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Charter Review Committee Tables Election System Change &ndash Instead Introduces Land Use Policy by Referendum, “Term Limits” Extending Current Council’s Potential Tenure

At last night’s Santa Clara City Council meeting none of the 2016 Charter Review Committee’s charter change recommendations concerned the City’s election-by-seat system; the primary assignment the Council gave the committee when it was appointed last November.

That subject was tabled on May 19, “because there was too much to accomplish before the November 2016 election,” according to the committee’s minutes; with the suggestion that the Council appoint another committee – the third in five years – to consider that question.

This was “punting” the task the committee was formed to accomplish, said Santa Clara resident Dave Kadlecek at the May 19 meeting. Kadlecek is chair of the Santa Clara County Citizens Advisory Commission on Elections and has attended almost every meeting; a better record than some committee members.

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Raising Council Pay and Hobbling Council Authority

The first of the committee’s recommendations is raising City Council salaries to $1,500/month and the Mayor’s salary to $2,500/month, and establishing a new City Commission to set elected officials’ salaries. This subject dominated the committee’s first six meetings.

Although the committee wants to pay Council Members more, it wants them to be able to do less; proposing what amounts to ending Council authority over use of city-owned land and embedding no-growth policy in the City Charter.

Despite protesting they didn’t want to “tie the City Council’s hands,” the committee’s proposals would do just that. They propose encumbering any “substantial building, construction, reconstruction or development” on “land that is or will be used for park, playground, recreation or conservation purposes” with two-thirds voter approval at a general election.

This would hand veto power over these decisions to a minority (34 percent) and allow City Council Members to evade difficult questions. It would add the delay and cost of a political campaign and an election to an already long and costly process for development.

City costs would grow. Putting an item on the ballot costs over $70,000 according to the Santa Clara City Clerk’s office. Ballots, already long and complicated, would be even longer and more complicated. Mailboxes would be stuffed with more political junk mail, and more PAC money would flow into local elections.

Developers might well take projects – and their associated fees and tax revenue – to other cities without such unwieldy processes. Projects such as SCU’s Franklin St. pedestrian mall, offering important civic benefits, might never be proposed.

The bottom line would be little or no City growth.

One Committee Member, Brian Lowery, opposed this agenda. “Santa Clara has a lot of infrastructure. It has to support that,” he said at a June meeting. “This is an economic issue, not a development issue. Either Santa Clara grows, or it gets eaten up by other cities.”

Development generates tax revenue that is essential to maintaining quality of life, he said. Because Prop 13 prevents property tax increases based on increased valuation, new development and redevelopment are essential to keep municipal income growing at the same rate as costs.

City Manager Rajeev Batra explained that because development goes in cycles that are independent of elections, the committee’s proposals risk of delaying decisions so much that the economic climate changes and developers back out. Attorney Nosky suggested the alternative of making land use decisions by ordinance – a legislative act subject to referendum. Currently these decisions are resolutions – administrative acts not subject to referendum.

None of this had any apparent effect on the committee’s recommendations.

The committee’s desire to write the zoning code into the relative stone of the City Charter appears to be driven by fears that the Youth Soccer Park and Ulistac Natural Area are under immanent threat.

A proposal to lease the soccer park for stadium parking was decisively trounced by the Council at an April 2015 meeting. The only change that’s been proposed at Ulistac was a 2014 idea to develop a sports complex there.

That idea was introduced at the Apr. 15, 2014 Parks & Recreation Commission meeting by Committee Member, Parks & Rec Commissioner and past president of the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League Tino Silva. His motion to make that recommendation to the City Council died at the Commission’s May 20, 2014 meeting for lack of a second.

Making a Bad Term Limit Law Worse

While Santa Clara’s term limits are widely seen as simply a “revolving door” – allowing elected officials to leave for two years and then run again – the committee proposes rewriting that law in a way that would effectively worsens the situation it ostensibly intends to remedy.

“No person elected to the Council shall be eligible to serve more than two full terms; but such service prior to November 2016 shall not disqualify any person from further service as a member of the Council.” This would apply to the Mayor’s office as well, allowing another eight years in that office.

The reason for this qualification about prior service is to avoid retroactive term limits, which are against California law. But it would allow seated Council Members to immediately run for two more terms with no break.

Council Members Debi Davis, Jerry Marsalli and Teresa O’Neill could potentially stay on the Council until 2024, instead of being termed out in 2020. Council Members Dominic Caserta and Patrick Kolstad could stay until 2026 instead of being termed out in 2018.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s and Council Member Kathleen Watanabe’s tenure would be unchanged. Gillmor could still serve as Mayor until 2026 – even running for another two City Council and staying in office until 2034. Appointed last April, Watanabe can run for two full terms and serve until 2024.

The only actual term-limiting committee proposal is limiting the term of Council appointments to vacant seats to the next major election if the appointment is in the first half of the term. The committee also recommends requiring such appointments by super-majority (five) vote. The most recent such appointment, Kathleen Watanabe, was a unanimous vote.

Gimme More … Special Council Meetings

Another committee proposal is allowing Council minorities to call special meetings, rather than requiring majority decisions. Initially, the proposal was to allow any Council Member to call a special meeting. This would foster a more democratic process and allow minority voices to be heard, said Committee Member Hossam Haggag, who made the proposal.

Committee Member Jodi Muirhead, a member of the Santa Clara Unified school board, said that “special meetings are for special purposes,” and lowering the bar for calling one quickly opens the door to abuse.

The response was that Council Members could check abuse by not showing up and denying a quorum. The compromise was to require at least three Members to concur in calling a special meeting.

The committee also discussed an appointed instead of elected police chief – which it decided against – and amplifying its obstructionist land use policy recommendations by requiring referendums on the valuation, sale and lease of city-owned land, as well as building projects on any city-owned property. This stalled over definitions of “market value.”

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