A series of political forums is offering voters a sample of the candidates on the ballot for Santa Clara’s highly contended city elections in November.
The first two of four forums, held at City Hall, gave Santa Clarans an opportunity to ask questions of the 14 Council candidates, the two police chief candidates and two city clerk candidates. Retired Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley — a democracy consultant for the city — acted as the forum’s master of ceremonies. Each candidate was a two-minute opening and closing statement and given two minutes on each of the questions submitted by audience members the night of the forum and online in advance.
The questions were not directed at specific candidates, but to all the candidates for a specific office or seat.
The September 21 forum featured Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers and his opponent Patrick Nikolai, City Clerk Rod Diridon and his opponent Deborah Bress and Council Seat Four candidates Tino Silva, Raj Chahal, Patricia Mahan and Markus Bracamonte.
The September 22 forum featured Seat Three incumbent Debi Davis and challenger John McLemore, Seat Seven incumbent Teresa O’Neill and challengers Kevin Park and Ahmad Rafah, Seat Six candidates Kathy Watanabe, Mohammed Nadeem, Anthony Becker, Mario Bouza and Suds Jain.
The questions posed to Seller and Nikolai did well in establishing the differences between the two candidates early. While Sellers touted his accomplishments and leadership skills, saying he has a proven track record, pointing to Santa Clara’s low crime rate as evidence, Nikolai called for several operational changes within the department, adding that the city is not as safe as Sellers would have the public believe.
One question touched on the use of force by police, specifically in minority communities. Both men agreed that an “open dialog” is important. However, Sellers said the use of force is reviewed on several levels and pointed to the addition of body-worn cameras to help the department assess whether force is being used properly.
“The key is we need to be transparent, and we need to keep up,” Seller said. “We still have a duty to uphold First Amendment rights.”
Nikolai countered by saying the department is not staying up to speed on social trends, making it slow to react
“Communication is by far the most important way to solve this problem,” Nikolai said. “If there was a better exchange of information, it would help alleviate some of these concerns.”
Nikolai called the department’s training budget “flat” saying it needs to expand its critical incident training to better equip officers with the knowledge on how to deal with a “wide variety of situations” and a “wide variety of people.”
The next question dealt with how the respective candidates would reduce residential burglaries.
Nikolai said Santa Clara needs a “robust department that is proactive” by broadening programs such as bait packages and plain-clothes units that allow officers to “actively go out and look for the people who do this before they commit the crime.”
Sellers took issue with the notion that residential burglaries are on the rise. With the passing of Proposition 47, which reduced many felony crimes to misdemeanors, he said his department got “very proactive” and partnered with several agencies to ensure Santa Clara remained safe.
Other questions dealt with Levi’s Stadium. A point of contention between the two is whether tax dollars funded security at the 49ers home field, which would be a violation of Measure J.
While Sellers said he believes his department complied with Measure J, he is “fully supportive’ of the audit. Nikolai on the other hand claims the police chief has prohibited officers from talking about the details of the issue publicly.
“I believe the police department has spent general fund money at Levi’s Stadium,” Nikolai said. “If I could talk to the public about it, I would.”
The vying for city clerk took on a similar tone with the incumbent pointing to his record of services, saying several programs put in place on his watch have helped the community, and the challenger claiming a lack of diligence on the part of the incumbent.
When asked what they each have done to increase transparency within the government, Diridon spoke about efforts to stream planning commission meetings, making more public documents available online, translating ballot forms, and the city’s lobbyist and calendar ordinances, which allow citizens to know with whom public officials meet.
“There is more information available online than ever before in the history of Santa Clara,” he said.
Further, Diridon said his office has put programs in place that engage the community, which, he said, statistics show have increased voter turnout.
Conversely, Bress said she has “stood up in front of Council asking pointed questions,” something Diridon said would be “highly inappropriate” as City Clerk. She accused Diridon of bungling his duties as City Auditor, pointing to the California Civil Grand Jury investigation into the Measure J issue.
As for programs that increase community engagement, Bress expressed skepticism both about the need for the programs and their effectiveness.
“The fact is people vote when they want to vote,” she said. “The programs have failed. Statistics are like a bikini: they cover the important parts.”
“It’s time we stop putting money down that rathole,” she added.
Council Seat Four
Development was a big topic of interest during the Seat Four portion of the forum. Candidates Markus Bracamonte, Tino Silva, Patricia Mahan and Raj Chahal each took turns fielding questions with the central focus revolving around land use.
Bracamonte said when it comes to development, the city needs to focus on adding more entertainment while increasing police and fire services.
“It’s embarrassing to live in a city where you can’t go on a date,” he said. “We need to follow through the general plan.”
Chahal echoed this sentiment, adding that the city needs to focus more on mixed-use developments. He expressed concern over the amount of pollution created by traffic because they city does not execute “smart, balanced, controlled growth.”
The Stadium Authority came up again, One question inquired as to each candidate’s relationship with the 49ers, citing disputes between the city and the team regarding, again, the use of general fund money, the use of a neighboring soccer park and the team’s rent.
“If you want to fix the relationship with the 49ers, they need to come to the table with integrity and honesty,” Silva said. “Past behavior predicts future behavior.”
