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Elected vs Appointed Police Chief: A Subject That Comes Up Regularly

Since Santa Clara approved its charter in 1952, the City has, with one exception, had an elected police chief. That exception was in 1953 when voters changed the charter to have an appointed chief. Two years later they changed their minds, although the reason appears to be lost to living memory.

However, the discussion has long simmered on the back burner, coming to a boil in 1971, 1988, 1993-94, 2016-17, and this year’s proposal.

1971: Change Proponents Are Political Schemers

In November 1971, the City Council appointed a 15-member charter review committee to consider changes to the City’s 1951 charter, that included making the police chief and city clerk appointive rather than elective and establishing minimum qualifications for both.

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Opponents of change defended the status quo not by arguing the merits of the question, but by accusing the proponents of change of political motives. Then-mayor Gary Gillmor, supported by City Manager Don Von Raesfeld, favored having the city manager appoint the police chief and city clerk.

Community activist and journalist Ari Kulpa* accused the mayor of trying to change “our City government…from a city manager form of government to mayor controlled political machine,” reported Suzanne Byrne in the Jan. 7, 1972 Valley Journal. Kulpa accused the mayor of trying to open the door to political payoffs.

Gillmor’s proposal was dropped from the charter changes that went to voters that November.

1987: We’ve Always Done It This Way

The next time the question of electing the police chief was in 1988 when former police chief Manny Ferguson retired. City Council Member Vern Deto proposed a ballot measure for an appointed police chief, supported by Ferguson.

”It’s really the more modern way to go,” Ferguson told the Mercury News in December 1987. “The job is too complicated and too important to rely on an election.”

Deto told his council colleagues that electing the police chief caused police department instability and created a distraction for the police chief.

This time, the appeal to tradition was deployed to maintain the status quo, in lieu of arguments defending the status quo.

Mayor Eddie Souza opposed the change, telling the Mercury that he “didn’t see any reason to change a system that had worked successfully for more than 30 years. ‘Why are we really doing this?’ he asked. ‘I think the voters will be able to figure out, when there are a number of people running in an election, who’s qualified.’”

In January 1988, the council unanimously approved a June ballot measure. But two months later, Deto withdrew his proposal, with the explanation that it didn’t have enough support.

1993: We’ve Always Done It This Way Redux

Five years later, in 1993, with the retirement of another police chief, the council again took up the question of appointing the chief.

“The pending retirement of Chief Frank Vasquez – and recent complaints of low morale, racism and sexism,” wrote Mercury reporter Brad Kava in November 1993, “have a number of council members asking whether the chief should be chosen by the council or city manager instead.”

”I think it is ludicrous that the police chief is an elected official,” Council Member Tim Jeffries told the Mercury. “The problem with an elected police chief is the individual has to be a resident of Santa Clara, so that denies our citizens and police department scores of qualified candidates that may live just outside the City or out of state.”

Mayor Eddie Souza again opposed the idea, not by discussing the question but by appealing to emotion and tradition.

”I think it is a direct slap in the face of the voters, who we have entrusted with picking a chief,” he told the Mercury. “The truth is, we may be one of the only ones to elect a police chief, but all over the state sheriffs are elected and district attorneys are elected.”

However, in early 1994, after both former chiefs Ferguson and Vasquez lobbied the council for change, a majority — council members Dave De Lozier, Tim Jeffries, Judy Nadler and Keri Procunier — voted to put the question on a ballot, while Souza and council members Lisa Gillmor and Jim Ash opposed it.

”I’ve never, ever believed an elected police chief is something we should have,” Ferguson told the council according to the Mercury. “For a city of our size, it’s unbelievably medieval.”

Elections “create divisiveness” in the police department, said Vasquez, who called it “demeaning” for the position.

“No. 1, it’s extremely divisive in the department to have members running for chief. It tears the department apart and has everyone picking sides,” said Vasquez. “No. 2, there is no guarantee that anyone who wants it is qualified.”

