Just before midnight on Feb. 7, 2023, Santa Clara Vice Mayor Kevin Park closed the City Council meeting in an unusual way. Park, who was filling in for Mayor Lisa Gillmor, used the “Reports of Members and Special Committees” portion of the meeting to comment on the “…position of Special Advisor to the Mayor.”
In the comments, Park thanked the “Special Advisor to the Mayor” for leaving the book “Getting to Yes” in the seats of council members in December. Then, Park offered a book of his own to the office of “Special Advisor to the Mayor” for now and for “whoever may take the role in the future.”
“It’s a book that’s originally called ‘All My Friends Are Dead,’ but that seemed a little dark, so I changed it, I have all these little post-it notes. It says, ‘All my friends are termed out,’” said Park during the meeting. “It’s kind of fun. It starts with ‘All my friends are termed out. All my friends are termed out. All my friends are termed out. All my friends are termed out. Most of my friends are termed out. What? Oh. Now all my friends are termed out.’
“I would like to keep this for the Office of Special Advisor to the Mayor,” Park concluded.
The comment met with no response from the other Santa Clara City Council members and the meeting was adjourned shortly thereafter. Very few people saw the comments. It was after all, just before midnight on a Tuesday.
However, the one person who might take the comments to heart did see them. He was the only one still sitting in the crowd. He brought the issue up during public comments at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting.
“I wanted to share it with the general public as I felt most people didn’t stay up until 11:30 p.m. to watch the council meeting,” said Kirk Vartan, who was designated as Special Advisor to the Mayor on small business and worker-owned cooperative initiatives in February 2020.
Vartan pointed out that he did not “antagonize nor prompt” Park into the response.
“He did it on his own. He planned it. He placed the book in the mayor’s drawer on the dais,” said Vartan. “He put the little post-it notes in it. He continually looked at me while he spoke as I was literally the only member of the public in the audience. This was premeditated and calculated. It was disgusting and unacceptable.”
Vartan called Park’s response a “blatant disregard for the City’s Behavioral Standards and the City’s Ethical Standards.” He felt that the “demeaning and condescending remarks” were directed squarely at him.
“What he was clearly saying is I have no friends on this Council and the ‘friends’ I have are termed out,” said Vartan. “This implication alone is outrageous because the Council is elected to represent every person. And to single out one person is unfair and egregious. It is never acceptable for a member of the City Council to attack, intimidate or mock a member of the public.”
The Office of the Special Advisor to the Mayor
For his part, Park points out that he never once mentioned Vartan by name in his comments. In fact, he says this is really about whether the office of Special Advisor to the Mayor does exist or if it should exist.
“If the Special Advisor is an actual title, then I am making a social commentary about the title of Special Advisor to the Mayor,” said Park. “Did I go out and say, ‘Mr. Vartan,’ ‘Kirk’ not at all. I know that’s the way they create the narrative. But that’s not what happened.”
Park says the comments were made as a way to bring attention to the title.
“The problem that I have is that in public media, like on LinkedIn…and in the emails, he’s calling himself, the Special Advisor to the Mayor of Santa Clara. And the problem with that is that’s not really a title,” said Park. “He’s using that in a way that puts the City in danger. His profile badge on LinkedIn, for example, is the City seal. If you look him up on LinkedIn, it’s the City seal. And when he responds to people and sends people emails, and he does it as the Special Advisor to the Mayor of Santa Clara, he uses it as if it’s an official title.”
Council Member Anthony Becker agrees and says he is concerned that Vartan appears at council meetings not as a resident or an advisor but as “Special Advisor to the Mayor.”
“How often do you communicate with Mayor Gillmor? Because the question is, if you look at public calendars, he’s rarely on her calendar in communication,” said Becker. “So, we want to talk about transparency. How often are you communicating with Mayor Gillmor? And why is it that you’re always on the same page as she is if you guys are not communicating?”
Becker says simply wielding the title “Special Advisor to the Mayor” should hold someone to a different standard.
“He could be a gadfly, just like James Rowan and few others, you know, they can be those types of people that do that, that’s fine. But when you’re taking a title of Special Advisor to the Mayor, doesn’t that create a conflict of interest?” asked Becker. “If you’re there every meeting, saying how bad the five of us are, that’s a conflict of interest. And then you’re no longer a member of the public, you’re there to create havoc in a meeting.”
Who is Bullying Who?
Becker has been an outspoken critic of Vartan in recent Santa Clara City Council meetings. The council member was mentioned in Vartan’s public comments on Feb. 21 and portrayed on camera covering a smile during the Feb. 7 meeting. Following the Feb. 21 public comments, Becker broke with Council protocol, which prevents members from commenting on Public Comment, and responded to Vartan.
“I find it kind of ironic that they come in here acting like victims when actually they are the entire bullies that continually bully me and other members of this City Council. So, I think it’s harassment,” said Becker. “Mr. Vartan, I know you have your camera right here pointed at me because you think you’re going to catch something. Good luck. We’re all ethical up here and we’re trying to do the right thing. But you and Mr. [Tom] Shanks over here like to tell the public that things are going wrong and that we’re doing the wrong thing and, frankly, that’s libel.”
Vartan says under the Brown Act, he is within his rights to film public meetings and he uses the images to give people a fuller picture of what happens during council meetings. He says if anyone is bullying, it’s Becker.
“There is no bullying from my end. However, I believe Council Member Becker’s negative remarks, intimidation, and unfounded accusations from the dais is considered bullying, as the person being discussed doesn’t have the right to respond to attacks from the council member,” said Vartan. “I find it ironic that Council Member Becker is stating that he feels bullied when a basic objective review of his behavior shows he is bullying the public and in this specific case, me.
“Council Member Becker makes lots of claims and statements, including that Dr. Shanks and I have made untrue and libelous statements about him, yet he cites no specific examples,” continued Vartan. “Council Member Becker likes to use the term ‘political theater’ and suggests others do that; I am suggesting he is the one doing political theater, bullying and makes libelous comments.”