Santa Clara leaves police chief decision to voters, disputes scathing grand jury report
Former Police Chief Mike Sellers stands with Santa Clara councilmembers ahead of his retirement from the police department's top job, which became official Sept. 1. Photo courtesy of Janice Bitters.

It’s official: Santa Clara will have two police chief elections in 2020 after councilmembers on Wednesday night said they couldn’t agree on who to elect to the newly-vacant position between now and Dec. 2020.

The decision comes after a contentious meeting where elected officials were set to decide what to do about the retirement of longtime Chief Mike Sellers who stepped down Sept. 1, more than a year earlier than expected based on his elected term.

Sellers’ retirement, initially announced in June but made official this month, set off a 30-day process for city leaders to appoint someone to take over the top police post in the city for the next 16 months, saving potential police chief candidates from running twice in a year.

The catch is that councilmembers would need to agree in a four-fifths vote — meaning at least six out of seven of them — to appoint the same person. Elected officials weren’t confident they could agree, particularly after not being able to agree on a replacement for former Councilmember Dominic Caserta last year after he stepped down due to sexual harassment allegations from former students.

“It’s important for us to remember what happened last year because it really wasn’t that long ago,” Councilmember Kathy Watanabe said. “We wasted over six hours because certain members of our council weren’t honest about the process … I don’t want to go through that again, and I don’t want anybody to go through that again.”

A new chief will be elected during the next general election, scheduled for March 3, 2020, but will only serve the rest of Sellers’ original term, which ends in Dec. 2020.

Then police chief candidates will need to run again in the November election to hold onto the position for a four-year term.

“I would have liked to have done anything possible to avoid putting the public through two elections,” Councilmember Teresa O’Neill said. “I just don’t see a way there.”

Already, the position has a couple of contenders for the March primary.

Among them: Current Assistant Chief Dan Winter, who will take on the police chief responsibilities in the interim, and Lieutenant Pat Nikolai, who narrowly lost his bid for the top job in 2016.

Nikolai told this news organization in July he was interested in being appointed to the position but would also run to be elected next year if it came to that.

Assistant Chief Winter told San José Spotlight on Wednesday he was also hoping to be appointed but would be prepared to run for the position next year.

Response to Grand Jury public records report

The police chief position was one of two high-profile issues discussed Wednesday night during the special meeting.

The second big-ticket item was the city’s legally mandated response to a scathing Civil Grand Jury report released in June that alleged that Santa Clara city staff members did not comply with the state’s open records law. The report is called City of Santa Clara: Public Records Access, The Paper Chase.

On Wednesday, lawmakers unequivocally disagreed with every finding the Civil Grand Jury outlined, and they agreed to send a response to the investigative judicial body saying just that.

City Manager Deanna Santana outlined the response at length, disputing the accuracy of parts of the 18-page report released earlier this summer. She added that the findings did not capture the big picture for Santa Clara, which she said has a significantly larger load when it comes to public records requests compared to neighboring cities.

Some city leaders, including Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Debi Davis, suggested the large number of public records requests constituted harassment by frequent requesters.

Both Gillmor and Davis called for the list of public record requests to be made public along with the identity of the requesters, what they were asking for and why they wanted the information. That information would be helpful for taxpayers, Gillmor said, because so much city staff time is being spent on gathering that information.

The state law governing the requests, the California Public Records Act, dates back to 1968 and allows people to look at and receive documents created and kept by government agencies, with only a few narrowly-defined exceptions. It outlines strict requirements for how long a government agency has to respond to requests and deliver documents. The law also allows people to remain anonymous while requesting information, making the calls for releasing the identities of frequent requesters difficult, according to City Attorney Brian Doyle.

Santa Clara County’s Civil Grand Jury report concluded that Santa Clara’s public records process is “a time-consuming and difficult chore.” It outlined jurors’ experiences attempting to get specific documents, finding ultimately that the city’s system was, in their view, disorganized and decentralized. The report also noted that response times for such public record requests in the first quarter of 2019 had more than doubled from 2018.

The judicial body laid out specific recommendations for the city, and Santa Clara officials are required to respond to those recommendations within about three months, a deadline that the city was set to hit this month.

Santa Clara officials will send a response to the judicial body disputing all of the findings in the report. In the meantime, city officials say they’re working to enact systems that will digitize public records processes in the future, ideally adding efficiency to the city’s existing processes.

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

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