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City Council Ethics Questioned

Picture13 Comments Submitted to the Davis City Council on April 23, 2019


Good evening.  I am Roberta Millstein, citizen of Davis, speaking for myself.

I am extremely concerned about members of the Davis City Council participating in a fundraiser for the Davis Vanguard.  Let me quote from the Facebook event:

The Vanguard Fundraiser will feature Davis Mayor Brett Lee, Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, and Councilmembers Lucas Frerichs and Dan Carson, who will speak at a fundraiser for the Davis Vanguard… Will Arnold, unable to attend will be there in spirit. Each of the speakers will speak briefly and then take questions.  The event has a suggested donation of $25.

So, four out of five of you are the featured speakers of a fundraiser for a self-proclaimed local news outlet, including a question and answer period, with the fifth apparently willing to have his name associated with the fundraiser.  I note that this is a very different sort of event from other events that you all participate in together, such as Picnic Day, where City issues are not discussed.

Some of you may be aware that the Davisite.org blog has previously raised concerns about this event and that it has undergone some changes in response.  Yet as the basic problems with the event remain, including potential Brown Act violations, I feel compelled to speak at public comment about them in the hope that members of Council will rethink their participation.

The basic problem is this: Elected officials – especially those who may be running for re-election soon, as some of you may be – should not be raising money for news outlets, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.  By being the featured speakers of the Vanguard fundraiser, you all invoke the spectre of “pay for play” – that is to say, you create the potential impression that by raising money for the Vanguard, you will receive favorable press from the Vanguard in return.

Let me be clear.  I am not accusing any of you of trying to seek favorable press from the Vanguard. That is not the point.  The point is that each of you should be trying to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, as one does with standard “conflict of interest” precautions. 

To make the problem more vivid, let’s imagine that in the future the Vanguard runs a positive article about a controversial decision from the City Council, a favored cause that the Council supports, or, even more problematically, about one of your re-election campaigns.  Readers will wonder whether the article genuinely reflects a positive view of the Council or whether that article should be better viewed as a “paid advertisement” snuck in under the covers.  Again, this worry about appearance is present regardless of whether either side intends to engage in a problematic practice.  Both sides should keep their noses so clean that readers don’t have to wonder.  Both sides should want to support independent press in Davis so that citizens can make informed and thoughtful decisions.

I think you all are acting improperly by fundraising for the Vanguard, and I call on you to cancel your participation in this event.  Your appearance there can only harm the City and the public trust.

Picture2
Event Description on the Vanguard's Facebook page 4/24/2019

 

Colin Walsh: City Council Comments 4/23/2019

I support a free press and I would like to read to you part of the Institute for Non-profit New’s Ethics & Practices Policies.

“Donor Transparency”

“We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization.”

“As a nonprofit, we will avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we will not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office.” – that would probably describe 3 of you currently.

Until David Greenwald and his so called “news reporting organization” start adhering to these very reasonable guidelines, we have a real and growing problem afflicting the politics in our community.

Look no further than our own Councils’ referral of the Yes on Measure L campaign to the District Attorney and FPPC. Many of the allegations point directly to Vanguard practices. Non-reporting of ad purchases, large improper donations, and that is just what we know about. Has the WDAAC made even larger contributions that have been unreported? Did individuals donate to buy better coverage? We don’t know, and we won’t know until the Vanguard cleans up its act.

What about the Nishi developers? How much did they contribute for the very favorable coverage they received?

And now we have the Entire City Council fronting for a fundraising event. 3 of you are up for reelection. How much have you contributed to get favorable treatment? How much did your supporters give? Maybe nothing, maybe thousands. We just won’t know until the Vanguard cleans up its act and accounts for its funding.

Until then, what we are left with is the appearance of impropriety. Something our electeds must try to avoid.

Until the Vanguard cleans up its act, there is no way Council members, especially those running for reelection should be fronting for a Vanguard fundraiser. It looks like quid pro quo. It looks like investing now to buy favorable election coverage later.

Put a stop to this and withdraw from the event until the Vanguard follows ethical standards of non-profit journalism.

