Like toxic chemical leaks, toxic politics have a long reach.
A public outburst over the appointment of an interim Santa Clara City Clerk—something that wasn’t even on the agenda—at last week’s City Council meeting would have been astonishing were it not for the City’s recent polarized politics and the role that Mayor Lisa Gillmor has played in them since her appointment in 2016.
As the leading instigator and promoter of a conspiracy narrative starring the 49ers, Gillmor has fostered a political atmosphere that, increasingly, makes her suspect to others.
She didn’t help her own credibility at a Feb. 13 6 p.m. Council study session devoted to discussing something that nobody has been badgering City Hall about: whether Santa Clara should appoint its City Clerk or continue, as it has since 1952, to elect the Clerk. twelve-year veteran of the post, Rod Diridon Jr., resigned at the beginning of February.
Gillmor said repeatedly that she wanted to hear from “the citizens” on the subject. Just not, it seemed, from any citizens in the room or members of the Charter Review Committee.
In fact, the only people in the room that afternoon who wanted to put this on the ballot appeared to be Gillmor’s three allies on the dais—Council Members Debi Davis and Teresa O’Neill and Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe—and Tino Silva, Charter Review Committee Chair, Parks and Recreation Commissioner, several-time past Santa Clara Youth Soccer League President and co-founder of the Gillmor-aligned political website Stand Up for Santa Clara.
While the City Council has the power to appoint someone to the position to serve until the next election, the Charter also allows the duties to be temporarily assigned to another City employee. Currently, Community Relations Director Jennifer Yamaguma, who previously worked in the City Clerk’s office, is carrying out those duties.
City Attorney Brian Doyle, however, presented four alternatives for the Council’s consideration.
The first two were the City Charter provisions for filling vacancies: appointing someone to fill the office until the next general election or leave the office vacant until the next election. The other two were for Council-directed charter changes: making the City Clerk an appointed position or making it a ceremonial office and assigning the duties of the job to someone else.
A fifth alternative, forming another charter review committee, wasn’t one of the choices.
Council Member Patricia Mahan pointed out that the Charter says that the City Clerk “shall be elected”—she said it twice for emphasis—and that there are only two alternatives short of changing the law.
Members of the 2017 Charter Review Committee, with the exception of Chair Silva, spoke at the meeting with a single voice, saying that the question of whether or not to continue electing the City Clerk and Police Chief had been discussed and resolved: there was no interest in a change and no reason for one.
“The People” Speak…
Committee Members Anthony Marcos Bracamante, Hosam Haggag, Steve Lodge and Teresa Sulcer each told the Council that the committee discussed changing the City’s City Clerk and Police Chief to appointments and had unanimously voted against it.
“Let me remind you that this question has been asked and answered twice in recent history by a committee that you appointed,” said past Police Chief Lodge. “I urge you to respect the work of the Charter Review Committee. To not do so calls into question the very validity of the Charter Review Committee. Our city clerk position has worked well for our City for decades. This begs the question, if it works so well why do we want to change it?”
Anthony Becker echoed Lodge, saying, “If it’s not broken don’t fix it.”
Bypassing the Committee’s unanimous recommendation and putting a measure on the ballot rendered the Committee’s efforts “a waste of time,” Bracamante said. “You say having an elected clerk is a gamble. Isn’t any elected position a gamble?”
After noting that most people “expected the City Clerk to be here longer and the City Council not as long as many of you have been,” former Citizens Advisory Committee Chair Kevin Park said, “The Charter Review Committee was asked, by Mayor Gillmor I believe, to consider the appointment of the clerk and the police chief and the unanimous decision was ‘no.’
“Giving the City Council the power to appoint those [positions] would be a way around the popular process. It would nice to try to stop the City Council from consolidating power and controlling every City commission, committee and position that is not staff. Democracy is more voice for more people. Not more power for fewer people.”
Even some reliable Gillmor supporters weren’t with her.
“We are putting a measure on the ballot to increase democracy in Santa Clara,” said Haggag, referring to the proposed ranked choice voting system that will be on June’s ballot. “If you put another measure on the ballot that takes democracy away you will confuse the voters. We risk that voters will come out and say ‘no’ to both.”
“The citizens have already spoken. They said they want to keep this as an elected position,” said Council regular Deborah Bress, who ran for the City Clerk position unsuccessfully in 2016, adding that the City had “been hijacked.”
Gillmor didn’t respond to any of the citizens she heard from that evening, save to say in response to Park, “For the record, I never gave direction to the Committee to look at the clerk or police chief.”
… While Council Doublethinks
The sole member of the public endorsing the change was Charter Review Committee Chair Silva.
“When we were talking about this [elected vs. appointed city clerk] it was under entirely different circumstances,” he told the Council. “My assumption was that Rod was gong to be there for a longer period of time. But things have changed. I’m not married to the Charter Review Committee’s position.
“There’s an assumption that putting it to the voters in June is taking away the voters’ power,” he continued. “But you’re doing exactly what the [Committee] said: you’re giving the power to [appoint] the clerk to the people. I think you’re giving them democracy.” Silva then went on to note that “with a salary of $200,000 I’m sure there’s a lot of people that would love to [run for] city clerk.”
Gillmor repeatedly insisted that a ballot measure was an urgent priority, so voters could exercise their will. The question should be put to voters because “we haven’t checked into that in many decades.” It was a highly “professional” position and maybe voters should be asked if they wanted a “ceremonial” city clerk. She wanted to “see all our options,” even though there are only two per the City Charter.
Council Members Davis and O’Neill and Vice Mayor Watanabe all pledged allegiance to Gillmor’s view, and even appeared to be thinking ahead several moves.
“We’re elected at the will of the people,” said Davis, “so I think it’s time we ask our citizens, ‘what do you want in this position?'”
Watanabe said it was “important to put this out to the voters to make the decision,” and added some more options to the mix. “In the cities where the city clerk is appointed, they’re appointed by the City Manager, which makes sense to me… In the City of Sunnyvale the City Clerk is appointed by the Assistant City Manager.”
O’Neill said, given how “technical” the job had become, she was concerned that there would be no qualified candidates and suggested that the Council accept applications for appointment and “if it proves that there aren’t any qualified candidates it may be time to go to an appointed city clerk.”
“I’m not in favor of an [interim] appointment at this point,” said Gillmor. If the citizens vote down a charter change in June, then the election could be held in November.
“I think it’s important to hear from our citizens what they want,” she said. “I don’t think we lose anything by asking our citizens what they want in June. The unique position we’re in is that there’s no one in the job now. It’s not about personalities. We’re not putting the police chief on. Now is a good time to ask. It’s the will of the people.”
With Mahan and Council Member Dominic Caserta opposing and Council Member Patrick Kolstad absent, the Council voted 4-2 to have staff draft a ballot measure.