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Measure C Forum Highlights Divide Among Council On 3-District System

Disagreement about whether dividing the City into three districts will benefit the residents of Santa Clara was the focus of a forum featuring four Council Members.

The forum, hosted at City Hall by the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association on Thursday night, delved into competing ideas about the merits of Measure C. The ballot measure seeks to establish three, two-member districts to ameliorate racially polarized voting brought to light by Santa Clara losing a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit. Santa Clara is appealing the ruling.

The Superior Court judge in the CVRA lawsuit ordered the City to eliminate its at-large system and instead adopt a six-district system in the next two elections, but the opposing sides of the issue disagree about what will happen if Measure C fails.

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Proponents of Measure C, represented at the forum by Council Member Teresa O’Neill and Mayor Lisa Gillmor, claim the City will revert back to at-large elections, a position informed by City Attorney Brian Doyle, as stated in his analysis.

Meanwhile, opponents of the measure, represented at the forum by Vice Mayor Karen Hardy and Council Member Raj Chahal, claim that would violate the court’s order.

“When I raised my hand and made an oath that I would uphold the California constitution and laws, I meant it,” Hardy said. “I feel this will not uphold the California state law.”

While the court order specifies that Santa Clara cannot hold at-large elections, it also only innumerates that it must hold six-district elections in the two subsequent elections.

O’Neill and Gillmor claim the larger districts will limit outside influence and ensure candidates have the interest of all the City’s residents in mind as well as have more accountability to them. It will also allow residents to have more of a say in local politics, as they would get to vote in every election, they said.

“It is important that Council Members look at the City as a whole,” Gillmor said.

O’Neill compared the system is similar to how we elect senators, saying having more than one member in a district is “innovative” and that many cities likely don’t do so because of a “fear factor” that they should be “following the herd.”

But Chahal and Hardy said not following the six-district format is inviting another lawsuit — one that will cost millions on top of the nearly $4 million the City is already on the line for should it lose its appeal.

“We say we should learn from other people’s’ mistakes. We don’t. We say we should learn from our own mistakes. We don’t,” Chahal said. “No city has ever won a CVRA lawsuit, and we should have learned from it.”

Further, Chahal and Hardy said, larger districts make grassroots campaigns harder to run by pushing up campaign costs. Moreover, the two said the City could amend its charter to shift to district elections by ordinance, the way 29 charter cities in California already have.

However, Gillmor said only Santa Clara voters can change the charter.

Measure C will be on the ballot March 3.

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