 


Picture3Rik Keller: City Council Comments 4/23/2019

I am speaking tonight about the very troubling nature of City Council participation in a fundraiser event for the Davis Vanguard at Lamppost Pizza on May 19. First, there are Brown Act issues. Constituents will be attending to ask questions and get responses from Council members on city issues. Based on state law and guidance from the League of California Cities and the Attorney General, a gathering is defined as a meeting if a majority of the members of the legislative body merely receive information or discuss their views on an issue over which they have jurisdiction. Merely hearing about the positions of other members also is included.

To the extent that the Council wants to try to do a question-and-answer session outside of its formal meetings, it should be free and open to all citizens. It should be noticed and agendized. It should not require a donation to an organization. I would ask what consultation and guidance Council members received before agreeing to conduct this meeting and how they think they can hold this meeting without running afoul of the Brown Act.

This private event also raises larger troubling questions about access and ethics.  The public is being encouraged to contribute money at a private event, for the opportunity to get access to council members. Some might also construe this as implied Council support for the Vanguard's political agendas and positions. Furthermore, the Council members should not put themselves in the position of providing support for a news outlet (regardless of its tax status or views) that covers them, their policy decisions, and their reelection campaigns; and which could lead to the impression that they are angling for the quid pro quo of favorable coverage.

I am not expecting responses tonight. Indeed it would a Brown Act violation if you did so. The Act requires that you do not substantively respond to my questions or anyone else’s in the comment period at CC meetings because the subjects are non-agendized.

I am calling on the Council members to withdraw their participation in this event and to issue an unequivocal statement regarding the involvement by elected officials with media organizations who cover them, especially organizations like the Vanguard that provide no transparency or openness about their funding sources and which do not follow ethical guidelines for editorial and funding firewalls.

The Council should want to avoid even the appearance of Brown Act violations, the appearance of “pay to play” access issues, and the appearance of quid pro quos from journalists.

Comments

Nancy Price

Thank you all for these important statements. I hope this starts a needed conversation by our city council members and David Greenwald on ethics, accountability and transparency. It’s long overdue.

Daniel Cornford

Excellent pieces by Roberta, Colin and Rik on very basic issues concerning our local democracy and the independence (or lack thereof) of our City Council. I urge readers to do one (or all of the following):

1) Send one or more of these articles to the city council members. You can reach all of them with one email: citycouncilmembers@cityofdavis.org.
2) Speak at the open forum of the next council meeting urging CC members not to attend the DV fundraiser for the reasons given in these articles.
3) Consider writing a similar piece/letter yourself to the Davis Enterprise.
4) Draw attention to this matter with a post on Nextdoor and a link to these articles.

Roberta L. Millstein

Thank you very much, Nancy and Dan. It's gratifying to have others join us in taking a stand on this crucial issue, an issue that affects the very functioning of Davis's democracy.

Roberta L. Millstein

Posting on behalf of Michael Harrington from an email sent to the City Council and others:

Dear Colleagues:

I'll join Mr. Cornford. In my 4 years on the CC, never, not in a million years, would any of us have done what the current CC is planning to do in mass with the DV.

Where is this arrogance coming from? Take questions? On what, solving the rat problem in Woodland? They cannot hear and discuss anything about solving the rat problem in Davis!

Someone should take a video camera on a stand and film the entire event. Otherwise, boycott it.

Michael Harrington, Esq.
Member, Davis CC, 2000-04

Roberta L. Millstein

I recall that not too long ago the Davis Vanguard could be pretty scathing in its criticisms of the Council; see, e.g., https://www.davisvanguard.org/2015/12/commentary-council-passes-mous-without-a-word/ and https://www.davisvanguard.org/2015/12/monday-morning-thoughts-ii-on-dissent/

He called their decision "completely irresponsible" and castigated them for approving MOUs on consent without any discussion, calling out current councilmembers Lucas Frerichs and Brett Lee among others.

Seems to me that we've not seen that sort of criticism of the Council from the Vanguard in a long time. Seems the relationship has gotten a lot cozier. Even as many citizens are unhappy with recent decisions, the Vanguard offers defenses and explanations.

In light of the Council being the featured speakers of a fundraiser for the Vanguard, this does not look good.

Tia Will

I have a very different view of the City Council's actions. For full disclosure, I am a member of the Vanguard editorial board.

The Vanguard is a non-profit just as are a number of different organizations in town such as are STEAC, The Food Bank, The Phoenix Coalition, and Thriving Pink to name a few. Would any of the commenters opposing the City Council's support feel the same way about a unanimous decision on the part of the City Council to attend a fundraiser for any of these groups?

Roberta L. Millstein

Hi Tia,

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the full disclosure.

I think in general, yes, public officials need to be careful about the ways in which they support nonprofits, as recommended by this "Everyday Ethics for Local Officials" document: https://www.ca-ilg.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/resources__Everyday_Ethics_AugOctDec08_0.pdf - I cited this in my original article on this topic:

In fundraising or similar situations, public officials must take extraordinary care to separate their roles as fundraisers or representatives of a nonprofit and as public officials. They must strive to ensure that people from whom they've solicited a contribution for a charitable cause understand that such a contribution will not favorably influence their decision on a separate matter. Using one's official position to, in essence, force donations to nonprofits violates state and federal laws that prohibit extortion and protect the public's right to officials' honest services.

That being said, I do think that news organizations raise particular concerns because of the importance of having a press that is independent from the government. I think if you take a moment to think beyond Davis, you can think of problematic examples of government entanglement with the press. We do not want that here, even though we know all the players and are friends/neighbors with them. So, although government officials should be cautious with all non-profits, they should be exceedingly cautious -- that is, completely hands off -- with news non-profits.

One last thing -- the Brown Act concerns that we raise would likewise be a problem, regardless of non-profit status. As Rik pointed out in his comments, the City Council doesn't even answer questions that commenters ask during public comment, because they not publicly agendized. So, how is it proper to answer questions in an event where the public is not properly noticed of the event, much less the topics? I don't think it is.

Keep in mind that the CC isn't merely proposing to attend the event, which I agree would be unproblematic. Rather, they are being advertised as featured speakers for the fundraiser who will speak and answer questions. That is what creates all of the problems.

I welcome your thoughts in reply.

-Roberta

Tia Will

Hi Roberta,

I do not know if the Brown Act is a problem, or merely being exploited as a criticism. I would think that the Council members would have consulted city legal counsel on this issue prior to accepting a speaking role.

As for entanglement of news media with public officials, I think that is answered by other commenters on this thread. The Vanguard has been both very critical of the actions of the City Council, and very supportive of some other actions. I do not see this as the actions of a blog which is "cozy" with the City Council. I respect the right of others to disagree, but I think the articles over years support the independence of the Vanguard.

Roberta L. Millstein

Tia, I've heard you say many times that you don't like to assume people's ill intentions, so I hope that you do the same for us here and assume that we are acting honestly and not "exploiting" a criticism. I know that I am raising genuine concerns that I have and I know that Rik and Colin I are, too. I think this is a genuine concern based on everything I know about the Brown Act from my time on the OSHC. I would be interested in knowing whether the Council consulted legal counsel on this. I suspect that they did not.

I think that in the past, the Vanguard was pretty critical of the CC, yes. It is my impression that in recent months it has been much less so. But that is somewhat beside the point. Again, both sides should be avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Suppose Bernie Sanders did a fundraiser for Democracy Now, a nonprofit news organization. And then we saw a positive article about Bernie Sanders in Democracy Now. You'd wonder, wouldn't you? Well, we shouldn't have to wonder. The press should be separate from government.

Robert Canning

Roberta stated: "Seems to me that we've not seen that sort of criticism of the Council from the Vanguard in a long time. Seems the relationship has gotten a lot cozier. Even as many citizens are unhappy with recent decisions, the Vanguard offers defenses and explanations."

I'm not very adept at searching the Vanguard archives but I would point out that the Vanguard has criticized the council on parking, Trackside, and the process around the Mace traffic project.

My hunch is that in the 12+ years the Vanguard has been online, that the criticisms have waxed and waned, just as the council has changed over the years.

Rik Keller

Tia,
Thanks for replying here as a Vanguard Editorial Board member.

As Roberta states, the types of guidelines we are talking about for journalistic orgs are put in place to avoid the even the appearance of influence and quid pro quos.

The 200+ member Institute for Nonporifit News guidelines state the following:
“Nonprofit newsrooms that are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News pledge to be transparent about the funding of their news operations and maintain editorial independence from all revenue sources to ensure news judgments are made in the interest of the communities they serve as journalists.”

In contrast, the Davis Vanguard has not adopted any such guidelines. Indeed, while there is a very long page devoted to the comments policy on the Vanguard website, the only thing I’ve found that addresses its reporting/editorial practices at all is on the page listing Editorial Board members and is aspirational only, not listing any practices, policies, or procedures: “The Vanguard seeks to bring transparency, accountability and fairness to local government, while promoting social justice and democracy, and adhering to principles of accuracy and fairness in our reporting.”

The INN model policy language also states: “As nonprofit, we will avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we will not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office. We will not accept donations from sources who, deemed by our board of directors, present a conflict of interest with our work or compromise our independence.”

These are the types of policies that the Vanguard needs to adopt if it wants to be perceived as a credible and independent journalistic enterprise.

Roberta L. Millstein

Robert,

Just to give an example, I see the following article from the Vanguard as one big apology for the Council:

https://www.davisvanguard.org/2019/03/my-view-some-are-saying-the-council-is-out-of-step-lets-have-a-look/

But I will say again, whether David is or is not sufficiently critical of the Council is not the main issue. The main issue is the appearance of a news outlet being too cozy with the government. It's a conflict of interest.

(I can't help but note a side issue here: that we could not be having the reverse conversation on the Vanguard, since the Vanguard refuses to mention the Davisite by name and deletes all comments and links that do. The article I linked to above is a direct reply to a Davisite article of mine, but there is no mention of the Davisite. I am not sure why you are defending a purported news outlet that behaves like that, not to mention the absence of transparency in its funding sources).

Rik Keller

David Greenwald made a good point in the following column (and as Roberta notes, anyone is able to post links to articles in the Vanguard (and other sources) in the Davisite, whereas the Vanguard assiduously deletes all references to the Davisite even to the extent of ending up plagiarizing by not citing sources) https://www.davisvanguard.org/2016/12/view-dont-know-dont-know/:

"The problem is the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and the people with the ability to change that need to start stepping up."

While Greenwald was talking about issue coverage in the Enterprise, this statement equally applies to the Vanguard's lack of funding/donor transparency and what the Vanguard Editorial Board should do about it. As stated in this article in the Columbia Journalism Review "Ethics for the Investigators": https://archives.cjr.org/the_news_frontier/ethics_for_the_investigators.php :

"Nonprofit journalists should turn their investigative instincts on their donors and themselves. By vetting funders and striving to be as transparent as possible about where the money comes from, news organizations can mitigate the sort of accusations of conflicts of interest they would aim to expose in any other arena. As the report says, “It is better to reveal one’s funding sources and be criticized, than not to reveal and have the information surface elsewhere.”

There is further guidance in the article that should be noted:
"Following up on the concept that is better to report on yourself than to have others do it for you, Toronto Star deputy investigations editor Robert Cribb predicted that the ethics of nonprofit newsrooms will come under heightened scrutiny from mainstream news organizations as nonprofits grow and compete with legacy media. “These questions are going to be not just a matter of debate at a roundtable at a university, but these are going to be on the front pages of newspapers.”"

And also speaks to avoiding the types of "cozy" relationships that Roberta warns about:
"Nonprofits should maintain walls between journalists and donors the way for-profit papers have established walls between editorial staff and advertisers. “Working staff should, relatively speaking, be free of close interaction with funding sources,” Lewis said."

