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City of Sunnyvale 2011 election, part 1 (background) - Office of Naval Contemplation

Oct. 31st, 2011

05:32 pm - City of Sunnyvale 2011 election, part 1 (background)

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Because we're special like that, the City of Sunnyvale holds its local elections in odd-numbered years rather than the even-numbered years used for state, federal, county, and most other city elections. This year's election ballots are due November 6, a week from Tuesday.

First, a little background. Sunnyvale has seven city council members, elected at-large to numbered seats (i.e. candidates declare they're running for "Seat 1" or "Seat 7", all voters in the city vote separately in each election, and the top vote-getter for each seat is elected). City councilmembers serve staggered four-year terms, with e.g. three seats up for election this year and four seats up for election in 2013. Councilmembers are limited to two consecutive terms. The mayor is elected by the council from among their members to a two-year term. Likewise, the vice-mayor is elected by the council from among their members to a one-year term. The Mayor is a parliamentary position, not an executive position: her main power and duty is to chair city council meetings, not to manage the day-to-day operations of the city. The latter power vests in the City Manager, a full-time employee of the city who is selected by the council and serves indefinitely until removed by a majority of the council.

The city council's main duties are to select the City Manager, to set the policy for the city staff (lead by the City Manager) to implement and enforce, and to set the budget for the city's departments and the pay scale for the city's employees. In practice, the city council very rarely sets its own policy from scratch, instead accepting or rejecting policy proposals offered by they city's full-time staff.

Nominally, Sunnyvale's council elections, like all local offices in California, are non-partisan. In practice, there seem to be two major factions in city politics. The "establishment" faction is defined by deference to and support for the senior city staff's policy recommendations, and the "oppositionist" faction is defined by a sense that the council ought to take a more active role in shaping policy and closely supervising the city's operations. The Establishment faction is very closely aligned with and heavily supported by the county and state Democratic party, and is generally also heavily supported by the public employee unions and by contractors and developers who do a lot of business with the city. The Oppositionist faction is loosely aligned with the Santa Clara Republican Party, although many of their candidates are not registered Republicans. Most Oppositionist candidates run shoestring campaigns funded mainly by the candidates themselves and local individual donors.

On actual concrete policy questions, by far the biggest point of disagreement between the factions seems to be public employee compensation (which makes up by far the bulk of the city's budget). The Establishment faction generally takes an approach sympathetic to the employees and the unions that represent them (subject to the constraints of available revenue), while a defining feature of the Oppositionist faction is a view that the council should be trying to negotiate the best possible value for the city's taxpayers.

The current city council consists of five establishment members (Mayor Melinda Hamilton, Vice Mayor Jim Griffith, and Councilmembers Otto Lee, Chris Moylan, and Tony Spitaleri) one Oppositionist member (Dave Whittum), and one vacant seat.

Having sat in on a number of city council meetings since moving to the city, having dealt with the city government a couple times as a resident and homeowner, and having met 1:1 with two of the Oppositionist candidates last election to review them for RLCCA endorsement, I find myself generally aligning more with the Oppositionists.

It's important to note that neither faction is monolithic. There are a fair number of 6:1 or 5:1 votes in city council meetings with Councilmember Whittum in the minority, but there's also quite a few unanimous votes, and there's often votes where one or two of the "Establishment" councilmembers sides with Councilmember Whittum on a particular question (Otto Lee is one I've seen "cross the aisle" most frequently, though my sample size is pretty small since I've only sat in on a handful of council meetings since early 2010).

In particular, Otto Lee and Chris Moylan seem to be very active and conscientious about providing oversight to the city staff, it's just that more often than not (in Councilmember Lee's case) or almost all the time (in Councilmember Moylan's case) they find themselves agreeing with the city staff's recommendations. On the other extreme, I've heard Vice Mayor Griffith, in so many words, complain during an open council meeting that Councilmembers Lee and Moylan were "insulting" the city's staff by amending their recommendation even to include a reporting deadline.

Somewhere in between is Mayor Hamilton, who usually seems moderately active in debates in council sessions (not as much as Lee, Moylan, or Whittum, but more than Griffith), but who when I attempted to contact her earlier this year asking for help an issue with the city's policies on permit records causing me problems with my mortgage refinance (long story: short version is that there's new federal regulations requiring the city to certify something that they won't certify because they threw away their copy of the relevant records), appears to have redirected my correspondence unread to the head of the planning office, who replied to me explaining that her hands were tied due to the policy set by the council. Which had been precisely why I'd written to the Mayor, not the city's staff, as I'd explained in my original message.

Likewise, there's a fair amount of diversity of opinion among the Oppositionist faction: Dave Whittum seems to be a libertarian-leaning pragmatist and his party registration is Decline-to-State; and of the two Oppositionist candidates I met with in 2009, both were registered Republicans, one (Penny Kelly) seemed to be a center-right good-governance moderate, and the other (Mike Flores) was a conservative populist.

There are four seats up for election this year: Councilmember Whittum is up for reelection and is running unopposed, and there are contested races for the three open seats, with one seat currently vacant and Councilmember Lee and Mayor Hamilton retiring due to term limits.

Expect another update some time in the next day or so, going through race-by-race with my thoughts and preferences.