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Facing a Voting Rights Lawsuit, Council Appoints New Charter Review Committee, Second in Two Years

Tuesday night, the Santa Clara City Council appointed a new charter review committee, giving it a clear assignment to consider alternative methods of electing the City Council, and approved a contract with Landmark Services for stadium security with a request to re-negotiate a shorter term.

The new charter review committee is the second since 2016 and the third since 2011 to be convened to consider whether Santa Clara should change its at-large, by-seat system for electing the City Council.

Since 2011, Santa Clara has received two warning letters from San Francisco-based civil rights attorney Robert Rubin saying that the City isn’t complying with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). On March 30, the Asian Law Alliance (ALA) filed a CVRA lawsuit.

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The CVRA expands federal voting rights laws to eliminate the requirement that minorities can’t be elected with the existing system, only that they are unable to influence at-large elections–called “vote dilution.” Currently, agencies with by-district representation can’t be challenged under the CVRA.

Although the Council originally intended to appoint a nine-member committee, it decided unanimously Tuesday night to appoint all six applicants for two at-large spots, increasing the committee to 13.

Vice Mayor Dominic Caserta was concerned that announcing only two at-large committee appointments “had a chilling effect” on applications. Further, Caserta said the appearance created by hastily increasing that number to six–the exact number of applicants–was “troubling;” especially when Santa Clara is facing a lawsuit that turns on whether or not the City Council reflects the community’s diversity.

“It may be some of the same people but it’s a new item,” said Council Member Patricia Mahan, who proposed enlarging the committee. “I would find it easier to select two than eliminate two. The entire [committee] composition represents a very broad section of Santa Clara.”

Mahan also asked applicants about something that will likely play a role in the present lawsuit: changes to the CVRA passed last year (AB 350, tinyurl.com/ab350-2016), allowing elected bodies to “self-correct” a CVRA violation before litigation by changing to election by-district. It also blocks a lawsuit for 45 days after a notice of possible CVRA violations.

Rubin sent the City a letter on Oct. 13, 2016 about its possible CVRA violation. The ALA’s lawsuit was filed on March 30, 2017.

At the Council Ethics Committee’s Feb. 6 meeting, the committee recommended convening a charter review committee. Committee appointments came five months after Rubin’s letter.

Landmark Security Services Contract Approved–For Now

The now month-long discussion about the Landmark Event Staffing Services contract continued Tuesday night with the same players saying the same things.

Labor union leaders said Landmark was denying workers benefits they deserved. Landmark said that since the people working at Levi’s Stadium only work a few hundred hours a year they wouldn’t qualify for benefits. The Minority Business Consortium said its analysis showed “no advantage” for workers from unionizing and definite “disadvantage” for the minority businesses it represents.

The real issue, however, was the Council’s authority to dictate terms of a contract between the 49ers Stadium Management Company (ManCo) and Landmark.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s answer was ‘yes,’ and she would only approve a one-year contract. “We have approval rights for a reason,” she said. “ManCo will find security for the events.”

Landmark’s answer, however, was ‘no,’ with Landmark CEO Mike Harrison repeating what he has said previously: he “has no authority” to re-negotiate contracts in Council Chambers.

City Attorney Brian Doyle indicated that the City was on thin ice.

The Council’s contract approval authority in this case–the Council approving a contract between ManCo and a contractor–was, Doyle said “interesting… The legislative record isn’t clear what you were reserving to yourself. What’s before you now [is] a five-year agreement.”

Changing the contract was something the Council could do, he said. “But we have a letter saying that if you don’t approve this contract tonight Landmark will take the deal off the table. I don’t know what ManCo would do.”

“So we could disapprove the contract and recommend a one-year contract,” replied Gillmor.

“You can do that,” said Doyle. “But that wouldn’t mean that they would sign.”

“If they don’t, they don’t,” replied Gillmor.

Council Member Teresa O’Neill said that while she was sympathetic “to the desires of the labor movement … we owe it to the guests at the stadium and to the City that we have the best security at the stadium.”

The City Attorney had given the Council “very good advice,” said Mahan. “It’s clear we don’t have authority from this dais to change the contract. We can advise them we want to … in the future.”

The Council was on the brink of a 3-3 tie that would leave in question whether Landmark would be on the job for Monster Jam–with Council Members Caserta, Mahan and O’Neill approving and Gillmor, Davis and Watanabe opposing–Mahan made an alternative motion to approve the contract with a request that ManCo and Landmark negotiate a shorter term and sit down with the unions. This passed unanimously.

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