2017: Opinions Change Depending on Who Wins the Chief Election

It was more than two decades before the question of the elected police chief, and city clerk, came up again. But this time it wasn’t because the question had been publicly discussed. It was brought up at a charter review committee that had been convened to consider changing Santa Clara’s at-large by-district election system.

Informal — not on the agenda — conversations about changing the City’s practice of electing the police chief and city clerk occurred so frequently at meetings of the 2017-2018 charter review committee that one committee member said she suspected “outside agendas.”

The chair of the committee, Tino Silva, told the committee that he had discussed changing to an appointed police chief with council members.

“When I talked to a couple of council members, they were quite broad in what they directed…there was discussion of other things we might want to do,” he said.

No meetings with Silva appeared on council calendars, however.

The previous year, Mayor Lisa Gillmor actively campaigned to replace Chief Mike Sellers with Pat Nikolai, longtime president of the police union, which has consistently backed Gillmor. Silva was backed by Gillmor and the police union in his losing 2016 council run.

Although that committee never recommended changing the elected chief, at the committee’s Oct. 4, 2017 meeting, former City Attorney Brian Doyle expressed his critique of the City’s traditional practice. Doyle was a Gillmor ally and a friend of another Gillmor ally, former Council Member Teresa O’Neill.

Doyle told the committee it was “making a terrible mistake” in not recommending the City abandon its elected police chief and city clerk.

“The average citizen has no idea how these jobs are performed,” Doyle said at the time.

As a former chair of the Civil Service Commission, Doyle said he could speak from experience that the Commission “is the only group that has any idea of how the police chief does his job. And that’s only on disciplinary matters. There’s absolutely no citizen oversight,” he said, concluding, “You’re not getting any expert opinion whatsoever.”

*One of Ari Kulpa’s distinctions was her interview with Leon Trotsky’s assassin. She was also the author of “Adult Funnies Book 1: A Harvest of Hilarity,” and wrote for the Santa Clara American and the Santa Clara Sun newspapers. She served on the Historical and Landmarks Commission and chaired the committee that designed Santa Clara’s first city flag. In December 1967, Mayor Larry Marsalli honored her by proclaiming a Santa Clara Ari Kulpa Day.

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17 Comments
  1. John Haggerty 8 months ago
    Reply

    As a preliminary matter, I would first like to know one thing: Was the current Santa Clara City Police Chief originally appointed to that position after the previous Police Chief had retired/resigned? Or was he originally elected, unopposed, to that position in a special election? Or was he elected Police Chief in a normal, contested (real) election? Local history has become unfortunately fuzzy on this significant question.

    This has become a significant question because the current Police Chief appears to have lost the confidence of a majority of our City Council which, in turn, has apparently prompted the current renewed interest in amending our City Charter to provide for a City Council-appointed Police Chief. Some do not like the fact that the current City Council minority (Mayor Gillmor and Member Watanabe) were the current Chief’s supporters when he first became Police Chief. Some do not like his prior leadership role in the police employees’ union (and the substantial campaign support which he has received from that union since then). Some do not like statements made in connection with the Grand Jury Report before the City Council elections last year. Some have also wondered if he is adequately qualified.

    In sum, if we had a more popular Police Chief, there would be much less interest in a City Council-appointed Police Chief. Personally, I prefer a TRULY elected Police Chief. Such chiefs in the past (e.g., Chiefs Sellars and Lodge) were very, very responsive to the resident voters’ concerns about public safety and the quality of our life whereas, currently, the El Camino Real is, sadly, rapidly turning into an East Berlin (in large part as a result of unpunished shoplifters/store raiders) and has become increasingly afflicted with dope addicts and other deranged loiterers. We are best served by a Police Chief who is, first and foremost, responsive and answerable to the voters of our City, not the City Council (and certainly not any police employees’ union). To help in this regard, our City could further empower its voters as they elect their Police Chiefs by amending our City Charter to significantly expand the pool of possible candidates from which they may choose to include: (a) all employees of the Santa Clara Police Department (no matter where they live); and (b) high-ranking police officers (i.e., Captain and above) from any law enforcement agency operating in the San Francisco Bay Area. This would further properly empower the voters of our City (not the City Council or the police employees’ union) to do what is best for our City.

