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Council Pushes Back On Grand Jury Report

It was almost paint-by-numbers during a Santa Clara City Council meeting responding to findings of the civil grand jury report that alleged the Council majority are puppets for the 49ers.

In a special meeting Wednesday, Nov. 16, the Santa Clara City Council picked apart a scathing grand jury report released in October. Less than a month before the midterm election, the report questioned the ethics of the so-called “49er Five,” a derisive nickname for Council Members Kevin Park, Karen Hardy, Raj Chahal, Anthony Becker and Vice Mayor Suds Jain.

Becker narrowly lost his vie against Mayor Lisa Gillmor in the election, and Hardy and Chahal won their re-elections. Not surprisingly, the meeting was essentially a rehashing of old feuds and issues between the Council majority and minority.

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The report detailed several ways the City could improve what the grand jury saw as major issues stemming from the Council majority’s relationship with the 49ers. Those accused denied wrongdoing while Gillmor and political ally, Council Member Kathy Watanabe, maintained their positions that, essentially, the other five council members are in the team’s pocket.

City Attorney Steve Ngo said he will aggregate the responses, which boiled down to agreeing or disagreeing with each of a dozen findings and providing direction on 19 recommendations. Ngo asked each speaker to select whether they believe the recommendation has already been put in place, should be put in place, needed further analysis before it could be put in place or will not be put in place.

Both Gillmor and Watanabe agreed with every finding and suggested putting nearly every recommendation into practice. While far from unanimous, the remainder of the Council frequently voted to not put the grand jury’s recommendations in place.

Among the report’s findings and recommendations, a few themes emerged, both in how the jurors characterized the Council majority and also in how the council members responded to that characterization.

Chahal repeatedly called out jurors for “cherry picking” information that fit a preconceived notion, one that unfairly put him and his fellow council members under the gun. For instance, he returned to the idea that the grand jury singled out the 49ers as lobbyists, acting as though jurors’ observations were unique to the 49ers when they apply to any lobbyist.

Others, notably Hardy and Jain, repeatedly criticized the report’s vague language. All of those accused took issue with the characterization that they are a voting bloc, designed to act in unison.

“At some point, we need to understand that because people are voting the same way doesn’t make them a bloc,” Becker said. “There is no substantiation of the claim.”

For their part, Gillmor and Watanabe continually referred to the “optics” — i.e., politician-speak for something looking bad — of the Council majority taking operational tours, meeting with the 49ers and firing former City Manager Deanna Santana.

The Council majority poo-pooed recommendations that would see the City hiring an ethics consultant and establishing an independent ethics commission. Jain repeatedly said such measures are redundant since the City already has a governance and ethics committee, which has not met since June because of budgetary issues brought on by the pandemic.

Gillmor iterated statements made previously about how the Council “cannot police itself.” The governance and ethics committee is made up of Jain, Gillmor and Chahal.

Frequently throughout the meeting, the accused were chagrined by the lack of evidence provided in the report.

“Facts are substantial, which means you have evidence and proof,” Becker said. “Assumptions, concerns, suspicions are not facts. Facts are facts. You cannot mix facts up with assumptions.”

Many also pointed to inconsistencies in the grand jury report, such as its claim that those that took operational tours of Levi’s Stadium broke the City’s rules regarding such tours, only to later recommend that the City put a policy in place. The Federal Fair Political Practices Commission has received a complaint but has not started an investigation into whether the tours broke the law.

In a Kafkaesque moment, Watanabe agreed with a recommendation that council members appear in the Council Chambers or be visible on camera during meetings.

“This has to be required,” she said.  “The public is there to see you. In an effort to be open and honest, the best way to do that is to be visible, and if you can’t be visible in person, there in the chambers, at least be visible on camera, where people can see you and observe you.”

While fellow council members said they could see Watanabe on camera, she was not publicly visible for most of the meeting, claiming she was having “camera issues.”

Public comments were limited, but old guard Council gadfly Deborah Bress phoned in to lambast Gillmor, telling her she should be “ashamed of herself,” calling her a “hypocrite,” more crooked than “a barrel full of fishhooks,” asking her who she “paid off” to get the grand jury report published and calling Watanabe her “handmaiden.”

“These people didn’t do anything wrong. They are trying to clean up your mess from when you were the head cheerleader,” Bress said.

Ngo said he will incorporate the comments into responses to the grand jury, which the Council had 90 days to do from Oct. 8. The Council will review the responses at its Dec. 6 meeting, with a possible followup meeting Dec. 8 should discussion spill over.

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8 Comments
  1. Buchser Alum 2 weeks ago
    Reply

    David,
    .
    I will not waste time pointing out all the ways in which this is an piece of opinion writing and not reportage but I will make a couple of points to you that your editor should have:
    .
    This sentence reads very funnily: “Becker narrowly lost his vie against Mayor Lisa Gillmor in the election.” “Vie” is a verb and not a noun. And you should brush up on the works of Franz Kafka or even just what “kafkaesque” means. Your use of it was inapt.
    .
    And optics matter when what is unclear is the ethical or unethical conduct of public officials. There are things in the grand jury report that are silly. I think the matter of councilpeople always being on camera or not and the idea that their not being on camera means they are getting instructions from special interests is silly. I also think it is silly to portray an operational tour of the stadium during a game as being the gift of game tickets.
    .
    But it is not silly at all and gravely serious to call out the unacceptability of five councilmembers holding dozens of meetings with a corporate special interest that they take pains to keep private. Instead of simply meeting with the Forty Niners as part of stadium board meetings or council meetings that are part of the public record and which include the professional guidance of professional staff such as the city manager and city attorney. These could be in closed session if the need to be private.
    .
    Whether David Alexander or the Silicon Valley Voice or the councilpeople that they politically support agree with them or not there are many Santa Clarans who see the above as a problem. It is not just a problem of optics but of procedure and ethical judgment. There are many Santa Clarans who do not trust these councilpeople. That is a real and concrete and substantial problem that they should take seriously as the opinion of many individual Santa Clarans with no connection to Lisa Gillmor.

    • David Alexander 2 weeks ago
      Reply

      Buscher,

      First of all: thanks for reading.

      Secondly, on the “vie” comment: I always write “vye,” which after looking it up, is apparently wrong. Use of the “Y” spelling is archaic except in “vying.” “Vie” is correct. I actually second-guessed my spelling after submitting, but I trusted my editor to use whichever was appropriate. I can’t help but find a bit of irony that you chose to use “inapt,” which is another word with alternate spelling. Most of us use “inept,” but hey, we all get the meaning, right? And Isn’t that the point? But thanks for the close reading. I am always trying to improve my usage.

      On a similar note, I strive to write in plain English, so words like “optics” grate on me, no matter how commonplace they are. If my pointing out how frequently politicians and bureaucrats use such language is inappropriate to you, perhaps you prefer the general gobbledygook such people vomit on the masses. I think the city has a newsletter toward that end. Good luck deciphering it, but then again, maybe you speak bureaucratize.

      Further: I am happy to discuss all the ways in which my reportage is “opinion.” Obviously, I disagree, but I am open to hearing thoughts to the contrary. I work hard to keep my opinions out of my articles, but then again, I am an observer, so my opinions will always color what I think is relevant. I understand all too well the divide between the public and the politicians who govern them. I am no big-wig; I am a lowly writer, a regular guy, a lot like yourself, I imagine.

      This divide is exactly why I work hard to frame my articles in a way for public consumption. I don’t speak like a politician or a bureaucrat, and I don’t write like one. I believe this better helps the general public decode what those in power are up to. Politicians hide behind fancy language as a way to obscure what they are doing. I won’t allow that. If I have a role to play, it is toward that greater good. Sunshine as the best disinfectant and all.

      As far as the concerns about council behavior, I don’t have a dog in the race, so to speak. Your points on the whole circus of the matter are well-taken, and I think we see things fairly similarly. Except for the use of “kafkaesque.” You’re just plain wrong there.

      You might take issue with whether such a characterization is appropriate, whether it is fair, so to speak (I flip-flopped on whether to use it myself for this exact reason). However, to my earlier point, I erred on the side of pointing out hypocrisy. I think it has more value for the public to realize how absurd and bizarre that she didn’t see how ludicrous her words sounded in light of the situation. If a politician behaving in such a bizarre and illogical way is not kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.

      Maybe that is unfair to her, but I maintain that if Mrs. Watanabe insists on casting herself in such a role, it is fair to characterize her actions in such a way.

