This year was a tumultuous one for Santa Clara County politics.
The region will see a major shakeup with new leaders taking charge—for the first time in decades, in some cases. Local law enforcement and county health care workers are sounding alarms on issues at work, while the longtime county sheriff resigned and was found guilty of corruption.
Here’s a look at some of the major political developments that happened this year.
New leaders in San Jose
The San Jose mayoral election was among the most anticipated local races this year, which ended with San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan beating out Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez in November. The contested race proved to be the most costly competition in the city’s history—with candidates and special interests collectively spending more than $8 million.
Mahan will replace Mayor Sam Liccardo, who’s at the end of his term. A number of new faces in Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 are joining Mahan on the council. He’ll have to work with a majority who didn’t support his candidacy.
With Mahan becoming mayor and District 8 Councilmember Sylvia Arenas winning her bid for county supervisor, the council also opted to appoint two new councilmembers next year—despite pleas from hundreds of people for a special election. New members are expected to be appointed by January.
Longtime sheriff says goodbye
Smith, who announced in March she would not seek reelection, has faced scrutiny over a pay-to-play scheme—including formal corruption charges from a civil grand jury. A jury found Smith guilty of corruption and willful misconduct last month for failing to report gifts and awarding concealed carry permits to friends and campaign donors.
Smith was also at the center of another controversy involving a spate of inmate injuries and one death at county jails.
The county appointed Sheriff-elect Bob Jonsen to the post a month before officially taking office in January.
County health care workers rally for changes
Workers in numerous departments at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center spent this year speaking out about the work conditions at the county’s hospital system.
Ongoing staffing shortages, decrepit equipment and dismissive leadership have resulted in an average wait between eight and 14 hours for emergency services, a backlog of hundreds of patients and monthslong waits for basic, non-invasive screenings. Physicians said the county prioritizes quantity over quality health care, while medical residents said their concerns are routinely ignored.
The ongoing problems, coupled with two years of stalled contract negotiations, prompted more than 450 doctors represented by Valley Physician Group to threaten a strike in late October. The strike was averted after the union reached an agreement with the county.
New county executive’s appointment went awry
Days after longtime CEO Jeff Smith announced his retirement, county leaders picked James Williams, the county’s attorney, to replace Smith—without a public process.
After San José Spotlight found the appointment violated a state transparency law, county officials claimed they misspoke. A complaint citing this news organization’s reporting prompted Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen to demand the supervisors nullify their decision and revote. Williams will assume the new job in July.
Slow results for homeless solutions
The homeless population in the South Bay continues to grow, reaching more than 10,000 people this year, according to a county-led survey conducted in February. Santa Clara County is also poised to see a record number of homeless deaths this year.
San Jose has spent millions on quick-build transitional housing and motel rooms to help unhoused residents off the streets, while county officials focus on prevention programs and long-term housing. Though officials are seeing some success, efforts are still falling short as residents continue to become homeless faster than they can be housed.
The city also finished clearing out a massive homeless camp in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport, where several hundred homeless people lived at the height of the pandemic. The city helped roughly 170 people at the site into housing, but dozens still have nowhere to go. The city will redevelop the area into a sports park.
Demand for mental health services grows
Santa Clara County Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Otto Lee sounded the alarm in January on record increases in suicides and drug overdoses, as well as a shortage of behavioral health workers and beds in treatments facilities.
In August, they lambasted county officials for failing to make changes, citing 300 suicide and drug overdose deaths recorded at the time. They want the county to start building a 77-bed psychiatric facility serving children and teens, among other programs.
Earlier this year, the county launched an assisted outpatient treatment program, known as Laura’s Law, and saw early progress. It also unveiled 988, a new suicide and mental health crisis hotline, to help those in crisis faster, but some are skeptical of the program’s effectiveness.
The streets are still dangerous
San Jose has seen 64 people die in traffic collisions as of mid-December—a record number of traffic-related fatalities in the city’s recent history.
During the last decade, traffic deaths more than doubled from 29 in 2010 to 60 in 2021. San Jose saw most of the deaths on its 17 most dangerous streets—most of which are on the East Side. San Jose also ranks the worst in bike safety among all Silicon Valley cities.
City officials are scrambling to curb deaths by installing protective measures such as cameras and barriers. The city is planning to prioritize traffic safety near schools and launch an education campaign for drivers next year.
Trouble at the police department
San Jose Police Department, “the most thinly-staffed law enforcement department” of any major U.S. city, continues to struggle to recruit and retain officers. The issue, which mostly stems from a 2012 initiative that slashed police officer pensions, became contentious when the San Jose Police Officers’ Association released a survey showing 200 officers plan to resign in the next few years.
The department is also seeing fewer recruits, and those in training are dropping out or failing at the highest rate since 2021. The problem became the top issue on the 2022 campaign trail for the San Jose mayor’s race.
City officials argue SJPD is seeing a low vacancy rate, adding San Jose is addressing the issue through new investments in public safety, a foot patrol program of 16 new officers and bonuses for new hires.
Debate continues over county jail
County leaders hit the brakes on constructing a new multi-million-dollar jail in October 2020, citing a drop in inmate population and a need to build a mental health facility. But the idea was shelved in 2021 after pushback from County Executive Jeff Smith, who said the county is required to improve conditions in the existing jails.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved $689 million for a new jail in June but decided to overhaul the plans in August. As of October, the budget for a new jail has ballooned to roughly $749 million.