Op-Ed: ‘Big City’ Santa Clara Needs Full-time Leadership

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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Any City Administration that hocks the City, of a piddling 120,000 people, for a Billion Dollars for a Football Stadium needs to be tried and hung, metaphorically speaking. Graft and corruption galore.

  2. Dominic Caserta as an option for mayor? Clearly this writer is being paid off by someone. Dominic is the last person Santa Clara needs for that job.

    • Ms Fairchild,

      Rich Robinson is a political consultant. He makes his money by helping candidates get elected and ballot measures get passed. He was paid by the 49ers fake citizens organization (Santa Clarans for Economic Progress, also known as Yes on J, funded by $5 million from Jed York) as one of the campaign consultants to say anything to get the stadium ballot measure to pass. He is firmly in the 49ers pocket, as is Dominic Caserta (who would be an absolute disaster as Santa Clara’s mayor.) Caserta wants an election for mayor because he knows he could never get 4 votes from his fellow council members to get appointed. I will bet money that if Caserta runs for mayor, that Rich Robinson will be his paid campaign consultant.

      Notice in this article how Rich Robinson dismisses anyone who disagrees with his point of view by calling them NIMBYs. He has also used the terms ‘naysayer’ and ‘obstructionist’ in print in the past with reference to anyone who questions allowing the 49ers to have/do anything they want in our city. Why the name-calling against anyone who has a different point of view?

      Go to the city of Santa Clara website and search under the city clerk’s department for the FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) campaign finance paperwork to see donations to candidates and expenditures for past elections. You can see who Rich Robinson has worked for. You can also check the independent committee (PAC) expenditures. The 49ers CEO Jed York and 49ers executives donated many thousands of dollars to the campaigns of to Caserta, Matthews, and Kolstad. Many thousands more came from developers, stadium construction and events contractors, Related company (which is taking away our golf course for more buildings), labor council, and unions which receive pensions from the city. Campaign donations appear to be a legalized form of bribery – our city council members do not vote ‘no’ on anything their campaign donors want.

      And watch out – it’s happening at the school district too with the project labor agreement that school board members who were supported by labor are trying to shove through. If you do some research on project labor agreements, they end up costing districts more in construction costs – so our bond measure dollars won’t go as far. Looking at the school board agendas, it’s also happening with the repeated discussions of wage theft and some board members trying to push through labor’s agenda on that issue. People supported by the labor council are paying back the support (donations/endorsements/phone calling/precinct walking etc.) by bringing the labor council’s agenda into the school district. The question to ask is, are other school districts doing this? No? Then why is it necessary? Is it because some people want to run for higher office and want the support of labor to do so?

      Also watch out for more tampering with our schools by Jed York, who donated to school board candidates (presumably with the hope of getting school district fields to replace the youth soccer park.) Jed York doesn’t live in Santa Clara and his children won’t attend our schools, so why is he trying to tamper with Santa Clara schools?

      I also cannot support Lisa Gilmor as mayor because she was at the front of the 49ers $5 million Yes on J stadium campaign. She is clearly not happy about some things that have happened recently – especially the takeaway of the youth soccer park – and I think she has seen the light. But she was instrumental in getting our city to the awful place we are at now. So much overdevelopment (but not where any of the council members live).

      I know so many good people/families who have moved out of Santa Clara in the past few years because they cannot stand what our city council has done to our city.

      • Rich Robinson is a moron. He is a slimeball who makes his money in a slimy way. He reminds me of the old joke- how do you know when Rich is lying? Wait for it……..his líps are moving….or in this case his finges on his keyboard are movimg. Rich, you should move to another state. Vermont might be good.

  3. Rich Robinson, you obviously don’t live in Santa Clara and you have NO idea what you’re talking about. This opinion is a huge disservice to the city of Santa Clara.

    • You are right, RR doesn’t live here. He just makes lots of money off of Santa Clara politics through being a paid campaign consultant for city council candidates and the 49ers.

