Gonzales: ‘Strong mayor’ strong-arms people into voting on unvetted city constitutional amendments
Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Katie Lauer.

During an unprecedented global pandemic and civil protests over police brutality and systemic racism, Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Lan Diep, Dev Davis, Pam Foley and Johnny Khamis are missing the mark and a genuine opportunity to rebuild trust, and foster collaboration and equity with their constituents.

Pursuant to the Code of Ethics, Section 204 of the City Charter, the citizens of San Jose “expect and must receive” the highest standard of ethics from all those in the public service. Under this context, the rushed and unstudied “Strong Mayor Initiative” clearly falls short of our constitutional standard.

True equity in city government means the decision-making process is intentionally informed through engagement and collaboration with communities that are impacted by pending policy matters. Community engagement allows the city to obtain feedback from stakeholders, to study the assumptions of underlying proposals, and to incorporate empirical evidence to support or oppose proposals before voting on a final decision.

When Mayor Liccardo ran for re-election in 2018, his campaign touted his efforts to create a more equitable San Jose, and that he would continue to broaden inclusion and community trust if re-elected. It has been a theme resurfaced over the course of the mayor’s term in office — even in the mayor’s memo outlining the proposed strong mayor ballot initiative, he starts the conversation by discussing accountability and confidence in City Hall.

Unfortunately, Mayor Liccardo’s current endeavor to place a ballot measure containing significant changes to city operations has been demonstrably ill informed and understudied with only one council meeting dedicated to discussion before voting to move forward with the initiative. When the City Council voted on this initiative on June 30, a review of the memoranda submitted by the mayor and his majority voting bloc focused primarily on the proposals to adjust the powers of the mayor, and offered mostly personal conjecture when addressing changes to our campaign finance and ethics laws.

Vice Mayor Jones submitted only an outline of his recommendations without any supporting research. Councilmember Khamis didn’t bother to address the mayor’s proposed campaign finance changes, while Councilmembers Davis and Foley failed to submit any written thoughts on these sweeping charter amendments. Suffice to say, during a Census year, global pandemic and civil protest, this proposal is missing essential context of what has unfolded and is based on unvetted information.

Indeed, the mayor and his voting bloc also failed to consult with the Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices, the city’s dedicated advisory board for all matters relating to election, campaign finance and ethics laws. Even as the City Manager and the remaining five members of the City Council advocated for greater community engagement and to refer this ballot measure to the Board or an independent Charter Review Committee, the mayor thought it best to move forward without community input or conducting research on the anticipated impacts of this ballot measure.

To be clear — at this time, I am not supporting or opposing any of the specific aspects of the ballot measure, particularly because there has not been enough research or outreach to understand the true intent and purpose behind the wide range of policies being proposed. I am opposing the process by which Mayor Liccardo is rushing a slew of semi-permanent changes to our city constitution without the vetting it deserves. This process is neither equitable nor ethical. It’s poor public policy, plain and simple.

The ethically responsible action would be to conduct a more equitable review of proposed charter amendments, whether that be through a Charter Review Commission, the Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices or a more comprehensive City Council review process.

Let’s not strong-arm the people of San Jose into voting on unvetted policies. Local government has never been in such a spotlight, with so many people queuing at public meetings, some over 6 hours, to participate in the political process. Now is the time to embrace this great opportunity to innovate in true Silicon Valley fashion and set a new standard for equity-based decision-making.

Adrian Gonzales serves as the chair of the city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices. Opinions in this article are those of the author and do not reflect an official opinion of the Board.

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