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Police Chief Gets Raise Despite Vice Mayor’s Objections 

The Santa Clara City Council approved a 10% raise for its police chief — but not without dissent.

Although the City’s salary setting commission approved the raise for the police chief, Vice Mayor Kevin Park had a bone to pick. Park raised alarm bells about the bump, mostly because of a lack of clarity regarding the police department’s chain of command but also because of the qualification requirements for the role.

He called the police chief a “largely ceremonial role.”

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“I think this is the first time in the history of Santa Clara that we have a police chief who is not the head of the department. At some point, we need to think about what that means,” Park said.

The Salary Setting Commission opted to give Chief Pat Nikolai a raise based on compaction. Since assistant chiefs’ salaries are tied to union bargaining units, their pay can approach the chief’s salary as an elected official, creating a situation where an underling could be earning nearly the same as his superior.

However, as Park noted, the qualifications for assistant chief are actually more rigorous than those for becoming chief. Further, there is ambiguity as to whether assistant chiefs are actually subordinates.

Aracely Azevedo, with the City’s human resources department, said Nikolai has a “dotted line” relationship with the assistant police chiefs.

Although Azevedo was not explicit in her description, a dotted-line relationship is one of lesser authority than a solid-line relationship, wherein a person has clear authority over another person. A dotted-line relationship essentially amounts to keeping the other person in the loop or collaborating with them as opposed to directly reporting to them.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor said Park was “denigrating” Nikolai, calling his comments “par for the course.”

“It is really cowardly that you say these things, these negative things about our elected police chief,” she said. “It is not, it is not OK. It is really unprofessional.”

Council Member Raj Chahal challenged Gillmor’s assessment of Park, saying he has a right to air grievances just like anyone else.

Park, too, fired back, saying he simply commented on the item as it came up on the agenda and wasn’t “waiting” until Nikolai was absent. He said he actually anticipated that Nikolai would be present for the item.

“Cowardly? I don’t think so. Cowardly would be to sit here and say nothing when there are issues like this, when there are questions like this,” Park said. “It would be better — I would free myself from attack from you, from Council Member Watanabe and others who will come here in the next meeting to attack me on what I said. I don’t think that is cowardly at all. I don’t think that is bold. I don’t think that is smart. I just feel like that is something I think I need to do.”

Although the Council was obligated to approve the raise, Park forecast his “no” vote by saying “someone needs to take a stand.” Park was the lone “no” vote.

Deficit Decreases, Council Approves Budget

Amidst the looming specter of deficit, the Santa Clara City Council approved the two-year budget.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the Council unanimously approved its budget, which now nears $2 billion. The budget in 2023-24 is $1.8 billion and $1.2 billion in 2024-25. Despite such a massive budget, the City is still underwater financially.

Kenn Lee, the City’s finance director, told the Council the City is still feeling the effects of the pandemic on City coffers. While the finance department has worked diligently to scrimp, the City can still anticipate between $8 million and $12 million of deficit over the next 10 years.

Lee said his department will continue to work to reduce that deficit by seeking new sources of revenue and reducing costs. The City is working on creative solutions to fill its 200 vacant positions and address $500 million in infrastructure needs across the City, he added.

Although the City is adding four full-time positions for this budget cycle, it has eliminated an equal number of positions in high-paying departments such as the offices of the City Attorney, City Manager and Human Resources.

Other cost-saving measures have included layoffs, grants and use of reserves. Potential future sources of revenue include the issuing of general obligation bonds and increases in sales and utility taxes.

Additionally, a voter-approved increase in the transient-occupancy tax (TOT) — 1% in 2024 and another 1% in 2025 — is projected to generate $900,000 for those years and $3.4 million ongoing.

The Council already approved a reduction in the budget stabilization reserve from 25% to 15%, something Lee said has dwindled to roughly half its previous $80 million threshold. However, finance department efforts have managed to replenish that reserve to nearly $93 million.

