Santa Clara committee wraps up recommendations for future voting districts

Santa Clara has waffled for years on how to handle its City Council elections, fielding a failed ballot measure and a lawsuit in the process, but a committee formed to put those matters to rest made some critical decisions on the matter Thursday night.

Santa Clara’s Charter Review Committee worked out the details of its recommendation from earlier this month to split the city into three districts with two elected officials in each — a departure from the six districts ordered last year by a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge. The seven-person advisory committee to the City Council decided during a sometimes tense meeting Thursday night, to recommend that the city keep its six-districts through 2020, meaning four district seats would be up for election in Nov. 2020. The city would then change over to the three districts for the 2022 election.

The group will also recommend that people who run for election must live in the district they hope to represent for at least 30 days before they throw their hat in the ring, and if they move from the districts they represent, they will also forfeit their seat. That was a position was largely supported in an online poll the city conducted this year.

As for how the three districts will be split up, that is for an independent commission to decide in the future, the group decided, but one caveat is that if during that “re-districting” process an elected councilmember is suddenly no longer living in their district, they’ll be allowed to serve the remainder of their term.

“I have lived in the city for along time and I have waited for an opportunity to have voting opportunities that we have designed in this process,” said Katherine Almazol, a Charter Review Committee member.

The group, appointed by councilmembers and charged with coming up with a resident-supported plan for future elections. Its decision will help form the questions that will appear on Santa Clarans’ ballots in March to determine how the city should be split for future elections.

That March ballot question will mark a critical decision by residents.

A map of the potential districts shows the court-ordered districts in black versus three districts in red. Image courtesy of Santa Clara.That March ballot question will mark a critical decision by residents because the judge’s order to split Santa Clara into six districts lasts only through next year.

If the ballot measure succeeds, the city will be re-districted into three parts, but if it fails, the city will revert back to its old election process of electing each councilmember “at-large,” or by a vote of everyone in the city after the Nov. 2020 election.

That’s the process that got the city into legal trouble a few years ago.

“If it fails at the ballot box, we are basically subject to another lawsuit,” Charter Review Committee Chair Suds Jain said in an interview this week.

How did we get here?

In 2017, the city was sued over its longstanding at-large election system because the suit, brought by lawyer Robert Rubin, claimed it put minority groups in the city at a disadvantage for electing the candidate of their choice.

The city then offered up a ballot measure, known as Measure A, in 2018 to split the city into two districts with three councilmembers per district. The measure failed at the ballot box, despite voters saying the same year they overwhelmingly wanted to vote for councilmembers by district.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle last year in his ruling agreed with the suit against Santa Clara and split the city into six parts, with one council representative per district. Residents then elected two councilmembers, Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal, based on those districts.

Notably, the city has decided to appeal Judge Kuhnle’s ruling and is currently waiting on the results of that appeal.

But in the meantime, city officials say they need to amend the city’s charter with a long-term plan for future elections, partially in service to the voters who said they wanted districted elections in 2018 and in part so they don’t get sued again.

That’s where Santa Clara’s Charter Review Committee comes in.

The seven-person group is an advisory committee, meaning they’ll make their recommendations to Santa Clara’s City Council, which will have the final say on what to put forward to city voters on March 3.

Santa Clara City Clerk Hosam Haggag encouraged committee members to show up to the council meeting later this year to assist councilmembers.

“They have to make their own decision anyways, and they may have questions during the meeting,” he said. “I encourage you to come as former committee members to weigh in and speak your opinion.”

Earlier this month, the group voted to recommend a switch to three districts, a decision that Jain and another committee member, Christine Koltermann, weren’t in favor of because they preferred to continue with six districts as outlined by the court. But Jain said he’ll support anything voters support.

“As the chair of this group, my goal is just to create something that the voters will pass so we don’t have anymore lawsuits and we don’t have any more issues,” he said.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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