      • The funny part is that at least from what I’ve seen he reads the comments. Sometimes he responds.

        Will he respond here? Hoping he does…

  4. From a previous Rich Robinson article about Dominic Caserta:

    “But one thing that’s been very positive for Caserta is his fundraising. A heap of cash came from the 49ers top brass, including Co-Chairman John York and President Paraag Marather.”

    • I’m glad to see you are opposing 49ers-backed candidates now, Vickie Fairchild, but you campaigned pretty hard for two 49ers-backed and union-backed school board candidates who were elected, and those board members almost sold out the school fields and YSP to help their 49ers friends. Those two have also been instrumental in pushing for a PLA for the district that will add millions to the project costs.

      Hope voters will be more alert to following the money this election season.

  5. Currently, the city council members of SC are elected in a highly unusual system – a candidate chooses a specific seat to run for, regardless of where in the city he/she lives and voters then cast ballots for each “seat” race. Rather than the much more common election method that places all candidates into one race with the candidates who receive the most votes winning which represents all voters, SC’s “at large” council election process allows 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of council seats and typically results in racially and politically homogenous city councils, which is exactly what the City of Santa Clara’s city council has been for decades. Four years ago, the council had the opportunity to vote to change this at large voting system to the more fair voter representation system due to community pressure and a threat of a civil rights lawsuit; however, the council members voted 4 – 2 not to change using the following reasons for keeping the status quo:

    “By all means, I think it would be great to have more color up here. But I think we don’t want to be rushing the process; we want to make sure that we do this right,” stated then Council Member Kevin Moore.

    “This is a real complex issue and for us to decide in ten days what we’re going to do in the city going forward for several decades is a serious issue,” stated current council member Pat Kolstad. “I, for one, think this needs a lot more consideration.”

    Council members Pat Kolstad, Patricia Mahan, Kevin Moore, and Lisa Gillmor said they did not like the idea of spending $155,000 to put this issue on the ballot and let voters decide how they want to elect their city officials.

    The two only dissenting council members, Jamie McCleod and Will Kennedy said that the “time is now with the upcoming 2012 presidential election and open council seats likely to garner unusually high interest in the November races.”

    Well, four years has passed, certainly long enough for these council members to not “rush the process” and give this matter “a lot more consideration.” But have they? No. And why not? Because the current at large voting system allows the same people and their family members to continue as council members and mayors indefinitely simply by playing musical chairs at election time and any possible special appointments, such as the one now looming for the position of mayor. We are now in exactly the same position as four years ago, with an upcoming presidential election and four open council seats that will attract more voters in the upcoming 2016 November races. Now is the time to make changes and allow the voters of this city to make decisions, rather than a small group of land barons, developers, and realtors to make decisions based on their own personal agendas. Just as former council member Kevin Moore was an employee at council member Lisa Gillmor’s realty firm, so is current council member Dominic Caserta. The Gillmor family patriarch, Gary Gillmor, has been trying to run this city ever since he was the city’s mayor from 1969 – 1977. SC needs desperately to break away from this small city mentality and elect people other than part-time political amateurs.

    If this city wants to be a “big city” and run with the big dogs, it better get off the front porch and get its act together by changing its government. First and foremost, get rid of the current at large voting system and allow 100 percent of the voters to control 100 percent of the council seats, thereby eliminating the city’s “good ole boy” government and allowing a fair representation of this city’s community. Second, get a full time city council that is paid to do this job and has the intelligence, experience and capabilities to run with the big dogs. Third, the voters must really start paying close attention to the actual motivation behind each city council candidate’s interest in running for city council. If we elect realtors and developers, we will have major commercial growth and affordable housing developments with little or no consideration giving to traffic planning, parking, health and safety of residents. If we elect retired police officers, firemen and city employees, we will watch them work hard to protect their pensions but have little interest in much else. While there is nothing wrong with development, it should not happen to the detriment of the residential community. And while there is nothing wrong with providing our civil servants with decent pensions and retirement plans, we don’t need city council members whose sole interest is protecting his/her own pension. And we certainly don’t need a group of city council members who slipped in a vote to give themselves a life-time pension for being a part-time council person.

