Santa Clara votes to split the city into three districts for future elections
Santa Clara City Council members meeting Tuesday, June 26. Photo credit: Janice Bitters

Santa Clara officials Tuesday night voted by a narrow margin to split the city up into three districts for future elections after more than two hours of tense discussion.

Lawmakers mulled whether the city would be opening itself up to additional legal challenges through the move, or whether residents would be better represented with three districts or the six council districts ordered by a judge last year following a California Voters Rights Act lawsuit against the city.

The city is currently appealing the judge’s ruling, but in the meantime, the 4-3 vote Tuesday night affirmed that on March 3, Santa Clara residents will vote on a ballot question that asks whether they want the city to be split into a trio of districts with two councilmembers elected per district starting with the 2022 election.

Mayor Lisa Gillmor and councilmembers Teresa O’Neill, Kathy Watanabe and Debi Davis voted to send the three-district option to the ballot. Vice Mayor Patricia Mahan and councilmembers Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy, who were elected via the six district plan in 2018, were opposed because they supported sticking with six districts.

Those in favor of the three district plan said having more than one councilmember per district would give residents multiple people they can reach out to if they have problems, and that it would beneficial for councilmembers as well.

“Frankly, going to six districts, I’m going to tell you right now, I’m District 1, and District 1 is probably the busiest district out of all the six,” Watanabe said. “When I think about all the things I’ve got that I need to be focused on, I would like to have someone working with me that I can share the load with.”

But those who favored six districts said reducing the number of districts did not comply with spirit of the California Voting Rights Act, or the judge’s order.

“By forcing back a three district situation, I see several problems; I see it making it more difficult to run, I see less people being able to or willing to run, which was the intent of the voter law in California,” Hardy said. “I also heard very, very clearly (from) the gentleman who took us to court, who was the lawyer for the group, that if it was different than six districts, they are going to take us back to court again.”

City Attorney Brian Doyle, however, brushed off that concern, casting doubt on whether such a suit would prevail.

“People can threaten to sue you all the time but … they would have to show with the three district plan that this would somehow violate the California Voting Rights Act,” he said. “This is someone who wants to win an appeal and wants to collect attorneys fees making a statement.”

The ballot vote next year will be a critical decision for Santa Clarans, who in 2018 voted down a ballot measure that would have split the city into two districts, despite overwhelming support the same year for the city to be split into districts. Now the question is whether three districts is the magic number residents are looking for.

If the three district measure fails, the city would be left with its longstanding at-large election system, in which residents vote for every councilmember, which landed the city in court. The lawsuit alleged at-large voting places minority groups at a disadvantage for having their voices heard. A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge last year agreed with that argument, and ordered the city use a six-district election system in 2018 and 2020.

The city will keep its existing six districts through 2020, meaning four district seats would be up for election in Nov. 2020. Santa Clara elections would then change over to three districts in 2022 and residents in each district would vote for a councilmember every two years, if the ballot measure is accepted.

Under the ballot measure, candidates must live in the district they hope to represent for at least 30 days before throwing their hat in the ring. An independent commission would be in charge of drawing up the new boundaries for the districts after the 2020 census, but notably, if an elected councilmember is drawn out of the district they represent in that process, they’d be allowed to finish their term.

Officials mull new taxes for 2020 ballot

Facing future budget shortfalls, Santa Clara officials discussed placing new funding measures on the Nov. 2020 ballot to offset infrastructure and operating costs.

Among the potential new taxes: an increase to the transient occupancy tax, which is charged for hotel stays; an infrastructure parcel tax, which is levied on property tax bills; or a general obligation bond, which would also likely show up as an increase in property taxes.

Gillmor told residents during her State of the City address in June she’d push for a new bond measure to pay for aging city infrastructure and improvements to local parks and libraries, calling the funding “a gift to future generations.”

But the key to levying such taxes is getting a measure on the ballot that residents will vote for, she said Tuesday.

“I remember the biggest issue (in 2018) was that we were not specific enough about the projects that we were going to do and that the community wanted us to be more specific,” Gillmor said. “Now I think we have the opportunity to go back out and talk to the community and ask the community what would you like to see in a bond.”

The transient occupancy tax would take a simple majority to pass, while the infrastructure parcel tax and general obligation bond would take two-thirds of Santa Clara voters to approve the taxes. Each type of tax has different restrictions for how the money can be used by the city.

Councilmembers on Tuesday were generally in favor of exploring the new taxes, all of them favoring a transient occupancy tax because it would be primarily levied on visitors, not residents.

Several councilmembers favored an infrastructure parcel tax, which would be evenly charged to property owners as a flat fee or based on the size of their lot, over a general obligation bond, which charges property owners based on the assessed value of a property. Those assessed values would fluctuate significantly based on when a person bought the property, making some question if that would be an equitable way to increase taxes.

“To me a fixed parcel tax seems more fair because if you use it to build a capital project then all Santa Clarans are going to use it equally,” Mahan said. “But just because I bought my house 30 years ago and my assessed value is way down here and somebody who buys it now will be way up here, why should we pay any different?”

City officials will survey residents about how they want the city to spend money from a new bond or tax measure. They’ll return to the council with more information in the future.

Contracts at Levi’s stadium get new scrutiny

Santa Clara officials voted to amend the city’s contract with the San Francisco 49ers to effectively bar the team from signing contracts or making purchases at Levi’s Stadium without first getting approval from the Stadium Authority, a board made up of city councilmembers and the mayor.

The vote was a continuation of a longstanding battle between the city and the football team. City officials’ impending vote Tuesday doesn’t come as a surprise, given the long history of disputes between the two entities, but is part of the process to “put the public on notice that all Stadium Authority contracts must be approved by the Stadium Authority Board prior to execution by the Stadium Manager,” according to city documents.

Councilmembers approved the amendments Tuesday.

No scooters for Santa Clara in 2020

Bicycle and scooter rideshare services won’t pop up in Santa Clara for at least another year.

For the past year, Santa Clara officials have been working on rules around how shared bikes and scooters would be allowed to operate in the city, but put a moratorium on such services in the interim as other Bay Area municipalities chafed at the electric scooters filling up shared sidewalks.

City officials were getting close to nailing down rules to allow shared bicycles and scooters to buzz around the city, but new concerns over whether such services impede on the American Disabilities Act have put a bump in the road, as scooters left askew can create barriers for those in wheelchairs or who have other mobility difficulties.

Councilmembers on Tuesday agreed to extend the moratorium for another year — until Dec. 2020 — as officials wait to see how state legislation on the rideshare services evolves.

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

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