Fifteen current and former city commission members and a former mayor, galvanized by the City Councilâ€™s approval in March of a controversial lease option agreement with a commercial solar company, have issued a plan they say is needed to improve city decision-making.
An open letter released by the group this week said informed and transparent decision making â€śis an essential pillar of good local governanceâ€ť but that in Davis, that pillar is eroding.
â€śRecent years have seen multiple alarming instances of secretive action, shortsighted planning, and disconnect between community and leadership priorities,â€ť said the letter signed by former Mayor Mike Corbett and current city commissioners Larry Guenther, Dillan Horton, Lorenzo Kristov, Elizabeth Lasensky, Richard McCann, Roberta Millstein, Jeff Mischkinsky, Alan Pryor, Greg Rowe, Hannah Safford, Johannes Troost, Erik Vink, Colin Walsh and Matt Williams, as well as former commissioner Crilly Butler.
All signed as individuals but serve or have served on 11 different city commissions, including several whose members were particularly critical of the solar lease agreement under which BrightNight obtained a lease option for 235 acres of land near the cityâ€™s wastewater treatment facility on County Road 28H.
BrightNight had approached the city about leasing the land for a commercial solar farm and solar-energy testing facility and during a closed session in February, the council authorized the city manager to move ahead with a preliminary agreement for the lease option. The council subsequently voted 4-1 at the end of March in favor of the plan.
But the process which led to the lease option agreement bypassed city commission review and resulted in a sole-source contract rather than one selected following a request for proposals.
Those were two of the concerns expressed by Vice Mayor Lucas Frerichs when he voted against the agreement in March.
Mayor Gloria Partida also expressed reservations that night about commission review being bypassed, but she ultimately voted in favor of the agreement, joining council members Brett Lee, Will Arnold and Dan Carson.
A subsequent letter to the council signed by Troost, Williams, Kristov and McCann expressed a number of concerns, including the lease rental rate being undervalued; risk to the city from a 49-year lease; and a lack of due diligence before entering into an agreement with BrightNight.
Then in April, five former mayors â€” including Corbett â€” called on the council to void the agreement.
â€śThe City Council needs to void the lease option and start over,â€ť former mayors Corbett, Robb Davis, Joe Krovoza, Ann Evans and Bill Kopper wrote.
â€śThis time there should be input from Davis citizens about the use of the 235 acres, and if a decision is made to proceed with a solar project, there should be a request for proposals.â€ť
But with no action on the councilâ€™s part to void the agreement â€” and the possibility raised that doing so would open the city up to litigation â€” focus has turned toward improving decision-making going forward.
In their open letter released this week, the group noted â€śan unparalleled level of civic engagement and civic pride is one of Davisâ€™s greatest strengths.â€ť
The more than 120 city residents serving on Davis commissions, committees and task forces â€śprovide expert analysis and propose informed actions on the issues that shape Davisâ€™ present and future,â€ť the letter states.
Those volunteers also serve as conduits between Davis residents and the government and are referred to as the â€śeyes and earsâ€ť of the City Council.
â€śUnfortunately, distance has grown between the cityâ€™s eyes and ears and its core executive bodies. Council and staff routinely make major decisions following only cursory consultation with relevant commissions,â€ť the letter said. â€śIn the most egregious cases, such as with the BrightNight lease option agreement, relevant commissions are not consulted at all.â€ť
The letter goes on to say that when commissions are consulted, their perspectives are often given less weight than that of city staff.
â€śThis is evidenced in part by the fact that staff representatives regularly participate in council deliberations on key items, but commission representatives are rarely invited or allowed to participate.â€ť
Other issues raised in the letter include what the authors said is a lack of information provided by the council about closed session activities; conflicting guidance from city staff that â€śrenders it functionally impossible for different commissions to collaborate on topics of mutual interestâ€ť; and a lack of training for new commissioners, which leaves those advisory boards â€ślargely populated by individuals who have deep subject-matter expertise, but limited knowledge of how to contribute that expertise productively.â€ť
The letter then calls on the council to correct those problems by adopting proposals put forward by the group.
â€śThe result will be a Davis that is shaped by all its residents â€” a Davis that is not just a city, but a community,â€ť they wrote.
The specific proposals focus on transparency in decision making, particularly abiding by both â€śthe spirit and intent of the Brown Actâ€ť; training for new commissioners as well as a plan outlining how and when commissions should be consulted; and the role of city staff in decision making.
Actions by city staff have been the subject of some criticism lately, particularly surrounding proposals like the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus as well as the University Mall redevelopment plan.
Earlier this month, a number of city commission members expressed frustration that their recommendations were not taken into account during staff presentations on DISC.
More recently, Rowe, a member of the Davis Planning Commission â€” which unanimously recommended rejection of the University Commons project â€” penned an op-ed criticizing the staff report prepared for council consideration of that project and outlined a number of errors he said it contained.
The proposal put forward this week recommends that city staff no longer advocate for or against a project when it goes before the council.
â€śWith regard to outside party proposals, such as development applications, purchase, sale and/or lease agreements, the staff shall not advocate on behalf of a proposal or its proponent in presentations before the City Council or Planning Commission,â€ť the group proposed.
The full proposal is online at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1pcgjLnhR7JFcaYH0oxc0ni8dwh01XH4d/view
â€” Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [emailÂ protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.Â