    Finally, if some of the Council members do not like the current Police Chief, I respectfully suggest that they seriously consider their most direct and appropriate remedy in this regard, namely, a recall election.

    • CSC 8 months ago
      Reply

      Hello John. I’ll try to answer your questions in a concise manner.
      .
      1. “The current Santa Clara City Police Chief originally appointed to that position after the previous Police Chief had retired/resigned? Or was he originally elected, unopposed, to that position in a special election? Or was he elected Police Chief in a normal, contested (real) election?”
      • Former Police Chief Michael Sellers voluntarily retired in the middle of his term. Former Assistant Police Chief Dan Winters was named interim Police Chief. Chief Winters opted to retire and take a post-retirement security role with Intel instead of campaign for police chief. When it came time to elect a new Police Chief, Patrick Nikolai ran unopposed.
      .
      2. “The current Police Chief appears to have lost the confidence of a majority of our City Council.”
      • Not just the majority City Council. It’s rumored former City Manager didn’t see a high level of competence in him either leading to her appointment of not one but two Assistane Police Chiefs which was a first in the City of Santa Clara.
      .
      3. “To help in this regard, our City could further empower its voters as they elect their Police Chiefs by amending our City Charter to significantly expand the pool of possible candidates from which they may choose to include: (a) all employees of the Santa Clara Police Department (no matter where they live); and (b) high-ranking police officers (i.e., Captain and above) from any law enforcement agency operating in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
      • The biggest challenge in “significanly expand[ing] the pool” to the greater Bay Area is that candidates would still have to raise election campaign funds and after working their regular police job commute during the week and weekends to forge political allies and try to meet voters in the evening and weekends. As you can imagine, if a police supervisor at another agency were tied up with his/her day job they just can’t stop in the middle of an investigation/situation to go hit the political trail somewhere else. Obviously the local incumbent or candidate would have a sizeable logistics and visibility advantage.
      • The City of Santa Clara has hired its past three City Managers and City Attorneys from other cities and regions having to assume a new staff, geography, and expanded roles (convention center, stadium, amusement park). There is no legitimate argument why the future appointed Police Chief can’t acculturate as well.

      • John Haggerty 8 months ago
        Reply

        Thank you so much for the history of the current Police Chief’s rise to office. He was not the product of a competitive election and benefited greatly from the political support of his Council allies and union.

        Regarding your thoughts on appointment vs. election, I would further note that: (1) appointments can also turn out to be contentious and politically divisive (e.g., our previous City Manager and City Attorney); and (2) were the voters of our City to decide to let the City Council appoint their Police Chief, the City Council would then be allowed to select anybody in the nation (including the expanded but more limited pertinent categories of persons which I have suggested) as Police Chief. So, why not even it up so that the voters would have as many options as the Council would likely be given?

        Finally, it has also been noted in this regard that having an elected police chief in our City has, over the years, resulted in better police-community relations because the community has had the most direct control possible over its police leaders (rather than letting City Hall do it) and the Police Chiefs have been far more responsive to the public. For instance, during the George Floyd protests in 2020, our City fared far better than San Jose did.

        In closing, I think that the dialogue which you have so ably advanced in this matter will greatly assist the Charter Review Commission and the voters in arriving at the best course of action for our City. Once again, thank you.

        • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
          Reply

          John,
          .
          Opening up the candidate requirements so anyone in the nation may run for police chief will not result in candidates around the country running for police chief.
          .
          It would only bring in candidates who are local enough to engage in the politicking necessary to win election and probably only candidates who are known figures in Santa Clara. And whichever candidate is the preferred candidate of the SCPOA will have the strongest chance of winning still.

        • CSC 8 months ago
          Reply

          John: Of the 482 incorporated cities in California only five have a “strong mayor” form of government. Those cities are San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, Oakland, and San Francisco. While it is recommended to allow for public input to include questioning by members of a city council, the City of Santa Clara is a strong city manager form of government therefore the City Manager would have ultimate decision on hiring a future police chief. Once hired, the Police Chief would only report to the City Manager.
          .
          The only ones saying the public has direct control over an elected police chief is the POA. Look at Sunnyvale, Campbell, and Mountain View – they all have good relationships with LE minus the political baggage found in Santa Clara.

