The Silicon Valley Voice

Power To Your Voice

Role of “Special Advisor to the Mayor” Leads to Conflict at Council Meetings

Santa Clara city council members are at odds with the man who holds the title of "Special Advisor to the Mayor" and it's playing out at meetings.

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.’

SPONSORED
SiliconValleyVoice_Ad2_Jan04'24

“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.”

SPONSORED

18 Comments
  1. Santa Clara First 1 year ago
    Reply

    I watched the following week your reporter failed to mention a woman went up to the Dias and complained that the Special advisor to the Mayor had been harassing and bullying her via messages on social network platforms. Her question to the council and it would be mine too is does this type of title give him some sort of authority and is he speaking on behalf of the mayor? Also Is he a lobbyist, in the past he has always come across as a lobbyist especially around the Barec project. Did he receive any compensation on that Project and being a special advisor?

    The disturbing thing is a resident complained about him the very next week and no one has addressed that issue. Thank you for reporting this issue but appears to have more issues.

    • Buchser Alum 1 year ago
      Reply

      Santa Clara First,
      .
      Maybe Erika did not want to repeat allegations made anonymously without any proof despite the nature of the allegations being very easy to prove.

      • Concerned resident 1 year ago
        Reply

        The comments were made at a public meeting, so they were not anonymous.

        And it seems highly inappropriate for a special advisor to the mayor to be actively working on recalling city council members, so I tend to believe the comments about Vartan’s bullying behavior

        • Buchser Alum 1 year ago
          Reply

          You should watch the woman’s comments again. She spoke anonymously. She was wearing a mask and even made it a point to state that she did not want to state her name.

          I do not know anything about Vartan working for the recall of any city councilperson. If you have a link to a place I can read about this I would appreciate it.

          Personally I do not think any of Vartan’s public behavior whether in city council meetings or on his YouTube channel has been anything remotely close to bullying. I would be surprised if that woman’s allegations are true or not grossly exaggerated.

          If they are true then I hope she proves her allegations and action is taken.

          • Jen 1 year ago

            I am not surprised about the harassment claim made by the lady at city council or her want for anonymity. Look at the actions during council meetings by Kirk Vartan. I think by having cameras directed only at specific council members during meetings, or his YouTube channel also only focusing on specific council members would constitute harassment. Especially since the city has videos easily accessible to the public of every meeting. He’s a stalker.

          • jj 1 year ago

            Your comment is kind of laughable if you think about it, who takes time out of their evening to go to council to ask council to respectfully look into this person because they are getting harassed by Vartan. That would be someone who has proof they are being harassed. I can see Vartan being that way as Jen said below Vartan’s YouTube channel shows his camera focused on solely Becker at times. as for the so called recall its public knowledge that he has asked people to specifically support it and there is plenty of evidence on line. Buscher alum you tend to only push the Gilmor narrative maybe you need to open your eyes a little more. haven’t we had over 25 years of this person in office and how many years with her dad at the realm, gee I don’t know let’s take a wild guess 50 years or so together. The fact that your name is Buscher alum tells me that you probably went to school with Lisa and feel the need to push her agenda. Maybe you had a crush in high school on her and still do, or promised some compensation, gee maybe you worked for the Gillmor family real estate business, so many people did in the day were you one of them? you come off as level headed but you are always supporting them. I think your words hold no water. Good for the woman who spoke out, that took courage, too many bullies in the world.

          • Buchser Alum 1 year ago

            Jen,
            .
            Filming city council members at public city council meetings is not harassment. The city council members are filmed as a matter of public record anyway. And only focusing on specific council members with his criticism is not harassment either.
            .
            These same council members only focus their criticism of council members at specific ones and that is not harassment either.
            .
            Vartan is focused in his criticism and persistent. But he has also been civil and sticks to the issues and does not make personal ad hominem attacks unlike Park and Becker and the other commenter here JJ. So I find her allegations dubious. I would bet that the truth is something much less dramatic than what she alleged like they had arguments in private messages on Nextdoor and she exaggerated his part of the exchanges as harassment.
            .
            Aside from the childish and wrong speculation on whether or not I have personal ties to Gillmor which I do not I am glad that you can see that I am levelheaded.
            .
            I do not consider myself a supporter of Gillmor’s. I have disagreements with her and I have made comments about these publicly online. I opposed her attempt to cut the number of districts from six to three for example.
            .
            Finding fault with Park for his unacceptable behavior as an elected city councilperson during a city council meeting has nothing to do with Gillmor.

