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2024 Priority Setting Session: Mayor Believes Council Colleagues Don’t Prioritize Ethics 

Even something as banal as setting priorities for the upcoming year managed to stir up bad blood among the Santa Clara City Council.

At its second and final priority-setting session Wednesday, well-trodden rivalry bubbled to the surface. Former mayoral opponents Vice Mayor Anthony Becker and Mayor Lisa Gillmor faced off on whether to prioritize ethics.

Late in the meeting, each Council member put dots on note cards with potential priorities to indicate their support. Gillmor said it was “disappointing” that there weren’t more dots on the card that listed hiring an ethics consultant.

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Taking the comment as “shots fired,” Becker retorted.

“I think ethics are really important, but I think the one who complains about ethics the most might be having the ethical problem themself,” he said.

Prior to that portion of the meeting, during public comments, Kirk Vartan, a San Jose resident with the cryptic title of “special advisor to the mayor” on worker cooperatives, called into the meeting to question Becker’s ethics.

Vartan’s comments were in response to Becker’s claim early in the meeting that he would like the meeting to be about priorities and not about “special interests.” Saying Becker “continues to show his special interests,” Vartan all but demanded that Becker explain his recent change in attorney.

The switch, Vartan said, looks suspicious, giving the impression that someone hired an attorney for Becker that he was previously unable to afford.

“I am not saying that is what happened, but that is what it looks like. It looks like a gift of some kind was given either in-kind or directly to pay for this attorney,” Vartan said.

The Meaning Of The Word “Priority”

But it wasn’t all bickering. Becker joined Gillmor and her political ally Council Member Kathy Watanabe in bemoaning that several projects they feel are important did not see wider Council support.

Becker said some pet issues, in his case a policy about data centers and installing rainbow crosswalks, should be “considered in a different pile.”

For Watanabe and Gillmor, it was getting the northside station operating. Even though Gillmor and Watanabe seemed to be on the same page as Becker, there was still an undercurrent of derision toward Council members who didn’t support their priorities.

“Just because it only had two votes — you can guess who the two are — just because it had two votes, does not mean we should discard that, because the safety of our northside…is important,” Gillmor said. “So, I am not ready to give up on that just because a majority of this council doesn’t think that is important enough to put on here.”

Refusing to accept wider consensus was also a theme at the previous priority-setting session. During that session, the Council focused much time discussing topics that the City-commissioned survey showed were not high priority for residents.

Council Members Suds Jain and Raj Chahal took a different attitude in the face of being in the minority, saying they “trust the process,” even if it left some items they are passionate about on the cutting room floor.

Others who didn’t vote for particular priorities said they saw them as a component of a larger undertaking.

For instance, in regard to the northside station, Council Member Kevin Park said he saw that as falling under the larger umbrella of expanding emergency services. He said he would prefer to allocate money to particular departments, such as the police department, and let those departments decide how to best use it.

He also acknowledged that setting priorities means excluding many important things.

“If the priorities bump the other priorities you had, then they are priorities, but if they don’t, we have to understand what the word ‘priority’ means,” he said.

City Manager Jovan Grogan told the Council that just because something didn’t make it into the top priorities doesn’t mean City employees will no longer pursue it. Some items will come back to the Council as part of the broader budget discussion, he said.

Again, he implored the Council to be cognizant of funding and City employees’ time, saying adding to or amending the list makes it difficult for them to complete it.

Broader Consensus

For all the back-and-forth, many of the priorities set at the meeting fall into several large buckets. Topics that popped up repeatedly and took many different forms were reducing spending, infrastructure improvements, homeless services, economic development and affordable housing.

Julia Novak, a consultant Raftelis moderating the session, said the Council did well to focus its priorities, culling the list and nesting other projects into broader categories.

“I knew there was [sic] some things you agreed on. I also know there is strong disagreement sometimes,” she said. “This is really amazing…about half of the things you said were priorities, individually, became shared priorities of the entire governing body.”