  2. CSC 8 months ago
    Reply

    Great job researching the history of this topic Carolyn. No one can argue the dynamics, demographics, and social awareness in the City of Santa Clara has drastically changed for the better over the past few decades. The fact that the political allies above held differentiating opinions on the matter and that the topic persists is strong indication that the community as a whole should be able to continue the conversation. And there’s no better place than the ballot box for public sentiment to be measured!
    .
    Of the seven commentors at this past Thursday’s inaugural CRC meeting, three members of the public tried persuading the committee to extinguish their investigation before it even began. This is an old anti-civil rights tactic that caused human rights abuses and denial of equality to persist for so long in this country. Whether intentionally or out of ignorance, Burt Field, Howard Gibbons, and Dana Caldwell should be publicly censured for their synchronized tactic.
    .
    “Let’s put that money to somewhere in the city that could actually use it. If the money’s there, let’s shovel it off to the swim center.” Burt Field, Santa Clara
    • “The historical record is filled with racially derogatory statements from delegates at State constitutional conventions who believed poll taxes and other devices would suppress Black voter registration and turnout. Their efforts succeeded. Together, these changes resulted in significant declines in voter turnout and registration, particularly among eligible Black voters.” – The U.S. Constitution Center: https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/amendments/amendment-xxiv/interpretations/157
    .
    “I’m the guy who has nothing to do with the swim center, but I always say let the kids swim, spend that money over there.” – Howard “The Hot Dog Guy” Gibbons
    • “A lack of funding inhibits the ability of localities to manage elections that ensure everyone’s vote counts equally.” – Carnegie’s 11 Barriers to Voting: https://www.carnegie.org/our-work/article/11-barriers-voting/
    .
    “I don’t see why we would want to change it, I have a few ideas on why we want to change it but I don’t think there is a reason to change it, personally I think it’s a waste of our funds when we have much more pressing issues in the city.” – Dana Caldwell
    • “The less he understands something, the more firmly he believes in it.” Wilhelm Reich, Listen, Little Man!
    .
    “We see what happens when that kind of confidence is lost, we need to maintain that trust and the best way is to make sure the elected police chief is one of our community.” – Preston Metcalf
    • “People who appear to be resisting change may simply be the victim of bad habits. Habit, like gravity, never takes a day off.” – Paul Gibbons, The Science of Successful Organizational Change
    .
    “I can tell you that more than one national study that I’ve looked at, considering the fact that there is a lot of question about police behavior now, all the human rights commissions that I’ve ever worked with, heard from, or was involved with, unanimously say the best way to reform a police or law enforcement movement is to elect your police chief. It’s that simple.” – Nancy Biagini
    • “Malice, in its false witness, promotes its tale with so cunning a confusion, so mingles truths with falsehoods, surmises with certainties, causes of no moment with matters capital, that the accused can absolutely neither grant nor deny, plead innocen” – Sir Philip Sidney
    .
    The duly elected Santa Clara City Council voted for funds to be allocated for a specific purpose, no one should try covincing the Charter Review Committee that they should give up their endeavor for another unintended purpose. Defunding, pulling the rug out, whatever you want to call it…that’s exactly what Burt, Howard, and Dana are suggesting the committee does.

    • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
      Reply

      CSC,
      .
      The public speakers who gave statements at the charter review meeting I think are all to some degree opposed to examining the question because this is all a part of a political battle to either uphold or decrease the influence of the SCPOA over Santa Clara politics.
      .
      The council majority wants to decrease the influence since the SCPOA has been a political opponent to them and a political ally to Mayor Gillmor.
      .
      Anyone who is a political opponent of the council majority of course then will want to uphold the political influence of the SCPOA.
      .
      Nobody seems to interested in police reform. Of course not Gillmor or any other adversary of the council majority but also not the council majority.
      .
      Carolyn has done a good job of recounting the history of this charter issue and if she is also interested in police reform then I hope that she will write more articles on specific cases of SCPD officers abusing their power or committing crimes. I perhaps have not paid enough attention to these issues but I only recall one or two articles that seem to be little beyond criticisms of Nikolai’s administration.
      .
      I do not recall ever reading Carolyn or anyone at the Silicon Valley Voice reporting on alarming incidents involving individual specific active SCPD officers.
      .
      The cause of police reform could use more specific reporting of this type. So that if the council majority is successful in getting the charter amended that they do not leave their efforts at that and turn a blind eye to whatever wrongs are being committed with the status quo.

      • Erika Towne 8 months ago
        Reply

        Buchser Alum,

        Recent articles about our police force include the following:

        https://www.svvoice.com/settlement-in-discrimination-lawsuit-against-scpd-chief-delayed-at-citys-request/
        https://www.svvoice.com/asian-pacific-police-officer-charges-santa-clara-police-department-with-discrimination-and-retaliation/
        https://www.svvoice.com/former-santa-clara-cop-phil-cooke-pleads-for-leniency-in-ebay-harassment-conspiracy/
        https://www.svvoice.com/former-santa-clara-police-officer-pleads-guilty-to-conspiracy-charges/

        There are more, but these are two key places to start. The first two articles deal with an officer who recently settled a lawsuit with the department. He accused the department of racism.

        The second two articles deal with two retired SCPD officers who went on to work in security with eBay and used their positions to harass publishers of an online blog that eBay disapproved of. While no longer with the force, they still garner SCPD pensions since the actions happened after their retirement.

        As you can see, we have covered more than a simple criticism of Chief Nikolai’s administration.

        Erika

        • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
          Reply

          Erika,
          .
          I worded my statement carefully: “I do not recall ever reading Carolyn or anyone at the Silicon Valley Voice reporting on alarming incidents involving individual specific active SCPD officers.” I wrote that knowing I had read about Malae’s lawsuit and the thuggish behavior on the part of those two former SCPD officers after they left the force.
          .
          I should have been more careful as Malae’s case involves himself and other leadership aside from Nikolai.
          .
          But CSC refers to much more in terms of alarming incidents involving individual specific active SCPD officers. Apparently the SCPD has a very high rate of officers convicted of crimes and fired for that as well as shootings of unarmed people with mental health problems.
          .
          I have not seen any reporting on those matters. Not here and not in the Mercury News or Santa Clara News.
          .
          I think more than the two above incidents would be good to report on to more fully show the need for police reform and more accountability in this arena from the police chief.

  3. Carol 8 months ago
    Reply

    If you feel the public voting for their police chief is “medieval”, I looked that word up and read the outcome of a medieval election was always subject to the judgment of one’s superiors. So the loss of a public vote seems actually more medieval.

    I disagree that the average citizen has no idea how these (police) jobs are performed. Many Californian’s have had firsthand experience with what the police do from having been arrested in their past. According to what I found online: Over 7% of Californians have served in our military. California has 157,639 active duty U.S. Armed Forces personnel stationed here. California has a large government work force, prisons and the court system are large employers, California has many military reserve members past and present, many people know or have neigbhors in the police field, work in private security or work closely themselves with police. In other words many in the public sector have worked under direct supervision of government managers, many of whom were trained by the armed services.

    • CSC 8 months ago
      Reply

      Carol:
      .
      When past police chiefs characterized the City of Santa Clara’s voting for a police chief as medieval, they weren’t wrong. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/medieval
      Medieval adj.
      1a. Relating or belonging to the Middle Ages.
      1b. Of or relating to a historical period roughly coinciding with the European Middle Ages and characterized by feudal or aristocratic social structures, as in Japan or China.
      2.a. Suggestive of the Middle Ages, as in being hierarchical or cruel.
      2b. Informal Old-fashioned; unenlightened: parents with a medieval attitude toward dating.
      .
      Many Californians encouraged their representatives to support and pass SB1421, SB16, and SB2 indicating they previously didn’t know how bad policing was but when found out they wanted swift change. California lags when it comes to 21st Century Policing Practices and evidence of that made citizens question whether we were the progressive and transparent state everyone thought we were.
      .
      Assuming active duty, reserve, and former military personnel understand the law enforcement vocation is, at best, naïve.