The biggest chunk of infrastructure projects include Silicon Valley Power receiving stations, which account for more than $165 million of need. Lee said the City will continue to look for long-term solutions on both fronts

Public Outcry About Swim Center Closing

Swimmers turned out to the meeting to voice their disdain that a broken heater has closed the Santa Clara International Swim Center for nearly three months. During public presentations, nine swimming enthusiasts pleaded to the Council to take measures to resolve the problem.

Over the past several years, the Council has repeatedly discussed replacing the swim center, but nothing has materialized. Despite being a major community asset, the center does not have money specifically earmarked for infrastructure improvements.

With the arrival of summer, many said it is paramount that the pool be open.

“If I asked you to work only 50% of the time you currently work, but still produce the results that you produce, what would you think? You would think ‘you are crazy. Who would ask me to do this?’ Yet, that is what we are asking of the children. These are the people we are supposed to be supporting,” said Karen Cornwell.

“You have to do something. Our kids need to swim. Our adults need to swim, and our community needs to restore the legacy and the champions that have come here,” Cornwell said.

Kevin Zacher, coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club, said the center is a major amenity, one that brings money into the City. The George Haines International Swim Meet had to be held in San Jose because of the closing.

Independent of the financial benefit, Zacher added, the pool had produced many world-class athletes, but more than that, it is a venue for life lessons.

“We are not just developing Olympians or great athletes. We are developing really great kids, people with great character,” he said.

During the budget discussion, Kenn Lee, the City’s finance director, told the Council that estimates on building a new swim center range from $30 million to $100 million. However, he said, to fund such an endeavor the City would need a “significant infusion of one-time money,” such as a general obligation bond.

Manuel Pineda, assistant city manager, said the City will conduct a forensic study to determine what is needed to get the pool running for the summer.

At Gillmor’s suggestion, the Council referred the item to City employees to look into temporary pools.

El Camino Specific Plan Committee Will Be Reconsidered

The Council will also reconsider the makeup of the committee for the El Camino Real Specific Plan.

Under the City’s policy to request an item placed on a future agenda, Adam Thompson, president of the Old Quad Residents Association, implored the Council to take a closer look at the committee.

Thompson claims that many of the members of the committee are business interests, those who are vested in the makeup of the plan, and therefore have a conflict of interest.

While City policy limited discussion to the merits of putting the item on a future agenda, Council Member Kathy Watanabe disputed Thompson’s characterization, saying those in question are “stakeholders.”

“When the committee was chosen, they were chosen and vetted. And so I really, and this project has already been delayed, and I think this is going to just delay it some more,” she said.

Gillmor agreed, saying that the committee members represent “giant organizations.” El Camino is a business district, she added, saying in order to establish a viable plan, the City “needs to have business input” with a “diversity of voices.”

Still, the Council voted 5-2 to add the item to a future agenda, with Gillmor and Watanabe opposing.

Consent Calendar Spending

  • A $704,248 contract with Ron Paris Construction for the “yard renovation” project.
  • A $477,730 contract with Villalobos & Associates, Inc.to install curb ramps.
  • A $2.76 million contract with Robert A. Bothman Construction to rehab Westwood Oaks Park.
  • A $200,000 one-year purchase order with Armstrong Painting, Inc., Fairway Painting, and Aiden’s Quality Painting, Inc. for painting.
  • A $1.62 million, five-year extension to an agreement with h PFM Asset Management LLC for investment management; total contract: $2.46 million.
  • A $16,000 amendment to a contract for the relocation of City Hall with Wallace Roberts and Todd, LLC.
  • $330,000 in one-time, first-come-first-served subsidies to Santa Clara businesses with 49 or fewer employees.

The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, July 11 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.

Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov.

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13 Comments
  1. Buchser Alum 8 months ago
    Reply

    David,
    .
    Why was the council “obligated” to approve the raise for chief Nikolai? Is the real decision made by the salary setting commission and the council can only rubber stamp that decision?

    • Buchser 2 8 months ago
      Reply

      Buchser Alum-hole,
      David’s article stated the issue quite clearly: “The Salary Setting Commission opted to give Chief Pat Nikolai a raise based on compaction. Since assistant chiefs’ salaries are tied to union bargaining units, their pay can approach the chief’s salary as an elected official, creating a situation where an underling could be earning nearly the same as his superior.”

      • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
        Reply

        Buchser 2,
        .
        That explains the pay for assistant chiefs and the Salary Setting Commissions decision to raise chief Nikolai’s.
        .
        I am asking why the city council is “obligated” to approve the recommendation by the Salary Setting Commission. I am asking if the city council had the ability to overrule it and leave Nikolai’s salary lower than his assistant chiefs.

        • Buchser 2 8 months ago
          Reply

          Buchser Alum-hole,
          I can’t believe there is any “obligation”. The council members with the exception of Park, just decided to go along with the recommendation. Besides, this has nothing to do with the 49ers.

          • Buchser Alum 8 months ago

            Buchser 2,
            .
            I too cannot believe there is any “obligation.” But David wrote that the council was “obligated to approve the raise.”
            .
            That is why I asked my question.
            .
            I hope you now understand why. You should also understand that I did not say anything about the Forty Niners.

          • Buchser 2 8 months ago

            Buchser Alum-hole,
            Seeing as to how Park voted against the recommendation without any complaints, demonstrates there is no obligation. Had three additional council members joined Park, the “raise” would have been denied.

          • Buchser Alum 8 months ago

            Buchser 2,
            .
            The question is if the raise would have been denied if three more councilpeople had voted against it. Or if the council vote against it would have just been a symbolic no with the commission recommendation being binding.
            .
            I find that hard to believe but we are back where we started which is with my asking David:

            Why was the council “obligated” to approve the raise for chief Nikolai? Is the real decision made by the salary setting commission and the council can only rubber stamp that decision?

  2. CSC 8 months ago
    Reply

    San Jose PD’s Assistant Police Chief was provided a $285k base salary in 2022. Due to their department being 7.5(x) the size of Santa Clara PD, they also have three Deputy Police Chiefs managing separate bureaus who are provided a $206k, $240k, and $271k base salary. Sunnyvale with 100 peace officers and Mountain View with 201 are good comparisons to Santa Clara’s 153. Each of those other two cities have populations of 155,805 and 82,376 respectively which again puts Santa Clara right in the middle. Sunnyvale’s two deputy chiefs, Hyun Choi and Ava Fanucchi, are each provided a $260k base salary and Mountain View’s only Deputy Chief, Jessica Nowaski, is provided a $271k base salary.
    .
    If we average those seven “assistant chief” base salaries it comes out to approximately $256k. So how is it the City of Santa Clara justifies providing Wahid Kazem 34% more ($342k) and Derek Rush 27% more ($325k) than their near peers – some of whom have a lot more responsibility?
    .
    The Salary Setting Commission and the City Council have missed a larger opportunity to halt unnecessary waste in the city and instead heaped more prodigal benefits that will be hard to rein in. It seems the current city council nominated emotionally driven commissioners instead of data-driven folks to the salary commission, not a good way to do business.

    • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
      Reply

      CSC,
      .
      Did the city council have the power to overrule the salary commission’s recommendation to raise Nikolai’s pay? I cannot imagine that the commission’s recommendation is a binding decision that the city council has no ability to overrule or modify as they see fit or am I incorrect in this assumption?

      • CSC 8 months ago
        Reply

        In general, a commission is intended to act with impartiality to observe, identify, and/or review procedures and to lay down broad principles for personnel management in civil service. They do not make policy. A Salary Setting Commission typically recommends ordinances to a city council and mayor, their opinions aren’t usually binding.
        .
        From the City of Santa Clara’s web site: “Pursuant to Charter Section 702, the Civil Service Commission is charged with setting the compensation for the Mayor and Council. The elected City Clerk was recently added to the purview of the Salary Setting Commission by the adoption of Ordinance No. 1983. At the City Council meeting of October 9, 2018, Council passed and adopted Ordinance No. 1988 to add the elected Police Chief’s compensation to the Salary Setting Commission’s review.” https://www.santaclaraca.gov/our-city/government/boards-commissions/salary-setting-commission
        .
        If Santa Clara has gone astray and actually “charged” volunteers with setting compensation for elected officials it would be an anomaly of local public service. In Santa Clara County there are only two entities that have a Salary Setting Commission – the cities of Santa Clara and San Jose. In San Jose, their commission only makes recommendations to the City Council. https://sanjose.granicus.com/boards/w/2f8403d8c84ae3fe/boards/2015

