The 2023 Santa Clara Charter review committee wrapped up its work on Oct. 17, finalizing its recommendation for two ballot measures to change the positions of city clerk and police chief to appointments by the city manager from the present election system.
If the city council approves the recommendation, the measures to change the city charter will be on the March 2024 Primary ballot. The ballot measures will cost the City $432,000.
The vote was 6-1 to recommend the clerk’s position change to elected, with committee member Satish Chandra dissenting, and 5-2 to change the police chief position to elected, with committee member Joyce Davis joining Chandra on the dissenting side.
Committee Chair Jeff Houston will present the recommendations and proposed ballot language to the Council at the Nov. 7 meeting.
Poll Numbers Show Clumsy Manipulation Attempt
The only new business on the agenda was reviewing the online survey the city conducted.
“As this survey was intended to get a pulse of the community to hear reasons why they would support a change or not, the decision was made to cast a wide net and not require registration,” explained Assistant City Manager Cynthia Bojorquez.
243 respondents registered with their names and contact information, while 5,493 remained anonymous.
“Based on appearances and consultations with folks who know better than us,” said City Attorney Glenn Googins, “the conclusion was reached that it appears likely that these are not all separate individual responses.”
Of those who registered, 66% said the city clerk should remain elected, while 30% supported an appointment.
The unregistered responses supported appointments by a hard-to-believe number: 93%. The raw data showed thousands of continuous responses within seconds of one another and continuing for hours, two to five entries per second, with identical responses and no text answers.
The manipulation was obvious to the committee, but one committee member wanted to dismiss all unregistered responses out of hand.
“The pattern which has been shown on the screen…all the columns for each and every one was same similar,” said Chandra. “The only unique was the survey ID. So if you tend to see the data for all the 5,000 responses, you know that all the unregistered users might be rigged and I think it’s unfair to go with counting the unregistered users as part of the tally.”
Davis replied, “We did this vote before the results came out of the test. So I think it was clear then how the committee was going to vote,” and thus wasn’t going to be a factor in the committee’s decision.
“I wanted to know if the system has any systems to detect a robot,” Committee member Clysta Seney asked.
Bojorquez responded that Santa Clara can’t validate the entries because IP addresses aren’t collected.
Seney cautioned the committee against placing too much confidence in survey results in general.
“The nature of surveys is that they’re like spice; they give you a flavor of something, but they don’t give you an answer,” said Seney.
Both Supporters of Status Quo and Change Agree: Positions Should Be Outside of Politics
The reasons respondents gave for their preferences offered more insight than the poll. Both those who favored appointment and those favoring election said it would remove politics from the equation.
The top reasons registered respondents gave for preferring appointed city clerk and police chief positions were: “Attracting the most qualified individuals” and “professional training, competency and experience.” They also valued the ability to quickly remove an employee for “sub-par” performance, isolating these positions from politics that are inevitable when running for office and accountability for meeting performance standards.
Supporters of retaining the elected positions said that the present system should be kept because voters should make these appointments, and that system works and makes Santa Clara “unique.”
Supporters also said elections were more transparent and that elected officials were more responsive to the community. They cited a lack of trust in city officials. They did concede that professional qualifications were needed for the positions even if they stayed elected. Some respondents thought that the residency requirements for election should be dropped.
Houston said that some of the stated reasons for retaining the elected positions offered opinion, but didn’t offer any argument for keeping them.
“These statements on their own don’t say a whole lot — for example, ‘current system works well.’…And then ‘checks and balances,’” Houston continued. “What are those checks and balances? And ‘elected clerk more inclined to keep best interest of the public in mind.’ Does that mean an appointed clerk would not do that? I think if I were an appointed clerk, I would take offense. And then, ‘Elected clerk process is more transparent.’ How is it more transparent?”
After the meeting, Bojorquez said that despite the small sample and questions around the survey, its value wasn’t in the numbers.
“The comments validate what we heard from people who spoke in person,” she said. “And we got this question in front of 30,000 people.”
The survey went out via email and the City’s social media accounts.
For more information about the work done by the Santa Clara Charter Review Committee, or to watch the Charter Review Committee meeting go to the City’s website. The survey data can be found in the post meeting material.