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Will this City Council Uphold Democracy?

DemocracyTuesday’s Council Meeting will give us our first indication

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.


Nancy Price

Thank you, Roberta for this thoughtful and well-reasoned article, along with information about ow to comment on Tuesday.

Colin Walsh

Over the next 2 years the City Council will be working on the Downtown Plan and starting the process for revising the general plan. This is some of the most important work the council does. It will affect the next 20 years of City planning and beyond. Now is not the time to point yet another insider who will just go along with the gang of 5 we already have. Representation matters.

The Downtown plan is the underlying planning document that guides all future development in downtown and even parts of surounding neighborhoods. The plan proposes big changes for Davis. 7 story buildings around E and 3rd. 5 story buildings for the rest of downtown. 4 story buidlings east of the railroad tracks. And, because the plan changes the way the City plans to form-based code, there will be even less scrutiny on a project by project basis. in other words, everyone on the council over the next 2 years will play an outsized role in the future of Downtown.

For at least 6 years the City Council has been promising to start the processs for updating the general plan for the entire City of Davis. Now it looks like that process will finally begin within the next 2 years. One of the first things to be done is appoint the committees. Will the current council appoint people with differeng point of views to work on the General Plan or will it be just people who agree with them?

Just look what they did with the housing element portion of the General Plan last year. Dan Carson recommended and the council appointed Don Gibson, an outspoken advocate for development (previously employed by developers to advocate for projects in Davis) who actually LIVES IN SACRAMENTO to the City of Davis Housing Element Committee.

No more insider appointments. Let's have an open and fair ellection for the district 3 seat.

Robin Wiener

Thank you, Roberta and Colin. Very helpful information.

Ron O

Well-written article (and follow-up comment from Colin in support).

Strongly agree with both.

Todd Edelman

Wow, this is a treasure.

Just to shine up the non-conflict diamonds a bit:

* Commissioners are traditionally allowed to remain if they choose to. When I asked to see notes about the deliberations that resulted in the decision of the Council Sub-Committee to recommend that i not be re-appointed, I was told that it was not public - i.e. I would need to take legal action to see it.

* ANY Council has an outsized say on things like the Downtown and General Plans. So then, "outsized" is bad, and we accept it? Or?

* At least one of the final mailers from the Yes on H campaign indicated an endorsement from the "Davis City Council" as such, rather than the individual members. This seems quite questionable, yes? It included a logo, which I am unfamiliar with, could not find elsewhere and was quite likely created for the campaign. See https://drive.google.com/file/d/13Tefz845IR9Oez6-XpGOE2BXMM-j68Ty/view?usp=sharing

Matt Williams

After reading the Staff Report, the following information jumps out at me.

Timeline for Anticipated Vacancy

January 2, 2023: Vacancy occurs. First day possible to call election.
Please note: January 2, 2023 is a city observed holiday closure.

I believe that information is incomplete. The vacancy could occur on Tuesday, December 13, 2022. That is the date that the newly elected Council members will be sworn in.

Whether the vacancy date is December 13 or January 2, there is precious little time between that date and the following deadline.

January 8, 2023: Last day possible to call May all-mail ballot election

Sharla Cheney

Having an election in May leaves District 3 without representation for 5-6 months. I would like to see who is interested in being appointed and maybe involve people who actually live in the District in the decision of whether to appoint or hold an election.

Alan C. Miller

I live in District 3. It is unacceptable to have representatives from Districts 1,2,4 and 5 decide our representative. This is especially true as those name-recognized are often re-elected, meaning the person chosen by other district reps could, via human behavior, carry on. The Council must allow District 3 to chose it's own rep. If this means we are sans rep for a few months, so be it.

Sharla Cheney

Waiting for an election would leave the District without representation during the time that the Council is addressing the Downtown plan. The Downtown is in District 3. I wonder what the strategy is that would leave the District with no representation for such a long period of time. Is the argument also to delay the Downtown plan? Who do people go to for help during this period of no representation? What happens to issues that come before the Council affecting District 3 during this time of no representation?

Roberta L. Millstein

Sharla, it would be only 5-6 months if they decided to call the special election in May 2023, as I think they should. I doubt they will be finished with the Downtown Plan by then. In any case, having the four represent the interests of District 3 is potentially not much different from having the four select someone to represent District 3, but without the downside of giving the incumbent an advantage in the special election.

Roberta L. Millstein

Matt, you raise a VERY important point. I see that January 3 is a Tuesday. The CC would have to vote on that date in order to schedule the May special election, or have a meeting in December, which means Lucas would have to resign a little early. This should be discussed at Tuesday's meeting.

Sharla Cheney

Roberta, so it is the perceived advantage in the next election that is the problem for people?

Roberta L. Millstein

I think it is more than a "perceived" advantage. It is well known that name recognition and incumbency give an advantage. Also, as I said, I see little benefit to District 3 to having an appointee for those 5-6 months.

George Galamba

I don't have strong feelings on this, but I think the idea that making an appointment is not part of the democratic process is wrong. This procedure of making temporary appointments was created as part of the democratic process, and has been used repeatedly in the past. If the city code is revised to prohibit this practice, but the city council does it anyway, THEN that would violate the democratic process.

Roberta L. Millstein

I'm not claiming that they would be violating some law if they went with an appointment. But clearly one process is more democratic than the other in that it allows for the voices of the people being representing to be heard. I think in general an election is more democratic than an appointment, but that's even more true now that they have switched to district elections. In the past, it was 4 people elected by the whole city appointing someone to represent the whole city. Now it will be 4 people elected from 4 different districts representing an entirely different 5th district. I think that's problematic, and yeah, maybe the code should be changed. But the code doesn't need to be changed for them to do the right thing.

Elizabeth Reay

Thank you all for the well written information. I have sent in my (acerbic) comments for tonight's meeting via email.

Roberta L. Millstein

Thank you, Elizabeth!

William "Bill" Marshall

If it were my district, I would be pushing for the special election, as soon as legally possible… and would want any interim appointee, if necessary, to NOT be a candidate for the elected post…

But, not my district… so will not push in any direction… but will hold my district’s rep [District 4] to account for how they end up voting on the selection method… this is ‘new ground’ with the advent of districts… am concerned about precedent set on this new ground.

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