Editorial: Santa Clara should stop electing police chief and city clerk

Editorial: Santa Clara should stop electing police chief and city clerk

No other city in California except Santa Clara still has an elected police chief. Less than 20% of the municipalities in the state have an elected city clerk.

It’s time to depoliticize the two jobs in Santa Clara. City voters in the March 5 election should professionalize the posts and move them into the 21st century by approving Measure A, regarding the city clerk, and Measure B, regarding the police chief.

The measures would hold the city clerk and police chief to the same standards as other city department heads. Appointed jobs hired by and accountable to the city manager. Subject to annual evaluations. Required to perform professionally to stay employed.

Under the current byzantine system, the police chief and city clerk stand for election every four years, but they’re usually unopposed. In between, and in elections when they have no challenger, they’re accountable to no one. And only city residents can run for the jobs.

Police chief pick

That means that, when it comes to the police chief, for example, while other cities can conduct nationwide searches for the best candidate, Santa Clara is stuck with only a handful of people who can meet the residency and law enforcement-experience requirements and are equipped to be chief.

Which helps explain why in six of the last nine elections dating back to 1988, the police chief selection was uncontested. Few can run. And when there are challengers on the ballot, it’s the sort of local government election in which voters are ill-equipped to make a well-informed decision and is, hence, ripe for special-interest manipulation.

The current chief, Patrick Nikolai, elected in 2020, had previously served for 18 years as the president of the Police Officers’ Association. In 2021, he received $524,000 in pay and benefits, according to Transparent California. The group’s data showed him to be the seventh highest compensated police chief in the state that year.

Little wonder that Nikolai opposes Measure B, which could lead to his losing his lucrative job. Little wonder that the Police Officers’ Association president also opposes the measure. It would undermine his group’s political power to sway the election.

Making matters worse, having an elected chief has created ridiculous lines of authority. The chief is elected while the two assistant police chiefs report to the city manager. And the city manager hires and disciplines officers.

In most cities, the police chief reports to the city manager, who in turn reports to the city council. That’s how it should be, insulating the chief’s job from politics while providing for ongoing performance accountability.

City clerk selection

While the stakes are not as great with the city clerk, the principles are similar: In six of the last 10 elections, the city clerk selection has been uncontested. The clerk is accountable to no one between elections. And he really doesn’t do much in the $1,500-a-month job.

The reality is that the assistant city clerk, who, you guessed it, reports to the city manager, does the heavy lifting.

If Santa Clara voters want to see what could go wrong with an elected city clerk, they need only look to the city of Pleasant Hill. Residents there discovered in 2014 that their clerk, Kim Lehmkuhl, had not been keeping minutes for over a year and instead spent her time sending out tweets about the meetings and whatever other political issues interested her.

Because Lehmkuhl was elected, there was no way to fire her without conducting an expensive and slow recall campaign. Thankfully, she eventually resigned to take a job out of town. Residents later that year voted to make the post an appointed one.

The current Santa Clara city clerk, Hosam Haggag, who has served since 2018, is ambivalent about whether voters should keep the elected city clerk post. He says he’s not sure how he will vote on Measure A, which would eliminate the elected post he currently holds. That alone is telling.

Then there’s the cost of the elections. The combined price of the citywide police chief and city clerk elections is roughly $300,000 each four-year cycle, depending on what else is on the ballot to share the cost.

If keeping the police chief and city clerk as elective posts made sense, the cost wouldn’t be a significant consideration. But because, money aside, the jobs should clearly be placed under the authority of the city manager, the added election cost just adds financial insult to a bad system.

Voters should pass measures A and B.