Prior to the November 2020 election Mayor Lisa Gillmor rarely — if ever — seconded motions. She never had to. With political allies Kathy Watanabe, Debi Davis and Teresa O’Neill firmly in her corner, she could rely on them to give attention to the topics she deemed important. Any of them casting a vote opposing Gillmor’s position was almost unheard of. The four had a majority on the Santa Clara City Council, so, accordingly, Gillmor usually got what she wanted.
That changed in November 2020.
With the election of Council Members Kevin Park, Anthony Becker and Vice Mayor Suds Jain, the political majority in Santa Clara shifted. While far from unified in their position on all topics, the three joined the pair of already sitting Gillmor dissenters, Council Members Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal. The addition of Becker, Park and Jain effectively broke up Gillmor’s voting bloc.
Following the election, Gillmor and her lone ally Watanabe began immediately butting heads with the remainder of the Council. Many Santa Clarans sympathetic to Gillmor — including blogger Robert Haugh, whose blog Santa Clara News Gillmor promotes — began labeling the quintet the “49er Five.”
The derisive label takes a shot at the newly elected for having been endorsed by 49ers CEO Jed York’s political action committee, something over which candidates have no say. With the toxic dynamic between the team and the City having bubbled over into several lawsuits, the new majority vowed to repair the relationship between Santa Clara and the Forty Niners Management Company (ManCo).
In addition to a lack of hostility toward the 49ers, the new majority pledged to return fiscal responsibility to the City. Toward that end, they fired City Attorney Brian Doyle, blaming him for wasting $6 million of taxpayer money fighting the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that determined Santa Clara’s at-large voting system disenfranchised minority voters.
More recently, they fired City Manager Deanna Santana, citing a “lack of confidence.” Gillmor supported the appointment of both Doyle and Santana, whose combined yearly compensation exceeded $1 million.
These newfound tensions on the Santa Clara Council led to lengthy disagreements on nearly every topic, causing meetings to stretch late into the night. The City even hired an “efficiency expert” to advise them on how to trim meetings to a reasonable length. It had little effect.
Somewhere amid this turmoil, Gillmor began seconding motions.
Santa Clara elects its City Clerk. However, according to the City Charter, “The City Council may, in its discretion, appoint any other officer or employee of the City as City Clerk and grant such person additional compensation for the performance of such duties.”
So, after the resignation of former City Clerk Rod Diridon Jr. in 2018, the Council, then a Gillmor majority, opted to fracture the duties of the City Clerk, which include, among other things, public records requests.
Following that change, the subsequent — and current — City Clerk, Hosam Haggag, became merely an elections officer. All other duties formerly assigned to the City Clerk shifted to Assistant City Clerk Nora Pimentel, who the City hired right around the time Diridon resigned.
In other words, public records requests used to be fielded by an officer elected by the public making those requests. Now, those requests are handled by an appointed employee who came into that position when Gillmor had a Council majority.
A records request by Silicon Valley Voice inquiring how many motions Gillmor has seconded since the November 2020 election and how many she had previously seconded during her tenure as mayor, which began in 2016, returned the following response: “The City does not have records responsive to this request as the City does not track the number of motions made by the mayor or council members.”
The records request further inquired what the Charter parameters for seconding motions are. That response was returned as follows: “We are not aware of a Charter provision prohibiting the mayor from making a second to a motion.”
Despite claiming to “not have records responsive” to the request, the response includes links to meeting minutes, which memorialize motions. Minutes are incomplete going back to the beginning of 2022, and the City did not begin tracking who seconds a motion until March 6, 2018.
Although, as the City notes in its response (strangely, despite not being asked anything regarding whether the mayor can second motions), the Charter does not prohibit the mayor from seconding motions. The Charter describes the mayor’s duties as opposed to the authority he or she lacks, saying the mayor has “… the power to make recommendations to the City Council on matters of policy and programs which require City Council decision.”
