Santa Clara political candidates sounded off again in the last of the city’s issue-oriented forums.
The two forums took place Thursday and Friday evening in the City Council Chambers, 1500 Warburton Ave. Candidates for Santa Clara’s police chief, city clerk and Council seats three, four, six and seven turned out to answer a series of questions put forth by public both online and during the forum.
Former Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley in his role as Santa Clara’s democracy consultant hosted the forum, posing questions to each of the candidates in turn.
The formula was the same for the third and fourth forums, giving candidates two minutes for each response, including opening and closing statement.
Much of what the candidates discussed was a rehash of the first two forums and many of the questions dealt with the same issues: the city’s relationship with the 49ers, traffic caused by Santa Clara’s accelerated growth in recent years, and the city’s jobs-to-housing ratio.
Police Chief candidates Patrick Nikolai, a sergeant and president of the Santa Clara police union, and current Police Chief Mike Sellers had no shortage differing opinions. As he did in the first forum, Sellers touted his department’s efforts to make the city safe, referencing a report issued by municipal data collection and analysis company Niche that claims Santa Clara is the eleventh safest city in the country.
However, when questioned whether the way the city categorizes car burglaries skews the number of “violent crimes,” Nikolai quickly pointed out that he didn’t agree with the notion that Santa Clara is the eleventh safest city in the United States.
“If you look at stats alone, it can be misleading,” he said. “The numbers do lie. You can make them say whatever you want them to say.”
“If the perception of the residents is that crime has gone up, it doesn’t matter what the number are,” he added.
While Sellers acknowledged that if police do not have a suspect when a car is broken into they categorize it as a “car clout” and not as “violent crime,” he said the numbers “speak for themselves.” He added that there has “not been much concern about the crime rate,” saying that most people with whom he speaks are more concerned with code enforcement.
Nikolai said that contrary to what Sellers would have voters believe, Santa Clara has seen a “60 percent increase in violent crime.”
The department needs to be more “proactive,” he said, adding more staff and increasing its presence in the city with various programs such as bait cars. If elected, he said not only would he hire more staff, but he would also keep unsafe events from Levi’s Stadium.
Another point of contention between the two was whether they support binding arbitration — where a third party settles disputes and obligates those in the dispute to abide by the judgment. Nikolai supports it, and Sellers opposes it, saying that binding arbitration “takes control out of the local government.”
“What do we want for a police department” he said. “Do we really want a police union to run the police department?”
Sellers also criticized Nikolai’s leadership, saying that Nikolai “could not apply for an position anywhere in the county because he does not meet the minimum requirements or qualifications.”
However, Nikolai countered saying “Being a leader is more than having a rank. It is having the willingness to make a difference.”
Following the Police Chief candidates, City Clerk Rod Diridon and challenger Deborah Bress traded verbal ripostes.
In his opening statement, Diridon said he wanted to clear up a few things for people who “might be confused by the rhetoric in the body politic,” noting that the city auditor — a role Bress had previously questioned his competence in — is not a duty automatically given to the city clerk upon election but an earned duty.
As the two traded digs, Diridon said Bress “doesn’t know what the city clerk does based on her comments,” adding that she “lacks tact and decorum.”
Diridon said some of the changes the city put in place since his election — programs such as the calendering and lobbyist ordinances and streaming of planning commission meetings — and his numerous governmental awards show he is doing a good job as clerk.
But Bress was not without criticism.
“If someone has to sit up here and tell you what they’ve done, they haven’t done very much,” Bress said. “A lot of what he is taking credit for has nothing to do with him.”
She made sweeping claims about how Diridon has campaigned, even calling the forum moderator Diridon’s “friend” because they shared a dinner after the previous forum. She even went so far as to call Diridon “Hitler-ish” because of who endorses him and contributes to his campaign.
According to Keeley, his dinner with Diridon was to provide “understanding and assistance” with regard to the campaign code of ethics.
Bress claimed she would be more responsible with the city’s time and money than Diridon has and wouldn’t “be at home changing diapers.”
However, Diridon said it is Bress who is not being transparent, saying that she has yet to disclose to the public for whom she works or all her contact information.
Tino Silva, Raj Chahal, Patricia Mahan and Markus Bracamonte found common ground in opposing the proposed Valley Transit Authority bus rapid transit lane along El Camino Real.
Mahan said closing the center lane would negatively impact businesses in the area and create a “bottleneck.” Silva called dedicating a lane as a thoroughfare “ridiculous” and “insane,” saying he “doesn’t care if other cities get on board.” Chahal added that the city needs to consider the environmental impacts of traffic congestion in the area.
Bracamonte said the lane closure will have a “trickle effect,” rerouting traffic into residential areas.
The candidates were asked to detail their qualifications for assuring the public they will make sound long-term fiscal policies.
