How San Jose City Hall transitions of power happen
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

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Even though the San Jose mayoral election is nearly two months away, preparations are already well underway inside City Hall to ensure a smooth transition of power at the end of the year.

“It’s super busy, it’s kind of exciting, and it’s kind of sad,” Toni Taber, San Jose’s city clerk for the last decade, told San José Spotlight about this season of change.

Taber’s office heads up the wide-ranging transition process, offering a vast array of support to mayor-elects and councilmember-elects who are preparing to take over the offices of their predecessors.

“We try to be sensitive to the people who are leaving the city and we try to help the people who are coming in to be ready to go on Jan. 1,” Taber said.

There’s a laundry list of things to do, including creating job postings for new council and mayoral staff members that will go up in October, working with new elected officials to hire staff and overseeing purchasing of city-approved phones and other technology.

While each council office usually has about eight staffers, the mayor’s office has more than two dozen.

This year there are up to four councilmember offices and the mayor’s office changing hands, so an already frenetic transition process is even more hectic.

“It’s a very tight turnaround,” Taber said of the changeovers.

She added the work with incoming officials has to begin as soon as possible after the election.

“Sometimes, we don’t know for a couple of weeks because the election is really close. But if on Nov. 9 there’s a clear winner, someone who is way ahead, I will contact them on that day to set up a time to meet with us,” Taber said.

In the case of District 1, Rosemary Kamei won her seat outright in the June primary, so Taber’s office and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones’ office have already been working with her.

Cooperation is essential

Since there are no city or state laws mandating the transition of power at San Jose City Hall, the process relies on tradition and internal practices. It all goes more smoothly if the politicians are willing to work with their successors and predecessors cordially. For the most part, San Jose has avoided excessive drama during the changing of the guard, officials said.

“The transition of power in San Jose is an extremely boring process and that’s the way it should be,” former Mayor Chuck Reed, who served as mayor for eight years ending in 2014, told San José Spotlight.

Reed didn’t see eye-to-eye on policy with his predecessor, former Mayor Ron Gonzales. Still, Reed said Gonzales was very accommodating to him during the transition. Gonzales was unavailable for comment.

“You want the new mayor to be successful, even if you may not agree with them,” Reed said. “There’s a lot of understanding of the job, and the difficulty of the job that creates some empathy, mayor to mayor.”

Reed said he is confident Mayor Sam Liccardo will be gracious and helpful to the new incoming mayor, no matter if it is San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan, who Liccardo has endorsed and fundraised for, or Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Liccardo declined an interview to discuss how he’s preparing for the transition of power.

Larry Gerston, a longtime political observer and professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said transitions of power at all levels of government should be seamless, especially in local politics.

“There’s no reason for Sam Liccardo to get cute with either Cindy Chavez or Matt Mahan. There’s no benefit. You want to leave with your head high,” Gerston told San José Spotlight. “Mayor Liccardo, in politico ages, is a young person, with a tremendous potential upside. He’s not about to lay an egg as he leaves his office.”

The collegiality locally is in stark contrast from what the U.S. witnessed when outgoing President Donald Trump refused to allow the country’s public servants to recognize President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 for weeks after the election, delaying the critical changeover process.

“That’s probably the worst example of transition I’ve ever seen in my nearly 50 years of politics,” Gerston said.

Not always peaceful

While things might not have been that contentious in San Jose, transitions of some councilmember offices have not always been perfectly peaceful.

During his tenure, Reed said, the council established rules that ensure a half of each councilmember’s office budget is reserved for the incoming councilmember.

But that didn’t stop one councilmember from draining his half of the district coffers before he lost his seat.

Outgoing District 4 Councilmember Lan Diep doled out roughly $440,000 of his budget in 2020 for various grants and programs, after initially trying to turn it all over to the city’s general fund. At the time, incoming Councilmember David Cohen criticized the behavior as “petty” and Trumpian.

“There was a question about whether or not the district had gotten (all its funding) and there was money that was leftover that wasn’t available to invest afterwards because he was finding ways to give it away,” Cohen told San José Spotlight.

Diep denied he was trying to cripple his successor at the time.

Aside from ensuring new councilmembers are well-acquainted with their budgets and have proper staffing, Taber’s office also connects new councilmembers with public works staff to handle the lighter side of the transition, like having their office repainted with colors of their choice.

“I had light blue, plus an off white accent wall along with a dark blue accent column,” Cohen said.

Getting elected officials new furniture is usually on the to-do list during the transition, but with so many offices to change out this year, Taber said furniture is being moved down the list of priorities.

“We’re going to ask them to kind of use the furniture we’ve got, even if it’s kind of beat up,” she said, “because with so many other things that have to be done by Jan. 1, furniture can wait.”

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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