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.
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.