Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Chapter 10 - The Political Culture of Davis

Is Davis more than a bit eccentric? Outsiders sometimes seem to think so. Take Tom Hritz, a columnist for the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. In a 1995 column, he questioned whether Davis someday will be named "The Weirdness Center of the World." "There's a good chance it will," Hritz concluded, suggesting the federal government also may want to consider designating it a national refuge for environmentally concerned yahoos. [1] Another of the city's critics was a railroad executive who couldn't hide his annoyance when officials asked his company in the early 1990s to contribute up to $1,000 for a planning project the city was undertaking next to the railroad tracks. "This letter is tantamount to railroad robbery. However, since we are forced to live with the People's Republic of Davis, we will accede to your demands in the interest of the commune welfare," the executive wrote in response, enclosing a check for $500.

How does Davis, a city with just over 50,000 residents, catch the attention of a columnist in Pittsburgh? Three events were largely to blame, and there's no denying the topics were bound to raise eyebrows among outsiders: historic potholes in downtown alleys. A toad tunnel underneath a freeway overpass. And a Davis woman cited by police for snoring too loudly. Also feeding the Davis-is-weird media frenzy was the city's smoking ordinance, perhaps the toughest in California in the early 1990s. Under some circumstances, it even banned smoking outdoors.

The most recent was the historic pothole saga, which captured international attention this year. Late-night talk-show hosts poked fun at Davis. Rush Limbaugh took a swipe as well. CNN looked into the controversy, sending its story around the world. Associated Press ran the story. "Paving over a few potholes wouldn't seem like a radical proposition, requiring an archaeologist, neighborhood survey, historical commission and general gnashing of teeth," Associated Press said. "But this is Davis, a town so politically correct that smoking is restricted even outdoors and there are little tunnels under a freeway for frog crossings." [2]

The main target of derision was Councilwoman Julie Partansky, an artist who says the city's six unpaved alleys in question should be left alone, basing her argument on the California Environmental Quality Act. "They are the original material used when the neighborhood was built. It's part of the fabric of the neighborhood as originally conceived," Partansky said, according to Associated Press. "The alleys have a wonderful ambience. To pave them would make a world of difference. It's real mellow in the alley now." [3] Partansky lived next to one of the alleys, and believed its helped give her neighborhood a rural ambiance that should be preserved. That's not the only reason she and some of her neighbors opposed paving the alleys with concrete. They argue paved alleys would be inviting to high-speed traffic and crime. "But I never said the potholes were historic," Partansky maintained, saying a newspaper reporter dreamed up the pothole angle. She was annoyed by the media frenzy at first, but later decided the whole affair was worth a laugh or two. Some of her council colleagues, though, weren't amused, complaining that the city had become an international laughing stock.

Out-of-town media also had a field day over the city's plans to spend about $14,000 to have a toad tunnel 21 inches wide and 18 inches high near the northern embankment of a freeway overpass being built across Interstate 80. The idea was to let toads and frogs use the tunnel when they migrate to a nearby city-owned drainage pond, rather than risk being smashed under the wheels of automobiles using the overpass. Partansky got interested in the idea after learning that hundreds of toads migrate to the pond during breeding season. "It's done elsewhere," noted Duane Copley, a city civil engineer at the time. Partansky agreed, saying she has heard of similar tunnels in England, the Netherlands and Australia. In the last country, authorities have even tried installing small fences to herd a species of tiny frogs into the culverts provided for them. Before the overpass was completed, UCD experts helped city officials catch some of the toads, agreeing to keep them safe on campus until the project was completed and the toads could be reintroduced to their original habitat.

The snoring saga began in January 1994, when a university student decided he couldn't take any more. Tired of hearing a neighbor's snoring through his apartment's walls, he complained to police, convincing a new city enforcement officer to cite his neighbor for violating the Davis noise ordinance with her snoring. A media circus ensued, as television crews descended on Davis to find out how someone could be cited for snoring, then broadcasting the story internationally. One television crew even set up shop in the complaining student's bedroom, apparently hoping to hearing the offending snorer firsthand. Ultimately, the City Council and Yolo County district attorney's office decided not to enforce the citation, pointing out that snoring is an involuntary action. The women who was cited later filed suit against the city, seeking damages of $24,500 for lost wages, medical expenses and emotional distress. In March 1995, the city agreed to an out-of-court settlement that paid her $13,500.

The snoring brouhaha, talk of toad tunnels and historic pothole controversy created such a fuss because they occurred in rapid succession, creating the impression among outsiders that kooks had taken control in Davis. Actually, though, the outside world took note of the city's peculiar ways a long time ago. In 1980, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial about a boosterism-in-reverse campaign being run by Bruce Maeda, one of the most outspoken slow-growth advocates in Davis. The idea was to make Davis sound like such a terrible place to be that people wouldn't want to move here. "For instance, as Maeda tells it in a chamber-of-commerce type spiel distributed to the media, Davis is one of the worst places in the world for people with allergies," The Chronicle wrote. "All that pollen flows freely on the valley winds. Maeda says he even knows of people who have had to sleep with a filtered plastic tent around their bed." He pointed to other faults as well: He hinted that Davis was controlled by radical environmentalists, students and pseudo-intellectuals. The landscape is monotonous. Summers are hot. Rats are a problem. The editorial concluded with a comment about Maeda's efforts from Sandy Motley, the mayor of Davis at the time. "It's a very Davis thing to do," Motley said. [4]

Many Davis residents would like to think otherwise, but the talk of toad tunnels, snoring and historic potholes was no accident. Some residents could chuckle over the latest jokes over the city's peculiar ways. Others were aghast, complaining that Davis was becoming a national laughing stock. They were quick to point fingers at Partansky for the toad tunnel and pothole brouhahas, assailing her for adding to the list of Davis-is-weird stories that the outside world finds so amusing. Actually, the real culprit was a unique political style that has evolved over 30 years. Partansky was an unusual political figure, an artist with a utopian view of the world who critics contended was politically naive and eccentric, but she wasn't an aberration. She was the heir to a political tradition that combined progressive politics with a strong urge to preserve inherited small-town values. It was a political tradition that encouraged a pioneering spirit, a willingness to look at issues in new ways and not reject innovative solutions out of hand. Davis took itself seriously, driven by a desire to build a better future for itself and the world beyond its borders. Much of that drive was directed toward environmental issues, which ranked unusually high in the community's creed. Sometimes, the community's unique perspective fostered initiatives that win the outside world's admiration: Villages Homes, the internationally acclaimed solar neighborhood in West Davis. The city's love affair with bicycles. Its pioneering recycling program. The flip side is the community sometimes went too far, trying initiatives that didn't work as hoped. Sometimes, its initiatives were misunderstood or unappreciated by the outside world. Davis, though, resisted the temptation to change its ways just because outsiders were skeptical. In fact, critics sometimes complained doing things differently has become a compulsion in Davis, fed by the favorable publicity is has received over the years. Impressed particularly by its energy conservation success, such diverse publications as Mother Jones and the Los Angeles labeled Davis the City of the Future over the years.

The city's unique political style resulted from a blend of ingredients. Its electorate was overwhelmingly liberal. That helps explains why Davis preferred George McGovern over Richard Nixon in their 1972 presidential race, city voters rejected Proposition 13 in 1978, former President Ronald Reagan failed to carry Davis in 1980 and 1984 and city voters favored retaining Rose Elizabeth Bird as chief justice of the California Supreme Court in 1986. Mike Corbett, the developer of Village Homes and a former mayor, noted that Davis often was lumped together with ultra-liberal communities such as Berkeley, Santa Monica and Santa Cruz, but actually is more conservative. By and large, Davis voters are highly educated. In the 1980s, USA Today ranked Davis as the second most highly educated city in the country.

Davis also was a great believer in participatory democracy. "A common quip is that the city's peak traffic hour is not 5 to 6 p.m., like most communities, but rather 7 p.m., when citizens are dashing from their dinners to attend a myriad of meetings," Davis Planning Director Jeff Loux and Associate Planner Robert Wolcott explained in their a 1994 report on Davis planning. [5] They noted the city had about 18 standing commission, more than 370 paid city employees and nearly 400 volunteers serving on committees and commissions. The city set up 15 committees with about 20 members to help revise the Davis General Plan. "The level of public involvement often means a slower and more frustrating process, but just as often a greater community acceptance and commitment, and always pressure to ask more complex questions and seek innovation," the two planners wrote. [6] To critics, the downside was a small, but vocal and organized group could sometimes delay or even thwart decision-making. Mary Ellen Baldwin, the Davis Area Chamber of Commerce's executive director during the toad tunnel and pothole controversies, was convinced the community's offbeat reputation was largely the work of a small, but outspoken group of activists who had a different way of seeing the world. "I think we're dealing with a core group of maybe 50 individuals," she said, emphasizing that their views weren't necessarily shared by the majority of residents.

Baldwin's theory, though, doesn't explain how Partansky and like-minded candidates won council seats over the last three decades. Partansky, a political novice who made opposition to paving the alleys an issue in her campaign, confounded political observers by winning one of three open seats on the council in 1992. The final tally showed her in second place with 6,190 votes. Dave Rosenberg led the way with 6,608 votes and Maynard Skinner, another veteran, finished third with 6,114. Among the losers were Stan Forbes, a downtown business owner and member of the Davis Board of Education, and Luke Watkins, a planning commissioner. How did Partansky pull it off?