      As I said, feel free to ping me if you would like to discuss my reportage. That way, you don’t need to “waste time” in the comments section dissecting my writing. My email is d.todd.alexander@gmail.com

      • Buchser Alum 2 weeks ago
        Reply

        David,
        .
        Thank you for your reply.
        .
        My remark about your use of “vie” was not based on spelling but the usage being odd. You used it as if it were a noun such as “campaign,” but it is a verb, like “campaigned” or “campaigning.” Substitute one of the latter into the sentence in place of “vie” and it reads funny. “Vie” does not have a noun usage like “try” does.
        .
        “Inapt” is not an alternate spelling of “inept.” “Inapt” means “not apt.” Your use of “Kafkaesque” was inapt. The reason why I said this is not necessarily because I disagreed with your pointing out Watanabe’s supposed hypocrisy but because even if she had been hypocritical it would not have made the situation Kafkaesque. The bar is higher for Kfkaesque. If the situation had been Kafkaesque then it would be something like Kevin Park being noticed that he needs to be on camera while attending meetings remotely at all times but when he tries to turn on his camera he is told by the city clerk that he is not allowed to have his camera on because he has not yet applied and received authorization to use his camera and then he finds out that to get this authorization one must submit to a video interview using the camera that one is applying for authorization to use. And then find himself sent to prison for attempting unauthorized use of his camera. That would be Kafkaesque.
        .
        That is just a stylistic issue and not important. What is more important is that I believe that you misreported or underreported what happened. Watanabe was not being shown on camera while she was talking about how councilpeople should be visible at all times. Putting aside the silliness of the requirement I felt the same way that Becker and one or two other councilpeople were reacting at Watanabe saying this while not on camera. But I believe that the assistant city clerk said something about this that I took to be an explanation that Watanabe was broadcasting video but it was not being shown due to some technical reason outside of Watanabe’s control. I do remember distinctly that Watanabe at some point said that her camera was on. My assumption was that whomever was in charge of audio and visuals for the meeting was not showing Watanabe’s camera feed for some reason but she was on camera.
        .
        Did you ask anyone about this before faulting Watanabe for hypocrisy? I may be wrong in what I heard and concluded and I think the whole matter including the underlying grand jury finding and recommendation is silly but if you are going to report on it then please report on it.
        .
        It is interesting that you declare that you strive to write in “plain” English. When I think of someone writing in “plain” English and especially a reporter I think of someone writing in as straightforward a way as possible. Free from rhetorical and linguistic flourishes. But your writing is anything but that. Even in your declaration you use “gobbledygook” that is political speech that “people vomit on the masses.” That is a very colorful metaphor to be used by someone who strives to write in “plain” English. Likewise your use of “Kafkaesque” or use of “poo-pooed” instead of far more common phrasing.
        .
        But that is also just stylistic comment and is not ultimately important. What I think is of greater importance is journalistic reporting being journalistic reporting and not opinionated editorializing. Your article was speaking like a politician or like a press secretary or publicist for a politician. Full of your opinions and spin on what you were ostensibly “reporting” on. Much more than your observations and delving far into your judgments and opinions.
        .
        And finally the use of “optics” was apt by Gillmor and goes to the heart of why the session was called in the first place. Her point is one that must be taken seriously by the council majority and not dismissed simply as a political attack that begins and ends with her or her supporters. I agree with her on this matter but I am not a supporter of hers now that the election is over.
        .
        I do not know if the council majority members are trying to spin things or if they truly do not understand but they need to understand that the “optics” of their behavior make it seem as if they are corrupt puppets of the Forty Niners. When they split up as a group of five into groups of two and three in order to separately meet with the same Forty Niner executives back to back in order to evade Brown Act public meeting requirements and do this dozens of times and then receive the benefit of millions of dollars in campaign spending to support them after voting the way the Forty Niners would want them to vote in key votes then the optics of that are terrible. The use of optics is apt because there is no evidence of direct financial corruption or even conclusive evidence of quid pro quo voting decisions in order to gain massive political campaign spending. But to many people it appears that such corruption has been taking place.
        .
        They need to understand this and they need to explain themselves more fully. Never have I seen a single one of them explain fully why they needed to go to the pains of meeting privately and off the record with the Forty Niners dozens of times. They should explain why it is that they did not invite the Forty Niners to come and appear during stadium authority meetings which can be held as closed sessions if there is sensitive information being discussed. But at least the discussions are occurring in front of nonpolitical professional city staff such as the city attorney and city manager who should be consulted on all these matters prior to decisions being made.
        .
        They have never explained why. I wish that a local journalism organization such as yours would interview them on this and ask them to explain so that the public can hear their reasons.
        .
        By the way I prefer to leave my comments on your and anyone else’s writing as public comments. I am not going to write anything to you privately that I will not write publicly but if you would rather reach out to me by email my addressed is entered every time I make a comment. I do not consider it a waste of time to point out the problems I see in your or anyone else’s writing.

