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Judge Denies Challenge to Police Chief Ballot Measure

The trio that sued Santa Clara over the text of a ballot measure on appointing the city’s police chief — Measure B — got coal in their Christmas stocking this week when Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle denied their eleventh-hour request to change the ballot text. The petitioners brought their case on Dec. 18, ten days after the Dec. 8 deadline for the ballot.  

The petitioners failed to present “clear and convincing evidence that the ballot question didn’t comply with state elections code,” wrote Judge Kuhnle.

“Petitioners do not argue that the words used in Measure B’s ballot questions to be false or misleading,” he continued. “The words are nearly identical to those required…and are not argumentative. Petitioners’ concerns are…focused not on the words used but rather, the words not used. They argue this causes the ballot question to be biased and partial.”

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Kuhnle continued, “The words used (or not used) in the ballot question here do not signal the City Council’s view, nor do they disparage other views. This is important because ‘the completeness of a ballot question is not the test.’ It need not be the most comprehensive.”

The judge noted that “drafters — here the City Council — are granted ‘considerable latitude’ and a court must presume the language is accurate. ‘If reasonable minds may differ as to the sufficiency of a question, it is sufficient.’ The judiciary is not free to substitute its judgment.”

He concluded by writing, “the court concludes that the petitioners have not met the legal requirements for issuance of a writ of mandate.”

In his decision, Judge Kuhnle references two notable cases about ballot measure language.

Martinez v. Superior Court (2006) is similar to Santa Clara’s present case, where, although the language might not completely describe the circumstances, the court did not find it to be biased. It concerned a City of Los Angeles ballot measure that would set city council term limits at three. 

The complainant wanted the ballot measure text to specify that it would “lengthen” term limits to three from two. The superior court agreed and ordered the city to change the ballot language to “lengthen.” The ruling was overturned by the appeals court, which wrote that the ballot language, as it stood, was impartial and “need not be the ‘most accurate,’ ‘most comprehensive,’ or ‘fairest’ that a skilled wordsmith might imagine.”

McDonogh v. Superior Court, (2012) offers an example of ballot language that passes the bar for bias. In San Jose case about a measure concerning pension benefits, petitioners claimed that the words “pension reform” biased voters in favor of cutting pension benefits. The superior court ruled that the city had to add some amendments to the ballot measure but that the language was not false or misleading. 

That ruling was overturned by an appeals court, which found that the word ‘reform’ met the high bar of bias — “By combining this charged word with ‘pension’…the City Council has implicitly characterized the existing pension system as defective, wrong, or susceptible to abuse.” The court ordered the city to change the title to “pension modification.”

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6 Comments
  1. Ed Richards 2 months ago
    Reply

    How about that! The Council got it right,
    The City Attorney got it right and he defended his work and was upheld.
    Excellent work by our City Government.

  2. Fred 2 months ago
    Reply

    Whiners on the SC police union and the police chief be like: it’s not fair! We’re entitled to have an “elected” but unaccountable chief who is beholden to us and the mayor and her henchwoman and not the City.

  3. Tom 2 months ago
    Reply

    Yup, the people of Santa Clara are too stupid to elect a police chief. Thank god we have people to tell us how to think.

  4. Wesley Mukoyama 2 months ago
    Reply

    An election is when at least 2 candidates run for office. Past so called elections have had only a single candidate for police chief endorsed by the police officers association. Evena referendum vote gives a “yes” or “no” opportunity which never works for a single candidate. Only used in dictatorships. A single candidate only needs one vote. Let’s keep politics out of the police chief’s position and appoint one by the City Manager and approved or not by our elected city council. That is a democratic process.

  5. Tommy 2 months ago
    Reply

    The judge is clearly incompetent based on the decisions he has made regarding Santa Clara. He should not be allowed to be involved in issues that affect my city.

    • CSC 2 months ago
      Reply

      Your city? Kuhnle also presided over the California Voting Rights Act matter which resulted in Santa Clara’s improved district voting.
      .
      In San Jose, Kuhnle ordered former Mayor Liccardo to conduct a more exhaustive search for email and text communications after San Jose Spotlight and the First Amendment Coalition sued for public records access. He also ordered San Jose to hand over all investigation documents regarding the firemen who were driving a firetruck around to adult clubs visiting strippers.
      .
      Kuhnle appears to be on the side of full transparency in government. What’s the matter Tommy, are there too many women and people of color demanding accountability in Santa Clara?

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