A second grand jury report issued by the current Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury is being called into question, this time by cities and local governments across Santa Clara County.
During its Dec. 6 meeting, the Sunnyvale City Council approved a letter in response to the Civil Grand Jury report “If You Only Read the Ballot, You’re Being Duped.” The report, which was released in October of this year, said the Civil Grand Jury “…has seen ballot question language that is confusing, advocacy-oriented, or simply dishonest,” and laid the issue at the feet of local government.
It released a single finding, which read: “The Civil Grand Jury finds that in the current environment, which is unregulated at the local level, it is easy for the author of a ballot measure question to write the question in a way that is confusing or misleading to voters.”
The report called on cities to voluntarily submit questions to County Counsel for approval prior to submitting them to the Registrar of Voters for inclusion on the ballot (Recommendation 1b).
It also told cities to adopt their own resolutions or ordinances by March 31, 2023 that would require them to submit their ballot questions to County Counsel for review prior to submission to the Registrar of Voters until the County could create an independent, citizen-led oversight commission. The report recommended a body called the Good Governance in Ballots Commission (Recommendation 1c).
Finally, the Civil Grand Jury told cities that once the Good Governance Ballots Commission was formed, the cities should submit their ballot questions for review to the commission prior to submitting them to the Registrar of Voters (Recommendation 1e).
The City of Sunnyvale responded, saying it disagrees with the Civil Grand Jury’s finding because the city has processes in place to “help guard against confusing or misleading ballot questions.” Sunnyvale city staff said it holds public hearings before placing measures on the ballot and there is typically community engagement.
“This strong community engagement helps ensure ballot measure questions submitted to voters by the elected Sunnyvale City Council are clear and understandable for voters,” read the letter.
Sunnyvale says it also adheres to the state election code.
To all three recommendations that required Sunnyvale to take action, Sunnyvale said the recommendations would not be implemented because the city does not agree with the Civil Grand Jury’s initial finding.
The letter closed by saying, “The City has carefully reviewed and considered the concerns raised in the report. The Sunnyvale City Council supports clear, accurate and non-biased ballot measure questions and is mindful of the issues raised. We thank the Civil Grand Jury for their interest in this important issue.”
Santa Clara’s Response to Civil Grand Jury Report
Santa Clara also took umbrage with the report and issued a similar response to Sunnyvale’s.
During its Dec. 8 City Council meeting, council members approved a response letter that said the recommendations were not “warranted” nor “reasonable.”
Much like Sunnyvale, Santa Clara said it follows the California Election Code and that it goes through a public review process prior to placing any measure on the ballot. What’s more, the City believes Santa Clara County has no legal jurisdiction in the matter.
“The County of Santa Clara, including the County Counsel, has no legal jurisdiction over a local agency’s ballot measure language. Each local agency is responsible for drafting local ballot measures in compliance with state law,” the City said in its drafted response letter.
Santa Clara city council members approved the draft letter unanimously, with Council Member Kathy Watanabe saying she was happy to see other cities responding in a similar fashion.
Oversight or Overreach?
The current Civil Grand Jury report stems from Santa Clara Valley Water District’s June 7, 2022 ballot measure, which was written in a manner that appeared to impose term limits on water board members but actually increased term limits from three terms to four.
Council members in both Santa Clara and Sunnyvale agreed that what the Water District did was wrong, but they did not agree with the Civil Grand Jury’s request for changes within local government.
Sunnyvale Council Member Russ Melton called it an “overreach.” While Sunnyvale Council Member Glenn Hendricks was more direct in his criticism.
“I’m going to try and refrain to my comments about how well I think this report was written…and that will tell you a lot about what I think,” said Hendricks.
Hendricks expressed concern about who the Civil Grand Jury spoke to on the matter.
“I’m a little bit concerned about in this report that they went and they interviewed 10 individuals…I’m not sure they talked to the right 10 people,” said Hendricks.
Santa Clara Vice Mayor Suds Jain acknowledged that the Water District’s ballot measure was “underhanded” and expressed his “displeasure” with the move, but he was not willing to give up City control to the county.
In total, the Civil Grand Jury asked for responses from 23 local governing bodies. A majority responded with similar language, saying the oversight was “not warranted.”
During its Dec. 13 meeting, the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Board also responded to the Civil Grand Jury report, using similar terminology like “not warranted.”
“Valley Water disagrees with the finding that local ballot measure questions are unregulated and may be easily written in a way that is confusing or misleading to voters,” read the response letter.
The letter pointed out that the Civil Grand Jury missed key points of the state Election Code when issuing its report, including that an impartial analysis of the measure must be provided for the voter information guide and that the entire text of the measure be included in the ballot or the voter information guide.
2022 Civil Grand Jury Criticism
The 2022 Civil Grand Jury has issued two reports since it was seated. The first, “If You Only Read the Ballot, You’re Being Duped,” has received widespread criticism across Santa Clara County for “overreach.”
The second was the report about the Santa Clara City Council titled “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Santa Clara City Council.” Santa Clara’s City Council responded to the report, saying several of the accused members were never interviewed by the Civil Grand Jury before the report was released.
In both Civil Grand Jury reports, it is stated that ten individuals were interviewed as part of the process.
By comparison, San Mateo’s Civil Grand Jury interviewed 20 people and conducted a survey of 20 City Managers before issuing a report on outdoor dining. While San Francisco’s Civil Grand Jury interviewed two dozen people before issuing a progress report on San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Support.