  2. Public school kid 2 weeks ago
    Reply

    Easy Buscher. I see you have a major issue with the substance of the article as well as word usage. How long did it take to go over YOUR copy of the scathing report? I suspect, as is often the case in California, you are one of the indignant, uninformed who likes to attempt to influence people you suspect may be dumber than yourself. Maybe you should save your unsolicited advice and observations for the all the other journalists in California. As a native English speaker, I can honestly say the words California journalists use are laughable compared to words that real human adults use, or words you might find in a dictionary. At the end of his article I understood what he was saying and why. I cannot make the same statement about your comment on it.

    P.S. They is spelled with a y (last sentence, 2nd from the last paragraph)

    P.S.S. Kafkaesque fits perfectly for a situation in which one council member is advocating for a policy or policies that will make things uncomfortable for the other council members. Maybe you should brush up…

    • Buchser Alum 2 weeks ago
      Reply

      Public School Kid,
      .
      I have a major issue with the content being editorial presented as reportage. That issue makes David’s writing style a minor issue. I believe that reportage that strives to present the facts in as unbiased a way as is possible will not also include such florid attempts of prose styling.
      .
      Why should I save my advice and observations for other journalists in California? Why do you object to my pushing the one somewhat serious news publication covering my hometown to be a better and more reliable source of news reporting? I care more about how Santa Clara is covered than how other cities are covered.
      .
      I also understand what David is trying to say with his writing. And I think what he is trying to say is his opinion on political matters. Inserted into a piece that is supposedly reportage.
      .
      If anything I wrote is confusing and unclear to you then I welcome you to ask me to clear myself up. I am happy to do so.
      .
      Thank you for pointing out my typo. I do not proofread my comments here. They after all are just internet comments not news articles on a site that purports to be a journalistic newspaper. Albeit one that has an editor who cannot keep up with the workload of editing approximately one article per day.
      .
      On the topic of comments here it would be very nice if Silicon Valley Voice would make the effort to use a commenting system that does not mangle the comments of its readers by inserting line breaks in the middle of words. And which does not force commenters to create workarounds for the inability to create space between paragraphs or indentations.
      .
      And I do not think that what you describe warrants description as “Kafkaesque.” The term has a much higher threshold of nightmarishly recursive bureaucratic quagmire. A proposal that city councilpeople be visible on camera when attending meetings remotely falls massively short of that threshold. So if that is what David meant in his usage of his term if I were his editor I would tell him that his use of language is ridiculously overblown and that a news article should refrain from ridiculously overblown rhetoric.
      .
      And I do not think David actually was using “Kafkaesque” as you think he was. He was not referring to the proposal as being Kafkaesque. If he did then it would be another example of his rhetoric getting in the way of reportage because even the councilpeople dissenting with the proposal did not see it as Kafkaesque. They mainly pointed out that being on video does not stop one from receiving and reading communications from third parties and that there are some times when not being on video is understandable such as when sick and miserable or when having internet speed issues.
      .
      That all falls very short of “Kafkaesque.” The inapt use of the term is less the issue though. The main issue I have is actually that a supposed news piece uses such overdramatic rhetoric.
      .
      Finally I am also a public school kid. I got a fine education at Santa Clara Unified public schools. That is why I proudly cite my alma mater as my alias on the internet.

    • SC Resident 1 week ago
      Reply

      @Public School Kid… what are you implying by saying “As a native English speaker”? Are you saying that non-native English speakers (immigrants) are not welcome here?

  3. SC Resident 1 week ago
    Reply

    Interesting that the only comment worthy of quoting is from “old guard Council gadfly Deborah Bress”. She was absolutely toxic when she used to live in Santa Clara. And, by the way, I used past tense because she no longer lives in the city. Crazy that she is even quoted.

  4. SC Resident 1 week ago
    Reply

    The remainder of the Council (49er five voting bloc) voting to not put the grand jury’s recommendations in place is hardly surprising, since they are clearly the ones that have been purposely not following the recommendations in the first place. Would you expect anything else? Truly dissapointed in Raj Chahal and Kevin Park.

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