Last week the Santa Clara Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) roared into the headlines by precipitating a hubbub at City Hall over candidate forums.
Many don’t know that the CAC started Santa Clara’s candidate forums, originally called “Candidates Nights.” So it’s not an unfamiliar concern for the 58-year-old committee, whose membership has included many legendary, and sometimes controversial, Santa Clara residents.
The list includes Josephine Rowen — who will be forever commemorated in the case law of the California open meetings law in Rowen v. Santa Clara Unified School District — Santa Clara historian and attorney and former Council Member Austen Warburton, Santa Clara American* publisher Al Mason, journalist — she interviewed Leon Trotsky’s assassin — and community activist Ari Kulpa, and the colorful Mayor Eddie Souza.
The CAC goes back to an earlier City “Watchdog Committee,” according to retired Santa Clara librarian and local historian Mary Hanel. That committee became the Citizens Advisory Committee in the1960s when an independent citizens committee was required by federal law to review grant requests for urban renewal housing block grants.
It’s the City’s only autonomous committee — not appointed or controlled by the City government. The CAC appoints its own members and any Santa Clara resident can apply to join.
In 1964, former Mayor Maurice Dullea and Warburton joined the CAC and created an “action group,” according to an April 1, 1964 report in the Santa Clara Journal. The CAC membership at that time included not only residents, but also representatives of service clubs and civic groups.
The first issues the action group took on were the selection of a plan for rebuilding downtown and a proposed Central Park bond. The CAC reviewed proposed development plans, housing and development policy, budgets and “anything that comes before the Council,” as a Dec. 31, 1974 Santa Clara Sun article put it.
The CAC then started Candidate Nights. These forums were an institution by 1975, when the San José Mercury reported that Committee Chairman Mason threatened to resign when his competition at the time, the Santa Clara Sun, was invited to moderate and sponsor the event instead of the American. The Committee then voted to appoint Warburton as moderator and invited sponsorship from all Santa Clara County news media.
By the term of Mayor Eddie Souza in the 1980s, the forums were being held in the Council Chambers, but the CAC still appointed the moderators, according to Santa Clara native James Rowen.
It was during the term of Mayor Judy Nadler, now retired from SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, in the 1990s, that the City became the sponsor of the forums, James Rowen says. Nadler also spearheaded Santa Clara’s campaign ethics programs — including the Final Word forum, held the night before each election — and created the position of City Ethics Consultant.
Mary Hanel contributed research for this story.
* The Santa Clara Sun, whose offices were in Cupertino, was published from 1973 through 1980. The Santa Clara American, the descendant of the City’s first newspapers — the Santa Clara News and the Santa Clara Journal — is still published. It became the Santa Clara Valley Weekly in 1989, and later was renamed the Santa Clara Weekly.
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