    • Carolyn Schuk 8 months ago
      Reply

      Please note that these views were expressed by other people quoted in the article. They don’t express my opinions or those of SVV. Rather, they illustrate that this discussion has been going on for a long time, and many people have weighed in on it.

  4. Some real truth 8 months ago
    Reply

    I’m so tired of people making the argument that voters basically aren’t intelligent enough to vote for the police chief. If they truly aren’t, you would have to admit how dumb the people were that voted for some of our current council. So, who is willing to admit that?

    The real solution is to broaden the current residency radius. We currently have very qualified individuals in our current SCPD who would work hard for the citizens and who have a real love for this city. We don’t need someone who wants the job for a paycheck. We want someone who is loyal to and loves our city!

    I’m tired of the people who think a national search will find some pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If city officials think we don’t have qualified individuals in our current public safety departments, what is being done about that? Is there fat not being trimmed that should be? Why don’t we take the money we waste on national searches, studies, consultants, and special elections and put that back into our public safety for education and training? Again, if we don’t have the best of the best currently, why keep employing them? I would argue we do have the best of the best, which is why we don’t need to waste money doing national searches. Expand the residency radius to something like 30 miles to give more (qualified) people in our current department the opportunity to do the fantastic job I know they would do for our city.

    On another note, what’s a shame is that citizens don’t have more of a say in who the CM is or HR.

    Our city is an embarrassing disaster, when are we going to work on cleaning house in city hall? Keep voting, people. We can’t let the city keep bringing in people who don’t know how to work for us, meanwhile sitting on talented individuals who would make our city proud. Again, keep voting. That way we can hopefully (finally) do some much needed housekeeping in the right places.

    • CSC 8 months ago
      Reply

      Broadening the residency radius while restricting candidates to just currently employed SCPD officers is still promoting the same crap up the ladder.
      .
      Until the City of Antioch finishes the current round of police officer prosecutions, the City of Santa Clara still holds the title of highest percentage officers convicted of crimes against the community. Changing the City Charter isn’t simply about finding a new, better qualified police chief, it’s about changing the culture eliminating politics at SCPD.
      .
      Vote for a City Manager and Human Resources Director? Let me guess, restrict those candidates to SCPD employees as well? Suggesting the city refrain from spending money on a charter review while suggesting we spend money to consider voting for a City Manager and Human Resources Director is just dumb, you must be really tired.

  5. HalfAwake 8 months ago
    Reply

    The grooming of the new police chief is already happening at the police. You will see the next chief will be Captain Richard Fitting or Lieutenant Corey Morgan. They live in Santa Clara and everyone at the police department already knows one of them will be Chief. The police chief has already been decided behind closed doors between these two. It’s just a matter of time when they announce who will be Chief first. It will go like this, Lieutenant Corey will be the next Captain and either run for Chief or support Captain Fitting as Chief. Captain Fitting will appoint Lieutenant Corey as the Assistant Chief or the reverse will happen.

    • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
      Reply

      HalfAwake,
      .
      Are you saying that even if there is no charter amendment and the chief is chosen through election that Nikolai will not run for chief again?
      .
      Is this his choice or are you saying that the powers that be have decided that he needs to go? Who are the powers that be?
      .
      And why Fitting and Morgan?

    • District 6 Resident 8 months ago
      Reply

      I really appreciate the article from Carolyn on this long, on-going debate and discussion.
      Regardless of being of elected or appointed, it should 1st and foremost be about having strong and comprehensive qualifications to even be considered for appointment or get on a ballot for our Chief (much stronger than we currently have). Captain Fitting and Lieutenant Morgan would both be excellent candidates to be considered for the position if they meet the qualifications and it would be an absolute shame to automatically assume those who have served our City with the SCPD would not be qualified or the best choice for Santa Clara.

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