Santa Clara may be split into three districts for future voting

Santa Clara residents will likely see a question on the March 3 ballot next year that asks whether the city should be split into three voting districts, a yearslong contentious topic in the South Bay city.

The city’s Charter Review Committee, which is an advisory board, has worked on the most recent effort to shape Santa Clara’s future election districts since July. The seven-person group last week voted to recommend the city be split into thirds with two councilmembers from each district, rather than using the six districts, ordered by a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge last year. The mayor would continue to be elected at-large.

“We have had multiple charter review committees in the past and they have all basically failed,” said Suds Jain, chair of the committee and a member of the Planning Commission. “My goal here was to not fail, so I am trying to make it so that we have the simplest thing that we basically can guarantee will pass in a (ballot) vote.”

The judge’s order came following a California Fair Voting Rights Act lawsuit last year that alleged the city’s at-large system diluted minorities’ ability to elect their favored candidate and had made it more difficult for minority candidates to be elected.

A map of the city’s six districts as ordered by a Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge. Image courtesy of Santa Clara city documents

Judge Thomas Kuhnle agreed with those claims and responded by splitting the city into six districts, which were used in the 2018 election when Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal won. Kuhnle’s order requires Santa Clara to use the six districts through the 2020 elections. The city is appealing that decision.

Notably, if the city wins its appeal of the judge’s decision, it could change the number of districts before the Nov. 2020 election. If Santa Clara loses its appeal, then the six districts will stay in place through next year, but the city must come up with a plan for future elections and amend its charter to reflect that plan either way.

That’s where the Charter Review Committee comes in.

The group has been working to gather community feedback, decide on the number of districts and then craft the language that will appear on the March 3, 2020 ballot regarding how the city should be split up for future elections. Santa Clara councilmembers will need to accept the language before it is sent to the voters.

Santa Clara created an online poll this year that garnered 238 responses and the committee has held four public meetings on the matter so far. Of the online responses, 149 were in favor of having six districts in the city while 55 responses advocated for splitting Santa Clara into three districts and 78 people said they wanted to see some other number of districts. The survey respondents could be anonymous and were not limited to those who live in Santa Clara.

Committee members, however, favored the three-district option in a 5-2 vote and said they wanted to shift the election cycle so one councilmember is elected in each district every two years. The current election cycle has four councilmembers elected at once and the remaining two council seats up for election two years later.

Changing to three districts with an election every two years would keep every resident equally involved every election, several committee members said.

“Everyone votes every (election) year,” committee member Richard Bonito said during the meeting.

Along with Bonito, committee members Benjamin Cooley, Stephen Ricossa, Steven Silva and Katherine Almazol voted in favor of creating three districts.

Jain and committee member Christine Koltermann voted in favor of continuing with six districts in perpetuity.

“The reason I voted for six is because I wanted to make it as easy as possible for new candidates, and not well funded candidates, to win,” Jain said.

Koltermann agreed with those sentiments during the meeting, adding that creating smaller districts can help councilmembers better know the people they are representing.

“This is really a huge advantage,” she said. “The districts are small enough. The candidates need to be able to walk and meet everybody and knock on the doors of their district.”

What happens next is a complex waiting game with a winding list of possibilities.

The city is waiting to see what happens with its appeal of Judge Kuhnle’s order, and how voters will respond to the final ballot language next March. The city won’t likely know the results of its appeal until early next year, potentially not until after the March 3 election.

If the city does not win its appeal, the Nov. 3, 2020 election will be held using six districts. If the city wins its appeal of Kuhnle’s order, then officials have yet to decide whether or not they’ll stick with six districts for the November election.

But whether the three districts remain on the table for Nov. 2020 — or in the future — depends on how the ballot measure fares with voters. In June 2018, residents voted down Measure A, which aimed to split the city into two districts and add ranked choice voting to the mix.

Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure N, another ballot measure that started a process to create another ballot measure to amend the city’s charter “to elect its councilmembers, other than the mayor, by district.”

If voters accept the three district proposal, it will go into effect for the 2022 election, but could come into play earlier depending on the language crafted by the Charter Review Committee and the council as well as the results of the appeal. If voters do not accept the ballot measure, the city will be left with a city charter that still calls for an entire City Council elected at-large, which is the system that spurred the California Fair Voting Act lawsuit.

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

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