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City Clerk Vacancy Leaves Council With Plethora of Options

Concerns over the qualifications for a city clerk has caused the Santa Clara City Council to consider dividing those duties among several employees.

City Clerk Rod Diridon Jr.’s resignation in February left the clerk position vacant. The Council appointed Jennifer Yamaguma—the Public Information Liaison for the city and a certified municipal clerk—to assume the clerk’s responsibilities until the November election. Whoever is elected will fill Diridon’s seat for the remaining two years of his four-year term.

Yamaguma is not a Santa Clara resident, so she is ineligible to run for clerk.

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At a study session Thursday, Dawn Abrahamson and Lee Price, master municipal clerks, spoke to the Council about what makes a good city clerk.

The city clerk is the city’s election officer, handles legislation audits, files political reform paperwork, handles records requests and public inquiries and provides support services to the Council. Price described the clerk as the “hub” of city government.

A clerk should be good with the public and city employees alike, should be able to prepare a budget, be objective, excel at communications and have a track record of being ethical, impartial and fair, Price said. She expressed skepticism that someone from the private sector could do the job, saying that an understanding of government is important.

“You can’t just sign up for a university class and learn to do this stuff,” she said.

Extensive knowledge of the Brown Act—which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in public meetings—public records law, political reform, election law, tort claims, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Political Practices Commission regulations, ethics law and the Maddy Act, which governs noticing of openings on boards and commissions, are all essential, Price said.

The only requirements to run for city clerk are that the person be an eligible voter and live in the city. Although no one on the Council said they favored splitting the clerk’s duties, Council Members Debi Davis and Teresa O’Neill, Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe and Mayor Lisa Gillmor all made comments indicating they had reservations about whether a candidate running for clerk would possess the knowledge to undertake the job.

“They might not be qualified,” Davis said. “They have to understand what the job is; it’s not some fluff job.”

Many pointed to Morgan Hill, the only other city in Santa Clara County that elects its clerk. Morgan Hill pays its clerk a $200 monthly stipend while delegating many of the duties performed by the clerk in Santa Clara to other city employees. Santa Clara’s clerk earns $276,569 a year.

Because the Council oversees Levi’s Stadium and Silicon Valley Power, Gillmor said having a qualified clerk is important lest it “open the city to litigation.”

“We want to make sure the City is run professionally,” Gillmor said. “Mistakes made in this City may cost time, money and effort.”

Council Member Dominic Caserta was the only one who raised the issue of a separation of powers between the clerk and the Council.

Caserta asked Price, who has served as an elected clerk and as well as a clerk appointed by both a city manager and a city council, which of the three scenarios offered her more independence. Silence hung in the air for nearly 30 seconds before Price answered, finally saying she “just didn’t see [being appointed] as a conflict.”

“I am really concerned about making sure there is independence,” Caserta said. “I like the idea that the sovereigns are the people at the ballot box.”

Council mainstay Deborah Bress lambasted the Council for discussing having a “ceremonial” clerk and an elected clerk and scoffed at the idea that someone needs a government background to do the job.

“This whole thing is obviously a setup. We have a new City Manager who doesn’t want to do things the Santa Clara way and wants to do things her way. She obviously debriefed the presenters very well,” she said. “Seems like you are hellbound to do what you want to do. These people learned by learning, give other people a chance to do that.”

City Manager Deanna Santana denied having contact with Price or Abrahamson prior to the study session.

Several Council Members, as well as Price and Abrahamson, said the role of a clerk has “changed dramatically.”

Candidates can begin soliciting contributions for their campaign beginning May 1. Filing papers to run for the office runs from July 16 to Aug. 10.

Santana said she would return to the Council at its April 24 meeting to discuss how it would like to proceed regarding the options for city clerk.

Council Member Patricia Mahan was absent.

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