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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guest Commentary: The case for home rule for Davis

by Lamar Heystek

In Davis, the power of the people is real, and anyone who seeks to tamper with it is playing with fire. The campaign to defeat Measure X, the 2005 Covell Village proposal, is the perfect example of that. In the face of a six-figure developer-driven effort, a grassroots campaign of dedicated Davisites managed to beat the odds and garner a resounding rejection of the largest development proposal in the history of Davis. I am proud to have been part of that campaign.

Now, as a member of the Davis City Council, I believe the people of Davis will be able to exercise their power and assert their municipal rights more fully under Measure N, the proposed city charter which provides home rule for Davis.

When the City Council unanimously passed a resolution last year supporting Assembly Bill 1294, which would have allowed general law cities like ours to decide for themselves whether to adopt choice voting for Council elections, I wrote to Governor Schwarzenegger on City letterhead asking for 10 minutes of his time to explain why the City of Davis deserved this right. Through an official letter of his own, my offer to meet with the Governor was curtly turned down.

As others, including Councilmember Greenwald, have pointed out, all other University of California host cities are charter cities. This reinforces the fact that home rule encourage cities to pursue innovation, not promote the status quo. For example, several charter cities across the state provide for public electrical utilities, which Davis citizens supported when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Measures H and I in 2006. The prospect of providing electricity through the financing of solar infrastructure makes public power an especially attractive possibility under charter city status.

Examples of our innovation to date include our agricultural mitigation, inclusionary housing and green building ordinances. However, as a general law city, the state may decide to legislate that general law cities like Davis cannot establish such high standards, rendering the benchmarks we have set for ourselves meaningless. Measure N would allow Davis, under the power to govern its own municipal affairs, to codify and protect these laws in the charter if necessary. This protection would also be afforded to Measure J, which establishes the right for the people to vote on the development of peripheral ag land. In fact, Measure N by design alludes to Measure J, stating that:
“[M]anaging and limiting growth… are essential elements of local control and therefore are municipal affairs. The intent of this Charter is to allow the City Council and the voters to exercise the maximum degree of control over land use matters within the city of Davis.”
However, the issue really isn’t whether you support public electrical power (or choice voting or other ideas), but whether you support the notion that the city of Davis shouldn’t have to ask a bunch of people in Sacramento (including Governor Schwarzenegger) permission to adopt such ideas. The latter issue, not the former, should be the primary focus of Measure N as much as possible.

Some argue that the true beneficiary of power under a broadly drafted Measure N is the City Council, not the people at large. After all, on a weekly basis, the City Council makes most of the decisions on behalf of the people. I certainly appreciate that argument because my election to the City Council, to some degree, resulted of people’s disenchantment with the decisions of a majority of the Council. Thus, I understand people’s skepticism about what they consider the prospect of handing more powers to a City Council they (or I, for that matter!) don’t agree with most of the time. However, just as the people of Davis have shown they possess the strength to override the Council and defeat a billion-dollar development, they definitely have the strength to change the balance of power on the City Council every two years (or more frequently, through the power of recall, which, along with the power of referendum, remains intact under a charter). Let’s not pretend that this is beyond the people’s reach.

In fact, nothing prevents the people of Davis, either through their elected representatives or through the power of initiative, from actually downsizing and restricting municipal powers that would otherwise be granted through a charter. Take the proposed charter, for instance: as a municipal agency, the City of Davis would still negotiate with its employees under meet-and-confer. Upon the suggestion of Councilmember Greenwald, Measure N bars the Council from adopting binding arbitration, which has financially crippled city agencies such as San Luis Obispo. This is a fine example of how the city can limit its own powers.

Speaking of finances, don’t forget that any new tax measure under the charter would still be subject to the people, per Proposition 218. Personally, my support for the charter does not come from a desire to impose taxes that we do not levy now. In fact, I am skeptical about renewing the taxes we currently levy in the absence of a more responsible fiscal policy. I have strongly questioned, and will continue to question, the presentation of new tax measures (including the extension of existing ones) unless we truly begin to exercise control of our skyrocketing personnel costs, for example. Under general law, the City of Davis already has the power to levy a utility user’s tax and increase its business license tax (but hasn’t), so for me, potential new revenue streams don’t play into my support for Measure N.

I am proud to join councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza and Mayor Ruth Asmundson in supporting a charter because the people of Davis clearly deserve home rule. Davisites have proven that they are willing and capable of governing their affairs. My hope is that the people will keep an open mind about Measure N in the coming weeks and months. I will do my part to gain more information and share it with as many Davisites as possible before Election Day. I hope the people of Davis continue the discussion by providing their insights, whether those insights support or oppose the charter. Ultimately, the power is in their hands.

Lamar Heystek is a Davis City Councilmember. He is Co-Chair of the Yes on Measure N Committee and a longtime supporter of Choice Voting.