The following are comments that Roberta Millstein, Colin Walsh, and Rik Keller provided to City Council on Tuesday evening, May 14, during the open citizen comment period (these may not be verbatim as language could have been modified slightly during presentation or cut short due to time constraints).
It should be noted that after we again criticized the City Council for their involvement with the Vanguard fundraiser, on Wednesday morning in the Vanguard “premium newsletter” David Greenwald attacked Colin Walsh several times after identifying him as a potential City Council candidate – and then proceeded to defend the current Council, which has three incumbents who may be running for re-election, on a separate issue.
There certainly seems to be the appearance of patterns of direct quid pro quos between the Council & the Vanguard, and the Vanguard as a self-described “watchdog” organization has been acting more like a lapdog and has settled into a frequent role as a propaganda arm for the Council, attacking people who dare criticize them. As the Vanguard has hypothesized about involved parties running for a Council seat, this also seems to be an example of ongoing violations by the Vanguard of nonprofit rules barring campaigning for/against political candidates.
Colin Walsh’s comments as printed below consisted mostly of reading from an op-ed penned by Davis Enterprise staff that criticized the Council & Vanguard. When the newspaper published this a couple weeks ago David Greenwald also attacked the messenger and attempted to defend the Council by smearing the Editor as “out of touch” with the community.
Roberta Millstein’s comments to Davis City Council, 14 May 2019
My comments tonight are about Davis exceptionalism, in the context of the upcoming Davis Vanguard fundraiser that all of you are headlining (with Will Arnold headlining “in spirit”).
Rik Keller, Colin Walsh, and I gave public comment two weeks ago [edit: I should have said three] about the Vanguard fundraiser. The Davisite blog has written several articles about it. The Davis Enterprise has also, with scathing editorials from Bob Dunning and the editorial staff. Yet your participation in the event has not changed. Frankly, I am disappointed and dismayed.
Maybe a change of perspective will help make the issue clearer. Let’s imagine that the news outlet in question were Democracy Now, an award-winning, independent, internationally known non-profit news organization. And now, let’s imagine that the elected official in question were Bernie Sanders, who is a candidate for President. Or, if you don’t like Sanders, imagine we were talking about Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, all elected officials, all running for public office.
Now imagine that Sanders or Warren or Harris were to headline a fundraiser for Democracy Now, together with their pictures, taken on the Senate floor, and their titles as U.S. Senators. They wouldn’t face the Brown Act issues that you all face, but it would still look bad, wouldn’t it? Really, it would look as bad as it does when Trump extolls the virtues of Fox News.
And then, suppose it turned out that Sanders and Warren and Harris were getting better coverage from Democracy Now than other candidates, or at least arguably better coverage. Would that be because they are better candidates? Well, maybe they are better candidates. I happen think they are better candidates. But now we can’t trust the coverage anymore, because they are way too cozy with the news outlet that is covering them. The news outlet owes them, in very real sense.
But, someone might say, Democracy Now does great work. For example, they covered the Standing Rock protests when other news outlets didn’t. Or people might say that Amy Goodman, the founder of Democracy Now, is a good person. Which by all accounts she is. But none of that changes anything. If elected officials running for public office were to fundraise for Democracy Now, it would taint its news coverage and it would taint our trust in our public officials.
So, back to Davis exceptionalism. I hope it’s clear that Sanders and Warren and Harris shouldn’t be fundraising for Democracy Now – not that such a thing would be permitted by Democracy Now (it isn’t). And if you can see that, you should be able to see that the City Council – or the Davis School Board or Yolo County Supervisors or other elected officials – shouldn’t be fundraising for the Vanguard, no matter what other good things you think that the Vanguard does, or no matter how much you might like its coverage.
Davis is special, it’s true. But we’re not that special. The same ethical rules that apply nationally also apply to us.
Colin Walsh’s comments to Davis City Council, 14 May 2019
This is a picture of the fundraiser on Facebook. This is our Council chamber. This is all of you in the council. This is our city council. Our city council is being used as an advertisement for a news agency and you all seem to have agreed to it.
Nothing has changed since we were here 3 weeks ago and told you what a problem this is, except for a little hedging around the edges of maybe there won't be questions. Maybe I can't be there. Or I can only be there a very brief time. Or, I have a different event that day yet.
You all still have your picture front and center on the advertisement for a news agency that covers you as council members, and as City Council Candidates. That's not okay.
This is what are the Davis Enterprise had to say.
