Chair Gage takes seat on water district board

Chairman Don Gage of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

A quick, rather silent game of musical chairs was the final act
of a squabble over the process of appointing the chair and vice
chair at the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors
meeting Tuesday morning.
SAN JOSE – A quick, rather silent game of musical chairs was the final act of a squabble over the process of appointing the chair and vice chair at the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors meeting Tuesday morning.

The 7-0 election of Director Don Gage to chair the board was resolved, but not without claims of racism and political maneuvering by several speakers who supported Asian American Director Patrick Kwok as the next chair of the board.

“This could be discriminatory. I believe the board’s leadership should reflect their population,” said Chris Lee, an attorney for the Asian Law Alliance. “It’s suspicious because it leaves out people of color,” he said.

Kwok’s chance to chair was effectively pushed back three years and instead the position was opened to a vote. The motivation was to seat newly elected director to oversee the meetings, the agendas and delegate authority, according to the governance policies of the board. The change only slightly moves from the “traditional” board rotation policy that allowed every person a chance; the election of Gage did not eliminate the rotation policy but restarts the process.

Politicians lent their support to Kwok, despite his opinion that the “race card” does not and should play a role in choosing a board chair or vice chair. The board’s three new directors are all Caucasian. If Kwok was elected chair he would have been the first foreign born Asian American to rise to the rank of chair of the water district, which has existed as the Santa Clara Valley Water District since 1975.

Former San Jose city councilman Forrest Williams, current Cupertino councilman Kris Wang, county Board of Education Trustee Michael Chang, and Milpitas Mayor Jose Esteves wrote letters in support of Kwok. He was elected in 2008.

The seven-member board, nonetheless, will now be governed by Chairman Gage and Vice Chair Linda LeZotte, both elected in November. LeZotte inched out Kwok with four votes to his three, thanks to a deciding vote by fellow recently elected Director Brian Schmidt.

Just after the November election, Kwok and former South County Director Cy Mann suggested amending the chair selection process to enforce a tenure rule that would have prevented any recently elected director from chairing the board or becoming vice chair for up to four years. The argument was that a new director would not have enough experience in dealing with water-related issues.

It was later squashed and instead the democratic process kicked in Tuesday to decide on the leadership for the next year. The chair job will rotate every year, with the vice chair becoming chair the next year.

Kwok, who voted for Gage despite the outpouring of support from the Asian American community to lean the other direction, said he trusted Gage had the experience and leadership to represent the board in 2011.

“He’s impressed me. I hope he can be a man of compromise and flexibility,” Kwok said at the meeting.

Following the vote, Gage moved his chair to the center spot on the dais and former Chair Richard Santos scooted his chair to his new station on the board. Gage spoke not one word – except when voting – during the discussion about the chairmanship.

“Let’s go to item five,” Gage said without missing a beat.

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