This past Tuesday, the Milpitas City Council held a special meeting to discuss procedures and protocols in their current handbook.
The handbook, which was originally adopted in 2004, outlines the duties and expected conduct of council members while providing procedures for meetings, communication, and actions. The last time that the handbook was updated was to enable the use of electronic voting in June 2023.
In the lead-up to this Tuesday’s meeting, council members had come up with a list of items that they wanted to discuss with one another. Several of them are cited below…
Vice Mayor Position
One of the first items they discussed involved how to approach the vice mayor position. The handbook does not specifically state the amount of time that a vice mayor should serve. As the seating of the vice mayor always takes place after a new mayor is elected, a vice mayor will typically serve for two years, until the next election.
However, that was not the case in 2020, when Rich Tran, who was mayor at the time, was able to remove Karina Dominguez from the position of vice mayor after she had served for only one year.
The recommendation for the vice mayor position is always given by the mayor, and the appointment itself is based on majority vote.
Mayor Carmen Montano wanted the handbook to state that the mayor has the option to choose the vice mayor every year, with the ability to recommend the same person or a new one, with approval of the Council.
Councilmember Anthony Phan spoke of the politics on display during the time when Dominguez’s title was taken from her. He wanted to see Council working together to confirm an appropriate vice mayor for a two-year term:
“Reflecting back on what happened in the past, it was not a good precedent for us to set – the ability to rotate the vice mayor on a whim. I don’t think that’s good government. You make a choice, you stick to it. If you have issues, you work it out,” said Councilmember Phan.
Electronics during Closed Session
Council also spoke about the use of electronics during closed session meetings. In the handbook, there is no mention of the use of laptops and cell phones during closed session; the only reference to electronics in the handbook involves cell phone use on the council dais.
Mayor Montano felt that council members should not be allowed to use both laptops and cellphones during closed session meetings.
“We’ve had sensitive issues come up in the past and we just can’t take the chance of someone leaking information or recording,” said Mayor Montano.
Other members of the Council felt it wasn’t necessary to put this in the handbook.
“We’re all adults here. This isn’t a classroom,” said Councilmember Phan during the meeting. “We all can conduct ourselves. We don’t need anybody mico-managing us. What does that say about us as a council? That all of us can’t be trusted?”
Council also discussed the current seating arrangement. At present, the handbook calls for the mayor to be in the middle, the vice mayor to be next to the mayor, and all other council members to be seated in order of seniority.
“Looking at our seating arrangement right now; it’s not following this verbiage,” said Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua, who felt that things needed to be clarified.
Councilmember Phan is currently the most senior council member, having served for seven straight years – however he is seated all the way at the end. He feels that the standards that were set in the handbook should be followed going forward.
Councilmember Hon Lien spoke of how she had initially requested to have the seat assignments be based on the handbook, but implied that Mayor Montano wanted to make her own decisions as to who sat where.
“If we choose to follow the handbook, then let’s do it 100%,” said Councilmember Lien. “Do not pick and choose what we want to follow and what we want to honor…”
The Council also discussed the possibility of increasing their salaries, a matter which currently isn’t included in the handbook.
At present, Milpitas Councilmembers receive $904.37 per month, while the Mayor receives $1,130.75 per month. Changes to salary can be made based on changes in the population or by voters. Senate Bill 329 allows for the adjustment of salaries and would require a new ordinance or change in ordinance.
Phan brought up the idea of having an independent body make a recommendation on the salary increase, so that there is transparency; he also suggested that Council consider the possibility of becoming a charter city, as opposed to a general law city. A charter city would have more flexibility and not be limited by state restrictions.
Milpitas is currently a general law city, which means that it operates under the laws of the state. A charter city, on the other hand, can create its own system of governance. Roughly a quarter of the cities in California are charter cities; these include places like San Jose, San Francisco, Alameda, Palo Alto, and San Leandro.
Phan, who has tried to open this conversation in the past, feels that becoming a charter city would give Council the ability to really make a difference.
“If this is a resource that allows the City of Milpitas to transcend and achieve its full potential, not just in public policy but also for planning and land use for the next generations, it can make a huge difference. And voters would have a huge say in this, because ultimately, they’d have to approve the charter,” said Councilmember Phan.
On all topics discussed, City Staff took notes; they will bring back modifications for further Council discussion at a future meeting.