        • Buchser Alum 8 months ago
          Reply

          CSC,
          .
          Thank you very much for your thoughts and the relevant citations. I have always assumed that all commissions are advisory in nature and that their recommendations are still subject to council approval or perhaps the city manager’s. I cannot imagine that a commission appointed by the council is not subject to the council’s oversight.
          .
          So I am confused why David wrote that the council is “obligated to approve the raise.”
          .
          But if they were not then I am confused why at least Suds Jain voted for it.
          .
          If the salary commission’s recommendations are actually binding decisions that the council is truly “obligated” to rubber stamp then I agree with you that this must not be.

          • CSC 8 months ago

            That’s a good question that deserves a more clarity from the current City Manager and City Attorney. It’s likely the city will provide a similar “dotted-line” response.
            .
            The police chief’s compensation review was added to the Commission’s responsibility a year after fired City Manager Deanna Santana was hired in late 2017. Mike Sellers was police chief at the time and there were questions circling about the legality of his request for retroactive pay. By adding the review responsibility to the Salary Setting Commission, the intent was to wrestle away overgenerous compensation from elected council members to an elected police chief. However, that plan seems to have backfired when Santana appointed two assistants with exorbitant salaries to shore up incompetence found in the current police chief. Seemingly tat unjustified assistant chief compensation is what the Salary Commission is using as their benchmark.
            .
            Again, no other city in California has this problem. There should be no politics in law enforcement and in a city the size of Santa Clara the Police Chief should report directly to the City Manager. San Jose has the Sharks and Earthquakes; L.A. has the Kings, Dodgers, Lakers/Clippers, L.A. FC; San Francisco has the Giants and Warriors; Anaheim has the Ducks and Angels; Inglewood has the Chargers/Rams. In these cities none of the five police chiefs are in a battle with the City Council or the professional sports teams that they provide services to and all five reports to either a City Mayor (S.F.), Board of Commissioners (L.A.), or City Manager.
            • San Jose Police Chief $311,262, 1,168 peace officers.
            • San Francisco police chief $316,000 base salary, 1,878 peace officers.
            • Los Angeles Police Chief has a $307,291 base salary, 9,974 peace officers.
            • Anaheim’s police chief $288,552 base salary, 400 peace officers.
            • Inglewood Police Chief $224,702, 186 peace officers.
            .
            Neither Nikolai, Kazem, or Rush have the experience or responsibility to justify their state topping compensation. There are other departments in Santa Clara that are denied budget in large part because of runaway salaries and benefits SCPOA-PAC, IAFF Local 1171-PAC, and the political police chief buy with endorsements.

          • Buchser Alum 8 months ago

            CSC,
            .
            I would have expected there to be open discussion amongst the councilpeople about the ins and outs of approving or rejecting the salary. Or at least I expected that the current council majority would all want to vote against giving Nikolai a raise especially Suds Jain.
            .
            If they do not have the power to overrule the salary setting commission’s recommendation on this and that recommendation is a binding decision then I would have expected one of them to raise the issue during the council meeting. I would expect them to do this at least to give themselves the opportunity to state that they cannot vote against it.
            .
            But I think all of this must mean that they could vote against it and could reject the recommendation. Possibly send the issue back to the commission to discuss and come back with another recommendation if they need to vote on a recommendation by the commission. Or just set their own salary if they can do so and only get the commission recommendation as a community based recommendation that is not binding.
            .
            If it is true that it is not binding and they could have voted no then my question is why Becker and Hardy and Jain and Chahal voted yes. Especially Jain.
            .
            I agree that it appears that Nikolai and our two assistant chiefs are paid more highly than is justifiable in comparing ourselves to other cities.
            .
            But I do not think that making the chief position an appointed one will make it a nonpolitical position. Chiefs appointed by city councils or mayors are political appointments so the process and the position is political. The political formula is different but it is still political.

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