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City Hall Observer: July 27, 2016

Charter Change Proposals Will Go To Voters

At the July 19 meeting, the Santa Clara City Council unanimously voted – with Jerry Marsalli absent – to put four charter changes on the Nov. 8 ballot, which will cost the City $290,000. One group likely to be cheered by this news is political consultants.

None of these changes have anything to do with the assignment the Charter Review Committee was given – review the method for electing the City Council. The committee tabled that task as being too complex for the time permitted; although 1971, and 2011 charter reviews were able to successfully complete that job and bring recommendations to the Council.

This Charter Review was a free-form conclave in which each of the 15 members made a list of charter changes they thought were relevant, in the interest of “bringing “bring new perspectives and fresh ideas to the table,” according to Chair Beverly Silva. The committee combined the lists and voted on their top priorities – Council pay, Council appointments, parkland preservation, and term limits.

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Council pay is currently set by the charter and it takes a referendum to change it. The last time Council pay was adjusted was 2001. The Committee aimed to address this – as well as the reality that serving on the Council is virtually a fulltime job today, unlike it was in 1955 – by creating a salary-setting committee that would be appointed by the Civil Service Commission.

At last week’s Council meeting an argument broke out over whether this was really an independent body setting Council salaries or boiled down to the Council setting its own salary.

The committee recommended $1,500 (up from $600) for Council Members and $2,500 (up from $1,500) for Mayor. The Council increased Council pay to $2,000, fueling a barrage of venomous and personal attacks on the Council in general, and the Council Member who had formally made the motion in particular. (All Council discussion and action is by vote; in order to discuss or vote on a matter there must be a motion and a second.)

The most vociferous opponents of this change were Charter Review Committee Members – the people who had recommended the pay changes in the first place and devoted the lion’s share of their meeting time to it. Despite much Council protestation about its impartiality and cynical commentary to the contrary, the modified proposal will go to the voters.

Also going to voters, a proposal for a lifetime term limit of two Council terms and two Mayoral terms, except for previous and current office holders. Committee Members said that they wanted to make it retroactive, but were advised against it by the City Attorney, who warned that retroactive term limits haven’t fared well in court. The first term for everyone currently sitting on the Council would begin with their next election

There was no discussion about whether the purpose of the intended change – becoming more representative of the community – would actually be served by this change in the law, which makes it more – not less – likely that the City Council could look exactly the same in 2024 as it does today. Council Member Teresa O’Neill said that she hoped current and former Council Members would honor the spirit of this law. Currently three Council Members – Dominic Caserta, Pat Kolstad, and Mayor Lisa Gillmor – have served two previous terms on the Council.

Lost in the discussion was the fact that voters are not forced to vote for incumbents, but do so of their own free will. And it appears that City residents who take the trouble to vote believe their interests are best served by familiarity and experience.

Also going to the voters is a proposal making it virtually impossible to change the use of any city-owned land “that is or will be used for park, playground, recreation or conservation purposes,” by requiring a 2/3 referendum, during a regular election, on any such change.

This will have no effect on privately-owned land and other development in Santa Clara, and allows temporary uses for up to 180 days – otherwise it would require a referendum to hold the Art & Wine Festival at Central Park every year.

The definition of “park, playground, recreation or conservation” land was unclear. Did this mean every unbuilt piece of city-owned property or just existing parks? Nobody knew if there was a current inventory of such property, or if all such property was identified as such.

It was proposed that a list be attached to the ballot statement. Alternatively, it was proposed that a few examples be included – “property like Ulistac and the Soccer Park.” City Attorney Ren Nosky pointed out that such language in a law would lead to endless confusion. Between now and Election Day an inventory will be prepared and any parks and open space that aren’t clearly identified, will be.

“The intention was to create an insurmountable obstacle to changing land use,” said Committee Member Tino Silva, former president of the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League, which sued the City last December to block use of the Soccer Park for the Super Bowl. “We didn’t want to give four people the power to give away our park land in 2024. It’s about giving the people a voice.” Silva is running for City Council, and if he wins he will likely be on that 2024 Council.

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