Although many priorities were specific, many fell under the larger umbrella of a few basic concerns. While many specific projects didn’t get the attention some felt they deserved, they are likely to fall into one of the larger buckets.

For instance, a new clubhouse for the Santa Clara Lawn Bowlers has been in discussion for many years, and while it is not likely to be a priority, it does fall under the larger category of expanding city amenities, specifically those related to parks and recreation.

One public member, Vikas Guptas, who is also a parks and recreation commissioner for the City, disagreed with the assessment that the aforementioned priorities were those of the Council and a “vocal minority.”

“Sports and recreation continue to be top priorities, even though the survey didn’t reflect it,” he said.

Infrastructure repeatedly reared its head. Some projects, such as replacing the George Haines International Swim Center (ISC)—one of those hot topics among public commenters—fall into two broad categories: infrastructure and sports and recreation.

Several public commenters mentioned addressing the City’s $600 million capital project needs. The Council has been vocal about its intent to pursue a bond measure later this year to raise the money to cover those costs. Some found the issue quite pressing.

Mario Bouza, a Planning Commissioner and former Council candidate, implored the Council to focus on getting spending under control so it could address these needs.

“If we saw the wreck coming, why didn’t we try to stop this? One of the things we got [sic] to do is, let’s tighten our belts a little bit, put priorities on the things in the infrastructure of the City that needs to be done,” he said. “Other little programs like bike lanes or making Pruneridge a two-lane road, road diets and so on, let’s just put a priority on things to fix Santa Clara up first and just go from there.”

During a second round of public comments, many spoke in favor of the Council prioritizing reinvigorating the downtown as well as reopening the ISC.

Grogan said his office was seeking consensus from the Council, something he said seems to have been achieved. His office will prepare a report outlining each of the Council’s priorities and a timeline for various projects within those priorities, acknowledging that some will likely take several years to complete.

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14 Comments
  1. Fred 2 months ago
    Reply

    I’m glad Gillmor wants to prioritize ethics. She can start by developing a moral compass, then she may be able to find some ethics.

    Not likely, but it’s worth a shot. After all, she’s shown she can change when it benefits her political career

    • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago
      Reply

      Exactly! She has a long pattern of unethical behavior, but I doubt spending thousands of tax dollars on an “ethics consultant” will change her behavior, especially since a consultant can’t do anything about her lack of ethics.

    • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago
      Reply

      And even this report of the meeting provides evidence of Gillmor’s lack of ethics! Her “special advisor” floats an unsubstantiated rumor about her political opponent during a public meeting, knowing that floating this piece of gossip will ensure it is repeated by others, including some random blogger who pretends to be a legitimate news source. Completely unethical, and I’m sure her “special advisor” did not float that rumor without her OK. Even if he spoke without her permission, did she disown his comment? Fire him as her “special advisor”?

      • Buchser Alum 2 months ago
        Reply

        Santa Clara Voter,
        .
        What Kirk Vartan asked and stated about Anthony Becker is not rumor but plain fact. It is a fact that Becker now has a private attorney serving as cocounsel along with his public defender.
        .
        It is not rumor or fact but opinion that it is strange that he has a public defender because he cannot afford a private attorney but now as a private attorney serving as cocounsel. It is even more strange that this private attorney is a partner at a huge international law firm.
        .
        It is not rumor but a natural question to wonder how it is that Becker can afford the services of a top flight attorney even if not as his lead counsel. It is natural to question if someone else paid for the services of this attorney since it is a fact that Becker has pled inability to afford a private attorney. It is a natural question to wonder who may have paid for the services of this attorney and whether or not this constitutes an illegal gift or at least one that must be reported by Becker.
        .
        Anthony Becker could clear up all these questions in a minute but has chosen to not explain. This is not right.

        • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago
          Reply

          Buchser Alum–do you not know the difference between fact and rumor? Or fact and gossip?

          I believe it is a fact that Anthony Becker now has a private attorney as co-counsel to his public defender.

          If, in fact, this private attorney is being paid for by some other third party, he will need to disclose those payments on his Form 700 that he will need to file either later this year or next year.

          For a “special advisor to the mayor” to call into the meeting to make a claim that this “looks suspicious” and gives “the impression that someone hired an attorney for Becker that he was previously unable to afford. . . . ‘I am not saying that is what happened, but that is what it looks like. It looks like a gift of some kind was given either in-kind or directly to pay for this attorney,’ Vartan said.”–that is the kind of ugly, unethical rumor-mongering that the mayor should have immediately disavowed. I’m surprised she did not cut him off. She has cut off people before who criticize her or her allies.

          That may be OK in your book. It’s an example of the mayor’s unethical behavior in my opinion.

          • Buchser Alum 2 months ago

            Santa Clara Voter,
            .
            There is no need to blame Becker for more than he should be blamed for and there is no need to shield him from consequences for his actions.
            .
            Given that he has had a public defender because he cannot afford the services of a private attorney it is only natural to question how it is that he can now afford a private attorney to serve as cocounsel in his defense. Not just a private attorney but a partner in a huge international law firm.
            .
            It is normal to question how he can afford that since he has not reported any gifting of those legal services from another party. It is even more normal to question this given that this situation all stems from him using his position as a city councilperson to give a privileged county grand jury report to a corporate special interest before it became public so that corporation could start public relations efforts before it became public. Including personally impugning members of the grand jury.
            .
            This same corporation spent millions of dollars to help him get elected to city council and to try to get him elected as mayor of Santa Clara. So these are all natural questions and not “rumor” or “gossip.” And he could clear this all up by answering these questions but he has chosen not to.
            .
            Finally I am not surprised that Gillmor did not cut of Vartan while Vartan was speaking during the period for public comment as a member of the public. I have never seen her cut off any member of the public speaking during public comment including speakers who are criticizing her. I think Gillmor needs to do better in how she interacts with others on the council as do most membersof the council but she has always been nothing but professional in giving all public speakers their just due without interruption or argument and even thanks every single speaker.

          • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago

            Well, it’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it? These questions seem to be on everyone’s lips, whether they’re whispered in hushed tones or debated over a cup of coffee. However, let’s not muddy the waters here. The City Council doesn’t have a dog in this fight – it’s well beyond their purview.

            Now, onto the real meat of the matter. Picture this: the mayor’s right-hand man, her SPECIAL ADVISOR, steps into the fray with a comment that raises more eyebrows than a cat in a doghouse. One can’t help but wonder if he’s speaking out of turn, or if his words carry the tacit approval of the mayor herself. Even if it’s the former, one would expect a swift disavowal from the mayor’s office. Yet, silence reigns.

            And let’s not overlook the mayor’s tolerance for dissent – or lack thereof. While she may extend you the courtesy of a full audience, her council colleagues aren’t always as fortunate. Public dissent is met with a swift hand, leaving little doubt as to where she stands on matters of disagreement. If you haven’t witnessed this firsthand, you must be living under a rock, because I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count.

          • Buchser Alum 2 months ago

            Santa Clara Voter,
            .
            There is no conundrum here. Becker has had a public defender based on not being able to afford private counsel. Now he has private cocounsel in the form of a partner in a huge international law firm. He has not explained how he could afford this on his own and he has not filed a report of this having been gifted to him. This is all fact and not rumor or gossip or a conundrum.
            .
            It is only natural and in the public interest to ask how a city councilperson on trial for lying under oath about using his position to leak privileged information to a corporate special interest can now suddenly afford an extra expensive attorney to help with his criminal defense.
            .
            So when Kirk Vartan raised this question there is no reason to raise your eyebrows. I am glad he asked because I have the same question. Everyone who cares about potential corruption in our city council should ask that question and demand an answer. There was also no reason for you to wonder if he was speaking out of turn. He spoke during the public comment section of a council meeting when all members of the public are allowed to speak their mind for two minutes. He does not need any sort of title to speak as a member of the public during public comment.
            .
            I have seen Mayor Gillmor enforce rules of decorum during city council meetings. She is often testier than I think is appropriate but she often has to remind fellow councilpeople that it is not appropriate for example to argue or even respond to members of the public speaking during public comment. Which is something she does not do. She also testily reminds them to not debate matters that are not scheduled issues for the council meeting. And when she does so she is backed up by the city attorney when he is asked for his opinion on the accuracy of her warnings and reminders.
            .
            In contrast to her use of the gavel as presiding officer during council meetings when Kevin Park had the gavel in her absence he decided to use his privilege to childishly mock a political critic of his. Wasting public time and acting in a way unbefitting an elected official.
            .
            I have disagreements with how Gillmor and Watanabe have contributed to all the bickering on the city council just as I do with the rest of the council. But one thing that Gillmor has done quite well in my opinion is to manage council meetings to remain focused and to make sure that the public is encouraged to participate and not treated in a hostile manner even if they are criticizing her harshly.

