Year in review: Biggest Santa Clara happenings — and what’s ahead for 2020

Amid a busy year in local politics, it’s easy to lose track of the milestones during a constantly changing news cycle. San José Spotlight has created a highlight reel of 2019’s eight biggest and most important Santa Clara votes, reports and initiatives.

Many of those major happenings will continue to be stories in the coming year, so read an abridged version of the news below and watch for updates in 2020.

Battle with the San Francisco 49ers comes to a head 

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor and City Attorney Brian Doyle stand near a giant “report card” the city made for the San Francisco 49ers management of Levi’s Stadium. Photo by Janice Bitters.

City officials in Santa Clara and the city’s NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers, have long been at odds over issues large and small. But this year, everything came to a head.

Santa Clara councilmembers, acting as the city’s Stadium Authority Board, cast two key votes in September that would strip the 49ers of their non-NFL-related management duties at the stadium and require all purchases or contracts for maintenance at Levi’s to go through the board for approval. The board is comprised of the mayor and city councilmembers.

The lawmakers say the move to strip the team of those duties was within their rights and necessary to increase transparency in how the public facility is run, ensure proper payment of contractors and to gain a tighter grasp on the stadium’s finances as profits are projected to dwindle.

But the votes set off two more lawsuits against the city filed by the team, claiming that the City Council lacks the right to unilaterally change the terms of the 49ers contract to manage the stadium. 49ers representatives also framed the decision to take purchasing power from the team as a “political vendetta” and claimed the city has a major role in the declining profits at the stadium.

Now, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge will assess the management of Levi’s Stadium to determine who is right. Meanwhile, the city and the 49ers will enter arbitration over the purchasing rights issue.

Convention Center change and audit 

The Santa Clara Convention Center, at 5001 Great America Parkway. Photo by Janice Bitters.

Frustrated Santa Clara leaders in November announced that the former Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce may owe the city nearly $580,000 and in December announced they’d sued the business organization.

City-hired consultant TAP International alleges the chamber overbilled the city over the past five years — the only years reviewed — while running the city’s convention center and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The report details questionable expenses for dinners, gift cards and other credit card expenses that may not have been allowed per the operations contract for the city-owned facility.

Chamber President Nick Kaspar, however, told councilmembers that given the chance, he can “clear up” the issues in the report and disputed many of the audit’s findings and assumptions.

Now, councilmembers will privately evaluate the report — and any additional documentation Kaspar provides — before determining what the chamber, now known as the Silicon Valley Central Chamber of Commerce, owes the city.

The future of voting in Santa Clara

Santa Clara officials have tried for years to decide how councilmembers should be elected. Now the outcome will rest with the residents.

An image of voting ballots

Councilmembers in November approved the language that will appear on the March 3 ballot, asking residents whether they want to divide the city into three districts with two elected representatives in each district starting in 2022.

The measure follows a failed 2018 ballot measure to split the city into two districts, though that same year Santa Clarans said through a separate ballot measure that they wanted to vote for their councilmembers by district.

The conversation on elections was spurred by a 2018 lawsuit over the city’s longstanding at-large election system in which every resident votes for every elected official. A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge found that system violated the California Fair Voters Rights Act and ordered a switch to six districts.

City Attorney Brian Doyle said the ruling applies only through 2020, leaving the door open for a different set of districts after that. Thus, a council-appointed committee of residents gathered feedback from voters and came away with a recommendation for the three districts.

Police chief race goes to the ballot — twice

Former Police Chief Mike Sellers stands with Santa Clara councilmembers ahead of his retirement from the police department’s top job. Photo by Janice Bitters

Santa Clarans next year may feel a touch of déjà vu when they hit the polls in March and November; they’ll be voting for a new police chief both times.

Councilmembers in September were tasked with appointing an interim police chief after the longtime Chief Mike Sellers suddenly retired, leaving his post more than a year earlier than expected.

City leaders decided with little debate that they wouldn’t be able to achieve the required four-fifths vote to appoint someone to serve in the position until December 2020. So, residents will elect a police chief to serve until the end of the year in March and then vote again on the person who will serve a full four-year term in November.

“I would have liked to have done anything possible to avoid putting the public through two elections,” Councilmember Teresa O’Neill said. “I just don’t see a way there.”

A new plan for downtown

An early rendering shows what the Reclaiming Our Downtown grassroots group is envisioning for part of downtown Santa Clara. Image courtesy of Dan Ondrasek.

For a group of passionate Santa Clarans, Christmas came in October this year, when city officials approved a contract with a consultant to kick-start a new Downtown Precise Plan to revive a long-demolished city center.

Councilmembers approved a contract for up to $578,346 for Philadelphia-based urban planning consultant Wallace Roberts & Todd — a winning choice, according to the resident group Reclaiming Our Downtown. The new Downtown Precise Plan will govern how the city’s downtown can be redeveloped, laying out zoning and design guidelines. It will take 18 to 24 months to be finalized.

The resident group hopes redevelopment, which will likely come together piecemeal by private developers, will start by 2022.

The city has discussed revitalizing the area many times before, but Assistant City Manager Manuel Pineda said the most recent push seems to have gained the most steam.

“I think a lot of that momentum has to do with the community excitement,” he said.

Officials rebut Civil Grand Jury report

Santa Clara this year received a damning report about its compliance with the state’s open records law by a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, but officials rebutted the findings.

The 18-page report, released in June, outlines an investigation that started as a look into contracting procedures, but became a review of the city’s compliance with the state law when the grand jury struggled to get information it had requested.

In September, lawmakers disagreed with every finding the Civil Grand Jury outlined and decided to send a response to the investigative judicial body saying so. Nevertheless, city officials say they’re working to enact systems that will digitize public records processes in the future, ideally adding efficiency to the city’s existing processes.

A San José Spotlight investigation into the Civil Grand Jury probe found Santa Clara officials had bucked best practices and city rules while procuring a communications contract with San Francisco-based public affairs company Singer Associates. City officials pushed back on the findings, claiming they followed required rules in signing the contract.

Parade of Champions returns

The Parade of Champions in Santa Clara on Sept. 28, 2019. Image courtesy of Ana Vargas-Smith.

Santa Clara’s Parade of Champions was launched in 1945 and endured as a beloved tradition for 50 years before its founder retired in 1995. This year, a group of residents rallied to bring it back.

City officials supported the effort with a $71,000 grant for city services, though the residents raised about $80,000 to bring the parade to fruition on Sept. 28. At a meeting in November, councilmembers honored the group that brought the parade back.

“I think together the community made history by bringing back the parade after 24 years,” Ana Vargas-Smith told councilmembers. “It’s a dream come true for all of us, but I don’t think any of us slept for nine months.”

The parade is expected to return next year.

Santa Clara launches new website

The city of Santa Clara launched a new website Dec. 4, 2019. Image courtesy of city of Santa Clara.

A yearslong effort to launch a $231,000 overhaul of the city’s website ended in 2019.

Santa Clara officials unveiled the new city website on Dec. 4, which revamps the primary city landing page, but also the city’s Silicon Valley Power and SVP subsites, city spokesperson Lenka Wright said.

The new look is intended to be easier to navigate with some of the most frequently searched topics highlighted. Its new search function purportedly gets “better the more it’s used,” city officials said. That upgraded search functionality costs the city a little less than $12,000 annually, Wright said.

Public feedback on the new website can be shared by clicking here.

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

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