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Citizens Advisory Committee Reframes Narrative Around Election Lawsuit

Corruption in Santa Clara politics — not a racial divide — is the main problem with elections in the City, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee said.

At a meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee Monday night, Kevin Park told a group of 13 people who met at the Women’s Club Adobe that the Council-controlled narrative is inaccurate, saying the Council did a “good job pushing the blame” and calling the Council’s actions “shenanigans.”

Some of the statements made by Mayor Lisa Gillmor and her cadre of cohorts — i.e., Council Members Debi Davis, Teresa O’Neill and Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe — are, Park said, “100 percent false.”

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The lawsuit, brought by Ladonna Yumori-Kaku in 2011, alleges the City’s seat system violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by not producing winning minority candidates despite Santa Clara’s Asian population being roughly 30 percent. Earlier this month, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled that the City had violated the CVRA and ordered it to split into six districts with an at-large mayor.

Matters were complicated by the introduction of Measure A, designed to institute ranked choice voting and separate the City into two districts in early June, and the Council’s attempt to appoint someone to Dominic Caserta’s seat after he resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment shortly before. Park said he attended the CVRA trial and sensed the Council — i.e. Gillmor — has an ulterior motive for all this.

“The City wanted to protect incumbents, protect the status quo.” Park said. “The only thing the City wanted from this was a separate elected mayor.”

Members of the Council, most stridently Gillmor, have decried the judge’s ruling, claiming he had no right to impose districts because of the City’s Charter City status. Further, requirements from the Registrar of Voters compressed the timeline for getting public outreach.

However, Park — who has run for Council previously and sought appointment to Watanabe’s seat when Gillmor vacated it and again when Caserta resigned — said neither Measure A nor appointing someone to Caserta’s seat would have made any difference. As for the timeline, the City brought that on itself. Since the City preferred to be able to hold elections in November, by working backward based on the Registrar of Voters deadlines, the City had no choice but to hold the meetings when it did.

Essentially, the City ignored the lawsuit until it was too late, Park said. Santa Clara let the “safe harbor” provision, which allows a city to put remedies in place to avoid the lawsuit within 45 days, to sunset.

The question over ranked choice voting, which was part of Measure A that was handily defeated, has been a topic of much discussion in recent years. Karen Hardy said she sat on the Charter Review Committee in 2011. That committee, she said, suggested the Council put in place a system that would “throw everybody into a pile, not by seat … as soon as the Registrar of Voters had the technology to do so.” That recommendation was noted and filed, but the Council took no action on it.

“We are taking it in the shorts,” she said. “It’s embarrassing … we have egg on our face”

More than 90 cities will move to by-district elections by 2020. No city has successfully defended itself against a CVRA lawsuit. For instance, one such lawsuit cost Palmdale $4.7 million, excluding attorney fees for the defendant, which the city would not disclose because of attorney-client privilege. That total is the most for any CVRA lawsuit to date. Santa Clara is using a similar tactic, hiding behind attorney-client privilege and is on pace to exceed Palmdale’s expenditures.

Suds Jain, who sits on the Planning Commission, wondered how the City was going to “bury [the cost of the lawsuit] in the budget.”

Still, Park said the problems run deeper than ensuring there are minority candidates on the Council. Gillmor was appointed to her seat as mayor after being appointed to her Council seat, then ensured Watanabe’s appointment to her vacant seat. Park previously said he was more concerned with intellectual and ideological diversity on the Council, rather than racial diversity.

“There is no such thing as a perfect voting system,” he said. “I do not believe the problem is with race. I believe it is corruption. I know a lot of Asians who didn’t vote for me [during my Council vye] even though I was the only Asian candidate.”

As of July 31, Gillmor and Anthony Becker, who was in attendance at the meeting, have pulled papers to run for mayor. Hardy has pulled papers to run in District 3 and Nancy Biagini and Mario Bouza have pulled papers to run in District 2, the seat currently held by Pat Kolstad.

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