Rik Keller

Tia Will & Robert Canning:

While Roberta previously published this article that included problematic practices of the Davis Vanguard in regards to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics [https://www.davisite.org/2019/04/a-problem-with-the-davis-vanguards-citation-practices.html], that article was focused narrowly on the Vanguard discussing articles from the Davisite without citing them and not deleting comments anytime someone links to the Davisite.

It is worth reviewing the SPJ Code of Ethics in its entirety: https://www.spj.org/pdf/spj-code-of-ethics.pdf

For now let's focus on the statements under ACT INDEPENDENTLY....

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public. Journalists should: [my emphasis for areas that I can document that the Vanguard violates]:

- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts. [ see current situation with City Council and fundraiser and overall Vanguard nondisclosure of donors]

- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility. [ see current entanglement with City Council; see previous Vanguard articles about political campaigns where the covered subjects also donated to/bought ad space from the Vanguard]

- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.[see previous Vanguard articles written by representatives from political campaigns who were not disclosed as Vanguard funders]

- Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage. [see the above. we don't know what we don't know regarding Vanguard coverage of its donors]

- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content. [see previous articles published on the Vanguard written by representatives from political campaigns who were not disclosed as Vanguard funders]

...and BE ACCOUNTABLE AND TRANSPARENT

Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one's work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. Journalists should:

- Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content. [David Greenwald threatened legal action against the Davisite about a previous article on this subject. The Davis Vanguard attorney has tried to shut down all discussion of this issue by harassing the authors of this current article on social media. Two Vanguard Board members (Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald and Sean Raycraft) did the same. The Vanguard Board has not adopted any ethical standards or guidelines.]

- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness. [see above about the Vanguard not attributing accurately and citing sources properly; see above about the Davis Vanguard's attorney's actions and other actions by the Vanguard Publisher and Board Members]

- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly. [see multiple occasions where the Vanguard has gotten basic facts wrong in articles and then deletes comments pointing these out while secretly providing corrections without acknowledging doing so.]

- Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations. [see all of the above]

- Abide by the same high standards they expect of others. [The Vanguard states its goal as follows: "The Vanguard seeks to bring transparency, accountability and fairness to local government..." It needs to establish internal standards of transparency, accountability and fairness.]

Colin Walsh

Tia and Robert,
I am far more concerned that our City Council act to follow the best practices of open and accessible government than about any blogs activities, but since you wrote I have a few thoughts for you.

I appreciate you taking the time to submit comments here at Davisite.org. It is notable to me though that I certainly have not been afforded the same courtesy at the Vanguard. The last several times I commented on Vanguard stories my comments were deleted despite complying with every aspect of the Vanguard comment policy.

I would also note that 2 other Vanguard Board Members and an attorney who has regularly represented the Vanguard posted extensive insult laced rants on my Facebook page recently, and I have left all of those posts up too.

I see that in addition to you both serving as editorial board members at the Vanguard, that Robert is listed as the Chief Financial Officer for the Vanguard 501c3 (in the most recent available filling with the CA Secretary of State). Questions of financial impropriety and potential quid pro quo are understandably concerning to a CFO since there is a potential for personal jeopardy. This is a very good reason to seek transparency and update Vanguard policies to avoid all appearances of impropriety.

So, Robert and Tia as editorial board members, and Robert as the Vanguard CFO, I urge you to institute policies in line with non-profit journalism industry standards (like the INN) at the Vanguard. I similarly urge you to institute policies of true funding transparency comparable to Davis election disclosure laws and to post these policies on the Vanguard web page.

Just as the era when the Vanguard “founder, editor, and executive director” David Greenwald posted articles and comments under fake names came to an end, the era of hidden funding must come to an end too if the Vanguard wants to grow into a respected community institution.

John Troidl

Seems like the case is made well here..... that attendance/participation in this event by Davis City Council members is problematic for a number of reasons. Too bad the fund raiser was not for a better cause.... because we can't even justify the means by the ends. In this case, the appearance of conflict of interest and violation of open meeting laws is just too strong.....

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