Whether Santa Clarans will continue to elect their city clerk and police chief will be left to the voters. During a protracted discussion at its most recent meeting, the Santa Clara City Council heeded the advice of the Charter Review Committee.
The Council had previously formed the committee to settle whether the elected positions should remain so or to put the matter to Santa Clarans. The Council heard the committee’s findings Tuesday night and opted to accept its report as well as direct City employees to return with ballot language for a special election in March 2024.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor and political ally Council Member Kathy Watanabe — both of whom have the backing of the police union — have opposed the process from the start. The duo continued its opposition during the most recent discussion.
Gillmor said the decision to appoint was “already determined,” pointing to a survey that, in her words, had apparently been “corrupted.”
“You are going to have a hard time convincing people to give up their right to vote for their police chief,” Gillmor said. “If this council was more in touch with the community members out there, you wouldn’t be doing this. You really wouldn’t.”
Other members of the Council agreed that the results of the survey were fishy, but Jeff Houston, chair of the Charter Review Committee, said the committee did not take the results of the survey into account. Anyway, he added, those results were consistent with the comments the committee heard from verified sources.
Response to public outreach for the question of the ballot measure was dismal, with only 242 registered voters of roughly 30,000 contacted responding.
Houston said the committee also heard from appointed police chiefs and city clerks from around California and examined how the cities of Campbell, Los Gatos and Morgan Hill run such departments. The Committee recommended creating ballot measures to appoint both positions in a 5-2 vote, citing independence from political pressure and qualifications as the biggest benefits.
One member of the committee said its members did not take into account the information they got during the committee’s tenure, instead moving forward with their original positions.
“I attempted to voice my opposition to the approach. I found myself stand[ing] alone in this endeavor. Again, our lack of open and honest discussion led to a lack of public trust,” Satish Chandra, the committee member in question, said.
Gillmor said only “special interests” support appointing the clerk and police chief, adding that she has heard from many residents that they worry that, if appointed, the 49ers would “own” the police chief.
Many council members pointed to residency requirements severely limiting those running for the positions, pointing to Chief Pat Nikolai’s unopposed run in the last election. Because of the requirement, no upper management police officers are even eligible to run for chief.
Four of the past 10 elections for City Clerk and three of the past nine elections for police chief have been unopposed.
Vice Mayor Kevin Park said he was ambivalent about the idea of appointment.
“I have this push and pull, which is I would really like for the people to elect their civil servants, but I don’t see a process in this City, at least for some of these positions, where the people actually have a choice. I think that is a problem,” he said.
In a 5-2 vote, the Council approved the acceptance of the report and directed City employees to “look into” how the survey was corrupted. Watanabe and Park voted against the motion. City Manager Jovan Grogan and City Attorney Glen Googins also heard comments from the Council on how they would like the ballot language drafted.
Santa Clara Joins Joint Powers Agency
The Council also unanimously approved joining the joint powers agency. The agency is an amalgam of 15 cities across the county that coordinate on solving regional issues. The formation codifies the unincorporated organization into a public agency.
City Attorney Glen Googins said the formation helps indemnify the City against liability.
The agency meets monthly and requires a majority vote to decide matters. An exception to that rule is if the agency intends to spend $10,000 on a “major project.” Such action would require a two-thirds vote. The agency is prohibited from imposing taxes, purchasing property, hiring employees or issuing debt.
Each city pays dues in proportion to its size. In 2022-23, Santa Clara paid roughly $34,000. Of the 15 cities, 11 had already approved joining the agency.
Council to Discuss Releasing Investigation into Aug. 30, 2022 Closed Session to the Public
Late in the night, the Council voted 6-0 with Council Member Anthony Becker abstaining to place an agenda item at a future council meeting that would consider releasing to the public the investigative findings of the Van Dermyden Makus law firm.
The firm released a report summary earlier this year after looking into alleged misconduct at the Aug. 30, 2022 closed session in which Becker was accused of yelling profanities at Watanabe. The summary determined that the accusations were unfounded.
The Council will discuss at a future meeting whether the entire report should be released to the public.
Santa Clara City Council Consent Calendar Spending
- A $552,000 purchase order with St. Francis Electric to upgrade pedestrian signals to LEDs.
- A $1.26 million contract with Bear Electric Solutions, Inc. for the intelligent transport systems rehabilitation project.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Nov.14 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.