Attempts to set a discussion about the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit appeal turned into a verbal grudge match between Santa Clara Council Members and the City Attorney.
The only agenda item Tuesday night was to set a closed session to discuss the CVRA appeal, which the court is set to rule on Dec. 17. However, City Attorney Brian Doyle warned the Council that several of its members could open themselves to a common-law conflict if they intend to withdraw the appeal prior to the court ruling.
Council Member Raj Chahal raised the topic, petitioning the Council to consider putting it on the agenda Dec. 15
Since, during their campaigns, newly elected Council Members Suds Jain, Kevin Park and Anthony Becker expressed — in varying degrees — a desire to end the appeal, Doyle said they have publicly stated a bias and are unable to discuss dismissing the appeal.
Considering there is no new information with which to brief the Council, Doyle said there is no reason to hold a closed session.
“There is no good reason on God’s green earth why anybody in their right mind would dismiss the appeal two days before the Court of Appeals would make the decision,” Doyle said.
Becker — who, along with Jain and Park, voters elected to the Council last month — less than an hour removed from being sworn-in, accused the City Attorney of “bullying” new Council Members.
If the City loses the appeal, it would be on the hook for the $3.2 million in legal fees for plaintiff Wesley Mukoyama in addition to its own $750,000 in legal fees as well as $170,000 in miscellaneous fees.
Those costs will likely creep higher since the City will have to pay two years of interest accrued on the legal fees, and the plaintiff’s attorney, Richard Konda, has said the plaintiffs will seek more money for legal fees associated with the appeal.
In addition to the stated bias, Doyle said, since the 49ers contributed to a political action committee that supported the new Council Members, it could leave those Council Members in a dicey legal position, giving the appearance of impropriety.
“There is plenty of pay-for-play that goes on by indirect means,” Doyle said. “The public has a right to know whether you are giving money to a company that spent $3 million on your campaign.”
As to be consistent with Doyle’s previous requests, Chahal said he was trying to avoid airing the City’s legal business in open session. However, since Doyle told the Council he would not attend a meeting unless he knew the specifics of that meeting, Chahal said he wanted to discuss options for a settlement.
When he tells other lawyers that the idea of settling has come up, Doyle said they laugh, adding that “no lawyer in any circumstances would advise a client to make any settlement offer of any sort.”
Chahal countered saying unless Doyle is certain the City will win the appeal, a settlement could make fiscal sense.
“I am trying to save some money for the City of Santa Clara residents,” Chahal said. “At the very outset, this case should not have been there. Had we divided the City into districts, which was requested way back, we would not have spent these millions of dollars.”
There was no shortage of criticisms back and forth, with recently re-elected Council Member Kathy Watanabe calling the discussion a “disgrace,” saying those that want a closed session want to “just hand money over instead of letting a judge make a decision.”
Members of the public had varied opinions ranging from support of the closed session to noting that closed sessions are the exception, not the rule, a point also brought up by City Clerk Hosam Haggag.
Betsy Megas said she shared some members of the Council’s frustration regarding the suit, but halting the appeal isn’t the answer.
“It appears to me this ball has been thrown, and it is too late to change its trajectory,” she said.
Council Member Park, at the behest of Mayor Lisa Gillmor, proposed a substitute motion to have Chahal and Doyle work out details of a meeting, be it before, on or after Dec. 15. Chahal inquired what would happen should he and Doyle reach an impasse; Doyle assured Chahal that he would negotiate with him in “good faith.”
The motion passed unanimously.
The Council meets again Tuesday, Dec. 15 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.
Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov