A deadlocked Santa Clara City Council vote last night ensured that the vacant Santa Clara City Council seat will remain empty until either a special election is called or the November election. The seat was formerly held by Dominic Caserta, who resigned on May 15 in the face of sexual harassment charges.
The Santa Clara charter requires a 4/5 vote of the Council Members present to make an appointment to a vacant elected office — a result of 2016’s Measure Q.
Some 20 candidates applied for the vacancy and five finalists were winnowed out in multiple rounds of a complicated ranking and weighing scheme — with an actual vote coming at about 2 a.m. This was so perplexing to candidates, Council Members and the public alike, it prompted resident Vicky Fairchild to remark that she could see why Measure A — ranked choice voting — failed.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor, Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe, and Council Members Teresa O’Neill and Debi Davis voted in favor of each of five candidates successively, while Council Members Patrick Kolstad and Patricia Mahan voted equally consistently against the proposed appointments.
All five of the finalists are well-known to the Council — 2016 and 2017 Charter Review Committee Member Hosam Haggag, former Cultural Commissioner Eversley Forte, Planning Commissioner Sudhansu Jain, former Civil Service Commissioner Mohammad Nadeem, and Member and past chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee Kevin Park.
The 30-day limit for making an appointment, per the City Charter, expires on June 14. Following the 30-day time period, the Charter says that the Council “shall forthwith cause an election to be held to fill such vacancy.”
Two labor organizations lobbied hard for the Council to make an appointment, one going to the extent of threatening a lawsuit.
“I do not believe it’s legal to leave the seat vacant until November,” said Unite Here Local 19’s lobbyist Sarah McDermott. “We’ve done a lot of work with this council and staff. The decisions you have before you are shaping the city for decades.” Not having seven Council Members would “hinder your ability to make decisions and be a working government.”
Attorneys representing Working Partnerships — a group that lobbies for Project Labor Agreements — sent a letter that arrived on the dais Tuesday prior to the start of the Council meeting.
“It is clear that the Charter Section 703 gives you two choices in case of a Council vacancy: either appoint or hold a special election,” wrote Attorney Joan Gallo. “It does not give you the choice of doing nothing until the next election … The City is not likely to prevail if a writ of mandate is filed charging failure to comply with Charter Section 703.”
Tempers were hot after Mahan and Kolstad remained firm on what they had promised a month ago, namely that they thought voters should decide the occupant of the vacant seat, not five Council Members — two of whom have been appointed — and they were unlikely to vote for any appointment.
“There’s a reason I voted consistently no,” said Mahan, after the voting ended. “There’s no reason that my one vote should count more than the 42,000 voters in the city. Measure Q amended our charter to make it more difficult to appoint a vacancy …[and] limit the power of the Council. I want the person who fills the vacancy to be the choice of our voters, not the choice of four people plus one going along. It’s my obligation to assert my greater duty.
“Measure Q and Measure P [lifetime term limits] passed overwhelmingly in a turnout of over 30,000 voters,” she continued. “Voters are tired of recycled candidates and cronyism and the Old Quad stranglehold. And I know that means me, and that’s why I take it to heart. The emails, texts, phone calls have been almost all the same: have an election.”
“I don’t resent you having your opinion,” Council Member O’Neill said to Mahan. “What I resent is that ….if you had intended to do this why didn’t you say this at the beginning. This was a huge insult to these candidates …for you to pull this stunt. Yes, we got messages that people didn’t want us to make an appointment. It was divided. I really resent that you wasted our time.”
City Attorney Brian Doyle topped off O’Neill’s scolding, saying loudly, “I’m ashamed to be working for you two,” referring to Mahan and Kolstad.
“This is ridiculous,” said Davis. “It says in our charter we have the right. Yes we got emails, but we have the right. I know this [Mahan’s and Kolstad’s votes] was a plan because I heard this earlier in the evening.”
“We had an opportunity to diversify,” said Watanabe, “and two [Council Members] ruined it. Fortunately we have a governing coalition.”
Haggag said that the dissenters’ failure to vote for any candidate showed “they have no principles whatsoever.”
He proposed that six of the candidates withdraw their applications in favor of appointing Forte — the parliamentary mechanism was unclear — who had gotten a ranking from all the Council Members in the last round. “I’m trying to make something happen because clearly you guys aren’t showing any leadership whatsoever,” he said.
“You should have made the point earlier,” said Fairchild. “To make all these candidates go through all these rounds …. is incredibly disrespectful. You just punished all these people [the applicants] for the problems on the Council.”
“I made it clear from the very beginning that I wanted this to go to a vote,” said Mahan. I’ve never made a secret of that. I believe in due process. I read every application.” Had one candidate “rocketed” to the top of everyone’s list, she was willing to consider an appointment, “but you could see from our voting that there was no consensus. If six of us can’t make that decision, it should go to a vote.”
One person wasn’t surprised at the outcome.
“To be honest, you didn’t stun or shock me,” said applicant Kevin Park. “I told people my prediction three hours ago.” However, “the other votes do give us some information about how you’re thinking….which gives me an idea that putting the vote to the people would not be a bad thing.”
“I thought we were following the charter and the will of Measure Q,” said Gillmor. “We’re at the beginning of our court battle. A judge may be selecting the Council. Santa Clara has never left a vacant seat. There has never been a vacant seat … a few years ago you [Mahan and Kolstad] took an entirely different position. Did you have a change of heart or did you have a change of politics?”
Gillmor’s concluding remark to Mahan was that she didn’t “buy” her explanation.
There was one irony in the four-hour ordeal: All of the candidates described themselves as consensus-builders and peacemakers.