From the editor: What was the point of that 9-hour City Council debate?
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

Regardless of what side of the political aisle you sit on, one thing is clear. The split City Council vote Wednesday to put a measure on the November ballot that would award Mayor Sam Liccardo two more years and expand his powers was political theater.

The councilmembers spent 9 hours debating the issue. That’s not a typo. Nine hours.

After suspending the discussion Tuesday night — it was nearing the council’s midnight curfew — the lawmakers hopped on Zoom early Wednesday with large mugs of coffee in hand.

And the infighting continued. In my years covering San Jose City Council, this meeting was like nothing I’ve seen. The political divisions on the council became clearer than ever before — business vs. labor. East side vs. West side. The moderates vs. the progressives. The rich vs. the poor. Whatever you call it, this council is bitterly divided and it’s getting worse.

Councilmembers from the so-called “Latino Caucus” — a faction comprised of Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Sergio Jimenez, Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza and Sylvia Arenas — did not hold back.

Arenas lambasted Liccardo for tuning out when she spoke (the mayor claims he turned off his camera to stretch his back), not calling on her despite her virtually raising her hand first and failing to recuse himself from a vote that would directly benefit him. As Liccardo blankly stared into the camera, Arenas questioned his ethics, his leadership, his integrity and his character.

One of the most cringeworthy moments came when Arenas called Liccardo’s decision to skip her and instead call on two of his allies — Councilmembers Lan Diep and Johnny Khamis — a “charade.” By speaking first, Arenas said the men locked up the discussion by making a motion and seconding. (A little known fact is that San Jose councilmembers on the same side of an issue often plan who will make a motion, who will suggest amendments and who will second it. Some even write it down like a script. As I said, political theater.)

“This is a set up,” Arenas told Liccardo. “You’ve set it up so that the rest of the voices cannot be integrated and this is exactly symbolic of what’s going to happen with this proposal. … This is absolutely symbolic of the leadership that we will expect from you and the rest of my colleagues who I’m really ashamed of right now.”

Arenas summoned Lizzo — a pop singer for the unfamiliar — to finish him off: “Why are men great ’til they gotta be great?”

Carrasco said Liccardo made a deal with people who liken him to Satan.

“This deal was already negotiated, and it was negotiated without any of us being at the table,” Carrasco said. “… Individuals who have sworn that you’re two degrees away from the title of Satan were (in) the room. Y’all made a pact. You didn’t take the Latino Caucus into account, who represent half the city to ask us, ‘do you think this is a good direction for your residents?'”

It’s not a surprise this measure is so controversial.

The quick backstory: Labor leaders, including the Latino Caucus, for nearly a year pushed a ballot measure that would move mayoral elections to presidential years in an effort to boost voter turnout, especially among people of color. They gathered signatures and spoke to the community. Despite that, the measure failed to qualify for the ballot.

Liccardo vehemently opposed it. He claimed moving mayoral elections to presidential years would dilute voter interest in local issues. He said he didn’t want two more years in office, often joking his wife would kill him.

But he flipped. Without any public outreach, his ‘strong mayor’ proposal appeared on a council committee agenda. And the measure would do the exact two things he previously opposed — move mayoral elections to presidential years and extend his term.

That’s not all the new measure would do. It also gives Liccardo more power, allowing him to hire and fire department heads and direct city staff. The measure also proposes campaign finance reform by requiring councilmembers to recuse themselves from votes involving special interests that donated to their campaigns. It’s worth noting that such changes traditionally are made without voter approval, and go to the city’s ethics commission first.

Despite the lengthy discussion, what amazes me about the decision Wednesday is that it was 6-5 — a split vote — once again. Predictable? Yes. But nonetheless, it’s remarkable that even after 9 hours of passionate debate and pleas from both sides, not one councilmember strayed from their faction. Not one voted differently.

It means lawmakers had made up their minds before they got to the dais — or the Zoom call, in this case — and it is politics as usual at San Jose City Hall.

It is political theater, and nothing said by the residents who spoke for hours or the councilmembers who pleaded with their rivals to reconsider their positions would’ve made a difference. They might as well have voted in the first hour of the meeting. Minds were made up. “Compromise” was a dirty word.

As the country grapples with equity, San Jose’s Latino councilmembers can’t seem to get a “win” — they are always on the losing end of major votes. No one compromises.

“We finally have representation for Latino districts in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Carrasco said. “But the irony of it is that in spite of that, we tend to be on the losing end of policies that are good for minority communities.

“This should be an embarrassment to all of us sitting here who supposedly stand with Black Lives Matter, who take the pledge of equity, who constantly talk about how we understand our white fragility,” Carrasco added. “Well, put it in check and take a good look in the mirror… you all are gluttons for authority and power and shame on each and every single one of you.”

I expect this divisiveness will continue leading up to the November vote. But hopefully the councilmembers will start listening to one another, to their residents and learning to compromise. San Jose deserves that.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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