Santa Clara might change how it chooses a police chief
Santa Clara is the only city in California that elects rather than appoints its police chief. Voters elected Police Chief Pat Nikolai in 2020. File photo.

Santa Clara residents may soon decide if the police chief should be appointed to office rather than elected.

The Santa Clara Charter Review Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend putting two ballot measures before voters to make the police chief and city clerk appointed positions. Santa Clara is the only California city to elect its top cop, with voters electing Police Chief Pat Nikolai in an uncontested 2020 special election. Voters selected City Clerk Hosam Haggagg that same election and both serve until 2024.

The Santa Clara City Council will consider putting the recommendation on the ballot at a Nov. 7 meeting. If approved, the measures would go before voters in the March state primary.

The city surveyed residents on the potential changes, collecting online responses between Sept. 7 and Oct. 12. Of only 243 respondents who are registered city voters, 72% opposed changing the police chief to an appointed position. But the city also recorded 5,943 unregistered voters responding, of which 93% supported appointing the chief.

Assistant City Manager Cynthia Bojorquez said some people submitted multiple responses and she cautioned the committee to take the unregistered responses “with a grain of salt.” She noted having less than 250 responses out of roughly 30,000 registered voters is a small sample.

“There was nothing in the survey that said people couldn’t provide multiple responses,” City Attorney Glen Googins said, referring to the integrity of the information.

The city’s survey showed that respondents who support appointing the chief prefer having ways to regularly review performance, while keeping the position separate from outside political influence. However, people who support electing the chief said it was due to a mistrust of elected leaders. They saw it as a way to keep power in the hands of voters.

Clysta Seney, one of seven committee members, noted some residents want an advisory group to give the chief direct feedback about complaints. She said how the city is policed doesn’t change because people are afraid to speak up.

“Years ago, we were going to be a city of community policing,” she said.

Jeff Houston, chair of the Santa Clara Charter Review Committee, and member Clysta Seney at the meeting. Screenshot.

In response to Seney’s comments, Nikolai told San José Spotlight the chief’s advisory committee already exists, although it is not a citizen-run group. He also pointed to the poll showing the majority of registered voters who responded to the city’s survey want to keep his position elected.

“I firmly believe that an elected chief is responsive directly to the residents of the city and is not beholden to anyone or any special interest,” Nikolai told San José Spotlight.

According to public database Transparent California, Nikolai was one of the five highest paid police chiefs in the state last year. Controversy regarding Nikolai’s pay has been swirling since July, when the city council voted 6-1 to give him the maximum salary increase at 10%. That brings his base pay from roughly $313,000 to more than $345,000, making him one of the city’s highest paid officials. He oversees a department of approximately 150 sworn officers.

Councilmember Kevin Park was the sole “no” vote to raise Nikolai’s pay earlier this year, saying that reducing the chief’s pay would free up funds for public issues such as homelessness. When contacted Wednesday, Park said he cannot comment on the upcoming ballot measure proposals before they come to council, but remains concerned about how the Salary Setting Commission approves future pay raises for the chief.

“I think that the salary committee gave the chief a 10% raise without considering the role and responsibilities of the police chief or who does the bulk of the work,”Park told San José Spotlight. “This is the first time we’ve had a police chief that was not even in the management (bargaining) group.”

Contact Natalie Hanson at [email protected] or @nhanson_reports on Twitter.

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