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Bad process leads to mediocre decision on pesticide use in Davis, and not without wasted time and effort from staff and citizens

PesticideapplicationAt its November 7, 2017 meeting, the City Council voted to change its Integrated Pest Management (IPM) policy, as well as ban the use of neonicotinoids (implicated in colony collapse disorder in bees) and a phase-out of glyphosate (often sold as Roundup, listed by the State of California as a probable human carcinogen). The decision was a mixed bag, containing some good elements and some bad.  This article describes some of the events that led up to that decision.  I write now because, with a new Council just seated, I hope that some of the bad process chronicled here can be avoided for future decisions.

This piece will of necessity be a bit lengthy.  And that is part of my point.  It took far too long for this issue to come to the City Council for a vote.  At every turn certain staff members[1] sought to delay and subvert the will of commissioners, of citizens, and even of City Council members.  As Jon Li says, sometimes one has to ask, “who is in charge in Davis?”

Second caveat: this piece will be written mostly from my point of view as a commissioner on the Open Space and Habitat Commission (or OSHC; here I speak for myself and not for the commission as a whole).  Others involved in this process can no doubt add to the story, and I encourage them to do so here in the comments or as a separate post.  See in particular the statement from Martin Guerena about his mistreatment as the IPM Specialist for the City of Davis.  Further details can be found in the minutes from the commissions in question, available on the City of Davis website.  Unfortunately, the minutes from the November 2017 City Council meeting do not seem to be available.

I first learned about the pesticide issue when Alan Pryor, commissioner on the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), visited the OSHC on April 4, 2016 – one year and 7 months before the City Council decision. He said his commission was proposing a ban on the use of insecticides containing neonicotinoids and a phaseout of glyphosate on City property, including parks and open spaces.  It was subsequently proposed that a working group containing two members of the OSHC, two members of the NRC, and two members of the Recreation and Parks Commission (RPC) be formed, a so-called 2X2X2.  By June, all three commissions had voted to form the 2X2X2. 

Meanwhile, over the summer, several members of the three commissions spoke privately with most of the members of the City Council.  These councilmembers assured us that they were fully in support of banning neonicotinoids and phasing out glyphosate – and I believe that they genuinely were and continued to be throughout this process.  One councilmember also asked us not to make a big deal out of the process.  It would have been nice if we would have been able to adhere to that request, but staff made that impossible.

First, staff decided (contrary to what councilmembers had said to us privately) that a 2X2X2 would be in violation of the Brown Act and require noticing that staff lacked resources to implement.  At its September 2017 meeting, the OSHC was told that staff was proposing an alternative approach that involved joint meetings between the three Commissions to discuss this issue in the context of a more “holistic” review and update to the City’s IPM Policy.  Members of each of the commissions objected, saying that the decision not to have a 2X2X2  should be made by Council, not by staff.  We were told that our concerns would be passed along to staff and Council (and Council was written to directly), but the 2X2X2 was dead. 

Instead, there would be a kickoff meeting in November with all three commissions in attendance. The meeting was held, and although nothing much seemed to come from it (in particular, the hope expressed to have something in place before spring did not occur) there were some startling revelations.  Although pesticide use was down overall in the City, neonicotinoids had been deployed recently – after staff knew of commission concerns and the process in place – and they have been deployed over the objections of the IPM Specialist.  Public forums were also held in December 2016 and in April 2017, together with an online survey in May 2017  to gauge citizen opinion.  Overwhelming, citizens supported organic parks, a reduction in the use of pesticides on public City land, and a ban on neonicotinoids and a phaseout of glyphosate.

Meanwhile, by January 2017 the Hazardous Materials Subcommittee of the NRC had put together a Discussion Paper on the City’s IPM policy, including, of course, a recommendation to ban neonicotinoids and phase-out glyphosate.  The OSHC reviewed this document at its February meeting and its March meeting.  At its May meeting the OSHC received responses to its comments and questions about the Discussion Paper, including a list of incidents when existing IPM policy had been violated by City staff using pesticides when they were not supposed to. The OSHC declared that it had no further comments or questions, and the two other commissions, having received responses to their comments and questions, declared likewise.

So, by May 2017 we had buy-in from the City Council and from the citizens of Davis.  We had a Discussion Paper, reviewed by the three relevant commissions, containing explicit recommendations.  You might think that the next thing that would happen would be that City staff would pass along the commission recommendations, together with its own analysis, for decision by the City Council.  But that is not what happened.

