Santa Clara officials discuss 2020 ballot question, innovation and transportation collaboratives

Santa Clara city leaders on Tuesday approved the language set to appear on the March 3, 2020 ballot to split the city into districts for future voting following a tense discussion that at times turned to yelling and head-shaking from audience members. Now, the question of how the city will redistrict is in residents’ hands.

Councilmembers reviewed and approved the the ballot question to read, “Shall the City Charter be amended to elect city council members by district, excepting the mayor, as follows: for the 2020 election to establish six districts for the election of one council member to represent each district; and, beginning in 2022 to establish three districts for the election of two council members to represent each district; and to require an independent redistricting committee?”

Some on the council said they feared the question would be confusing for residents, because it has two parts: one related to keeping six districts in 2020 and a second part that would approve three districts for voting after that.

“They seem to me to be two separate questions,” Vice Mayor Patricia Mahan said, pushing to split the two parts into separate ballot questions. “To me, that seems the most transparent thing to do because you may get someone who says ‘Yeah, I think we should have six districts and I want to do that, but wait a minute, I don’t want to do this second part.’ You’re putting them in an impossible situation.”

But city officials and other councilmembers said they felt the verbiage was clear and fair to voters. As the conversation began to take a combative tone, Mayor Lisa Gillmor put an end to the debate and called a vote on the ballot measure.

The issue comes after the city in 2018 heard from residents through a ballot measure that Santa Clarans want to vote for their elected officials by district. But that same year, residents also voted down another measure that would have split the city into only two districts as the city battled a lawsuit over whether its existing at-large election process disadvantaged minority voters from having their voices heard. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled the at-large system did disadvantage minority voices and split the city into six districts in response.

Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle says the ruling only applies through 2020, though some councilmembers and residents disagree with that interpretation and say the judge’s order was meant to create six districts in perpetuity. Even so, the city this year formed a committee to recommend how it should be divided for voting after 2020. The recommendation from that 7-person, councilmember-appointed committee was the three district option.

Innovation Zone takes a back seat

Lawmakers also deferred a conversation on forming a new “innovation zone” in the city to pilot new, emerging technology alongside neighboring San Jose, but agreed to join a separate collaborative with other cities, the county and VTA to study transit options along a busy portion of Stevens Creek Boulevard.

The “innovation zone” concept comes after months of discussion among city leaders in San Jose and coordination with Santa Clara officials. San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones has been working to designate a part of San Jose’s West side as an innovation zone so companies can “test anything within its boundaries that provides a large benefit to the community,” according to Santa Clara city documents.

Santa Clara leaders haven’t taken the option off the table in the future, though the two cities have at times had a tense relationship, trading lawsuits in recent years over planned developments.

An outline of the proposed “innovation zone.” Image courtesy of city of Santa Clara.

The innovation zone conversation in Santa Clara has been pushed forward this year by Councilmember Teresa O’Neill, who initially proposed the city consider creating such a zone over the summer, and was met with a slew of questions from other councilmembers, including concerns about devoting city staff resources. In its second round in front of councilmembers, O’Neill stressed that creating the innovation zone would not commit the city to every pilot proposed in the area, or to divvying out resources that aren’t available.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s an attempt to have us work together with San Jose on something — instead of where everyone says we are always fighting with them — and this was a chance on a shared corridor to look at new technologies,” O’Neill said. “If we don’t go for it, I think San Jose will just do it within their boundaries.”

Gillmor and City Manager Deanna Santana have met with Jones to discuss the matter in the past year, but on Tuesday night said the city had still received little information about what kinds of projects might appear in the innovation zone. Councilmember Karen Hardy said she “desperately wants to like” the idea of an innovation zone, but needs more information.

Councilmembers said they hope to get that information in the New Year.

Looking ahead for Stevens Creek

But partnership with other cities was not off the table Tuesday. Santa Clara leaders unanimously agreed to collaborate with San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara County and the VTA on a study of transportation options for Stevens Creek Boulevard from Highway 85 in Cupertino through Santa Clara to Diridon Station in San Jose.

Last year, San Jose and Santa Clara proposed a potential transit line along the corridor that would either be aerial or underground with stops at the major entertainment, health, housing and employment nodes. Since then, city, county and VTA leaders have continued the discussion for “high capacity transit” along Stevens Creek Boulevard and the VTA has offered to take a lead role in studying the idea. To date, San Jose, Cupertino and the county have voted to show support for the effort.

Now, Santa Clara leaders are ready to join the collaborative effort, which could help secure grants and other funding to implement improvements along the corridor, according to O’Neill, who is also the chair of the VTA Board.

“This is what we need to do. We need to work with our neighbors,” Davis said, referring to finding solutions for the gridlock along the busy corridor.

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

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