The Aug. 24 meeting of the Charter Review Committee was an opportunity for the committee and the public to hear from and ask questions of the City’s elected police chief and city clerk. Both City Clerk Hosam Haggag and Police Chief Pat Nikolai were present.
The public comment was fairly evenly split between those who wanted the system to change to appointed positions and those who wanted to maintain the system of electing the two roles.
Wes Mukoyama, a Santa Clara resident and named plaintiff in the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the City said when there’s only one candidate on the ballot it becomes a referendum instead of an election. He wanted to know why the City did not have a police commission and said it’s hard to hold a police chief accountable if he’s the only one running for election.
“I do think Santa Clara has had its share of corruption in the police department and I also feel that the police officer’s association has strong ties to the police chief in many ways and the police chief has no accountability to the public, to the City Council, to anyone. He can do whatever he wants,” said Mukoyama.
Community member Burt Field said his main concern was why now. He wanted to know why the City should spend the money on a costly election now instead of tacking it onto the presidential election ballot in 2024.
Community member Julie Turner said it would be “unwise” to give up the right of election.
Richard Konda of the Asian Law Alliance called the current system of electing the positions “antiquated” and said they need to be changed.
Jeremy Schmidt, the president of the Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association, said having an elected police chief is part of the reason Santa Clara is a “destination agency” for other officers.
Community member Gary said he supported putting an item on the ballot, saying it was an “educated decision” based on information and studies he shared with the committee prior to its meeting. (Those documents can be found on the City’s website under the 2023 Charter Review Committee heading.)
At the end of the public comment, Field took to the podium again to call out the “negative stuff” he heard and ask for “decorum,” saying it sounded like they were “attacking” people.
Haggag responded and said he did not feel he was attacked and while he may not agree with the comments made against him, he appreciates them.
City Clerk’s Comments During Charter Review Committee Meeting
Haggag had the opportunity to speak about his role within the City and answer any questions the committee or the public had about that role.
In his opening remarks, Haggag pointed out that when he first ran for the office, it was a six-way race. At that time, the City Council adjusted the position from full-time to part-time.
Haggag outlined his role within the City as a record keeper, keeper of the City seal and overseer of Santa Clara’s elections.
He admitted that he’s split on whether his position should be elected or appointed. Haggag believes that if it were a full-time position, then it would “absolutely” need to be appointed. He said the city clerk holds a big responsibility and it’s too risky to put that role into the hands of someone not qualified.
There are certifications for city clerks. Assistant City Clerk Nora Pimentel, for example, has a Master Municipal Clerk certification. When asked, she told the committee her certification includes “rigorous” and “robust” training on ethics.
Haggag openly admitted that he does not have any of the certifications, but says in his part-time role, that’s not essential. He believes part of his role is to offer “checks and balances.”
“I don’t answer to the council and so I don’t fear retribution,” said Haggag. “It’s different if somebody is appointed. There may be a small grain of fear in the back of their mind that if I cross somebody on the council that I may lose my job. I don’t ever have that fear because I don’t answer to the council.”
Committee member Joyce Davis asked Haggag what he believed the qualifications of a city clerk should be. Haggag, again pointed to the difference between part-time and full-time, saying if it’s full-time, the person should be a certified municipal clerk.
In terms of what should change if the charter were amended, he suggested defining the role better, whether part-time or full-time and if full-time, the City Clerk should have the highest level of certification.
One community member criticized Haggag for listing election expenditures for each campaign on the City’s website in 2020, breaking with tradition. The speaker pointed out it’s public information that people can look up if they’re interested and that putting the information on the City’s website felt biased.
Committee Chair Jeff Houston said in speaking to other city clerks, reports of expenditures are often noted, reviewed and filed but not dug into for fear of unconscious bias.
Haggag defended his decision, saying he is biased in favor of transparency. He thought the process would just make it easier for more community members to find and read the information.
Haggag parted by advising the committee to take the personalities out of the equation. He said this decision needs to be “durable” and “last the test of time” far beyond the longevity of the person currently in the position.
Police Chief’s Comments During Charter Review Committee Meeting
Nikolai echoed the sentiment during his public comment. He said public safety is his priority and not any special interest group because he answers directly to the public.
“My only agenda is the safety of the citizens of Santa Clara,” said Nikolai.
He offered counterpoints to the key arguments against an elected police chief system.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Our department is well run; it is well respected. We are a destination agency for lateral officers throughout California,” said Nikolai.
He also said the “mythical” nationwide search to offer better candidates, didn’t change anything in several local justice departments who ultimately ended up hiring from within.
To the argument that Santa Clara is the only city with an elected chief, Nikolai said that’s because Santa Clara is a unique city.
“If we did things like everybody else, would we have our own amusement park? Would we have our own electrical utility? Would we have a world-renowned university? Would we have an NFL stadium? Not necessarily,” said Nikolai.
Nikolai was asked if there was anyone in a position of leadership who could run for police chief if/when he retired. He said while both of his assistant police chiefs do not reside in the City, he can think of at least four or five members of his command staff who do.
Nikolai was asked who the assistant chiefs report to and his reply was succinct.
“They are in my chain of command,” said Nikolai.
City staff was not as clear in clarifying the chain of command. City staff said the assistant chiefs are appointed by the city manager, but on a “functional level” they are within the police department and the police chief oversees the police department. The “reporting authority” of the assistant chiefs is to the city manager’s office and he “directs” the work of the chiefs and the police officers.
Other Committee Business
Due to a scheduling conflict, the committee voted to move one of its scheduled meetings from Oct. 11 to Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.
To find all the documents pertaining to the 2023 Charter Review Committee, visit the City’s website at http://www.santaclaraca.gov/2023charterreview/. From the City’s homepage, click on “Our City” and then select “Government” and “City Committees” before selecting the 2023 Charter Review Committee.
The website will include background information, a meeting schedule as well as video and information packets for each meeting.
The next meeting of the 2023 Charter Review Committee is Thursday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Central Park Library. At that time, the committee will hear from some appointed police chiefs and city clerks about their roles.