    • While I agree with most of what you said Maxwell, I think I need to correct one of your statements. Unlike other cities, Santa Clara does not require a majority to elect someone to the Council. If there are more than 2 people running for the same seat, then the top vote getter wins. Both Kolstad and Caserta won with less than 50% of the vote. If there had been a requirement for a run-off between the top two vote getters, then they both might have lost, and indeed, a non-white guy might have been elected. This is an issue that the Charter Review Commission should definitely look at. I don’t agree with much of what Mr. Robinson has written and I wonder if he has ever been paid by the 49ers or if he has ever worked on any of the Santa Clara campaigns. Any disclosures, Mr. Robinson?

      • @ Smoke – Your guess is correct. Rich Robinson was paid handsomely on the 49ers stadium ballot measure, and also has been paid to work on the political campaigns of some of our council members who are backed by the 49ers.

        Why San Jose Inside allows RR to use this site as a platform for himself, I do not understand.

        You can check the city of Santa Clara website under the city clerk’s department for campaign finance reports. The name of the committee which paid RR was Santa Clarans for Economic Progress, a fake citizens group set up to run the Yes on the stadium campaign. Jed York funded that campaign to the tune of $5 million.

    • 100% behind this analysis. The 2012 Charter Review recommendation for an At Large (i.e., not by seats) election process. The Council, as Maxwell notes, put “on the shelf”. In other words, they didn’t like it.
      Apparently the alternative they (someone) wanted was for Districts. Why put that on the back of another Charter Review commission? Just vote on a ballot measure. Wasting $/time for staff and consultants.

    • The “ethics ordinance” should hardly be considered “Oppressive” as it just called for more transparency & less back room shenanigans. The author probably didn’t hear about the civil investigation looking into “inconsistencies” in finances; bait & switch with properties and nudge/wink dealings between City/Niners/NFL & every lending agency the city now owes money. It’s no wonder as the city council has named its very same members as its own oversight committee responsible for finances with both Levi’s & the Niners; great checks & balances there.

      The fact the “underpaid” (?) city manager they hired who earns more than $400K a year threw a tantrum destroying stadium/SB50 documentation is the very reason why these “Oppressive” ethics ordinances should have been in place to start. We were paying a consultant to review such questionable behaviors when brought to his attention and had public input not been so derogatorily cast as “NIMBY” or “naysayer” and actually been investigated when questions/concerns were brought to light, perhaps Santa Clara’s mark on the map would be more substantive than a place for politicians to tickle the till & rub elbows for relevancy.

      Oh, that’s right, The Ethics Consultant was on the payroll of the previous City Council & re-elected, as well, so incidents brought to him were never investigated before the “Oppressive” ethics ordinance was implemented.

      The author’s mention of Moore, just wait until the International Swim Center construction foibles begin & talk of pitching Olympic Games rattles Santa Clara. Super Bowl will have been a walk in the park.

  6. you forget oh too soon that our Mr CaSHerta as some like to call him has his own version of PhoneGate, and I believe he had TravelGate and soon I’m sure we will have TicketGate. This man knows how to spew out references to coffee chats while reminding us that he has our best interests at heart though his campaign was fully paid for by Developers and Forty Niner Staff, none of whom live in our city. He’s also been known to put up campaign signs in everyone’s yard that he had any affiliation with though Santa Clara High. He’d just have a thug sorry an ex student put up a sign without asking under the presumption that no one would ind. Well I beg to differ this ‘boy’ is not a representative of the people in our city, he has an entitlement attitude that does not sit well with us but still managed to suck in votes. It’s a shame that the two candidates that ran against him last time were both exceptional candidates and we were left with this ‘brat’.

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