District Lines Drawn, Council Endorses Ranked Choice Voting

By David Alexander

Despite the objections of two Council Members, the Santa Clara City Council has endorsed an upcoming ballot initiative that aims to reinvent how citizens elect politicians and splits the city into two districts.

The lines for the new district came before the Council Tuesday night. The dividing line splits the city into a northern and a southern district of roughly equal population; it runs along El Camino Real on the city’s eastern boundary until it hits Lawrence Expressway then runs along Lawrence Expressway to the south.

Whether to use these districts and whether to use ranked choice voting, a system of voting that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, will appear on the June 5 ballot as Measure A.


The goal of both the boundary and the use of Ranked Choice Single Transferrable Vote (STV) voting is to give minority candidates, specifically Asian candidates, a better chance of getting into office by reducing the percentage of votes needed to win the election and by transfering surplus votes to second and third choices.  If a candidate  reaches the winning threshhold on first-preference votes, that candidate wins the office; if no candidate  exceeds the threshold of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the other candidates tallies are elevated until someone passes the threshhold.

However, the endorsement of Measure A was not unanimous. Council Members Patricia Mahan and Pat Kolstad voted against endorsing it. Mahan said she viewed the endorsement as “irresponsible” and an “abuse of power.”

“It is not incumbent upon me to tell a voter how to vote,” she said. “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong … when you sit in this seat people look up to you.”

Still, Mayor Lisa Gillmor called Measure A the “best thing for the community,” adding that it was “one of those leadership positions we need to take.”

Although many spoke about the district lines and ranked choice voting “empowering” Asian voters, there were some who disagreed with that notion too.

Michelle Hua, a De Anza College student, said the district lines are “disheartening” because it splits the main corridor of Asian businesses. She said the line drawing was the “dictionary definition of gerrymandering” and that “people of color will be disenfranchised.”

Kevin Park, a Korean American, said he is unconcerned with ethnic diversity, instead saying he is more concerned with “diversity of opinion.”

 

Police Chief Benefits

Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers also saw the Council reject an appeal for more than $3,000 in back pay. The mixup was part of a larger issue of Seller’s pay, which used to be tied to a police union bargaining unit despite his elected position, that came into focus in late March.

At that time, the Council narrowly approved giving back pay for his mistakenly being given benefits at the end of 2017 and again in early 2018. Because of the mistake, Seller erroneously accrued 40 hours of time off and was only making 4 percent more than the assistant police chief.

Still, some were unsympathetic to Sellers’ predicament.

Hosam Haggag, a Santa Clara Council mainstay, said having an elected police chief has its benefits just as having an appointed one does.

“We can’t have it both ways,” he said. “It is not a guarantee that just because you are higher on the corporate ladder, you have to make more than the person below you.”

The Council defeated the motion 4-2, with Mahan and Kolstad voting in favor of it.

 

Sparks During Public Presentations

Much of the public presentation segment of the meeting was taken up by the advocacy group Reclaiming Downtown. The Council Chambers were full with the group’s members, who applauded and whooped when speakers supported their ideas.

Dan Ondrasek, co-chair of the committee, said reinstating the city’s downtown is about “righting a terrible wrong.” His group offered its services to help get the ball rolling developing the area.

Ana Vargas-Smith, another member of the downtown group, said understanding how a new downtown fits into the master plan, along with the proposed City Place project, is key. Community task forces and placemaking are necessary to create a “complete precise plan,” she said.

Rod Dunhum, the group’s other co-chair, said the city needs to work to “cut red tape so that developers are on board” with the effort to revitalize the area.

“Our city is at a very rare point,” Dunhum said. “Santa Clara has the perfect mixture of a strong management team and an educated team of citizens. Santa Clarans have waited 50 years. We owe them this.”

Although Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Patricia Mahan had to excuse themselves from the discussion because of conflicts of interest (both own property near the Franklin Mall), Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe said the Council supported the effort. Council Member Debi Davis said “I want to help you fight.”

Also during public presentations speakers called for the censure of Councilman Dominic Caserta, who was absent and had recently been accused of several instances of sexual harassment against his female students and those working on his political campaigns.

Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the Council should censure Caserta until the facts surrounding the allegations come to light.

Former City Manager Rajeev Batra also made another plea to the Council to reconsider the pension issue that resulted in his losing $25,000 in benefits. The Council discussed the matter in late April when it opted to follow City Attorney Brian Doyle’s advice, who claimed awarding the benefits would be illegal.

To get reconsideration, a member who voted against Batra on this matter previously would need to make a motion to reconsider the item. Mahan and Kolstad voted in Batra’s favor previously. None of the Council who voted against him made a motion to reconsider.

 

College Football Championship

The Council will allow City Manager Deanna Santana to propose a four-way agreement to avoid  financial liability to the city when Levi’s Stadium hosts the 2019  College Football Playoff Championship (CFP). The agreement would be between the Bay Area Host Committee, the Stadium Authority, the City Council, and either the Sheriff’s Office or the California Highway Patrol.

The agreement would isolate the money for the game because of the CFP’s unique circumstances. At a previous study session, the Council learned that while the game typically generates revenue through a spike in hotel rentals, restaurant visits and other adjacent industries, the game typically costs money to host.  The Council has made arrangements with the 49ers Stadium Management Compay (ManCo), to not have to pay for any expenses—which are estimated at roughly $12 million—from the city’s general fund to put on the game.

Gillmor said ManCo made the bid for the game without the Council’s knowledge, springing it on them just a few weeks ago.

“If they are going to operate in that function, they are going to take on all the costs of that function,” she said.

Haggag said the Council should not be “patting themselves on the back” for not having to pay for the game’s expenses. This game, he said, is a “lost opportunity.”

“You could make more money with a birthday party with 100 people in one hall,” he said.

Santana said ManCo has not yet agreed to enter into the four-way agreement, but the Council’s support goes a long way toward making that happen. The agreement will come back before the Council for public approval May 29,

 

Great America Land Sale

A former redevelopment agency parcel near California Great America could fetch less than anticipated. Dissolution law requires the city to sell the 9.4 acres of parking lot. However, the $5.5 million price tag was incongruent with Council expectations: Gillmor said she would expect to get more than $500,000 per acre.

Ruth Shikada, assistant city manager, said with the restrictions on the parcel, a new owner could only reasonably expect to make $30,000 a year off the lot until Great America’s lease ends in 60 years. The first round of bidding yielded bids between $1 and $2.2 million because of the inability to market the site for commercial development in the near future, she added.

The Council bounced the item back to city staff to determine whether the city can repurchase the land. Gillmor said the city should not let the parcel go for less than market value.

 

Municipal Fee Schedule Increases, HUD Grants Save the City Money

An 8 percent increase in city-imposed fees will go into effect after seeing Council approval. One of the 18 new fees put in place was a 2 percent information technology fee that aims to replace aging computer systems throughout City Hall.

While three fees were removed, the 18 new fees have swelled the city’s total fees to more than 900. These fees aim for cost recovery of the various city departments.

On a different note, the city’s Housing and Urban Development bloc grants came in early and were larger than expected. As a result, said Jonathan Veach, housing manager, his department will only need $30,000 of the $45,000 the Council approved allocation from the general fund to bolster the program.

 

Study Session for Capital Improvements

Prior to the regular meeting, the Council heard from department heads planning to make infrastructure improvements. This is the first year that Santa Clara will create a two-year budget.

The Council’s goal-setting session this year focused on making a dent in deferred maintenance, replacing end-of-life technologies and completing already-approved projects. The budget allocates $215.9 million over the next two years for such improvements.

However, because of making these projects the priority, the capital improvement reserve, which sits at $31.9 million, will be depleted by 2020 unless the Council begins putting more money into the fund.

Carryforward from projects already underway amount to $136.3 million. Other major expenditures include $168.8 million for electric and sewer utility improvements  and $23.3 million for street repairs.

Costly upgrades to the Convention Center & Visitors Bureau and a new International Swim Center were not included in projects listed.

The Council meets again 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 15 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.