Santa Clara voters reject measure to reduce council districts
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor said Wednesday she wasn't surprised that Measure C failed. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Santa Clara’s contentious Measure C has been defeated with nearly 60 percent of voters in the city rejecting the proposal that would shake up local elections.

The initiative would’ve halved the number of council districts for future elections – from six districts to three. Proponents, such as Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Teresa O’Neill, said it was an attempt to improve government diversity and representation, but opponents – including Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the San Francisco 49ers – said it would’ve done the opposite.

Additionally, critics such as Planning Commission Chair Anthony Becker, said the measure exposed the city to additional lawsuits, since it meant abandoning a court-mandated six-district system after the city was sued in 2017 for its at-large voting process. Plaintiffs claimed the process diluted the minority vote, and a judge agreed. Santa Clara is appealing the court decision.

With 100 percent of the city’s precincts reporting by Wednesday evening, an overwhelming 58.8 percent of the city’s residents voted “no” on moving to three districts, while 41.2 percent voted “yes.”

Gillmor said she saw this coming.

“I’m not surprised, considering the unprecedented amount of money that went in to defeat the measure,” Gillmor told San José Spotlight, referencing the $647,125 San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York contributed to the “No on C” committee. “It puts us back to where we were.”

Representatives for the team could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

But the city’s answer to “what happens now” still hasn’t changed: they don’t know. City leaders, such as City Attorney Brian Doyle, say the failure of Measure C reverts Santa Clara back to an illegal at-large system while opponents of the measure say the current six districts will remain.

In a memo sent Wednesday to the City Council, Doyle said the November 2020 election will tentatively be held with six districts, but officials must wait for a decision on the city’s court appeal to know for sure.

Doyle said there’s not yet a timeline for getting that answer, because the appellate court hasn’t scheduled a time to hear arguments on the case. Until that’s sorted out, Gillmor has been adamant that she believes the charter can only be changed with a vote of the residents.

A similar measure backed by Gillmor, 2018’s Measure A, which would’ve established two council districts citywide, also failed at the ballot box.

“(Voters) have told us twice, ‘We don’t want to change the charter.’ Unfortunately our charter’s at-large,” she said. “Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, because after November 2020, we go back to our charter. It was a one-sided election, but it was pretty loud and clear they don’t want to change the charter.”

But Gillmor also doesn’t see Measure C’s loss as an argument for voters wanting to keep the current six districts, either.

Councilmembers Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal called the mayor’s position risky, saying that fighting the judge’s order for six districts is a waste of taxpayer dollars and the city is exposed to another lawsuit if it returns to an illegal at-large system.

Chahal says Santa Clara can simply make the six districts permanent with a City Council vote — without having to go to voters.

“Let us honor residents’ verdict and court ruling of six districts by a legislative ordinance, as more than 29 other California cities have done it,” Chahal said. “Six districts helps make sure that the diversity of our neighborhoods is reflected on the City Council and also represents the city’s diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and neighborhoods. This measure did not make sense at the outset.”

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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