          • SC Resident 1 year ago

            Jen, if Park or Becker don’t want to be recorded, they shouldn’t be on council.

            Personally, I think Becker likes the attention.

  2. JJ 1 year ago
    Reply

    Mr Vartan should be considered a lobbyist under the city guidelines; The Santa Clara County Ordinance Code defines “Lobbying Activity” as an individual or entity “influencing or attempting to influence a County Official with regard to a legislative or administrative action of the County.” – he seems to fit the narrative. Let me guess his good friend Hossam Haggag who is Lisa’s buddy as City Clerk doesn’t do anything about it. Vartan for years has lobbied the city about things. He doesn’t even live in this city, and his thin pizza is over priced and store barely in the grounds of the city, even has a SJ zip code because the mailman couldn’t find it. He’s got to be getting paid by someone to keep coming to council on a regular basis he appears to have a lot of time on his hands to be a store shop owner. Vartan bullied people to support his “Barec” cause then and now continues to bully. The police should be investigating this person not just the city. We finally get people on council who are not Lisa’s friends or family and we have to put up with this joke. if he is bullying one person on social media then he’s bullying others. These bullies don’t target just one person. There has to be others. I love how he calls himself the victim such a narcissistic tactic.

    • Buchser Alum 1 year ago
      Reply

      JJ,
      .
      It is fortunate for everyone else that you do not like the pizza at Slice of New York. The waiting time and lines have always been so long because so many people recognize it as one of the best pizzerias in the area.
      .
      The allegation that he was harassing someone through online messages should be investigated. The woman who made this allegation could make this an open and shut case by simply showing these messages and proving her otherwise baseless and dubious allegations.
      .
      Vartan may have more time on his hands than most pizzeria owners because he made Slice of New York a worker owned cooperative. Workers who get equity in the business they work in are probably more motivated to work as hard as they would if they owned a piece of the business. Because they do.
      .
      As for whether or not Vartan is a lobbyist you should read the city’s lobbyist ordinance carefully and in full. Pay close attention to the definitions of lobbyist.
      .
      https://www.santaclaraca.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/18860/635975456189130000

    • Hosam Haggag - City Clerk 1 year ago
      Reply

      Hi there JJ,

      Lobbyist is a very legal and specific definition in the City’s ordinance. I suggest you read it here: https://www.santaclaraca.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/18860/635975456189130000

      In particular, see page 4 under definition (j) that defines Contract Lobbyist, Business or Organization Lobbyist, and Expenditure Lobbyist. Each of them have very specific criteria to be met to require registration as a lobbyist. This is the first I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that Kirk is a lobbyist, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be so. If you have any evidence or allegation that he should qualify as one of those 3 categories, please email it to clerk@santaclaraca.gov (or hhaggag@santaclaraca.gov for my direct email) and we will certainly investigate it.

      I will say that while the ordinance does broadly cover traditional cases for lobbying, it is not as ironclad as it could or should be. In fact, last year we corresponded with former councilmember Dominic Caserta on his advocacy in favor of the flavored tobacco industry and despite his actions did not meet the bar for requiring him to register. Councilmember Suds Jain had expressed concerns and I recommended that he bring this up as a topic for discussion in the Governance Committee. We can only enforce what is written in the City Code and Charter.

      As far as the comment as to me being “Lisa’s buddy” and therefore that’s what has shielded him from an investigation is laughable at best. I have only been friendly to ALL current councilmembers, and that would not absolve their duty and obligation to follow the rules no matter who they are. Even with certain former councilmembers whom I have had serious disagreements with I have only shown respect and professionalism when dealing with them.