Every candidate except Patricia Mahan assured the public that they had not taken campaign contributions from the team. Instead, Mahan said little more than she has a “good working relationship with the team,” adding “If they make money, we make money.”
In his closing, Silva pointed out that Mahan didn’t join the bandwagon in saying she has not accepted money from the 49ers, adding that the public is “tired of recycled politicians.”
However, Mahan shrugged off the implication that the 49ers influence her.
“I am a veteran. I am a pro, and I only play for one team: Santa Clara,” she said.
Council Seat Seven
Questions given to Davis and McLemore mirrored those directed at other candidates, revealing that Santa Clarans place a high priority on issues surrounding so-called affordable housing, transparency in government, traffic and the city’s relationship with the 49ers.
McLemore said the city has a “housing-to-jobs-ratio problem,” adding that to correct that the Council needs to do a better job following the General Plan and plan development “slowly, surely.”
What the city needs more of, Davis said, is mixed-use developments she called “urban villages,” areas that are “self-sustaining” and “walkable.”
“We have to look at things that are a little more visionary,” she said.
The two seems to agree, at least in part, about the city’s relationship with the 49ers.
“They are a tenant. It is a business. It needs to be treated like a business,” Davis said.
However, McLemore contests that the onus is on the Council, saying that its members are “not reading the contracts” but also adding that the “49ers are not an evil empire.”
Still, the two candidates differed in their stance when asked about supporting a moratorium on development.
Confirming that he would support a halt to development, McLemore said Santa Clara’s rapid growth is causing “angst” within the city.
“We probably should slow down. This is not a race where we have to get things done in the next two years,” he said.
Davis countered, saying a moratorium is “not the answer.” Instead, she said the city needs to be “more diligent” and “look at every impact.”
“We need to make sure we have a better system to get people to their jobs and putting housing where the jobs are,” she said.
Council Seat Six
The first question posed to the Seat Six candidates pertained to so-called affordable housing, specifically how to supplement money used for such housing after the state dissolved development agencies — a primary funding source for affordable housing. Bouza was quick to point out that “affordable housing” means something different to everybody, saying that what people mean is “below market” housing.
Bouza and Becker agreed that the city should be providing more tax incentives to developers to provide said housing.
Most of Jain’s concern stemmed from an issue that only he raised. He said the city lacks concrete policies and ordinances. The lack of concrete ordinances has resulted in the Council taking too long to react to issues within the city.
“There is not clarity about stadium issues, about mini-dorms, about affordable housing,” he said. “You would think we are building another stadium in the old quad.”
Nadeem said that Santa Clara is at a “crossroads” when it comes to housing and that the Council needs to focus on “smart growth.” Noting that traffic and growth must be addressed together, he said, “We cannot solve the traffic issue, but we can manage it.
“Living in Santa Clara has become a challenge for a lot of people, especially young people and seniors,” he said. “Affordable housing is not enough for what people are making.”
As with previous candidates, questions about the city’s relationship with the 49ers permeated several of the questions. However, Bouza’s said he opposed having a city liaison for the stadium.
“The city should not be involved in running a stadium,” he said, adding that the city should treat Levi’s Stadium the same way it treats Great America.
Watanabe said she has worked consistently with residents on the north side to allay their concerns, helping create a webpage where residents of the area can voice concerns caused by the stadium.
All the candidates agreed that the city should provide more programs for the handicapped and could do better to make the city handicap-accessible. “We have to admit that we are really behind on this issue,” said Nadeem.
When asked whether the city should switch its election process to a district-based system, only Becker said he supported it, calling a district-based system a “legitimate democracy.”
“It needs to be done now,” he said. “It is stability, and it will bring more progress.”
Becker didn’t mince words in his closing statement either, making pointed criticisms, saying others “embellish their record and neglect equality” and that the city has a “bully agenda,” calling for voters to “break up the monopoly on council” and to “break up the puppeteering.”
Council Seat Seven
The formula was similar for the Seat Seven candidates.
However, this time around a question about Santa Clara’s homeless population, an issue everyone tied back to affordable housing, lead off the final portion of the forum.
To address the problem, O’Neill said the city needs more adequate mental health facilities.
Development and traffic congestion will be helped by making improvements to mass transit systems near high-density areas, O’Neill said. And as far as the stadium goes, she said many of the problems arose from how complicated the contracts for it were, but those issues were an “informational” problem, not a contractual one.
The city needs to “go back and set a baseline for how the city is going to operate,” she said.
Park focused a the city’s infrastructure needs, saying the city needs to bring back “real planning, not just development.”
“Open space is not a resource that we can recoup that easily,” he said.
Further, he said development is for naught if it isn’t bringing “the kinds of jobs that allow people to become resident.”
Meanwhile, Rafah touted his experience with state-level politics, making jabs at what he sees as the Council’s inability to anticipate problems.
“We deserve to have leaders who see policy problems before they push for them,” he said. “Being knowledgeable and caring is not enough to fix our problems.”
Two more candidate forums will be held at city hall, 1500 Warburton Ave., Wednesday and Thursday. The format will be the same as the two previous forums with the Police Chief, City Clerk and Seat Four candidates on Wednesday and the remaining candidates on Thursday. The forum will begin with a meet and greet at 6 p.m., with questions getting underway at 7 p.m. To submit a question in advance visit santaclaravotes.gov.