Instead, in July staff presented its own document to the NRC and the RPC. Staff declared that it had taken into account the Discussion Paper.  But that claim couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In particular, there was no ban on neonicotinoids and no phase-out on glyphosate.  There was a proposal to add a large and problematic “Technical Advisory Committee” (TAC) to decide on pesticide use in Davis; both commissions raised concerns about the composition, roles, and responsibilities of the TAC (e.g., it included an unspecified number of “academics” who were “pest control researchers,” without specifying how such people would be chosen).  Both commissions rejected staff’s proposal; NRC further requested that staff agendize the IPM Policy as an informational item for City Council prior to completion of the policy.  Staff agreed, but this didn’t happen.

Rather, the policy was revised – with staff again misleadingly claiming to take into account commission input – and sent it to the OSHC for review at its September meeting.  The basic problems with the staff proposal remained.  It didn’t reflect the NRC subcommittee recommendations concerning glyphosate and neonicotinoids – the original impetus for the changes in the first place – or the recommendations concerning the IPM Specialist. It didn’t reflect the recommendations of the NRC and RPC from Summer 2017. It didn’t reflect the stated wishes of several Council members. It didn’t reflect the results of the poll and the meetings, which overwhelmingly supported banning neonicotinoids and phasing out glyphosate It added a new layer of bureaucracy — the TAC – with uncertain outcomes and uncertain timelines, instead of relying on the expertise of an IPM Specialist who is empowered to make decisions about which IPM methods to use and when. It tolerated the continued use of several toxic pesticides even more toxic than glyphosate.  The OSHC unanimously rejected the staff proposal and again requested that the City Council state its wishes explicitly so that the policy could be developed accordingly. 

But once again (sorry to sound like a broken record) that didn’t happen.  The proposed staff policy went to the City Council in November 2017, catching us up where I started my story.  Staff finally recommended banning neonicotinoids and phasing out glyphosate, but nowhere in the IPM policy or Council resolution did it say that. Meanwhile, the TAC, which all three commissions had objected to, and which could overturn decisions about pesticide, was still part of the recommendation.  (Here I just highlight the main problems; the NRC subcommittee sent the City Council a long email describing additional problems with the proposal). 

Mayor Davis, completely ignoring (or unaware of) the prolonged staff-citizen struggle, expressed the view that the TAC was unproblematic and that citizens and staff were actually not all that far apart in their recommendations. The Council voted unanimously to include an immediate ban on neonicotinoids and a phase-out of glyphosate within three years or less (or in a period of time recommended by the TAC).  Against many citizens’ recommendations, some of the other pesticides classified as “most hazardous” are still permitted to be used by the City, and a procedure was put into place whereby the TAC or a department head (in conjunction with the City Manager) could override the recommendation of the IPM Specialist on the use of these pesticides.  As I said at the outset, a mixed outcome.  This past spring, staff was supposed to consult with the relevant commissions concerning the  “make-up, function, and purpose” of the TAC, but that did not happen, nor (as far as I know) has a new IPM Specialist been hired.  I do not know who is currently overseeing pesticide use in the City.

Now you have to put yourself in the shoes of (at least some of) the members of the three commissions.  You’ve been working on this for over a year and a half, with many meetings, many conversation, and many documents (even more than is indicated here).  You’ve repeatedly asked for Council input and not gotten it.  You’ve repeatedly made your recommendations known to staff.  But instead, staff has substituted their own views while pretending to have taken into account commission recommendations.  Perhaps, like me, you might then be a little suspicious about why the proposal to ban neonicotinoids and to phase-out glyphosate did not appear in the original IPM policy or Council resolution presented to Council.  Perhaps you might be a little concerned about the power of the TAC, and about the power of the department heads, rather than putting decisions where they belong, in the hands of the IPM specialist – who by this point in time has been forced out (see link above).  Perhaps you might have come to realize that staff has their own views and their own agenda about pesticide use in Davis, and is doing whatever it can to put that agenda in place, regardless of what citizens, commissioners, and City Council members want. 

How could this process have been better?  What is glaringly missing is input and action from the Mayor and the City Council.  The Council should have in place a process whereby Commission recommendations are accurately and completely passed along to Council. Council liaisons to the three commissions should have seen what was going on and intervened.  The Council should not have let a staff-driven process drag on for more than a year and a half, forcing commissioners to attend meeting after meeting to fight just to get what the vast majority of Davis citizens expressly wanted.  At a minimum, City Council members should have had more context for the concerns that citizens raised at the November meeting, but it was glaringly obvious that they did not, and instead patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

I hope that the current City Council and its new Mayor does better.


[1] In what follows, I will just say “staff,” partly for ease of presentation but also because I was not always sure of which staff member was really driving the process.  I do want to say explicitly that I am not referring to the staff member assigned to the OSHC, who was professional at all times and remained neutral throughout the process, providing detailed and accurate minutes of OSHC discussions.


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