By Roberta Millstein
This City Council does not have a good track record on democracy. It has the opportunity to do better this time. Will it?
Newly appointed Mayor Lucas Frerichs, having served on the Council since 2012, is anticipated to step down on January 2, 2023 to become Yolo County District 2 Supervisor. That will leave a vacancy on the Council in District 3 (note that county and city district numbering is different) until the November 2024 election. The Council has a choice of two ways of filling the vacancy: 1) call a special election to fill the vacancy (see staff report for possible dates) or 2) appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
The first way is the democratic way. It’s the way that allows the voters of District 3 to select a representative who they feel listens to them and understands their concerns about their district. It’s the way that allows new voices to put themselves forward for leadership of the city, fulfilling one of the promises that district elections were supposed to bring – i.e., more localized campaigns being easier and less expensive to run.
The second way is the power-abusing way. All the other districts will have elected their representatives, but District 3 would be appointed by councilmembers who are not even in their district. There is nothing about this process that would ensure that the appointed representative would know about and care about issues particular to District 3. What this process does allow for, however, is for councilmembers to appoint someone who sees things their way or who is part of the current power structure in Davis.
Note that the Council also has the option of calling for a special election (the second way), but then appointing someone to fill the vacancy until the election. I think this option is problematic too. The person appointed for the interim period before a special election would have the advantage of incumbency in that election. The council should refrain from any appointment at all and simply call an election to fill the seat.
Consider this: Would the City Council, who was unanimously in favor of Measure H, appoint someone who was against those sorts of projects? Yet almost 2/3 of Davisites rejected Measure H.
Some might think we ought to simply trust the City Council. But this is the same City Council on which Councilmember Dan Carson (who is up for re-election this November) serves – the Councilmember who sued the six citizen authors of the ballot statement against Measure H. He didn’t prevail in his lawsuit and he (or rather the developer who funded the lawsuit) had to pay the ballot authors’ lawyer $42,000, but the fact remains that instead of encouraging and welcoming the democratic free speech of his constituents, he attempted to squelch them and was ready to have them personally liable for thousands of dollars. And not one of the other councilmembers ever publicly condemned Carson’s lawsuit. This was a failure of democracy.
This is also the same City Council who, in April 2021, purged several citizens from commissions who, “coincidentally” were also vocal opponents of various Council actions. They also failed to appoint Kelsey Fortune (who is running for election to City Council this November) to the Utilities Commission even though she is earning a PhD in the Energy and Environmental Economics (to be completed next month), and even though the Council was ostensibly seeking to include more young people and more women on the commissions.
The last time a Davis City Councilmember was appointed rather than elected was in 2011. That City Council chose to appoint Dan Wolk, the son of then-state Sen. Lois Wolk, a former mayor of Davis and two-term City Council member, and Bruce Wolk, the Dean of the UC Davis Law School. Dan Wolk was chosen from 10 applicants. He was the name that everyone knew. He was the name connected to power and influence in Davis.
The Council has the opportunity to do better at supporting democracy this time. The Council will be discussing the vacancy at its meeting this Tuesday. Staff is recommending that no decision be made at this time, and perhaps that is the right way to go, but that does not prevent Councilmembers from taking the opportunity to make a strong stand for democracy, inclusion, and representation in Davis. They could express their strong belief that a special election is preferable to an appointment.
An added benefit of signaling the City’s plans now is that it would give people from District 3 more time to weigh whether or not they would like to run for City Council. After all, this is no small decision and takes preparation. Not disclosing publicly that the Council would like to put the seat on the ballot gives an advantage to insiders.
If you agree, I encourage you to express your view to the City Council in one or more of the following ways:
- Submit written public comments to CityCouncilMembers@cityofdavis.org. Emails are distributed to City Council and staff. To ensure the City Council has the opportunity to review information prior to the meeting, send emails by 3:00 p.m. on the meeting date.
- Submit comments by voice mail prior to the meeting: Call the City’s dedicated phone line 530-757-5693 to leave a voice mail message for public comment. Staff will play comments during the appropriate agenda item (Item #7). Comments will be accepted from noon until 4:00 p.m. on the day of the meeting. Remote public comments will not be accepted after 4:00 p.m. Speakers will be limited to no more than two minutes.
- Give public comment in person. This item is estimated to be heard at 8:45 PM.
 There is technically a fourth, “do nothing” option, which would meant that the seat would be filled at the next regular election. I consider it unlikely and also unwise for the Council to take this path.