On June 14, the City Council took the first steps toward establishing a review committee to look specifically at Santa Clara’s at-large Council seats. This follows receipt of a letter from Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) legal director Robert Rubin threatening the city with a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.
Rubin’s grounds for this claim are that, while 37 percent of Santa Clara residents are Asian, 36 percent white, and 20 percent Hispanic (2010 U.S. census), 100 percent of the City Council is white. The City’s charter was last reviewed in 1999, and changing city demographics make now “an opportune time to look at this issue,” said Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Mathews.
“I commend Mayor Matthews for taking this action and moving forward, so we can be proactive and in charge of this process and not be subject to the whims of these law firms,” said Planning Commissioner and former SCUSD Board member Teresa O’Neill, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last November.
“I know there is concern that changing to districts is an attempt to impose some kind of ethnic quota, which I certainly don’t support,” O’Neill continued.
“What I do support is changing our elections so that many more voters are encouraged to run [for office] by being able to run a much more grass roots, neighborhood-focused campaigns. With one-sixth of the residents contact, less money would have to be raised for campaigns and candidates could more readily walk to every door in their districts to introduce themselves to voters.”
While every Council Member expressed absolute confidence in the fairness of Santa Clara’s method for electing its City Council, only one actively opposed the idea of a charter review committee: two-term Council Member and former Mayor Pat Mahan.
“It’s disturbing to me,” she told the Council. “If you look at San Jose, which does have district elections…[you] see a lot of dysfunction. In a recent election 5000 people voted for a council seat [representing] one million people. I don’t think that changing the system will be more representative. It will result in a small number of people electing the city council.
“Mr. Rubin has no knowledge of Santa Clara,” she continued. “He failed to recognize that our at-large election has elected an Asian assembly member and two woman to the state senate.” Mahan further noted that Rubin’s law firm has earned millions in legal fees – billed at the rate of $700 an hour – in bring California voting rights lawsuits, adding, “I can’t see us spending money [on this]…it makes us look like we’re caving to this guy.”
Others disagreed.”Having a discussion about [fairness] in our community is worth our time,” said Council Member Jamie McLeod, who finishes her second term on the Council next year.
The letter writer makes some assumptions that are faulty,” added Council Member Pat Kolstad, who was elected to the City Council last November, after serving two terms from 2000 through 2008. “But I also agree with Councilmember McLeod that from time to time we need to check. Allowing people to ‘weigh in’ is democracy.”
“Members of our community have been talking about this for a long time, so I knew this [issue] was going to come before us,” said Council Member Lisa Gillmor, who served two City Council terms and ran unsuccessfully for Santa Clara Mayor in the 1990s.
In the past Santa Clara had a system whereby the top vote getters in a general election won City Council seats, noted Gillmor. “The complaint then was that there were too many council members from downtown.”
The motion to have the City Manager report back on July 12 about the procedure and costs for forming a charter review committee passed 6 to 1, with Mahan opposing.
“The charter is a living document…it doesn’t belong to us,” Mayor Matthews said in endorsing the proposed Santa Clara charter review, noting that he’d like insight into why more of the many Santa Clarans active in the community aren’t stepping up to run for city council.