Santa Clara voters to weigh electing police chief
The city of Santa Clara is the only city in the state that elects its police chief. A ballot measure on the March primary could change that. Police Chief Pat Nikolai was elected in 2020. File Photo.

Voters in Santa Clara will decide in March if they want to continue electing their police chief and city clerk or change the process.

The Santa Clara City Council has approved putting two measures on the March 5 primary ballot to switch the positions from being elected to an appointment — Measure A for the city clerk and Measure B for the police chief. Each needs more than 50% approval to pass.

Santa Clara is the only city in the state to elect its police chief. In 2020, residents elected Pat Nikolai as police chief in an uncontested special election. Voters elected City Clerk Hosam Haggag that same election, and both serve until 2024.

Measure B is the result of intense debate between opponents who say filling the position by appointment limits the pool of potential police chief candidates — and supporters who say having an elected chief makes the individual more accountable to residents. The city council is split on the topic too, with Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe against Measure B and Councilmembers Karen Hardy, Raj Chahal and Suds Jain supporting it.

Nikolai is also against the measure, saying it takes power away from Santa Clara voters and could distance the police chief from residents. A key requirement as an elected police chief includes Santa Clara residency, which could be removed if the position changed to an appointment. Nikolai said he feels it’s important for the police chief to live in the city to better understand the community.

“Proponents of Measure B say they want to take the politics out of that but really, as the police chief, all I care about is public safety,” Nikolai told San José Spotlight. “I am only accountable to the voters and ensuring that the voters are safe.”

Nikolai added the outcome of Measure B won’t affect him, since he plans to retire after his term ends this year.

Supporters of the measure wrote in their argument that an appointment system would allow for a wider and more qualified selection of candidates applying for the position. They also questioned the democracy of electing the police chief, pointing out that six of the nine previous police chief elections had only one person running.

“By appointing a Chief, Santa Clara will save hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding ballot costs every four years,” supporters wrote. “Also, the Chief would not be distracted from their demanding duties by time spent campaigning and raising money.”

The city gauged resident opinions on the measure last year with a poll that ran through Sept. 7 to Oct. 12. It received 243 verifiable responses from registered city voters, but also got more than 5,000 unverified responses.

City employees presented the results to the city council and the city’s Charter Review Commission late last year, which found that of the 243 verified responses, 72% opposed changing the police chief to an appointed position. Of the more than 5,000 unverified responses, 93% supported appointing the chief.

The county started sending mail-in ballots for the primary election on Feb. 5, and early voting polls will open on Feb. 24.

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply