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Double Standard Revealed in New Grand Jury Report

Here we go again.

A new grand jury report takes aim at Santa Clara City Council dysfunction. However, the tactics are strangely familiar to one released in 2022. That is to say, the conclusions have a political bend, one that stridently singles out the “49er Five,” a derisive label given to Council majority Raj Chahal, Suds Jain, Kevin Park, Karen Hardy and Anthony Becker.

The five have taken numerous stances against Mayor Lisa Gillmor and political ally Kathy Watanabe, who frequently criticize Levi’s Stadium management, Forty Niners Management Company (ManCo). Meanwhile, the majority has vowed to repair the relationship with the team after years of strife under a Gillmor-led Council.

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This divide has created much friction among the Council, one that leaves them bickering over details, lobbing personal attacks, and occasionally throwing temper tantrums. Dysfunction among the Council is hardly debatable, but the grand jury fails to apply its standards equitably to all Council members.

All examples listed in the report, titled “Irreconcilable Differences,” paint the Council majority unfavorably, as if they are the only ones to behave poorly. There is little, if any, acknowledgement of the similar behavior from Council minority Gillmor and Watanabe.

For instance, the report calls out Council Member Kevin Park for a theatrical stunt he pulled where he indirectly addressed a member of the public. That public member, Kirk Vartan, holds the title of “special advisor to the mayor” on worker cooperatives.

Vartan has been an ardent supporter of Gillmor. Park took shots at Vartan by presenting a children’s book, titled “All my Friends are Dead,” substituting the word “dead” for the phrase “termed out.”

The behavior listed in the report would more accurately be listed under the umbrella of “bad manners” and not necessarily “unethical.” A community survey, cited in the report, even notes citizens’ concerns regarding the divisiveness among the Council, something it unironically presents while conflating what would most accurately be called “rude” with “unethical.” Further, the report fails to acknowledge that the behavior it points to does not happen in a vacuum.

Despite how the grand jury characterizes the Council majority, their behavior is no worse — in fact, quite tepid — compared to the two Council members the grand jury excludes from its scrutiny. Singling out “49er Five” behavior frames the issue in a way that characterizes them as the aggressor when the truth is a bit murkier.

Finger Pointing

If the grand jury had simply pointed out all the ways the Council have been unable to get along, the report would be doing little more than stating the obvious. However, the exclusion of bad behavior from Watanabe and Gillmor reeks of bias.

Just like the previous report, the grand jury cherry picks its examples and uses fallacious reasoning to justify its claims. Throughout the report, it even cites comments from public meetings without even bothering to list the name of the speaker.

Perhaps the incidents in question are in poor taste, but elevating them to the level of a grand jury indictment is likely to seem frivolous, fostering an increased distrust in the government. Nobody defends the pettiness of the politicking amongst the Council, but painting a picture as if it is only the “49er Five” who are to blame is disingenuous.

For instance, on several occasions throughout the report, the grand jury accuses the Council of eroding City employee morale. The examples it cites point the finger at those who “… behave as if they are more knowledgeable on certain topics than the highly experienced City staff. Additionally, there are many instances of Council members struggling to make decisions or to come to a consensus regarding motions about more complex items that staff bring before them.” (pg. 22)

Indeed, the Council has seen gridlock on certain topics, and the general hemming-and-hawing is enough to test the patience of a Buddhist monk. There is no doubt that — often in an attempt to balance the City’s financial woes with the will of its constituents — some Council members, often Chahal and Park, will kick the can down the road in an attempt to find a solution amenable to everyone.

But that is democracy. It is slow. It is plodding. It often tries to split the baby. Nobody is ever entirely happy, but no one is miserable.

This characterization acts as if challenging City employees is necessarily bad since it delays matters. It ignores that Gillmor and Watanabe were both keen to rely on City employees when Gillmor had a stranglehold on the Council but, now that they are in the minority, seem content to berate City employees when it suits them.

Examples of this are legion, ranging from discussion on the naming rights for Levi’s Stadiumdiscussions on a ballot measure, the FIFA World Cup, and talks on confidentiality agreements.

Gillmor frequently uses loaded language to trap opponents, even City employees, when their rhetoric doesn’t align with her goals. She did so recently with Chahal, characterizing his opposition to the City giving away field time in the shadow of a massive looming deficit as “fighting hard against the kids in the community” or when she dressed down the City’s finance director, Kenn Lee.

Still, the report is not the first time the erosion of City employee morale has been an issue. However, the last time the issue reared its head was in reference to former City Manager Deanna Santana, hired when Gillmor had the Council under her thumb.

The Council majority fired Santana, something that Gillmor frequently references as evidence that the Council majority is “unethical” because Santana regularly butted heads with ManCo. A local union applauded Santana’s firing, citing a toxic work environment.

Hypocrisy

Further, treatment of Council colleagues was a sticking point in the report. When Becker agreed with the removal of a parks and recreation commissioner for making personal statements, the grand jury called his comments “angry and derogatory attacks” (pg. 19).

