On the campaign trail last year, San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan pledged to make City Hall more transparent, accountable and to bring a data-driven approach to local government. After about 100 days in office, he is still striving to achieve this
Mahan recently proposed the city set measurable goals when it comes to things like reducing crime, clearing blight or filling pot holes and report their success to the public. This KPI data dashboard — measuring key performance indicators in those core areas — would help the public see how their tax dollars are being spent.
“I think it matters because if we do that and we’re radically more transparent with the public about where we’re spending their dollars and how we’re performing as a city, I think we’ll start to rebuild trust,” Mahan said in February.
But the council chose not to prioritize this system, and Mahan is still looking for ways to make city government move faster and more efficiently — much like the private sector.
San José Spotlight sat down with Mahan to ask about his first 100 days on the City Council.
Q: What has been the most challenging part of the job?
A: Unlike the private sector where you can propose ideas, people can agree they’re worth trying, and you can try them in a light-weight way and experiment and see how they go, government moves incredibly slowly. The biggest change for me, going from a company where everyone is more or less aligned around the same goal and we have a common language around our goals and how we measure success… is that government is much more decentralized, there are many more competing interests and there’s a lot less consensus.
Q: What has surprised you the most?
A: It’s amazing to me how long it takes to make decisions and actually implement them and how much of that is driven by a very slow annual budgeting cycle and once you’ve budgeted, it’s kind of locked in.
City bureaucracy is very slow to change. Even an idea that gets near unanimous support like encampment management strategy…takes a very long time to implement. You can have an idea, council can agree and city staff can say it’s promising, but it can take a very long time to even do a small test. We need to be faster, more reactive, flexible and experiment more. That’s what I’m bringing from the private sector. We cannot wait for an annual budget cycle to decide that something isn’t working.
Q: What are some of your longer-term goals for your first term?
A: I’m advocating for focused goals in our core service areas. The top three I’ve heard loud and clear from the community are public safety, homelessness and housing, and maintaining core infrastructure maintenance like roads and parks. We’ve got to set goals, measure them, report back and focus all the energy of this bureaucracy on hitting measurable targets. What are our targets and growth goals? What are we currently doing to achieve those goals? For the priority-setting process, I put forward two proposals. One was the KPI dashboard, I put forward one on encampment management because that’s been a growing issue. Encampment management was voted the top priority for next year as a new project. The KPI dashboard came in of 14th out of 40 and got a few votes. The mayor mentioned it in his March budget message and the city manager referenced it. It’s certainly getting some interest.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing your district so far?
A: Crime and homelessness are the two biggest challenges facing the community. When people don’t feel safe, nothing else matters. If your car’s been broken into, or your neighbors’ car or home have been broken into, if there’s package theft in the neighborhood, you feel threatened and violated. It really shakes you.
The second thing people are concerned about is homelessness. The idea that in one of the wealthiest places on earth we have thousands of people living on our streets in really terrible conditions upsets everybody. The real long-term solution is housing of all kinds, more shelter beds, more mental health facility beds, drug treatment programs and…permanent supportive housing.
We’re going to need some emergency housing, maybe tiny homes…we’re going to have to get more creative and more cost effective.
We have 6,000 people living on our streets right now and we’ve been not managing it, especially during COVID, it’s been very hands off and it’s caused real problems like fires and trash. Then there’s building the housing we need, and the question is always location and that’s hard. Then there’s the ongoing cost of providing all the services.
Third, was infrastructure, specifically roads. I had people walk me from their front doors out into the street and point to potholes. Other infrastructure issues are parks and trails. We have what could be the best urban park and trail network, but people don’t feel comfortable with them because they’re not maintained. There’s graffiti, trash and encampments. It’s a missed opportunity.
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]