As the hulking form of the new 49ers stadium comes together in the City of Santa Clara, the project continues to divide city residents along the lines drawn between those who supported the project in recent years and those who spoke out against it.
With the stadium looming literally and figuratively over Santa Clara’s politics, the group that advocated vehemently against it, Santa Clara Plays Fair, is enjoying increasing support and emerging as a source of information about issues regarding not only the stadium, but also other issues affecting the citizens.
As the city grapples with the loss of $13 million a year in Redevelopment Agency money, the group is informing citizens, though not making decisions for them, about that and other issues defining the oft-heated politics of Santa Clara County’s third-largest city.
A group of concerned Santa Clarans founded Santa Clara Plays Fair in 2007, when the the city was first named a potential location for the San Francisco 49ers’ new state-of-the-art football stadium. The group’s original mission was to “prevent the use of public assets or indebtedness to build or operate a professional football stadium in the City of Santa Clara,” according to its blog.
Believing that the Santa Clara public had been inadequately informed of the project’s potential financial pitfallst, Santa Clara Plays Fair began publishing its own research on its website, disseminating information on its blog, Twitter and Facebook pages, and sending out an email newsletter to those subscribed to its webpage.
When the measure approving city support for the project headed to the ballot in June 2010 as the now-infamous Measure J, Santa Clara Plays Fair campaigned extensively against it. The group also pushed to inform as much of the city as possible about a potential $330 million debt to the city’s general fund that didn’t seem obvious in the ballot measure’s wording.
Though the measure ultimately passed, the group had entrenched itself as a highly visible opposition coalition, and continued to monitor and share information about the stadium deal and the project’s progress.
Now, with the stadium barreling towards completion, the group is also growing into a prominent city watchdog on that and other issues. Stories about stadium dealings, campaign finance, and funding lost to the dissolution of state redevelopment agencies have appeared in publications like the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle just days after hitting the inboxes of those subscribed to Santa Clara Plays Fair’s newsletter.
Those publications, and national ones such as Bloomberg news and Reuters, have quoted Santa Clara Plays Fair spokespeople in stories about the stadium controversy. According to Dr. Chris Koltermann, a former board member, the group is entirely volunteer and gets its information from a combination of Google alerts, individual researchers, and from within its own ranks, which include a large number of politically active Santa Clarans.
Koltermann said the group focuses more on influencing the citizenry by disseminating this information than on trying to affect change in the minds of City Council and other policy makers. While the group often chooses to send a member to speak in front of the council, she said, it does so to reach those citizens in attendance and watching at home, rather than to persuade the Council.
Even so, former Council Member Jamie McLeod, who termed out of office last December after eight years on the City Council, said she believes Santa Clara Plays Fair is a group to be taken seriously.
She acknowledged that because the group formed around the “hot-button” stadium issue and advocated against the opinions of the majority of the City Council at that time, some members of the two groups may find it hard to share common ground on other issues.
McLeod said during her tenure she saw the group “mature as an advocacy organization,” and that the “group’s influence has really grown” as they’ve taken stances on other issues regarding the city’s finances.
“Santa Clara Plays Fair is like an iceberg in terms of its influence on the city in that, while you may just hear from a couple vocal people, their influence extends far below the surface, as was evidenced in the 2012 election” McLeod said.
The group’s grass-roots approach seemed to pay off in the November elections, which saw current Santa Clara Plays Fair chairman Dr. Michele Ryan win a seat on the county school board. Koltermann, a former Santa Clara Plays Fair executive board member herself, was later elected President of that board.
Several members of the group also lent support to then-planning commission member Teresa O’Neill in her race for a City Council seat. O’Neill won, a victory she says may have been helped by support garnered by members of Santa Clara Plays Fair trusting in her record of asking tough questions and willingness to “play the role of healthy skeptic” about the stadium, despite her vote for it.
O’Neill believes that, because positions on the stadium are still so influential, is telling of the political climate in the city today, one in which a citizen’s position on a given issue can often be traced back to his position on the stadium, and whether he sided with the council or her lobbying group.
Though there is certainly grey area, Santa Clara’s politics are generally polarized between the Council and its supporters (representing pro-stadium interests) on the one hand and Santa Clara Plays Fair and its supporters (anti-stadium) on the other.
Following those November elections, those on all sides of Santa Clara politics must now grapple with the stark realities of the city’s greatly reduced post-redevelopment agency budget, which could be reduced by as much as $13 million a year according to the recently released Redevelopment Agency Audit. A state auditor carried out that audit in late 2012 as mandated by the law passed by California’s state legislature in 2011 which abolished the state’s redevelopment agencies and required cities to return agency funds to the state.
While Santa Clara Plays Fair possesses no actual decision-making power, its stance on potential budget cuts, litigation against the state for redevelopment money or stadium-related financial demands will affect the opinions of its growing following – a following that spoke at the ballot boxes in the November elections, and one that seems to be growing as the credibility of its organization does the same.
“As decision-makers, I think we’re naturally influenced by whether or not we consider the source to be a credible source,” said McLeod, who emphasized that she wanted to speak only for herself, and not for any current or former Council members.
“With this group, I think they are very thoughtful about what they advocate for and I think they do their homework to try to make sure what they’re arguing is accurate. And that’s something I have a lot of respect for.”