Using the comments of a fellow parks and recreation commissioner to try and prove its point: “[the commissioner] … is now being persecuted in this manner. It makes me think that my volunteer work can be scrutinized at a level like this when you have better work to do. So, I would very much like to discourage the removal of a commission member because you don’t like what they say. That’s schoolyard play, OK, and I want to be better than that, and I want to believe Santa Clara is better than that, honestly. It would make me rethink my position on the council if our words were used to take us out of volunteer positions.”

The comment seems downright pallid compared to Gillmor’s derisive laughter directed at Becker in 2021.

This isn’t the only time the grand jury presumes to know the thoughts or feelings of Council members. The report states that Council members “showed such confusion” (pg. 19) and “displayed general confusion” (pg. 21). Nowhere in the report does the grand jury indicate it interviewed the Council members in question to verify these characterizations, instead relying on what appears to be mind-reading.

Just as in the previous report, this grand jury fixates on how things appear instead of drilling down into how they are. This is illustrated when it writes that Chahal’s abstention on a matter “appears to be a deliberately orchestrated pattern” (pg. 19).

Such a claim plants a seed in the reader’s mind that chicanery is afoot without having to prove anything. On the other side of the fence, one could easily say that it appears that Watanabe takes her cues on how to vote from Gillmor, given that she rarely votes contrary to the mayor. Without substantiation, however, making such a bold declaration would be scurrilous.

What’s Good for the Goose, Is Good for the Gander

Not only does the grand jury act as if Gillmor and Watanabe are simple victims and never aggressors, it also fails to note circumstances that mirror the ones they criticize.

For instance, the report draws attention to money poured into campaigns of the “49er Five” by the team, presumably to paint them as shills for the 49ers. However, it fails to note big-money contributors to Gillmor and Watanabe — contributors such as the Related Company and the police union. Never does the grand jury implicate the mayor and her cohort for the dysfunction on the Council because of these contributions.

Similarly, the report lists several instances of, what can only be called, Council members being rude to one another. It is no surprise that these gaffs are all examples of the “49er Five” being mean to Gillmor and Watanabe, although they are often couched as “wasting staff time.”

But nowhere does the report call out Gillmor or Watanabe’s rudeness. Like, for example, when Watanabe refused to let Park, the Council’s first Korean American member, speak at an anti-Asian hate rally, saying it is “my event.”

And, at no time during a lengthy public comments segment where one commenter, a Gillmor supporter, accused Park of “just wanting attention,” did Gillmor put a stop to the antics.

Nobody disputes that Council squabbling has created a rift in local government. That isn’t good for anyone. But, assuming those disagreements are symptomatic of a lack of ethics, especially when framed as if only one side of the aisle is guilty, does nothing but add to the public’s lack of faith in its rulers.

The Santa Clara City Council’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. June 25 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.

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5 Comments
  1. Kirk Vartan 1 month ago
    Reply

    The author writes, “The behavior listed in the report would more accurately be listed under the umbrella of “bad manners” and not necessarily “unethical.””.
    .
    Sadly, it seems the void of ethical understanding extends to this publication, whether willfully or not. Here is a core value pulled right from the city’s “Behavioral Standards for Council City Code of Ethics” approved back in 2003 and again in 2008, under the city core value of the Ethical section (p4):.
    .
    “Treating the public and City Staff, at all times, the way I treat highly regarded colleagues in businesses or professions”
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    Or on p6 under the city core value (what not to do): Professional:
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    “being perceived as rude by other Council Members, City Staff, or the public”
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    On p12 under the city core value (what not to do): Commutative:
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    “Weakening public debate by belittling or mocking someone’s viewpoint
    Demonizing anyone who disagrees with a personal conviction or viewpoint”
    .
    Here are a couple quotes from the city’s “Behavioral Standards for Public Meetings” document approved by the council back in 2010:
    “Fundamental to good government are public meetings where every person feels safe, welcome, respected, and free to address their government directly on matters under the government’s jurisdiction.”
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    “The behavioral standards treat everyone with respect”
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    “Every person’s right to comment is always respected, even if that opinion differs from the opinion of other speakers or the Body”
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    And perhaps the most obvious, the “Good Government Guiding Principles” that is on pretty much everything the city publishes. Item #2:
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    “Treat everyone equitably and respectfully.”
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    So yeah, I think it is fair to say this 49er Five majority is pretty unethical, specifically with the examples listed. And to pretend that “bad manners” is the description continues to validate the statement: this publication favors the five member majority and is not impartial or objective. I expect this kind of bias from the Spotlight and frankly this website, but not from the reporter. It is disappointing to see that there is so much bias that this organization goes right to the report is biased or has a double standard. I could highlight many examples of this bias, but why bother.
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    Is it really a double standard if the facts are being reported? Is it really biased if the 49er friendly majority are actually doing the things described in the reports? Maybe more work needs to be done in actually investigating the elected officials that seems to have given away the key bargaining chips to the 49ers, rather than using them to negotiate a deal that is balanced and fair. Why are we constantly looking back to 2010 when the stadium was an idea? Why not look at the issues this council majority took action on and the resulting wreckage that followed? That is within the last four years…look there.

