Governing behind closed doors is becoming a frequent habit of the new Cupertino City Council.
In 2019 so far, the council has held 10 closed-door sessions and only four open City Council meetings, according to tabulations by Jean Bedord, a community blogger and political watchdog.
Bedord, who writes the Cupertino Matters column, noted that there were three closed-door sessions since the last regular meeting. She stated in her most recent report that there was only one closed session during the same time period in 2018 by the former council.
Many of the meetings center on litigation or anticipated litigation. Examples have included: Friends of Better Cupertino, et al. v. City of Cupertino (SB 35 Vallco Project); Friends of Better Cupertino, et al. v. City of Cupertino (Vallco Specific Plan – 2 Ordinances); and Committee Supporting Cupertino Citizens’ Sensible Growth Initiative, et al v. Schmidt, et al. (Measure C). Vallco Mall owner, Sand Hill Property Company, has formally questioned some of the council members’ potential conflict of interest in these Vallco matters.
City attorney Heather Minner said during the Feb. 19 council meeting that “there are very, very limited exceptions” for when the City Council can go into closed session.
“That is mainly to protect the City’s position so that we avoid the risk of losing public funds or to protect privacy of individuals,” she said. “One common reason for going into closed session is to discuss pending or threatened litigation. This is so the City can receive a full analysis from its attorneys of the litigation and receive frank advice from those attorneys in a way that would not be available in public for fear or of risking the city’s litigation position, which ultimately could lead to increased liability and loss of public funds.”
Minner added other reasons for closed-door sessions, including personnel evaluations to protect the privacy of employees and real estate negotiations so that bargaining positions are not open and disclosed to other parties. She said the city attorney usually makes the decision as to whether a matter should be held in a closed-door session.
Mayor Steven Scharf said closed sessions are “not something we want to do, it’s something we are mandated to do.”
The City has gone through two city attorneys since the spring and is now contracting out its legal services. The City also lost its veteran community development director to Mountain View and is searching for a new city manager.
The council and planning commission have also been accused by some in the community of becoming insular and political. The council, which has Better Cupertino supporters, recently appointed planning commissioners who have affiliations or sympathies toward the group. The planning commission appointments came under fire during the commission’s first meeting together last week and the issue appeared again during oral communications on Feb. 19.
Bedord notes in her column that planning commission appointee R “Ray” Wang made a more than $5,000 in in-kind contributions for fliers supporting Measure C in 2016. Bedord also points out that parks and recreation commission appointee, Xiangchen “Minna” Xu, contributed “thousands to Better Cupertino efforts and candidates.” Bedord states in her column that Xu gave a separate $10,000 loan to one of Better Cupertino’s political action committees among various other contributors.
Bedord’s Cupertino Matters YouTube channel has recordings of the open-to-the-public interviews the City Council did in late-January to select new commissioners.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that R “Ray” Wang had only made a more than $5,000 in in-kind contribution for fliers supporting Measure C.