Santa Clara officials fail to appoint councilmember in tense public meeting
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor said Wednesday she wasn't surprised that Measure C failed. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Tensions ran at a fever pitch Monday night as Santa Clara councilmembers realized that for the third time in a row, they’d fail to agree on who to appoint to a key elected position in the city that was vacated early.

Santa Clara officials spent about an hour discussing how to fill a council seat representing the city’s District 5, which has sat empty since former Councilmember  Patricia Mahan resigned early due to health issues in February. City leaders hoped to agree in a required four-fifth vote from a list of remaining applicants, who all wanted to serve between now and the November election, when residents will vote on a new District 5 councilmember to serve the next four years.

But within 15 minutes it was clear the seat would remain empty until November.

“After carefully reviewing all the applications and keeping in mind all the considerations, I think one application stands out and that is of Suds Jain,” Councilmember Raj Chahal said, referring to the longtime planning commissioner who has served on multiple city commissions and boards.

Chahal made a motion to skip the planned interviews with the applicants and appoint Jain.

Councilmember Karen Hardy agreed with Chahal, saying Jain’s leadership experience in the city would allow him to get up to speed on issues quickly, which would be critical for a temporary council appointment. Both councilmembers said Jain would be the only person they would appoint.

“If we cannot come to that decision I would like the voters then to make the decision,” Hardy said. “Because it is such a short timeframe and it does give someone an absolute advantage (in the election) and I’m not real comfortable with that.”

In order to appoint a new councilmember, five out of six councilmembers would have had to agree to appoint the same person.

Santa Clara lawmakers failed to reach that threshold twice before — once to appoint a replacement for former Councilmember Dominic Caserta and again to replace ex-Police Chief Mike Sellers, who also resigned early.

Those who had hoped to appoint a new temporary councilmember Monday night — but evidently not Jain — didn’t hide their frustration.

“We all agreed to this process to put it out there to have the candidates come and submit their applications and to not even hear them and go through the interview process I think is extremely disrespectful,” Mayor Lisa Gillmor said.

Indeed, several of the candidates stood up during the public comment portion of the meeting to tell councilmembers they were disappointed to not be interviewed that night.

Multiple times, Gillmor had to calm Councilmember Debi Davis as she glared at Hardy and Chahal and expressed her disdain for their decision.

“You came here tonight with this little plan of yours — and I know it was a plan — and it just is not right you waste people’s time all because of what you want. And you’re smiling Raj, you think this is so freaking funny,” she said, before Gillmor intervened to stop the councilmember from continuing.

But it wasn’t only councilmembers who expressed their frustration with the situation. Twice City Attorney Brian Doyle made his way from behind his desk in front of the council dais to speak as a Santa Clara resident, telling both Chahal and Hardy they have a “duty of at least considering other candidates.”

City Clerk Hosam Haggag also acknowledged that councilmembers had the right to decide on who they want to appoint before interviews, but said he was disappointed with the decision.

Even so, Chahal and Hardy were not moved, insisting that Jain was the best option and that they didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with interviews when their minds were made up.

“I’m telling you from my head and heart I thought this is the best thing I could do,” Chahal said. “Going foward, I would have voted for one candidate, and I would have again been trashed (and asked) “Why didn’t you do this sooner?'”

Divisions on the council

The discussion Monday night underlined some of the deep divisions on the Santa Clara City Council — particularly between those who have been serving for years and those elected using court-ordered voting districts in the city for the first time in 2018, when Chahal and Hardy were voted in.

One resident, Harbir Bhatia, scolded councilmembers for failing to work together constructively during the meeting.

“I appreciate the mayor trying to get everybody to come and be focused, but my issue is when you do personal attacks,” she said. “We look to you to be role models and this is not what I expect of my role models.”

Councilmember Kathy Watanabe touched on the division as she expressed her disappointment.

“I find it very interesting that two councilmembers that have been on this council, for really not more than a year, are using any opportunity they can to change the way this council operates,” said Watanabe, who was initially appointed to the council before being elected.

Hardy and Chahal have been “coming up with their own rules and regulations and frankly going against the council it seems every turn,” she added.

The stalemate on Monday night also marks the third time in less than two years councilmembers have tried and failed to appoint someone to a position after an elected leader stepped down early.

When Caserta stepped down from his council seat in May 2018, the remaining elected officials debated for hours about who to appoint to his seat with no luck. Mahan was one of the votes against appointing someone new because she said an elected position should not be appointed by the council.

Then last July, Sellers announced he’d retire effective Sept. 1 — more than a year early from his elected position — and councilmembers discussed appointing a new chief until the end of his term in November, but ultimately decided they’d never reach the four-fifth majority required to appoint a new candidate.

The District 5 council seat, which represents the city’s downtown, will remain vacant until the November election, when residents will elect a new councilmember to serve for four years.

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

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