    • David Alexander 1 month ago
      Reply

      Mr. Vartan,

      I find it curious that you point to the city’s code for your definition of what is ethical. Given that many of the terms in that code, terms you point to, are highly subjective — e.g., “respectful,” “being perceived as rude,” “belittling,” “mocking,” “feels safe, welcome and respected” — I don’t believe it is the best measuring stick.

      Problems arise when people have differing concepts of the above phrases, which, as we have seen, they often do. Moreover, such phrases as “being perceived” or “feels” put the onus on the speaker to know what will offend, as if the speaker is responsible for the thoughts and feelings of others. This is quite uncharitable. As we have seen quite frequently, often what is at issue is that people have different impressions of what constitutes “rude,” “mocking,” “belittling” and so forth.

      It seems to me that when someone whose opinions we agree with criticizes a council colleague or city employees, we are keen to file it under the umbrella of “spirited debate” or “standing up for one’s values.” When an opponent does it, well, it is “mocking,” “belittling,” or being “disrespectful.”

      Call me optimistic, but I don’t believe the average person outside a tyrannical dictatorship gets their ethical framework from the government. They are rarely exemplars on the matter. Maybe I am out of touch with how the average person sees this matter. I make room for such a possibility.

      I also find it odd that, in your view, my article pointing out that the “49er Five” are not the only ones who behave this way is evidence of my bias, indicating that I am not “impartial” or “objective.” The whole intent of the article was to show that this behavior is not just coming from one group. The report did a good job of illustrating the faux pas of the council majority, but failed to mention behavior that is just as out of line from the minority.

      Given that you are claiming bias, I find it difficult to believe that your position is that showing behavior from both sides is a “double standard” or “bias.” That would be quite an indefensible position. I would argue that, yes, if the report is only illuminating behavior from one group to illustrate dysfunction — which it clearly is — that report is laying that dysfunction at the feet of those it is pointing the finger at. If the other council members engage in similar behavior — which, as I have shown, they clearly do — then they are just as responsible for that dysfunction.

      Singling out one group for that dysfunction reeks of a political agenda. At the very least it is disingenuous.

      To be clear, I never defended any of the council majority’s actions listed in the report, nor did I dispute their accuracy. I doubt anybody is disputing the facts of the matter here. But have it your way. Their behavior is unethical. I disagree with your assessment. As I already said, I believe the average reader is likely to categorize the behavior both in the report and my article as “rude” and not “unethical.”

      Even if I grant your assessment, you have only made matters worse. If the council majority behaved “unethically” then so did Gillmor and Watanabe, unless of course you’re disputing the facts of the instances I pointed out (rest assured, I didn’t have the ink for all the instances on par with these. There is enough there to fill Levi’s Stadium.)

      The council is dysfunctional, sure. I don’t know a single person who would argue against that. The key is who is responsible for this? You say the “49er Five.” I say the entire council contributes to this dynamic, and I am on firm ground. When a grand jury, a group whose supposed function is to inform not mislead, would have the general public believe in falsehoods about its government, it is incumbent on reporters to correct that. If these instances come to my mind as a lowly reporter, I find it hard to believe the grand jury was ignorant of them.

      So, if they had access to similar behavior from Gillmor and Watanabe, did they choose to ignore it? If the answer is “yes,” they are being hypocritical and not serving the public. I call that a political agenda. If they didn’t have access to publicly available information such as this — most of which simply sprang to mind without needing to look it up — why are we so keen to trust their assessment of what is “ethical” given such incompetence?

      Then again, I guess “ethical” is whatever the government defines it as. If it defines it as “whatever your political opponents do but never what you do,” then I guess you are correct. Seems like a Pyrrhic victory to me, but sure. Perhaps you are right in pointing this out. Maybe the editors should take down the article lest it been seen as “rude,” “mocking” or “belittling.” The last thing we want is to be accused of Wrong Think.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Buchser 3 1 month ago
        Reply

        Thanks, David, for a very well written article and a very well written rebuttal for Vartan’s comments.

  2. Buchser Alum 1 month ago
    Reply

    I agree that this grand jury report reads as something that has political motivations and there is not equal scrutiny paid by the grand jury to the behavior of Gillmor and Watanabe. I agree that in some ways this is hypocritical.
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    I also think that it is hypocritical for a writer for this paper to point to the hypocrisy of others being political selective in their criticism of others. Hypocritical and political selective criticism is a consistent practice of this publication with virtually no exception.
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    Just as this grand jury seems only interested in criticizing the council majority this publication only ever seems interested in defending them even when criticism is valid and otherwise only criticizing Gillmor and Watanabe and anyone politically aligned with them.
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    Your criticism of the grand jury is valid. You should also turn that critical eye upon your own practices and standards.

  3. Buchser 3 1 month ago
    Reply

    It is good that these new Civil Grand Jury reports are being released at this time. Their first report was released just before the last November elections, and may have seriously influence our voters. Their first report was soundly rejected by our Council but only after the election.
    This time, our Council will have amble opportunity to examine these reports and offer their evaluation. My prediction is that these new Civil Grand Jury reports shall suffer the same fate and shall be similarly rejected.

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