilmember Greenwald was right on the substance of the issue. The former Mayor found the independent report lacking and she was pressing her case with the panel of consultants.

Councilmember Greenwald's position continues to be that the burden on the ratepayer is tremendous if the city decides to go ahead with somewhere around a $250 million water supply project at the same time it upgrades its wastewater treatment plant (something which the city really does not have a choice but to do). The councilmember is looking for ways to hold off on the surface water project for 25 to 30 years in order to give the city time to pay off the wastewater treatment upgrade.

Councilmember Greenwald was going about the business of questioning--firmly--but from watching the recording of the proceedings, respectfully, the consultants. It was at this point that tensions escalated. Mayor Ruth Asmundson interjected that Councilmember Greenwald was debating the consultants rather than questioning them.

At this point Councilmember Greenwald practically exploded at the dais and demanded that she be allowed to continue.
Councilmember Greenwald: "This is a half a billion dollar project, you have to allow us to question the experts. You have to."

Mayor Asmundson responded: "You have to ask about the report. No debating."

Councilmember Greenwald: "I am going to ask tough questions."

Mayor Asmundson: "You are out of order."

Councilmember Greenwald: "Ruth you can't do this. You have to allow councilmembers ask good questions and hard questions."

When Councilmember Greenwald tried to continue, Mayor Asmundson cut her off. At this point, Mayor Asmundson and Councilmember Don Saylor got up.

Frankly I think this was mishandled by both the Mayor and Councilmember Greenwald.

First, watching the questioning, I do not think it was that bad that Mayor Asmundson needed to step into the questioning. Councilmember Greenwald was pressing the consultant, but for the most part it was polite and respectful. She does have a right to try to question them in a thorough and tough manner.

Councilmember Greenwald probably could have done this more effectively with a set of pre-written questions based on information that she had gathered, and pressed the consultant much as an attorney. She probably did interject her own opinion with statements rather than questions a bit more than she could have. Nevertheless, from watching the exchange, it did not seem that the questioning was out-of-line to the point where the Mayor needed to interject.

The point at which tensions arose could and should have been avoided. This should not have taken place in the public to begin with, the Mayor should have called an immediate recess and had a discussion with the Councilmember. Councilmember Greenwald immediately escalated the situation when Mayor Asmundson interjected. Had she remained calm, she would have looked better in the exchange. Mayor Asmundson remained calm throughout, but also unnecessarily it seems escalated the situation.

Walking off the dais was rather unprofessional on the part of both the Mayor and Councilmember Don Saylor.

In short, Mayor Asmundson, in my view, strongly escalated a situation that really did not need to be escalated. Councilmember Greenwald is an elected representative to the people of Davis and was representing their views on council during questioning. Frankly, I have seen Sue Greenwald far more combative in her line of questioning than she was on this occasion. There seemed little need for interjection.

The power of the presiding officer is to allow each side to ask their questions of staff and consultants. Because the council is not afforded their own staff, this is the only far and equitable way this can work.

The only time a presiding officer should cut off discussion is under extreme circumstances when things really get out of control. This did not appear to rise to such a level and the Mayor should have allowed the line of questioning to continue.

If she was concerned about the line of questioning, she should have simply said, 'remember Councilmember, we are asking questions now, please keep all statements in the form of a question.'

But Councilmember Greenwald also bears responsibility. She lost her temper first, no matter that she was provoked, no matter that the Mayor was out of line. Losing your temper in this situation leads to an escalation and it also leads to the public's perception as to who was right and who was wrong.

The incident caught Davis Enterprise Columnist Bob Dunning's attention as well.

It is difficult to discern what Mr. Dunning's angle is, although he does seem somewhat inclined to side with the Councilmember on this one.
"Greenwald had the audacity to question a couple of projects that might just break the civic piggy bank before all is said and done - wrote Claire St. John in Wednesday's front-pager: 'Greenwald, who found the independent report lacking, asked if the panel of consultants focused at all on how the city was supposed to pay for a project that will cost about $250 million at the same time as it must upgrade its wastewater treatment plant at a cost of about $200 million.'"
Bob Dunning then continues:
"When I first read those numbers I was certain it was a misprint - surely it must be $2.5 million and $2 million - Greenwald removed all doubt about the proper placement of decimal points when she said 'I have yet to see what shape we'll be in after we pay off a half-billion dollars in debt.'

Hey, that's one of the advantages of having 65,000 people in town - as daunting as the figure sounds, it's only about $7,000 per resident, or $35,000 for a family of five - and if we'd all agree to stop watering the lawn, not to mention showering just once a week whether we need it or not, we may be able to bring that cost down by a dollar or two..."
Mr. Dunning gets the math right in terms of $7000 per resident, which as he points out, means a lot more per family and per residence. You are actually not talking $35,000 for a family of five, what you are talking about is roughly $14,000 per unit, probably more when you take into account residences versus apartments which are likely to pay considerably less.

And those are cost estimates. We all know that most projects run over their initial cost estimates, sometimes by a good amount for something as large and massive as this.

At minimum we are talking about paying an additional $100 if not more per month for one's water bill.

Think about this for a moment. With all of the complaining about the parcel tax, that is an additional $120 PER YEAR. This is 10 times that amount per year at minimum. Should not the rest of the council be asking the consultants just as tough a questions as Councilmember Sue Greenwald?

And yet this process has been almost bumped along without really the tough discussions or the tough decisions made. Why? Because they are using the process as a buffer. It is a piecemail process. There has been a logic behind this process that if we lose our place in line, then we get passed up.

Now some people have stated that they are willing to pay this amount of money for better quality of water. First, it is unclear they will get a better quality of water. Second, that does not help those on fixed or limited incomes.

But quickly, one of the problems with taking river water is that the water is only available if the river contains over a certain amount of water. So on a dry year like this, we may have plenty of water during the winter but during the summer we might get almost nothing from the water supply project and have to rely exclusively on well water. That's the fine print. Plus it seems to be first come first serve.

But if water supplies are less in the future, we may be paying a bunch of money upfront and get very little additional water and the quality of the water may be no different.

There is also a considerable degree of question of deep well water. Is that viable? Could we use that, as Councilmember Greenwald suggests, to hold off on the water supply project for another 20 to 25 years, at which point three things will have occurred: (1) we will have paid off the waste water treatment upgrade. (2) we will have a much clearer picture of the state water system. (3) there will be new and better technology that will probably either allow us to have different water options or make these options cheaper. There seems to be very little reason to rush through this project now other than the arbitrary time tables of the state water bureaucracy. But the risks of going ahead now appear to be just as high and very costly.

These are questions the Mayor and Councilmember Saylor ought to be asking just as strongly as Councilmember Greenwald. And yet they are not and that is really to the detriment of the people of Davis.

I am very concerned about the procedural implications of what happened on Tuesday night. If the Mayor can use the power of the gavel to silence a councilmember, it does not bode well for the rest of us who want a voice in government.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting