Archive for the ‘Local Issues’ Category

The following is the most recent in a succession of posts focused on my home town. Though there is some context-specific stuff here, hopefully there will be some appeal to people beyond the confines of my home. This is merely a first attempt to articulate a different political foundation for leadership.  I write with many thanks to Jacques Ellul, Robert Thayer, Wendell Berry and Ivan Illich and I apologize to them for distortions of their ideas and work.  

(NB. I use “we” here though “we” for now is really “I”.  There is no grand following, there is not even (yet?) a core but there is hope that some of this may seep out more broadly)

We are the orphans of Davis politics.  In saying this we are not seeking pity.  Rather we want to acknowledge that we do not fit into the traditional dichotomy of “progressive” versus “machine Democrat” and, we want to lay out a vision for a third way that motivates our approach to decision making in our city.

Terms such as liberal, conservative, and progressive have little meaning in local politics (and seem to have less and less meaning even on the national stage–Bacevich, rather, refers to a “neoliberal consensus”); for at the local level alliances are built around a more parochial vision of what is needed and they form, un-form and re-form based on how interests and needs converge or diverge around local projects, initiatives and choices. We eschew these terms in favor a description of leadership that we hope will emerge in the coming years in Davis.

To do this we believe we must move away from a narrow “issues” focus that characterizes much local debate and define the kind of leaders we aspire to be: define the parameters that will guide our decision making across issues, initiatives and projects.

Fundamentally, we believe in leadership that is community-focused.  This does not imply the adoption of specific processes for decision making (participatory budgeting or planning, for example), though such tools may be helpful.  Rather, community-focused leaders are careful to solicit input from a variety of community members, interests groups and stakeholders.  They are not afraid to receive input from stakeholders who stand to benefit monetarily from a given decision, but they balance that input by expanding the field of those with whom they speak to find a way forward that will benefit the broader needs of the community.

Community-focused leadership does not guarantee that no mistakes will be made.  It does not seek to “balance” all interests or find a compromise that everyone can live with.  Instead, it seeks to broaden the base of influence and use evidence rather than appeals to emotion for decision making. And, it explicitly considers and articulates the tradeoffs involved in the decisions being made.

Further, community-focused leaders seek to make critical information available to all stakeholders.  It has become, perhaps, cliché, for leaders to say they want more transparency, but citizen-focused leaders push for it because they realize that building confidence in decisions (despite disagreements with them) and in the leaders that make them requires information to be shared broadly on as many platforms as possible.

A localist vision

Community-focused leadership is grounded not in a particular political philosophy but in a commitment to a strong “localist” vision of governance and decision making.  In other words, community-focused leaders are primarily concerned with creating resilient and sustainable local communities.

There are a number of key understandings and commitments that drive this localist vision and those who lead according to them we might call “localists”.  These understandings and commitments include the following.

  • Localists understand that communities are deeply embedded in and constrained by macro-level forces (including understanding how insertion in global economic and trade systems influence local decisions).  To be a localist is not to seek isolation.  Rather, localists are committed to finding the best solutions for local thriving given the constraints.
  • A localist analyzes and understands the macro-level constraints but this does not compel the localist to leave behind local decision making in order to achieve “greater impact” at higher levels of policy making.  Rather, a true localist begins and ends his/her political career in local public service.
  • While localists are focused on solving problems at the lowest level of governance possible and practice subsidiarity, they also work with other local actors to encourage entities at the state and national levels to cede more autonomy and decision making to local governments. They use their understanding of the local challenges to offer policy recommendations but do it in partnership with others facing the same challenges.
  • Localists work hard to gain a deep understanding of all contributors in a community—the men, women and children who live in and create the social bonds in a community.  They do not merely seek out the voice and concerns of the powerful, but make efforts to listen to and learn from diverse groups and individuals—including those traditionally excluded from having a voice.  They willingly place themselves in proximity to a variety of community members to learn from them in order to better represent their needs and concerns.  
  • It may go without saying, but localists know intimately the physical resources and constraints of their community and its place in the broader bioregion—they are constant learners of all things “local.”  This understanding leads to a commitment to conserve local resources (especially those that are unique to the community or bioregion) and use them in a sustainable way. They understand that there is no community without economy but strive for an economy that is honoring of local resources and those who work to nurture, share and sustain them.
  • Localists understand the tension that exists between the commitment to conservation–and the sustainable use of local resources–and the needs imposed on a community by broader global (macro) forces. They name the tensions, never pretend that all tensions can be balanced out, and articulate the basis for decisions they make in reference to the tensions and tradeoffs.
  • An understanding of the community’s place in a broader bio-region leads localists to nurture and invest in relationship building with other communities in the bioregion.  Localists understand that even “unique” resources are shared beyond narrow political boundaries and work with other leaders in surrounding communities to stretch scarce resources, avoid duplications in key services and provide for the bioregion’s broader needs.
  • Localists are committed to the economic, social and environmental health of the communities they lead.  They do not view the health of one of these as a “pre-requisite” for the health of the others but find ways to intentionally work towards all three—again, acknowledging the tensions and tradeoffs involved.

Given these commitments, localists rely on and nurture clear communication and conflict resolution.  They are inherently “conservative” because they are careful about the shepherding of local resources and approach change with prudence.  They are committed to the health and rights of the most vulnerable in the community and understand that formal political entities (e.g. city and county governments) often needs to play a role to assure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met.  Localists believe in local justice systems built on the notion of restoring wayward members to the community to the extent possible.  They are committed to providing economic development that provides opportunities for all members of the community: economic development consistent with values of the community and the many gifts and skills within it. Indeed the broad economic vision of the localist (as alluded to above) is to realize the flourishing of all members of the community—an economy that serves people and not the other way around.


Note: this is another post concerning some issues of concern in my own “nearby”.  These are challenging times and as I think about the prospect of helping lead our city I realize that I must wrestle with these issues and offer imperfect solutions to intractable problems.

True hope…has not a grain of sense or of logic except when the worst is considered certain.

(Jacques Ellul in Hope in Time of Abandonment)

It may not be the “worst” but it is certain that our city’s fiscal situation is dire. According to the City Manager’s report to the City Council on December 17[1]:

In preparing its FY 2014/15 budget, the City will be facing a structural imbalance of up to $5.1 million in the General Fund.

That structural imbalance is on total General Fund expenditures of $47.5—about 11% of expenditures. Without changes we will have an aggregate General Fund balance of negative $28.4 million by FY18/19. Unlike the federal government, the City of Davis cannot run General Fund deficits, so something must be done.

Fund Balance

Before discussing options, note two additional points:

1. Four critical cost areas are driving imbalances:

  • increased costs to the city for water;
  • increased costs of retiree medical coverage;
  • increased contributions to employee pensions;
  • increased cost of employee cafeteria plans.

2. The situation is actually worse than the figures provided above indicate because of a fifth cost center: repair of deteriorating streets.  The projected budgets include a “front loading” of critical street repairs in the next two years of $25 million and $2 million per year for 18 years after that. However, spending this amount will leave our streets in 20 years time in a much worse condition than today.  Indeed, something approaching an additional $7 million per year would be needed to maintain our current acceptable “pavement condition index” in 20 years.

There is no magic bullet solution to these challenges. We have two broad options: cutting expenditures and increasing city revenues.


This is another article related to a local challenge we face in my hometown and a suggestion about how we might deal with it non-punitively.  It appears in a local newsblog and you can go there if you want to see the comments of some local folks. 

There is little doubt that some of our neighbors in Davis have health problems that are exacerbated by wood smoke.  There is also little doubt that other neighbors enjoy having wood fires and that some use wood or wood products as a way to heat their homes.  This leads to a conflict over interests/needs, but it is a conflict that is fairly localized—that is, between people who live near one another, people who share a common space and who, presumably, would be best served by resolving the conflict themselves without the automatic threat of punishment from the city.

We have the tools and resources to deal with wood smoke conflicts in this way—to find alternative forms of conflict resolution that will serve the needs of those whose health is adversely affected while providing those who desire to burn wood some latitude to do so.

I would propose we consider two options to help neighbors resolve such conflicts:

First and foremost, people should be given resources so they can seek out neighbors and deal face-to-face with them in a respectful and direct way.  Some people with health conditions would no doubt like to talk directly with neighbors whose fires are causing harm, but they may not be sure how to go about it.  A first option would be to provide sufferers with a “script”—a standardized language that they might use to talk to their neighbors.  Such a “script” helps people have respectful and clear language to use in talking to others.  It could go something like this:

My name is X and I live at X.  I (or a family member) suffer from a respiratory/heart/other condition that is made worse by wood smoke.  There are times when smoke coming from your house has been harmful to me (my family member).  Most recently on X date smoke caused Y.  I am not here to tell you to stop burning wood. I am asking you to understand the problems smoke causes me (or a family member) and ask you to consider working with me to try to diminish the effect.  Here is some literature that the City has produced about when it is okay to burn and when it is not. Maybe we could chat about the recommendations once you’ve had a chance to read them. These recommendations may not work in every case, but I think if you would be willing to follow them it might help resolve the problem I am having.  Also, I would be happy to give you my phone number so we can keep in touch about this and find a way to work things out in the future.  I really desire that you understand I don’t want to cause you a problem. I do want you to understand how smoke affects me (or my family member).

As implied in the script (and it is a VERY rough idea of how it might look), the city would also provide a brochure on safe burning practices and products that neighbors could share with each other and discuss.  Both the script and the brochure could be downloaded from the City website.  Please note that such a script helps the person focus on his/her needs (or those of a family member) and seeks to develop a shared, dialogue-based approach to dealing with the problem.

While such an approach might help some people, others may be unwilling or fearful to use it (or may have tried it without success) and would benefit from assistance from a neutral third party.  A third-party organization (a non-profit for example) could be assigned by the city to handle cases in which an affected party needs help to deal with a neighbor.  The third-party organization would be staffed with trained volunteer mediators.  In this case the process would work as follows:

1. A person who is affected by wood smoke would contact the assigned agency and provide a summary of their concern and the address of the house from which the smoke is coming.

2. The agency would send a letter to that address that would state the problem and refer to relevant city ordinances but stress that the neighbor would like to deal with this without involving the city.  The letter would also stress that participation is voluntary and that a facilitated discussion among parties could be set up to occur over the phone or in person to try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution.  The letter would include the same brochure from the city referenced above and ask the person to read it. The letter would provide contact information for the agency (but NOT the neighbor) and could include the following:

We would ask you to contact our agency via email or phone, referencing this letter.  The following are options available to you in response to this letter:

1.  If you believe that the person who is seeking to discuss this matter with you is in error—because you do not burn wood, were not burning wood during the period in question, or for any other reason—please let us know.  We will get back in touch with the person for follow up with them. Mistakes can be made, and we want to assure that there are no misunderstandings.

2.     If you would like to commit to following the guidelines in the brochure, please let us know and we will happily monitor how things go with your neighbor and be back in touch if there is a problem.

3.     If you would like to speak with your neighbor in a facilitated dialogue to understand their concerns or try to reach another solution, please let us know. Also, let us know whether you would like to do that face to face or over the phone.

4.     If you prefer not to take any actions at this time, let us know, and we will inform your neighbor. 

If we do not hear back from you by XXX, we will assume you have chosen the fourth option and will inform your neighbor, who may choose to take other actions.

Whatever you decide to do, please recognize that we will not be sharing any information about your decision with the city. Any discussions we facilitate are confidential. We are mediators seeking to help resolve this issue and are independent of the city even though they have assigned us to play this role.

The foregoing examples are rough but provide ideas about how a voluntary conflict-resolution strategy related to wood burning could work.  Such an approach puts the tools of non-violent and non-punitive conflict resolution into citizens’ hands, thereby strengthening our social web while reducing the burden on the city.

Davis is fortunate to have experienced mediators (some of whom were part of the one-time city-funded community mediation program) who are willing to volunteer their time to manage such a program and offer facilitation services for it.  It is my hope that such approaches will become routine in dealing with conflicts in our city.

(Thanks to Diane Clarke for her input on this article)

This post is another that is relevant to my hometown and the challenges we face here.  Background reading (here and here) may be required to understand parts of it but I hope that the message’s relevance to other communities will not be lost.

Markets fail when transactions do not result in efficient outcomes from a societal point of view.  One cause of market failure concerns the problem of one partner in a transaction having more or better information than the other.  The lack of (quality) information by one party leads to power imbalances that can harm one party and inappropriately confer benefits on another that a free market transaction would not allow.