  2. Kirk Vartan 2 months ago
    Reply

    It is so telling to see post with made-up names for their comments. There are over 55,000 voters. Care to be a bit more specific? If be happy to debate ideas with anyone publicly, but that would require identifying yourself. Let me know. You probably know how to reach me. If not, reach out to the author of this article, and he can give you my email. Author: please track and identify to me when if you give out my email. I only authorize release of my email when it is specifically requested in writing, you can verify the person sending you the request, and you provide me the name, email, and any other contact information. Don’t want to have my info fall into the wrong hands.

    And let’s point out the obvious, since it is clear a person commenting here is unclear of the facts. The 49er Five majority formed the Charter Committee at their own request. They spent $500,000+ of taxpayer dollars on ballot measures no one asked for, and was even caught breaking the law using unethical practices. That’s what an Ethics Consultant would address. There are so many ethical issues regularly demonstrated by this council majority that we have all gotten numb. The law is the floor, not the ceiling when it comes to ethics. And even then, that Ishtar always the case (e.g, Becker).

    I will gladly debate anyone publicly on issues like this, or if you want to attack my actions, fine. But hiding behind made-up identities is not how it works. And this organization has chosen to not enforce simple identity verification to post comments. So anyone can make up a name and accuse all day long with no accountability. I don’t see honor in that.

    • Editor 2 months ago
      Reply

      Mr Vartan,
      If you would like people to email you personally, you may share your email information here as you have done in the past.
      We will not monitor, track, confirm identities and/or pass them on for you.

      Angie Tolliver

    • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago
      Reply

      Don’t flatter yourself.

      I have no idea who you are or how to reach you. I only know that you are identified IN THIS ARTICLE as a “special advisor to the mayor”, and given the comments you made that are quoted IN THIS ARTCLE, I think the mayor should worry about her own unethical behavior before worrying about anyone else. I’m still wondering why she wasn’t investigated over leaking the grand jury report to the police union.

    • Santa Clara Voter 2 months ago
      Reply

      You’re quick to throw around that misleading label about the current council majority, especially since it was the other two councilmembers who started this mess by working with the 49ers in the first place.

      As a resident, I believe the police chief should be elected, just like in every other city in California. But Lisa has always enjoyed support from the police union, so it’s no surprise she wanted to maintain their power.

      And if we’re talking about wasting taxpayers’ dollars, what about the $5,000,000 Lisa kept spending to fight the judge’s orders on redistricting? That’s a lot of money that could have been used more wisely.

  3. Fred 2 months ago
    Reply

    In the interest of transparency perhaps the special advisor can tell us what qualifies him to be a special advisor, and what kind of special advice he offers to the Mayor?

    Who is his client? The mayor, or the city? If the latter, what was the selection process? If the former, he’s just a political hitman.

  4. Get out and VOTE! 2 months ago
    Reply

    I agree spending on an Ethics consultant is a waste when there are so many more pressing needs for our tax dollars…the real answer is to clean house in the City Council and only the voters can do that…hopefully we get some better candidates in November and a strong voter turn out to start to turn the tide.

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