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City Observer: May 3, 2016

Charter Review Committee Will Recommend New Commission to Set Elected Officials’ Salaries

Charter Review Committee is halfway through its scheduled meetings. The first five meetings were largely spent discussing procedural questions, the 16-member committee’s mission, reviewing reports from the last charter review committee (2011), and how to set salaries for elected officials. So far, the committee has decided to extend meetings to two hours and recommend that the City create a new commission for setting elected official’s salaries.

Charter changes must be approved, first, by the City Council and second, by voters in a general election (not a primary election). It costs $67,000 for each item that’s added to a ballot.

Other issues the committee has discussed include how to draw election districts and alternative voting systems. Since Santa Clara County’s voting system can only accommodate at-large and by-district elections, other systems – like San Francisco’s ranked choice and instant runoff – can’t be implemented until the County has new software.

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Since the charter review was proposed last year in closed session as an urgent necessity – although no one has ever brought a CVRA lawsuit against the City, and only one was ever threatened, in 2011 – it has been a foregone conclusion by many that the purpose of this charter review committee is to create City Council election districts and have that change on the November ballot.

It’s so foregone that at the April 7 meeting, committee member and Parks & Recreation Commissioner Tino Silva proposed putting a resolution on the ballot changing Santa Clara’s at-large election system to by-district elections several years from now; with the details of implementation and drawing district boundaries, to be figured out later. The cost of drawing election districts is about $200,000 according to City officials.

“We have the cart way before the horse,” said committee member and Historical & Landmarks Commissioner Jeannie Mahan. “We’re talking about putting something on the ballot without any information. We need to get information and make informed, rational decisions.”

So why are some in such a hurry to change Santa Clara’s election system?

One reason is criticism from both sitting Council Members and many in the community that the Santa Clara Council doesn’t reflect the community.

By-district representation theoretically makes it easier to get elected – fewer votes, less money, lower name recognition and less precinct walking is required. Proponents say this encourages grassroots political engagement. This theoretically opens doors for “new faces;” unless, that is, redistricting is done the way Morgan Hill School District did: drawing districts that left the sitting board in place, even though their homes are clustered in one part of town.

But despite expressions of enthusiasm for “new faces” on the Council, to date voters haven’t elected any “new faces” that have been on the ballot, and no Council Members have taken the simple step that would achieve the desired change at no cost to taxpayers: simply not running. Another straightforward answer is a charter change imposing lifetime term limits.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Pat Kolstad will each have a total of 16 years in office at the end of their terms. Council Member Dominic Caserta will have 12. All of them could run for another two consecutive terms as Mayor and follow that with another two terms as Council Members.

Five years ago, the City Council convened a charter review committee specifically to consider by-district representation. That committee came to the conclusion that election districts wouldn’t change election results. Santa Clara’s census blocks and state election precincts reflect the demographic makeup of the city as a whole: 39 percent Asian, 36 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent black. Combined with the fact that the County can’t handle alternative voting systems, the 2011 committee recommended returning to Santa Clara’s original at-large system (replaced in 1971 with the current at-large by-seat system).

The Council majority in 2012 – Jamie Matthews, Patrick Kolstad, Patricia Mahan, and Kevin Moore – referred the committee’s report for further consideration; “the place where good ideas go to die,” dissenting Council Member Will Kennedy observed at the time.

The current committee will get an updated demographic report at its May 5 meeting.

Recordings of the City of Santa Clara Charter Review Committee’s meetings are on YouTube. At the April 21 meeting (youtu.be/bRNZxBQCSwg) City Clerk Rod Diridon gave an overview of alternative voting systems. Scheduled Charter Review Committee meetings are May 5, May 19, June 2, June 16, July 7, July 21, Aug. 4, and Aug. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in the Margie Edinger Room at the Santa Clara Central Library, 2635 Homestead Rd. Residents can get copies of committee documents by making an appointment at City Hall and paying $0.20 a page.

For more insight into the CVRA and its results, read our Dec. 2015 story at santaclaraweekly.com/2015/Issue-49/city-observer.html.

Alternatives for Keeping Creek Trail Open During Stadium Events Under Consideration

At its April 19 meeting, the City Council considered a plan to take the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail below the Levi’s Stadium bridges to make the trail accessible during stadium events. Currently, the trail is closed during big stadium events due to Dept. of Homeland Security requirements. It’s not clear that the current proposal will satisfy DHS requirements.

Resident Ken Kratz presented an alternative proposal for an elevated path routed over Tasman, through Great America’s parking lot, and reconnecting with creek trail at San Tomas Expressway.

Tasman East Focus Area EIR Goes Forward – Part of 2010 General Plan

On April 19 the Council also approved $760,000 for a Tasman East Focus Area Plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR). This EIR is not for a project, but for planning purposes, should a developer propose a project in the future.

Steve Edwards from REthink Development indicated that company’s interest in making a proposal. REthink specializes in urban infill development and redevelopment in “challenging neighborhoods and difficult sites,” according to the company’s website. Mayor Lisa Gillmor met with Edwards on March 22 to discuss the Tasman East focus area.

“This is a focus area and one that is in our general plan,” said Gillmor, in answer to concerns expressed by a property owner that the City might use eminent domain to get control of the Tasman East land.

“It includes many, many property owners,” said Gillmor. “We are not going to force anyone to sell. We are not going for eminent domain. We have no intention of taking them [the land parcels]. This is a future area for high-density development. I think it’s prudent for us to do this. We’re looking ahead because there’s such a need for housing. Our money will be reimbursed if it is developed.”

Planning Commissioner Suds Jain said that planning a single area wasn’t enough, and that a comprehensive plan was needed as well as an update to the City’s 2010 General Plan; noting that Google paid Mountain View $5 million to do a precise plan for the North of Bayshore, even though no specific development has been proposed there yet.

“Here we go again,” said two-time mayoral candidate Deborah Bress. “We’re spending three quarters of million shooting in the dark. Santa Clara is becoming a joking debacle. You’re talking about raising our utility rates because there’s too much housing. How the hell did that happen? Three quarters of a million you’re gonna flush down the toilet. It’s getting to be comical. We’re the laughing stock of the communities around us. I don’t even know why we have this here. Was this the former city manager’s pet project?”

At the April 19 meeting, Gillmor also took the opportunity to correct a misunderstanding that is circulating about the El Camino SaveMart’s closing. “The city had nothing to do with the closure of the SaveMart. That was a decision of Lucky Markets.”

The Council also raised the individual campaign donation limits for City elections to $550, from $500, and total expenditure limits to $40,500 from $38,300.

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