Two recent examples of information asymmetries related to land use decisions in and around Davis explain why we as citizens tend to approach such decisions in what appears to be narrow, self-interested and ultimately very conservative ways.  In both cases it is clear that one party in the transaction possesses more and better information that risks placing the City at a disadvantage in the transaction it is negotiating.

1. The Cannery project, whatever its value in terms of housing provided, suffers from a significant problem of lack of connectivity to the rest of the city.  This is especially true for alternate forms of transportation such as biking and walking.  This problem is significant because the City has set clear goals concerning the reduction of carbon emissions—most of which are generated by transportation choices.  Developing Cannery in a way that people living there have choices concerning transportation is therefore in the City’s interests and the City should negotiate any agreements with owners/developers/builders with this goal (among others) in mind.

But citizens are at an information disadvantage because the owners can merely say (and have said), “What you are requesting (in two grade separated crossings, for example), is too expensive.”  But of course the question in return must be: “Too expensive relative to what?”  Since the owners/developers/builders are not required by law to disclose how much they stand to earn from the City’s decision to change the zoning classification that will allow them to develop it according to their wishes, it is not possible for citizens to judge the veracity of the owner’s statement

Of course the City can hire (and apparently has hired) an independent firm to estimate this. Of course the owner can merely dispute these estimates.  The result is that the citizens of Davis are not privy to the actual information and therefore cannot determine whether they can and should press for the preferred infrastructure changes.  Further, when the owner asserts that it has the best interests of the City of Davis in mind and also wants “connectivity”, this assertion is not useful information (from a transaction point of view) because it may or may not be true.

In addition, the owner has much more information about the City because the City is required to conduct its business in a transparent way whereas the owner is not required to disclose private deals that concern the property.  The owner also has information about individual decision makers and their needs and what it may take to sway them to accept its proposals.  This is not an accusation of wrongdoing but merely highlights that information asymmetries exist at multiple levels and leaves citizens in a position of not really knowing whether they are getting all they might get out of the project.

2. The so-called “land swap” concerning the Shriner and Mace 391 properties also suffers from information asymmetries—also at several levels.  Peripheral development will always be a cause of much public debate in this City given the value of the surrounding land for agricultural purposes, concerns about sprawl and the need to consider the best ways to grow revenue and jobs for Davis. However, the debate is almost always constrained by the lack of full information available to citizens that will inform them as they negotiate with landowners/purchasers/developers.

In this case there are several pieces of information held by those proposing the project but not shared with the public.  This information would greatly enhance the citizens’ ability to consider the pros and cons of the project and negotiate from an informed position. These include (but are not limited to):

  • What information indicates that 493 acres is necessary for a park?  What market research indicates that this size is critical?
  • What kinds of firms have indicated an upfront interest in moving into such a park should it be developed?  (I realize that it is not possible to name the firms—there are privacy issues that must be considered, but what kinds and size of firms from what sectors have expressed interest would seem to be the kind of information that should be forthcoming).
  • What are the 2:1 mitigation options that have been considered, and are they demonstrably in the interests of the City? Or does mitigation occur on land far away in a way that does not preserve farmland of equal value to that which is lost?

Again, it is not helpful for those proposing the project to merely state that “This project is a win/win for the City” or “As long-term residents of Davis we have the best interests of the City in mind”.  This information does not inform the discussion but merely opens any critique of the project into accusations against those making the critique of engaging personal attacks against people who clearly have the best interests of the City in mind.

Further, as in the case of the Cannery, those proposing the project have much more information about City decisions and have the ability to use that information as leverage points to sway votes in their direction.

Is any of this evil?  No.  It is just good old deal making.  It is people acting in their self-interest to achieve an end that will benefit them financially.  There is nothing evil in that and I do not begrudge them of it.  However, we as citizens must recognize that we are at an information disadvantage here.  We need to acknowledge that significant information asymmetries exist and they risk placing us in a position of achieving a less than optimal transaction from the perspective of what our City needs.

This explains why I, and many others, approach such transactions in a very cautious way.  This is why we ask for things like Measure R and “slow go” approaches.  We know that the asymmetries exist and we want the time to gather as much information as we can. We want to compel those proposing such “deals” to expose as much information as possible.  We want to create less information imbalance so that our interests are not subordinated to the interests of others.

I have no illusions that we will ever achieve something approaching “Pareto optimal” outcomes in such transactions but it is absolutely in our interests to reduce the asymmetries as much as possible to achieve outcomes that contribute to the broadest social good as possible.

The following concerns some issues in my local community.  FYI: The Vanguard is a local newsblog

In an April 2011 in-depth report The Economist catalogued the failure of California’s 100-year experience with direct democracy. And while it reserved special ire for ballot initiatives, it also questioned the way that referendums and even recalls (the two other forms of direct democracy in our state) have been implemented, concluding that the de facto “citizen legislature” has “caused chaos”.

Contrasting California’s approach to direct democracy with that of Switzerland, The Economist noted that while the Swiss model was designed to move opponents towards compromise, the California system was designed to create confrontation. The result, the report argues, is a fragmented and even contradictory legislative process, an ineffective and bound legislature, opaque budgeting and appropriations processes and a disjointed constitution.  What goes unexamined in the analysis is the effect of direct democracy on local political processes.

As the calls multiply for various issues to be placed on the ballot here in Davis (The Vanguard noted four possible initiatives on August 20th), I think it is important for us to take a critical look at the purpose of these calls, and examine alternatives that remove the confrontation inherent in them while providing us with what we as a community need to move forward on contentious issues.

I am not opposed to direct democracy—especially if it is deployed to hold elected officials accountable.  But in order to use it effectively for that purpose we must focus first on increasing accountability in a way that makes referendums rare—a kind of last resort for when the priorities of the community are disregarded.

I have two major concerns about the use of direct democracy—especially for initiatives or to contest ordinances that are, obviously contentious but consistent with community priorities:  First, direct democracy requires an informed electorate—one that can not only understand the pros and cons of a particular initiative but place its value within the context of the broader needs of the community.  Second, and related to this point, because a city is a complex (if adaptive) system, any significant decision will have knock-on effects and be in tension with other priorities. As a result, and by their very nature, initiatives tend to be very narrowly focused and framed without reference to competing needs.

The history of initiatives at the state level demonstrates that both of these problems have plagued our “experiment” in direct democracy and because of their confrontational nature they do not lead to the kind of community dialogue that could lead to constructive compromise.  Too often they are developed and promoted by narrow special interests that seek advantages for a limited group of citizens.

While Davisites pride themselves in being informed and aware of local issues, it is difficult to argue that even a majority of citizens are engaged enough to cast an informed vote on a given issue (as evidence I appeal the percentage of people who, though registered, do not participate in local elections). Further, we are naïve if we think that special interests will not come, over time, to inhabit our local direct democracy processes.

Ballot initiatives are taken hostage to demagoguery, misinformation and rank fear mongering as proponents/opponents seek to compel their co-citizens to vote.  These realities characterize nearly every ballot initiative I have been part of since moving to California nearly 15 years ago.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that Davis “go it alone” and somehow attempt to limit citizens’ ability to use the direct democracy tools granted us in our state constitution.  Rather, I am asking us to consider what we might do to increase our confidence in our representational form of government so that our local elected officials can get on with making the hard decisions of governing our city. Again, I feel this is important because the issues facing our city are complex—and we need an informed group of elected citizens to account for this complexity in the decisions they make. We need leaders who understand that it is their role to consider the “big picture” in their decisions and help citizens to understand this, even if said citizens passionately disagree with leaders about decisions leaders make.

What then do we need to assure the foregoing and move towards both greater accountability and trust?  I would suggest four steps: 1) develop, update and routinely appeal to clear “end” statements in our decision making; 2) eliminate money from local elections; 3) facilitate more opportunities for face-to-face interaction between elected officials and citizens; 4) challenge candidates to articulate the values and principles that will underpin their deliberations and decision making processes.

Before describing each of these in a bit more detail I want to note a reality we must all acknowledge. The truth is that we, like all Americans of this era, live in what Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland.  That is, we live in a time when our political discourse is characterized by intentionally constructing a deep sense of mistrust in our elected officials. “Nixonland” is a place in which the motives of politicians are known a priori and those motives are uniformly evil.  I am not suggesting that our elected officials are “pure” or above reproach, but what I am saying is that our default is to not give our leaders the space to lead because we are constantly questioning both their intentions and their fitness to lead.  It is hard to build trust in “Nixonland” but if we at least acknowledge that it is in the very air we breathe we may be able to curtail its worst excesses.

To build deeper trust through accountability we first need to be clear on the ends we are trying to achieve as a community.  I fully understand that conflict is more frequently found in the “how” than in the “what” but without clear ends towards which are agreed to collectively move, all decisions become subject to fundamental conflict over the objectives we are trying to achieve.  Several commenters on The Vanguard have noted that our General Plan is in need of updating and it is critical to do so because it functions as the key “ends” document of our city (there are others but we should be careful not to multiply them and assure they are grounded in the General Plan—a topic requiring further discussion).

However, we do not need to just create such documents (ideally through a citizen-centered process), but we must also actively use them.  Staff should be required to demonstrate how its recommendations are or are not consistent with our ends documents and that not in some perfunctory way, but with clarity and a critical assessment. City Council should expect the City Manager to utilize the ends documents as key guideposts and any goals it sets should be made in clear reference to it.  We must actively use these documents to frame the debates of this city and update them in a routine way. Commissions (a critical way citizens speak into our decision making processes) should be challenged to frame their actions in relation to these documents.

Part (or even a great deal) of the mistrust concerning our elected officials concerns money: who gives it, in what ways or amounts (notwithstanding locally-accepted limits) and to what ends.  I fully understand that we cannot legislate taking money out of local politics (it is apparently now enshrined as part of our free speech rights).  However, we can expect and even demand that our candidates run campaigns without it.  Raising money has become a kind of proxy for “support” or the “seriousness” of a given campaign but it comes with costs: both opportunity costs (how else could those resources be deployed?), and the cost to our degraded discourse because of the doubt its mobilization casts on the entire process.

Getting money out of our local electoral process is linked to the need to find more creative ways for our candidates and leaders to meaningfully engage with the citizens they represent.  Money does permit candidates to “connect”—albeit indirectly—with residents so eliminating it means we need to find ways to create connections—hopefully more meaningful connections. This leads me to believe that some form of regional election process is necessary for our city.  Connecting with 70,000 residents requires a mass marketing approach.  Connecting to a fifth of that number, while challenging, may allow for more personal, face-to-face interactions especially if that fifth is geographically defined.  I have lived here long enough to know that this idea has been (softly) batted around on and off for years.  I am suggesting it as a means to create more personal connections, more accountable encounters, and a greater sense of connection that leads to deeper trust between citizens and elected leaders.

Finally, we need to engage (in these more personal spaces) our candidates and elected officials in a different way.  We must spend more time helping them tease out for us the values, principles and motivations that underlie their decision making processes.  The more we understand the motivations the more we can challenge leaders about how their decisions are or are not consistent with them.  The more we understand them the less prone we will be to accept the gratuitous mudslinging that characterizes Nixonland.

We face complex choices and decisions that must account for the complexity while staying true to the “ends” we seek.  Direct democracy is poorly suited to deal with the complexity and, though promises are made to the contrary, does not lead to a better informed debate and dialogue on the issues.  We need to allow our leaders to lead by knowing them and their motivations better, by keeping them focused on critical ends with a deeper assurance that they are not unduly influenced by unseen forces.

Representative democracy is not a talisman but it is the best-suited approach to moving our community ahead as we face the continuing complex challenges of our age.  Strengthening it should be our priority.

Note: Early in the morning of March 10, 2103 a local resident of my town, Mike Partida was assaulted and beaten badly by a male attacker shouting anti-gay slurs.  Police have arrested a 19-year old local resident with a prior arrest for stabbing several people in a nearby town and charged him with “Assault causing Great Bodily Injury, Committing a Hate Crime, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Stalking, Committing a felony while on release from custody, and inflicting great bodily injury during the commission of a felony.”  This article is a reflection growing out of this terrible event that has shaken our town where the victim is a much loved young man who works at our local food co-op.

There has been much speculation about the factors that might lead someone to commit the kind of crime that was perpetrated against Mikey Partida. While some of it may be premature it is a normal human response to try to make sense of something that is so senseless.

Certainly, much more will be learned about the event, the things that led up to it, the story of the perpetrator (whoever it turns out to be), and the likely outcome of a conviction, as the legal process moves forward. We also know with certainty that Mr. Partida will need to go through a painful process of physical and psychological healing. Some scars—physical and psychological—may never fully heal. In quotes from Mr. Partida we have already learned of his fears and anxiety about moving around his hometown. Physical healing is only the first of many long steps he will have to take.

Lisa Rea, founder of Restorative Justice International, who has worked in restorative justice since 1992 believes that victims of crime do not want some vague sense of “closure” but rather they want to regain a sense of safety, security and healing. She argues in a 2012 article that for many victims the healing process would be facilitated by an opportunity to face the offender, ask him/her questions, describe the harm that was done, and seek a way for the harms done to them to be made right. She notes

…(T)hroughout my work the number of victims who are seeking to participate in some kind of restorative justice dialogue is increasing.

Unfortunately, as Ms. Rea also notes, our criminal justice system does not make it easy for victims who desire this kind of mediated process to obtain it. There are many reasons for this but two seem to predominate: First, our criminal justice system defines crime as committed against the state—not first and foremost against individuals and communities (pause for a moment and ask how the crime against Mr. Partida has negatively affected our community). The offender, if convicted, is punished by the state and on the state’s terms—the debt is owed to the state first and foremost. This is demonstrated colloquially in phrases like “he paid (or must pay) his dues to society.”

Where is the victim in all of this? Generally victims are left out of most of the process, and this is related to the second reason why victims cannot obtain access to a restorative process even if they desire it. Ms. Rea says that many victims have expressed that “they feel used by the system, like they are just pawns in its game to convict and sentence the offender.” District Attorneys, generally speaking, “control” the victim’s narrative. The victim is “theirs” and they may need the victim (and/or the victim’s family) to play a certain role in order to assure that a conviction is achieved. To say that DAs seek to control the victim’s narrative does not imply wrongdoing on their part. As noted, they are part of a system that views crime as something committed against the statutes of the state. They do what they must to find relief for the state.

But this reality should raise the question: does this system provide what victims need? Does the current system provide an opportunity for them to find healing? Does it enable them to have their most burning questions answered? Questions like “What were you thinking?” Why did you hurt me this way?” “Do you know what all of this has meant to me?” “Can you acknowledge the harm you have caused?” What are you going to do to make things right to me?”

I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Partida would like to have an opportunity to ask these questions or not. He may never want the opportunity. Or, he may not want it in the next 6 months. But what if he did? What if, as part of his healing, he desired to meet the perpetrator? Would our system allow him to do so? The answer is probably not.

According to Ms. Rea, restorative justice “puts the crime victim in the center of the system while stressing offender accountability to restore victims and communities as much as possible after crimes are committed.” There are some key points here: victim at center, offender accountability, restoration—or making things right—as much as possible.

What is the downside to creating or evolving a system of justice that encourages offenders to take accountability? What is the downside of giving victims an opportunity—should they so desire—to face their offenders? What is the downside of allowing victim and offender work out an agreement about what would make the harms right (even if the offender faces other punishments from the state)?

Will the perpetrator in this case, when all is said and done, be confronted by the fact that he committed a crime against a human being and not a “category”? Will he be given a chance to learn of how his crime affected an entire family, place of work and community? Will our system ever provide an opportunity to bring these things to his attention? Or will we merely warehouse him in a prison where he will pay a vague debt to a disembodied state? I believe we should wrestle with all the foregoing questions.

Much more needs to be said about restorative processes and their role in preventing the formation of a “school to prison” pipeline. Some of this was discussed in an article in the People’s Vanguard of Davis on February 4, 2013. Hopefully our community will have a chance to discuss these issues in more detail in the months ahead.

I want to close this reflection by apologizing to Mr. Partida and his family if this article feels like it is pressuring them to seek the kind of victim/offender conferencing suggested here. That is not my intent and I would never advise them to seek this path unless they were convinced it would help Mr. Partida. The intent here is to ask whether restorative processes should be in place—even for violent crimes like this one—in case the victims desire to use them.

I wish Mr. Partida and his family all the best and hope they have all felt the love and support of this community. My thoughts also go out to the perpetrator of this crime. Despite our anger at the heinous acts he committed, he remains a human being albeit one with deep brokenness.

(FYI, I am working with a small group of Davis residents to determine whether it might be possible to develop a “Victim Offender Conferencing Program” that would focus, initially, on providing mediated conferencing between victims and offenders of non-violent/non-sex juvenile crime in Yolo County. Such programs are being increasingly implemented around the state and country. If you are interested to learn more about this initiative please contact me at