The topic of the mayor seconding motions taps into a larger criticism of Gillmor, one that paints her as an autocrat bent on controlling every aspect of the City and throwing tantrums that she isn’t getting her way in the wake of a new Council sensibility about proper governance.
Her colleagues on the Council have not hidden their disdain for such behavior. Chahal and Park have accused Gillmor of weaponizing her prerogative to speak last to, in Park’s words, “lob a grenade” in the Council midst, lambasting them with ad hominem attacks then refusing to let them respond. Park has even come just shy of accusing her of colluding with the City Manager’s office, designing meetings and agendas in such a way to make the new council members appear foolish.
Patricia Mahan served as Santa Clara’s mayor from 2002 to 2010; she also served three terms on the Council, serving from 1994 to 2002 and again from 2010 to 2014. She frequently butted heads with Gillmor, and many saw her as the prime candidate to overthrow her prior to her resignation due to health problems.
Mahan said she couldn’t recall seconding a motion during her tenure as mayor. Nor could she recall another mayor doing so during her stints on the Council. The whole idea, as well as Gillmor’s tendency to have “the last word,” she said, goes against the spirit of chairing a meeting.
“For the chair to second the motion — the chair is supposed to be impartial — to indicate some preference for the motion, just seems to me to be abusing the authority of being [the] presiding officer,” she said. “Your job as presiding officer is to be objective and fair, to entertain debate.”
Such a tact, Mahan said, loses sight of the Council’s goal: to serve Santa Clarans well. She characterized Gillmor’s approach as “highly manipulative and highly unfair.”
Historically, Mahan said council members could put items on the agenda. Since Gillmor took over, the default seems to be that the mayor and the City Manager’s office set the agenda. It seems, she said, that many issues are already decided prior to hearing public input.
“That is an abuse of power. So much debate goes on before public input,” she said. “She cuts down council members. She belittles them on the dais. She doesn’t listen to them. That is something really new. There is no civility … I don’t see respect for dissenting opinions. She doesn’t have respect. It is about personalities now. That is the heart of the matter. It makes you wonder what her own bias is.”
By The Book
Robert’s Rules of Order is the gold standard for parliamentary procedure. Its use is widespread from condo associations to library boards, from ad hoc committees to transportation authorities. Barring a few changes, the Charter specifies that Robert’s Rules of Order are the benchmark for proceedings during Council meetings.
Daniel Seabold, Dean of the Liberal Arts College at Hofstra University in Long Island, contributed to the publication of the eleventh edition of Robert’s Rules of Order in 2011 and its twelfth edition in 2020.
The question regarding seconding motions depends on whether the Council is using the rules set out for small bodies or those set out for larger bodies, i.e., more than a dozen decision-makers. If the Council follows the small board rules, no second is necessary, Seabold said. A certain lax in formality is typically allowed under Robert’s Rules of Order in the interest of making meetings manageable, he added.
The Charter does not specify whether the Council uses the small board rules. Sebold said the way the Council operates is “definitely odd” from the point of view of adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order.
The chair of a meeting has “no automatic light to speak last,” Seabold said. Further, if the chair intends to get substantially involved in the debate, typically he or she turns the meeting over to another.
“The chair of a meeting, ordinarily, does not, at all, get involved in the substance of the meeting, because it gets in the way of their procedural role,” he said. “The chair does not get to speak more than anyone else.”
In his view, seconding a motion does not indicate an intent to support a motion — perhaps the board member simply wants to be on record opposing it.
To get meetings to run smoother, Seabold said, the Council might want to consider hiring a parliamentarian. Associations of this type are common in California and could assist the Council in dialing in the procedural rules so its meetings run more efficiently.
Whether such an endeavor would go better than the Council’s hiring of “efficiency expert” Shawn Spano or whether a parliamentarian could curb what others on the Council see as Gillmor’s overbearing tendencies remains to be seen.