UPDATE: ‘I am not trying to cripple my successor’ Diep says about San Jose spending plan
San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep is pictured in this file photo.

After losing re-election, San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep wants to give $440,000 in district funds to the city’s general fund — a move Councilmember-elect David Cohen is calling a Trumpian political ploy.

In a memo to the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee, Diep detailed his intent to give his District 4 funds — meant to support programs and people in the council district — to other city departments to sponsor some of City Hall’s “lesser known projects.”

On Dec. 9, the committee unanimously agreed to bring Diep’s plans before the City Council for a vote on the condition he revise the plan to include additional projects that would solely benefit District 4.

Cohen, who defeated Diep in the November election, sharply criticized Diep for not investing the money in the community. Cohen demanded the outgoing councilmember keep the money available to District 4 residents and called Diep’s memo a “page right out of Donald Trump’s post election obstruction playbook.”

That money would also help Cohen set up his office and support his new staff.

“That you think it is a good thing that you failed to invest your budget year after year for the benefit of D4 residents is beyond reason,” Cohen wrote in a letter to Diep. “Your actions as you are leaving office are just petty, a transparent attempt to play politics as I strive to build a strong foundation of service to the community.”

Diep read sections of Cohen’s letter aloud to the committee and said he had no intentions of leaving Cohen empty handed.

“I am not trying to cripple my successor on my way out,” Diep said. “I’m leaving councilmember Cohen with at least $1 million.”

Roughly half of that $1 million will come from Diep’s leftover savings. The other sum will come from the city which provides each councilmember with an annual allotment to spend on office staff and projects.

Diep pushed back against the suggestion he’s trying to hurt the district and added that the district money is meant to be an office budget. Since he doesn’t have a chief of staff, Diep said he was able to save more. He argued the proposed projects he wants to spend his district funds on would benefit the entire city, including District 4.

“I hope that the council can see that. I hope my colleagues respect that and I hope Councilmember-elect Cohen understands where I’m coming from,” Diep said. “I think his letter speaks more to his character and more about him than it does about me.”

The decision to surrender district funds marks an abrupt change of heart for the councilmember who is known for stockpiling district funds.

In June, Diep had more than $900,000 on hand after an allocation of more than half a million to pay his staff and provide services for residents. By comparison, fellow Councilmember Sylvia Arenas had $29,000 left in district funds after spending her allocation on community projects.

All councilmembers receive the same allotment to support their district each year. For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, that amount was $661,272. Any unspent funds are rolled over to the next year.

Councilmember Johnny Khamis in June suggested the council put unused district funds back in the general fund to help alleviate the city’s $71.6 million deficit due to COVID-19. Diep pushed back against the idea, opting to keep his savings for ongoing projects including the District 4 dumpster day trash pickups.

That was before he lost the election. Now, Diep is doing the very thing Khamis advocated for.

Khamis said when he took over the District 10 office, former Councilmember Nancy Pyle had about $60,000 left over. But because the next councilmember gets half of what’s remaining in the district budget, Pyle got to spend $30,000 however she wanted.

Councilmember Dev Davis and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones expressed concerns about Diep not using the funds specifically for District 4 and urged him to add district-specific projects to his proposal.

“If the allocations were specifically for the benefit of the District 4 residents, I would feel more comfortable with this,” Davis said. “The fact that they’re citywide and they’re being done at the end of your tenure, Councilmember Diep, is what gives me pause.”

Davis also has a surplus of district funds each year, but said she spends it on lower-priority projects such as extra lights on crosswalks.

Jones told Diep he saw his intentions were good, but agreed with Davis.

“If this proposal had gone through our budget process, I would have been a lot more receptive,” Jones said. “The timing and the optics of this proposal at this time — you have a right to do it —  but it’s not the right time.”

Diep’s memo suggested the Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement receive $200,000 to preserve historic buildings and align local zoning with state regulations. The Department of Information Technology would receive $115,000 to improve Vietnamese translation services and create electronic signs at City Hall. The Office of Economic Development would receive $125,000 to create a small business retention program and $25,000 of that to assist artists and fund local art projects.

Stacey Brown, Cohen’s incoming chief of staff, said allowing a councilmember on his way out the door to make budget decisions for his successor sets a bad example for future councilmembers.

Diep said he’d be willing to draft a new proposal to include more District 4 projects. The updated version will come to the City Council at a later date.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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