Wednesday night the Santa Clara City Council met to appoint a new charter review committee “to engage the voters in a public process to draft an amendment to the Santa Clara City Charter to change the method of elections from at-large to by-district.”
Six committee members were appointed by district, and Council Members only questioned applicants from their districts. Mayor Lisa Gillmor appointed one at-large member.
Last year, Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled that Santa Clara’s at-large elections violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and ordered to the City to institute by-district elections. (The City continues to appeal that decision, as City Attorney Brian Doyle noted at the meeting.)
The districts and structure are already in place and were working in time for the 2018 election. However, because the Charter is now in conflict with the “facts on the ground,” a charter change is needed. The City believes that the charter cannot be changed to conform with state law without a ballot measure.*
Council Members focused on the extensiveness of applicants’ personal networks, their involvement in past elections and their ideas for getting the most public involvement.
As a result, most applicants spoke about their volunteering, issues advocacy, political campaign work — most notably last year’s failed multi-member district, ranked transferrable vote proposal, Measure A — and ideas for meeting times and places and communication channels.
Only Council Member Patricia Mahan (District 5), asked applicants about their understanding of the CVRA — the committee’s assignment is a charter change that keeps Santa Clara in compliance with the CVRA.
One applicant, on being asked about CVRA knowledge replied, “Minimal,” and other District 5 applicants seemed unclear about it.
Mahan appointed the committee’s sole minority member, Planning Commissioner Sudhanshu (Suds) Jain, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting because of an out-of-town family event. Mahan noted that although it was unusual to appoint someone who wasn’t interviewed at the meeting, it wasn’t prohibited.
“This committee, of all committees, should be representative of the community,” said Mahan.
Voting Methods and District Organization
Although the committee is to be “narrowly focused,” according to City Clerk Hosam Haggag, City officials and applicants kept opening doors to other conversations about voting methods and district organization.
Several applicants said that other options should be “on the table” and that other voting methods should be considered.
City Attorney Doyle said the committee’s job was “to build a consensus among the community if this is how we want to in future elect our Council Members.”
“Does this [committee] have anything to do with ranked choice voting?” Council Member Kathy Watanabe (District 1) asked Haggag.
“It is not a part of this charter review committee’s discussions,” said City Clerk Haggag. “This is about how many districts, how many members per district. This committee is not responsible for drawing the district lines.
“This is very strictly to have a discussion around what does Santa Clara look like moving forward in terms of do Santa Clarans want districts,” he continued, “or to keep the districts that we just started electing council members by based on the court order in 2018. Or does the community want something different?
“I know we’re doing this somewhat in consideration of the CVRA,” said Council Member Teresa O’Neill. “Say we come up with some other model. Does the CVRA not accept those systems?”
“What the CVRA does is look at results,” answered City Attorney Doyle. “It was written for general law cities. Santa Clara could, in its charter, go to ranked choice voting.” The quickest thing to get something passed, he said, was not to include voting methods. However, nothing in the CVRA would prohibit us from going to ranked choice voting.”
*California Government Code Section 34886 authorizes City Councils to change the method of election from at-large to by-district without submitting the ordinance to the voters for approval if the change is being made to comply with the CVRA.
2019 Charter Review Committee Appointments
District 1: Ben Cooley — Software engineer
District 2: Steve Silva — Fire Marshal, 2011 Charter Review Committee, Board Member: Santa Clara Lions, Mission City Community Fund, Santa Clara Firefighters Foundation, Mission Lions Foundation
District 3: Christine Koltermann — Teacher, Former Santa Clara Unified School Board Member, Board Member: SJSU family Advisory Board, Santa Clara Parents Nursery School, Las Madres
District 4: Kathy Almazol — Retired Schools Superintendent Roman Catholic Diocese of San José, Former Santa Clara Unified Board Member, SCU Markkula Center Board Member
District 5: Sudhanshu Jain — Retired electrical engineer, Santa Clara Planning Commissioner, Board Member: Acterra.org, Playing At Learning, Old Quad Residents Association
District 6: Steve Ricossa — Retired electrical engineer, 2016 Charter Review Committee Member, 2018 Santa Clara Redistricting Committee, Board Member: Mission City Community Fund, Clara Kiwanis Club, Boy Scouts Pioneer Distric
At-Large: Richard Bonito — Procurement engineer, Member El Camino Specific Area Plan Committee Member.
The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, July 18 in Council Chambers at Santa Clara City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. Future meetings to be scheduled at a later date.
For more about the meeting visit tinyurl.com/SC2019-charter-review-appt.