Is San Jose ready for a strong mayor?
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose might not be ready for a strong mayor—at least not yet.

That was the concern discussed during a public meeting this month by a commission reviewing the proposal to change San Jose’s governance.

Among large cities in the U.S., San Jose’s way of government is unusual: the mayor has little power compared to the city manager. The Charter Review Commission formed in July 2020 after Mayor Sam Liccardo unsuccessfully pushed for a “strong mayor” form of governance, which allows him to hire department heads without approval from the City Council.

The commission is now studying that issue, along with possibly moving mayoral elections to presidential years to boost voter turnout. But some commissioners are now questioning whether San Jose is ready for the change.

“Just because a mayor feels frustrated or can’t do what they want to do doesn’t necessarily mean we have to change the charter,” said District 8 Commissioner María Fuentes. “It can mean that the person has to be stronger politically.”

As the 10th (maybe 11th) largest city in the U.S. with a diverse population of over one million people, San Jose is likely to see more divisions among groups which requires stronger political leadership, said political expert and SJSU retired professor Terry Christensen. In the case of a police shooting, for example, the City Council and mayor do not have the authority to fire police chiefs.

“It really is an accountability question,” Christensen said. “People expect the mayor to do that, and get frustrated when the mayor can’t, and so are mayors who don’t have that authority.”

Commissioner Barbara Marshman asked Christensen if he felt San Jose moving toward a strong mayor would be the right decision.

“I favored a strong mayor form of government for most of my career,” Christensen said. “But right now, I’m not so sure. I also don’t want to see the powers of the council diminish. The district council is the main point of access to what the local government does for communities, neighborhoods and citizens. They are the folks on the front lines.”

District 6 Commissioner Magnolia Segol asked which additional powers would be useful for the San Jose mayor to have right now. Christensen said that some powers include a strong role in hiring and firing department heads, having direct authority over the city manager and more budget powers.

Commissioners plan to speak with officials in San Diego, which recently switched to a strong mayor form of governance, at a future meeting.

Meanwhile, commissioners also debated the idea of shifting mayoral elections. A similar labor-backed proposal failed to qualify for the ballot last year.

Christensen and Professor Mary Currin-Percival said moving the mayoral to coincide with presidential elections increases voter participation and diversity. According to past San Jose election data collected, the professors said moving the election could result in 148,000 to 169,000 additional voters.

“It’s not just the numbers,” Currin-Percival said. “It’s the diversity. You would have more younger voters, voters of color and voters who have lower income.”

Commissioner Lan Diep questioned how informed voters would be on local issues amid the noise of presidential elections.

Media, interest groups and community organizations can play a role in educating voters about local elections and encourage them to vote, said Currin-Percival. She said her research comparing ballot roll-off—where people only vote for items at the top of the ticket—did not show a substantial difference between 2018 and 2020.

“Presidential elections are going to get people excited about elections, and that’s going to get people excited about mayoral elections as well,” Currin-Percival said. “That’s a really good thing, given how much is tied to local elections.”

District 3 Commissioner Elly Matsumura cautioned against stereotyping infrequent voters, voters of color and low-income voters as less-informed.

“To refer to those as lower quality or less-informed votes is essentially saying that those voters have lower quality opinions,” Matsumura said. “That’s a very concerning argument for me and I hope we will all keep that in mind, as it raises major equity concerns.”

The commission, which meets every two weeks, will reconvene on May 3. Agendas are posted here, and members of the public can watch or participate via Zoom, YouTube or Channel 26. Links to the meetings can be found here.

Contact Patricia Wei at [email protected]

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