Al Sokolow, a UCD expert on city government, noted that Partansky appealed to many alternative-lifestyle residents who tended to be anti-establishment. He pointed to a critical factor in Davis politics: a candidate such as Partansky who had a strong base of solid support, but not necessarily widespread support throughout the community often did well in council elections because they needed only to get a plurality, not a majority of the vote. That consideration could be particularly critical races with a large field of candidates, as there was in 1992: eight candidates were seeking three open seats. From time to time, city political pundits have about getting around the plurality problem by switching from at-large to district elections. Under the at-large system, all candidates would run against one another and the ones with the most votes win the available seats. Under a district system, candidates would run in the districts where they live and the top two vote-getters in each district would compete in a runoff election if no one got a majority the first time around. Councilman Jerry Adler broached the idea in 1988, proposing also that mayors be elected every two years by the community at large, rather than be chosen by the council from among its five members. Supporters argued district elections would ensure each area of town is represented on the council and help keep election costs down by allowing candidates to campaign only in their districts, not citywide. In the past, few council members have come from such parts of town, such as East Davis and South Davis.

Sokolow traced the introduction of the city's existing political order to the election of 1972, when Bob Black, Richarrd Holdstock and Joan Poulos were elected to give the council a progressive majority, ending an era of council domination by more conservative, business-oriented civic leaders content to stick to nuts-and-bolts issues, such as providing the new streets, bicycle paths and other facilities a growing community needed. Suddenly, in 1972, Davis had a council committed to aggressive action on such issues as growth control, prevention of urban sprawl, energy conservation and environmental protection. "You know 1972 is regarded as a political watershed in Davis history," Sokolow said during a 1992 forum on the city's political history, comparing the 1972 election with presidential elections that swept into the White House Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. [7] Almost 30 years later, city government was still dominated by the grand vision of progressive politics that came to the fore in 1972. With the passage of time, though, the vision has been reworked gradually, as circumstances changed and new personalities arrived on the scene to replace old-timers at City Hall. Sokolow argued, for example, the basic equilibrium of city politics have been shaken from time to time by periods of retrenchment.

Gerald Adler, a councilman from 1980-92, made a similar argument, saying city politics since 1972 have been characterized by cycles with three phases: a rush of activity similar to the pace initially set by the post-1972 council, a transition period where the council was perceived to be reaching too far too fast and a period of retrenchment, where the community sought to slow down the pace of change. Adler told the forum he decided to run in 1980 because the council had become too extreme on planning issues and too involved in issues that have little to do with city government.

Not all of the historical evidence points to Davis being such a progressive place in the post-1972 era. After analyzing the city's 1984 elections, two UCD sociologists came away it may not be so different from other communities across the United States. "In fact, when looked at closely, the behavior of the Davis electorate appears very similar to that of Americans in general: class-consciousness is visible in the voting patterns, but is rather overridden by candidates who eschew coherent world views while projecting broadly appealing personal styles," concluded John Lofland and Lyn H. Lofland in a 1987 article that appeared in Research in Political Sociology. [8] They argued Davis deserved the label progressive in a broad sense, but its progressive politics was highly cautious and selective. Davis was very active on peace and environmental issues, but less ambitious on traditional liberal issues such as civil rights, personal freedoms and economic justice. The Loflands noted that Davis voters decisively rejected a gay-rights ordinance in 1980. In the 1984, the top vote-getter was Debbie Nichols-Poulos, a political newcomer who ran a grassroots campaign, and in second place was Dave Rosenberg, whom the sociologists labeled as a centrist Democrat. The Loflands noted that among the losers were more ideological candidates such as Corbett and Charles Holmes, a planning commissioner and outspoken advocate for affordable housing and civil rights issues.

Sokolow cautioned against judging a city's commitment on such issues as economic justice and civil rights by analyzing its elections, emphasizing that they typically are not central themes in local election campaigns. Also, city officials have been more aggressive since 1984 in dealing with some of the issues cited by the Loflands, particularly affordable housing. At the urging of Councilwoman Ann Evans, the city helped establish a non-profit organization committed to building low-cost housing in 1984. Originally known as Davis Community Housing, the organization later changed its name to Community Housing Opportunities Corp. By 1995, it had developed more than 200 low-cost apartments. Evans also played a leading role in adopting more rigorous affordable housing requirements for new residential projects. City Senior Planner Katherine Hess said the city's affordable housing policies are generally tougher than those in other communities. "The land dedication is very unusual," she said, indicating some other cities require developers to set aside land for self-help housing. The land dedication requirement helps non-profit organizations keep the price of affordable housing they build low by eliminating land-acquisition costs.

Naturally, affordable housing policies aren't as interesting to the outside world as tales of toad tunnels, historic potholes and citations for snoring. By the summer of 1995, all three controversies had begun to subside. It was only a matter of time, though, before a new controversy erupted to take their place.