      I’m happy to chat at any time.
      Hosam Haggag
      Your City Clerk

  3. Buchser Alum 1 year ago
    Reply

    It is valid to be concerned with Vartan’s use of the title in communications because it suggests he holds an official position with official powers and somehow speaks for the city when he speaks for himself.
    .
    And to try to bring up these concerns as Kevin Park did was counterproductive and juvenile and unbefitting an elected official who is supposed to represent his constituents and not his personal grudges. We all know that his real objection to Vartan is not Vartan’s use of an honorary title but the fact that Vartan has been a critic of Park and his allies on the council and the Forty Niners.
    .
    When Park personally belittled Vartan he not only acted poorly toward Vartan but suggested that any Santa Clara citizen or businessperson should beware opposing Park publicly lest they also find themselves to be a personal target from the dais.
    .
    Park’s title and office is elected and has real city powers and he chose to use that power and office to make a schoolyard personal attack during a city council meeting. Becker added to the personal attack and several other councilpeople sat by and watched thereby lending their silent tacit approval of Park’s taunting.
    .
    Becker continues to be an embarrassment. Along with it being improper to use council meeting time to grind his personal axe against Vartan as well he showed how ignorant he is and how little he thinks before he speaks. Vartan has not bullied or harassed Becker or anyone on the council. He is a vocal and persistent critic but he is civil and follows rules of decorum for public meetings and even in his Youtube series he diligently backs up all his arguments with recordings of actual things that councilpeople like Park and Becker say and do. And cites city charter.
    .
    He does not harass Becker and has not committed libel. These are serious allegations with legal definitions that Becker is apparently ignorant of. A city councilperson making unfounded allegations of criminal behavior against a Santa Clara business owner just because that person is a persistent critic of him. This should not be tolerated any more than a city councilperson using his position of running a city council meeting to personally target a Santa Clara business owner for mockery.
    .
    Park and Becker need to understand that the city council meetings are not the place for them to prosecute personal grudges against business owners who are political opponents of theirs. And it is possible that Vartan needs to understand that he needs to be very limited in the way he portrays himself to hold any sort of official position within the city.

    • SC Resident 1 year ago
      Reply

      THIS is so well said.

  4. Concerned resident 1 year ago
    Reply

    Is this “Special Advisor to the Mayor position an actual city job? If so, what is the salary? Was there an open and transparent application and selection process? Are all city council members able to appoint special advisors?

    I’ve also noticed he sits at what is typically the table reserved for press—apparently trying to distinguish himself from members of the public. I also saw that he put some of his personal effects on top of the defibrillator equipment in the council chamber. He certainly seems like someone who feels very entitled—unwilling to sit with the members of the public.

    If it is not an official city position, then the mayor needs to come clean on how and why Vartan is using this title. Is she paying him? I’ve seen his nasty comments on NextDoor—encouraging people to recall certain council members. I’d advise the mayor to end Vartan’s use of this title if she has any interest in appearing to try to work with her fellow council members.

    I hope there will be an ethics investigation into his use of the title and the fact that he tries to pass himself off as an official representative of the city.

    You can’t “get to yes” with someone who is attacking you . Maybe Kirk should actually read the book and stop attacking people.

    • JJ 1 year ago
      Reply

      Concerned Resident well it maybe that the Special Advisor to the Mayor has appointed himself as the ethics Advisor as well. Kind of odd don’t you think if he would to investigate himself, but then again the whole concept is bizarre.

      At the very least the title and the ‘authority’ at which Mr Vartan presents himself at council and in social media is a concern.

      as residents of the city I would hope we get an explanation seems the Mayor may have not given this designation, but just created by someone, giving them some sort of leverage. It also sounds they are a bully.

      This is someone who should not be speaking on behalf of the mayor or residents.

      Answers are needed

  5. Santa Clara Resident 1 year ago
    Reply

    Why is Kirk Vartan even allowed to speak? He does not live in Santa Clara, does not have a business in Santa Clara. He has NO business at our meetings. Go away!!!!!!!

    • SC Resident 1 year ago
      Reply

      I can’t believe someone wrote this. Such an ignorant thing to say… I’m shocked and hope you are not being serious. ANYONE should have the right to speak during public comments at a city council meeting. I don’t care if they are from Katmandu. As a Santa Clara resident, I’ve spoken at San Jose city council meetings, Cupertino council meetings, etc. And yes, even in opposition to Mr. Vartan’s stances that are generally pro-YIMBY. But I still support his right to speak at my city’s council meetings AND record whatever he wishes to record.

  6. Winnie Sloan 1 year ago
    Reply

    It is 100% prudent that Council members Becker and Park bring up this issue of a “Special Advisor to the Mayor”. Is Mr. Vartan paid for his time? Are his activities documented and reported to City Council? It is interesting that Mr. Vartan says the actions by City Council are egregious. If he is not sanctioned by City Council to act on behalf of the City, then anything he does potentially puts the City in a position of having to defend everything he does including any potential lawsuits that his actions may cause. If he is not sanctioned by City Council, nor by the Voters, then why does he have the right to use the City Seal on his on-line or written communications? He is falsely representing the City of Santa Clara. Mayor Lisa Gilmor has once again put her wanta/needs in front of the citizens of the City of Santa Clara. She needs to stop the “me me me” attitude and remember that she is representing the citizens of the City.
    W.S.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

SPONSORED

You may like