Silva said he has “managed million-dollar budgets” before and is married to a vice president of finance, adding that Santa Clara can’t continue to think it can “develop our way out of our financial woes.”
Mahan said she has served on a credit union board and practices tax law. Also, the city always had a balanced budget while she was on the Council previously — even during the recession.
“I know what it takes to balance a budget in hard times,” she said.
Chahal has a Master’s degree in finance.
While Bracamonte said he has no such experience, he said he would make it a priority to learn from people who do know about such things, adding that “every job has a learning curve” and that he learns fast.
Another question that got mixed answers from the candidates involved the city’s lobbyist and calendar ordinances. While every candidate agreed that the ordinances do well to increase government transparency, Mahan called the calendar ordinance “well-intentioned” but added that it has “severe flaws,” namely that it is retroactive, only allowing citizens to see who a public official has met with, not with whom they plan to meet.
Friday night kicked off with incumbent Debi Davis and John McLemore. The first question to the two was simple and direct, asking them to state their single highest priority.
McLemore said he wants to address the “angst” with traffic congestion. The problem, he said, is a byproduct of development.
“This is a monumental problem,” he said. “We need to take an easy, slow pace on what we are doing.”
Davis said the city’s infrastructure is crumbling and the Council would do well to look at a needs assessment. She said the Council needs to start considering “different ideas on how we can sustain urban growth.”
When asked how they felt about “affordable housing” and rent control, both candidates said they opposed rent control but supported affordable housing.
While Davis said the Council “really needs to take care of the workforce” and should put an “affordable housing” element in every new housing development, she said rent control is “a bad idea because it limits what the landlord can do with his property.”
Housing was also a major topic for the questions for Kathy Watanabe, Anthony Becker, Mario Bouza, Suds Jain and Mohammed Nadeem.
Nadeem said the problem with “affordable housing” is that the term is subjective. He, along with Watanabe, Jain, and Becker agreed that the city needs to establish a concrete policy on “affordable housing.”
Nadeem said the Council needs to “do something” about this issue, adding that “affordable housing” is not enough and the city should look into subsidized housing as well.
“We want housing, but we don’t want to build,” he said.
Jain said the real problem is with the jobs-to-housing ratio while Bouza said the Council should be providing more tax incentives to turn apartments into condominiums.
Becker was the only candidate in either forum that spoke in support of rent control.
“We need to give people a chance. We just want a roof over our head. We just want to achieve our American Dream,” Becker said.
When asked what the Council should do to address the lack of health clinics, Nadeem and Jain said the city should look at public-private partnerships while Watanabe suggested looking into working with the county health department to get services offered locally.
Another question aimed to tease a response from the candidates was one on a November ballot measure — Measure Q — that would allow appointed Council members to hold office only until the next general municipal election. Currently, appointed Council Members hold office for the remainder of the unfilled term. If a Council appointment isn’t made within 30 days of vacancy, a special election is called. Measure Q, as written would not change this.
“I think there’s better ways to spend our money than force special elections,” Jain said.
Bouza and Becker said they opposed letting appointees serve out the rest of their term. The other candidates said they support the measure.
“This doesn’t seem like democracy to me,” Becker said. “This sounds like a back-room deal. This sounds like you are getting someone on Council who is your friend.”
Mass transit came up again during the seat seven forum between incumbent Teresa O’Neill, Ahmad Rafah and Kevin Park.
Rafah said the city needs a “complete streets” program. He said he supports bringing Bus Rapid Transit to Santa Clara, increasing Caltrain’s capacity and “incentivizing” ridesharing, saying city officials don’t plan the city well, instead doing it “piecemeal.”
He called public transit a “socioeconomic issue when not addressed,” calling for more public education and a “cultural shift” surrounding the topic.
As far as mitigating traffic near the stadium, Park said the Council could “make it easier to get places” by offering a “free shuttle.”
O’Neill said she would like to return to monitoring parking in neighborhoods near the stadium, perhaps even requiring a permit to ensure only residents are parking there.
Finding safer ways for pedestrians and bicyclists to use the streets would help mitigate traffic, O’Neill said. Building more housing near where people work and near transit hubs would also go a long way she added.
Still, Park said Valley Transit Authority trains don’t solve the problem because they are rarely filled to capacity, don’t take riders directly to their destinations and are not conducive to families.
“The real problem is that people can’t afford to live where they work,” he said.
All the candidates said they supported Measure R, which disallows reducing the city’s open space for development unless a supermajority of voters approve it.
“The open space is one of the hidden victims of all the growth that has been going on in the city,” Park said. “We have added lots and lots of people and not much open space.”
Rafah said the city needs to “get away from conventional zoning.” He said the Council has been under “subpar leadership.”
But O’Neill said change doesn’t happen quickly, adding that Santa Clara is a “very complicated city.”
“Sometimes I feel like King Solomon — without all that wisdom — trying to figure out how to divide the baby,” she said