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Santa Clara school board member campaigns against football stadium

By Erik Silk | 3 Nov 2010

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Christine Koltermann decided to fight the 49ers stadium proposal in Santa Clara after learning of its costs. (Photo: Erik Silk)

Christine Koltermann says she actually likes sports. She grew up in Wisconsin, where community devotion to the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers is legendary. Her husband of 31 years once worked for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.

Her 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son are both active in athletics and Koltermann refers to herself as “the consummate team mom,” attending most of their games.

So when word came that the San Francisco 49ers wanted to move to Santa Clara, her home since 1989, Koltermann initially thought it could be a good thing. Then she began to read about the costs and potential consequences: reductions in the city’s general fund, which could lead to cuts in services and budget deficits.

“When the stadium issue moved off of the sports pages and onto the front page of the main section, that’s when I became aware of what was going on,” she said.

In June 2009, the Santa Clara City Council approved the term sheet for the stadium proposal. Koltermann was at the meeting. She read the financial projections, doubted the numbers and knew that, despite never having been involved in public issues, she couldn’t sit on the sidelines.

“I came home that night at eleven o’clock, looked at my husband, and said, ‘I need to get involved,’” she recalled.

His response? “Honey, they don’t know what they’ve done.”

Koltermann quickly joined Santa Clara Plays Fair, a grassroots organization fighting the stadium project. She began to speak at public hearings, wrote letters to the editors of local and regional newspapers and visited more than1,000 households. Residents of the neighborhoods she canvassed were surprised to see her campaigning, rather than selling Girl Scout cookies with her daughter, as she does every year.

Her devotion was noted by Santa Clara Plays Fair. She was soon made a board member and became a de facto public face for the group, making public statements and communicating with reporters.

The David-and-Goliath battle that was the stadium referendum — approved by 60 percent of city voters — has now come and gone. Her group raised $20,000, while the team poured nearly $5 million into the campaign. The 49ers and other stadium supporters emphasized the project’s potential to create jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to Santa Clara County.

Throughout, Koltermann said, she found herself frustrated.

“I could absolutely not believe that they would tell [residents living near the proposed site] that their property values would rise,” she said. The Santa Clara Association of Realtors did make such a claim, citing a 2005 study done on another suburban stadium near a metropolitan area — FedEx Field in Landover, Md., where there was a correlation between home-value increases and proximity to the stadium.

Koltermann shows off some of the signs she and many fellow Santa Clarans displayed in their yards during the stadium campaign. (Photo: Erik Silk)

When the Environmental Impact Report on the Santa Clara project was published, Koltermann, a hydrogeologist, was stunned. “My first reaction was that I wanted to cry for the people who live on the North Side, for the damage that is going to be done to them,” she said. She felt the EIR was hastily approved by the City Council and overlooked “many significant, un-mitigatable impacts.”

Koltermann lives about four miles from the stadium site. It was clear to her that roadways near her home, such as the Lawrence Expressway, would be clogged by game-day traffic. Other major Santa Clara streets could also be affected. “How are we supposed to visit grandma or have friends over?” she asked.

The city and team are making preparations to begin construction, but Koltermann and Santa Clara Plays Fair continue their efforts. The final terms of the deal are being negotiated and Koltermann is doing her best to act as a watchdog.

Meanwhile, she used the experience she gained in the stadium debate to launch herself into local politics, running for the school board. City Councilwoman Jamie McLeod, who endorsed Koltermann, is impressed by her “really positive approach, energy and ideas during a time that local governments are really struggling with limited resources.”

Even some people on the other side of the stadium controversy say they respect Koltermann’s commitment to a cause she believes in. Chris Stampolis, a Santa Clara mayoral candidate, was always a proponent of the stadium for economic reasons. “We had differing opinions on the stadium issues, but I respect those folks who voted no, and [Koltermann] has raised a lot of questions that have been important for me to consider,” Stampolis said. “If the city’s going to move forward, we have to bring the best and brightest together to address the issues.”

In Tuesday’s election, Stampolis lost the mayor’s race to veteran City Councilman Jamie Matthews, also a stadium supporter. Two other pro-stadium candidates won City Council seats.

And Koltermann was elected to the school board.

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