The city of Santa Clara knows the growing pains of becoming a big city. Already home to a collection of Silicon Valley tech icons, Santa Clara now has the experience of hosting a Super Bowl 50. It is no longer a stepchild to San Jose. And yet, Santa Clara continues to operate with a part-time City Council and a city manager form of government.
The recent revelations made by San Jose Inside—City Manager Julio Fuentes’ blowup, the possible demolition of Great America and a civil grand jury investigation into the Stadium Authority—and the sudden resignation of Mayor Jamie Matthews are problems indicative of a city that requires a strong-mayor form of government, along with a full-time council.
Santa Clara is in the midst of charter review, and to paraphrase Bernie Sanders, the city needs a revolution that reflects its new reality. It is amazing what San Francisco and Oakland’s city officials can make happen, while South Bay city governments continue to be governed like single stoplight outposts.
In Kevin Moore’s new book, the former Santa Clara councilman describes the shuttle diplomacy he used to create a dialogue between city administration and the San Francisco 49ers. It is a great read to learn how politics function, if a city has elected officials willing to work outside the box of a city manager form of government. Santa Clara is becoming a big city because its elected officials were able to overcome the bureaucracy that exists, in part, with a mentality that says “do no harm”.
Santa Clara excels over other governments thanks to its elected public officials, like City Clerk Rod Diridon Jr., a former council member who holds his position as a result of the people directly electing him. Most city clerks are appointed.
Santa Clara has an ethics program for its elections and government officials that is a model for other cities. City clerks usually do not have the independence to implement such innovative programs, and only a clerk who answers to voters has the incentive to actually provide a service beyond the minimum to constituents.
The mayor in Santa Clara, however, is not paid full-time—but the requirements of the job fits that bill. Matthews was profiled in the New York Times last week, and the article portrayed a man who has worked tirelessly with little compensation.
Throw in an unhappy city manager, a highly divided council (which also works too much for too little), a very vocal NIMBY community and a newly enacted—and oppressive—ethics ordinance, and it’s understandable why Matthews decided to call it a day.
The mayor’s resignation, however, leaves a huge hole in the city and a currently divided council. Only two members currently have the experience and desire to become mayor: Dominic Caserta and Lisa Gillmor. If either were chosen as an appointment, a great effort would have to be made to bridge the current political divide. Barring that, Santa Clara will see an election, followed by another appointment or election for the vacated council Seat—all at an extra cost to taxpayers.
A solution should come sooner rather than later. A strong-mayor form of government would eliminate the need for a top-dollar city manager. A full-time council with staff would generate a better political structure and allow for better policies for a city that, we should hope, hosts more Super Bowls in the future.
A move to a strong mayor might even provide the impetus for that neighboring town, little ole’ San Jose, to finally do the same.