“IT STARTED as the Davis Vanguard, a locally based online news site and 501(c)(3) nonprofit, announced a fundraiser ‘hosted’ by Mayor Brett Lee. Soon, that was changed to an event that ‘featured’ not just Lee, but three other Davis City Council members, Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, Dan Carson and Lucas Frerichs. And Will Arnold isn’t holding out — according to the Vanguard, he is unable to go and ‘will be there in spirit.’”
“Suggested donation? $25. For that, “Each of the speakers will speak briefly and then take questions,” which strikes us a pretty good deal. If you get in a question to each council member, that’s only $5 each.”
“It’s all pretty sordid, and on the face of it, looks like a crass case of selling access to donors.”
“As it happens, Lee and Frerichs tell us that they won’t be taking questions. So maybe there was a communication breakdown, or the Vanguard is selling its donors a bill of goods. Maybe the confusion is the point.”
Since this was published the Vanguard has changed their ad removing the questions. This is the third time the Vanguard has changed the ad.
The Enterprise goes on,
“Whether or not they know the specifics of what they’re getting into, it does not excuse the fact that council members are helping to raise money for a media company that covers City Council meetings … from someone who, in theory anyway, is supposed to be holding them accountable. On both sides of the ledger, this is a stunning lapse in judgment.”
“If they don’t answer questions on city issues, this would at least appear not to violate the Brown Act, but one would hope that local leaders committed to transparency in government would understand that appearing as a group at a $25-a-head event is contrary to those principles.”
The Enterprise goes on to say,
“The council members have expressed a desire to help local media as a motivation for participating. We hope they can come to the realization that amateur-hour stunts like this fundamentally do a great harm to local media, by confusing coverage with activism and creating the impression that politicians and journalists alike are in the business of exchanging favors for their own ends.”
This really is a stunning lapse of judgement on the part of the Council. This has to change. The City Council can not appear to be raising money for a news agency that reports on them. City Council candidates cannot ethically raise money for news agencies that cover them. It is improper, and I expect better of each of you.
Rik Keller’s comments to Davis City Council, 14 May 2019
Three weeks ago when I and others, spoke to you, we brought your attention to the very troubling nature of City Council participation in an upcoming fundraiser event for the Davis Vanguard.
Well, as it turns out, though we were very direct in our words about the problems with access, ethics, integrity, pay-to-play, quid pro quos, and other issues, it turns out that we probably weren’t nearly harsh enough. Our remarks managed to attract the attention of local journalists and there was a front page Sunday article published, and two op-eds from Davis Enterprise staff.
The op-eds called out some of you individually by name. Now, I’m going to spare you that tonight… But I do hope that you have taken to heart those words meant for you individually as well as collectively for the body. Here are some choice words from Bob Dunning’s piece entitled “These standards exist for a reason.”:
The question is simple. Should elected officials participate in and serve as official sponsors of a fundraiser designed specifically to... enrich a news organization.. The answer is also simple: Not in your wildest dreams.
Although it should be obvious... it is shocking to see that four members of the Davis City Council have agreed to do just that. It reminds me of the time that alleged journalist Sean Hannity of Fox News served as Master of Ceremonies for a political rally for Donald Trump.
As a follow up from me: would it really be all that different if y’all just handed some cash over right now to David Greenwald of the Vanguard sitting right here in front of you at this table and encouraged the rest of us to do the same? Do you see the problem in that
I sent an email earlier today requesting information from you about the written approval you provided to have your names listed as “sponsors” of the event in advertising and what, exactly, you agreed to do at the event. The California Nonprofit Integrity Act of 2004 covers, among other things, prohibits:
“Misrepresenting or misleading anyone ... to believe that …[a] person sponsors, endorses, or approves a charitable solicitation… when that person has not given consent in writing to the use of the person’s name for these purposes.”
I believe there are possibly multiple violations of the California Government Code with lack of consent in writing before the event was advertised with dozens of sponsors weeks ago.
And there are possibly other violations involving misrepresentations of what you will actually do at the event, whether it is a Q&A, or making speeches, or whatever. It is a story that has changed constantly.
I would also note that use of a photo of you in these very chambers in event advertisements implies and misrepresents that the event has the endorsement of the City Council as a body and is a possible violation in and of itself.
Finally, I would note that the Vanguard was not a part of the recent Big Day of Giving (Big Dog) community nonprofit event, but is trying to fundraise through their own private event with special privilege & access to elected officials that dozens of other local nonprofits do not have.
Once again, 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.