During the Dec. 5 meeting of the Santa Clara City Council, the Council approved placing ballot wording for a charter amendment that would turn the police chief and city clerk positions into positions appointed by the city manager. The Council also approved a 10% rate increase proposed by Silicon Valley Power (SVP) and an expenditure for sod at Levi’s Stadium. The Downtown Precise Plan was approved unanimously.
A special election next year will decide whether Santa Clara continues to elect its police chief and city clerk or whether the city manager will appoint them.
In a special meeting Tuesday night, the Santa Clara City Council approved putting the matter to voters in March. The topic has been a divisive one since the Council opted to form a charter review committee last year, assigning it the task of determining whether such a ballot measure was warranted.
Although the committee, appointed by the Council, resoundingly supported the idea of allowing voters to decide whether they want to elect the positions, the matter was still rife with controversy. Mayor Lisa Gillmor and political ally Council Member Kathy Watanabe both opposed the measure, saying the ballot language is “biased” and that a survey of residents was “corrupted.”
“The government should not be taking sides, and the way I read this, the government is taking sides,” Gillmor said.
Opponents of the measure claim it is uncalled for and that it would be a waste of the $400,000 the City would need to spend to put on the election. Further, they said, Santa Clarans have, over the years, expressed continued support for electing the positions.
One commenter, Dale Larson, an elections lawyer with Strumwasser & Woocher, went so far as to say the ballot language was illegal, an assessment City Attorney Glen Googins did not share. Larson said declarations that similar ballot language passed was evidence that the language was “engineered to get to a yes vote.”
“These measures essentially ask voters to choose between two compelling options: either allow the voters to elect these positions or allow the city manager to appoint them,” Larson said. “Both options have merit, but by asking the voters if they approve of one of the two options, without even mentioning that it will strip away the other option, the question is biased and signals to voters the Council’s view of how they should vote.”
But proponents of the measure saw the effort as a way to ensure politics stay out of City operations.
“We may be better served by professionals than politicians. Campaigns for the position of chief of police and city clerk attract and reward politically savvy and connected people who are often recruited by council members and come to their otherwise professional jobs with political allegiances,” said former Charter Review Committee Chair Jeff Houston.
The Council approved the ballot measure in a 5-2 vote, with Gillmor and Watanabe voting “no.”
SVP Hikes Rates…Again
Silicon Valley Power (SVP) will see another rate increase. A 10% increase in power rates, set to go into effect at the start of the year, will see the average residential customer paying an additional $6.45 a month. This increase comes less than a year after the prior rate increase.
Manuel Pineda, the City’s chief electric utility officer, said the rate increase is due to rising costs of equipment and material costs, power purchase agreements, natural gas and construction costs. In order to maintain the City’s reserves and bond rating, another rate increase became necessary, he said.
The silver lining, he said, is that other power providers are likely to increase their rates even more. The rate increase is greater than the forecasted rate of inflation.
“When the rates increase in percentages that outstrip the rates of increase that people get on their fixed incomes, this is actually a pretty big problem,” Vice Mayor Kevin Park said. “Every time something increases faster than either cost-of-living adjustments or salary adjustments…It is hard for me not to comment on trying to control our increases, the percentage increase to be cognizant of people who they stretched a little bit to get their houses, their salaries didn’t increase the way that our rates increased.”
The item passed 6-1, with Council Member Anthony Becker voting “no.”
Stadium Board Approves Sod Replacement
The Santa Clara Stadium Authority Board also approved $1.82 million in sod replacement at Levi’s Stadium. The Board is responsible for 30% of the sod replacement, but Gillmor and Watanabe took issue with the cost of the replacement previously.
Gillmor was concerned that the cost of sod replacement was eating into general fund revenue from non-NFL events, saying it is important to know where the money is going, noting a significant increase in the cost of sod replacement over the past few years. She said that the cost of sod replacement “coincidentally” increased after the Council fired the former city manager and city attorney.
After the city attorney and finance director verified the legitimacy of the figures, board members accused Gillmor and Watanabe of playing politics with the item, but Watanabe fired back, saying her issue with the item was simply ensuring fiscal responsibility.
“People would like to turn it into something else, but this is about making sure the stadium funds are being properly spent and allocated and nothing more than that,” she said.
Downtown Precise Plan Approved
The Council also approved the Downtown Precise Plan. A grassroots effort over the past few years culminated in the formation of the Downtown Community Task Force. With ample community input from 43 meetings held by the task force, the new plan aims to invigorate Santa Clara’s downtown.
With the assistance of form-based code — a set of concrete requirements for new construction, encompassing everything ranging from building heights and window distribution to facade and design requirements — the plan focuses on several tactics to revitalize the ailing area between Benton Street, Lafayette Street, Homestead Road and Madison Street. The form-based code replaces the area’s zoning.
Reena Brilliot, assistant city manager, said the plan allows for the development of neighborhoods instead of parcel-by-parcel mandates. She said the goal of the Downtown Precise plan is to re-establish the street grid for pedestrian access, allowing dynamic retail and attractive buildings.
The Council hired consultant WRT in late 2019 to assist with the undertaking.
Dan Ondrasek, chair of the task force, said form-based code indemnifies the City against state-mandated housing but that it is not a “golden ticket.”
Adam Thompson, who also sat on the task force, said the plan provides more certainty for developers and lowers costs by providing clear guidelines.
“It does all this while really giving the community the environment and experience we want,” he said. “We really built this plan from the ground up.”
Watanabe said she had “concerns” about whether form-based code was a bridge too far because it hamstrings developers.
“It is asking a lot, and it may not be something that developers are going to want to agree to,” she said.
Despite her concerns, the item still passed in a 6-0 vote. Mayor Lisa Gillmor needed to recuse herself.
Council Consent Calendar Spending
- A $6.5 million, five-year purchase order with Western Utility Telecom, Inc. for steel transmission poles.
- Purchase orders with Downtown Ford, Altec Industries, Inc. and Elk Grove Auto Group for vehicles and equipment for the fire department, finance, Silicon Valley Power, public works, police and water and sewer utilities department totaling $2.19 million.
- A $602,350 purchase order with L.N. Curtis and Sons for personal protective equipment.
- A four-year, $1.2 million agreement with Nalco Company for water treatment services.
- A $1.6 million increase to a licensing agreement with ZE PowerGroup and Silicon Valley Power Software through 2030.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Dec. 12 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.
Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov.