The Santa Clara City has approved the appointment of a charter review committee to study changing the City’s at-large by-seat election system to election by geographic district, and potentially, other provisions of the charter. Applications for the 15-member committee are due Nov. 12. Interviews will be held at the Nov. 17 Council meeting, and the Council will make its recommendation for any charter changes March 11, 2016. Voters must approve any proposed changes in a regular election – not a primary or special election.
The sudden appearance of a charter review on the Oct. 27 Council meeting agenda – immediately following a push-poll about term limits for elected City officials – the seeming haste of appointing the committee in the next two weeks, and closed session discussions of changing the election system, all have led some to infer a conspiracy to remove sitting Council Members by changing the city charter. Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold has promoted this conjecture – without, to date, supplying evidence.
Deborah Bress, face of anti-stadium advocacy group Santa Clara Plays Fair, endorses Herhold’s interpretation. “This went to the ethics committee because Council Member [Dominic] Caserta wanted a raise,” she said at last week’s meeting.” It was an attempt to do an end run. I guess it’s who you know. We should be the butt of a lot of jokes. It’s who you know based on who you kiss up to, what gets on the agenda. What are we going to do? Gerrymander the districts so someone gets what he needs?”
The origin of the agenda item remains unclear – whether it was requested in a closed session discussion about the possible California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) litigation or by the Council’s Ethics Committee.
“The Council met on voting rights in closed session last week,” said City Attorney Ren Nosky. “It’s no secret the city was challenged in 2011. At that time a Charter review committee was appointed. Ultimately that committee thought district elections were not appropriate. Over 15 cities have changed their system to districts from at-large, either as a result of being sued or voluntarily. We have not been threatened with litigation, but we could be. That’s why we were talking abut it in closed session.”
The 2011 charter review committee recommended moving to fully at-large elections – the City’s election system before 1971. However, the majority of the 2011 Council voted to take no action. No lawsuit was filed in 2011; nor has the City ever faced a CVRA lawsuit. No City has ever won a CVRA lawsuit, although one was dismissed because the city, Whittier, had already changed its election system when the case was heard.
Council Member Debi Davis, Ethics Committee Chair, said the charter review request didn’t come from that committee. “This issue was not discussed,” she said. “I don’t know where this came from. Council Member Caserta said he wanted an overhaul of our charter. This [proposed] overhaul is about a lot of different things.” The other committee members are Council Members Caserta and Teresa O’Neill.
Council Member Lisa Gillmor – generally perceived as the principal target of October’s push poll – questioned whether this was truly urgent.
“This came to us last week as somewhat an emergency item,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s an emergency. All of a sudden that [charter change] trumped the lobbying ordinance. It looks bad. What is the charter review committee going to do? I think we should have a study session so we can find out what the public wants. That’s the next step and we should give direction to the charter review [committee]. We can’t just throw together a committee and have one or two council members define it.”
Caserta was on the side of urgency.
One of the reasons for the trust problem in politics was a lack of “responsiveness in our elected officials,” Caserta said. And a key part of that was “how we elect our City Council. I’m 40 years old and I’m the youngest person on this Council. We are not representative. Four of us are retired. I was elected last year with only 40 percent of the vote. We need officials who are elected by 50 percent-plus-one.
“The way we work is the way we worked 40, 50 years ago,” he continued. But it won’t work now. This is a product of what is frustrating and bubbling up in our community.”
After saying that he wasn’t one “to drop” on Scott Herhold, or to dish on social media about closed session discussions, Caserta said, “I’m not indicting any of us. What I am asking is for our community to come together. It would not be good for me, politically, to go to district elections, but I’m not here to do what’s good for me,” he said with a concluding warning. “We are going to be sued before Nov.2016.”
O’Neill is the one member of the Council who has been a consistent advocate for by-district elections. “At the 2011 charter review, we looked at alternative election means. There was not support for district elections. Only myself and one other person voted for district elections.” She also raised the question of what the process would be for creating election districts and the length of time required – it sometimes takes as much as a year. So no change would be unlikely to go into effect before 2018.
Recent Santa Clara University graduate and resident Jordan Nunes made the case for districts.
“How are people supposed to find the courage to run against people who have served for decades? I recently graduated from Santa Clara University and I have hopes of running for City Council. With the rules we have now, this would be impossible. The system we have now is unfair to recent immigrants, minorities and young people. We need a system that represents people living in different parts of Santa Clara. Santa Clara is changing – the system needs to change with it. “
Regardless of the fairness of Santa Clara’s election system, some doubt whether districts would advance good government. “San Jose has district elections,” wrote resident Robert Fitch in an email to the City. “It does not seem to have resulted in an improved council.” Last month San Jose’s Ethics Commission launched an investigation into 40 Council Members and candidates – including Mayor Sam Liccardo – for campaign finance reporting violations.