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Council Transparency: MIA

The City of Santa Clara has been pushing the need to be more transparent for nearly two years. Initially, Council was enthusiastic about the concept of keeping the public abreast of meetings and dealings Council Members had with various members of the community, developers, consultants and lobbyists. In fact, Council was so open to the idea that on Jan. 12, 2016 it unanimously approved the adoption of Ordinance No. 1950, which made the calendars of the Mayor and City Council, City Clerk, Police Chief, City Attorney and City Manager public.

The Ordinance stated that “the calendar shall include all non-internal City-related appointments, meetings, including regular and special City Council meetings, public events or speaking arrangements, meetings with citizens, developers, union representatives, consultants, lobbyists, regional meetings and meetings of subcommittees or tasks forces (collectively, “constituents”). The Mayor and Members of the City Council shall also include all non-scheduled city-related meetings or discussions with constituents.”

Although Mayor Lisa Gillmor was appointed as Mayor after Ordinance No. 1950 was approved, she did vote for its adoption—as did current Council Members Debi Davis, Teresa O’Neill, Dominic Caserta and Pat Kolstad—and led the transparency charge. She told Santa Clara University’s newspaper, The Santa Clara, in February 2016 that she was championing a more transparent government.


“We’ve been criticized a lot for not being as open and transparent here at City Hall as we should be and I want to change that perception,” Mayor Gillmor told reporter Sophie Mattson. “Valid or not, that perception is there.”

In an effort to hold online town halls, resident Hosam Haggag set up his own “Transparency Tour” website, which was kicked off on May 18 with a Facebook live stream featuring Gillmor. The Mayor appeared supportive of the goal and answered questions for about an hour. She even responded to Santa Clara business owner and San José resident Kirk Vartan’s question about how the community can effectively engage with the City by saying, “I work for [the residents of Santa Clara]. It’s a matter of let’s [engage] collaboratively and positively, if we can.”

A second town hall meeting was held on June 17 with Gillmor and Council Member Kathy Watanabe.

Recent dealings, however, have proven this particular transparency-pushing Council is neither collaborative nor positive, and, ironically, there has not been a Town Hall meeting since June, although Haggag continues to stream public meetings that are available on the City’s website and Facebook page. It appears as if the transparency Gillmor once peddled is no more.

Unreported meetings with public relations consultants, namely Peter Hillan of Banner Public Affairs, and even developers—there have been sightings of developers, particularly Steve Eimer of The Related Companies at City Hall on days when he had no publicly scheduled meeting with members of Council—are, in fact, taking place. Interim City Attorney Brian Doyle’s comments at a recent Council meeting would appear to define down official transparency to little more than a façade. Additionally, the Council does not even need to adhere to its own rules as there are no repercussions for not reporting meetings that would fall under the ordinance.

At the Nov. 21 Council meeting, in which Gillmor’s, Davis’ and Watanabe’s dealings with Hillan and Banner Public Affairs were discussed, Doyle said in response to Vice Mayor Caserta’s questioning, “the calendaring question is: meetings are required to be reported on the calendar. [The Ordinance] doesn’t really say anything about telephone calls so I really don’t know if telephone calls—I don’t know if it’s contacts via telephone or via a meeting—and the consequence is, there’s really not much consequence except to correct the record in terms of not putting the meeting down.

“Specifically,” he continued, “subsection E, section 2.160.010 says, ‘a record of compliance with this Chapter by the City officials is included in Section 2.160(a) shall be maintained, provided that violations of this Chapter shall not be a basis for any criminal prosecution or disciplinary action.’ So it does not seem that there’s any real penalty, but there is a requirement to correct it.”

Caserta responded to Doyle’s statement by saying, “So, basically what you’re saying is that we have been talking about transparency and doing things in sunshine and we clearly—through a PRA—clearly see that there were meetings held, not just phone calls, but meetings, and three of our Council Members that participated in those, including our Mayor, did not report that.”

Doyle again mentioned the fact the text of the ordinance did not state phone calls needed to be listed on public officials’ calendars, but because no meetings whatsoever were mentioned on Council Member calendars—less a single meeting Caserta had with Hillan—it is, for the most part, unknown if meetings with Banner were in person or over the phone.

What is known is that there was at least one in-person meeting between Hillan and Gillmor. According to Hillan’s calendar, he physically met with the Mayor for the San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board meeting; which, even if phone calls could be omitted based on the literal words of the ordinance, should have been listed on Gillmor’s calendar. And, although there is no documented proof that Watanabe met with Hillan in person, Caserta asserted that she and Hillan had at least one meeting, but Watanabe publicly denied the allegation.

At the Nov. 21 meeting, though, Doyle’s response made it clear that not only is no one enforcing the Ordinance, but there are no real consequences for Council Member dealings with residents, lobbyists, developers, and, in this case, a public relations consultant who billed the City over $44,000 in hours—at $450 per hour—working with City staff and Santa Clara public officials, and conversations with other political consultants and bloggers.


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