Kline: San Jose grew up, but its form of government remains small

A house divided can fall and the city of San Jose is barely standing.

The infighting, regionalism and special interests are tearing the city apart and preventing the approval of policies that could move us forward together. From business opportunities, homelessness, natural and manmade emergencies, the operations of city government is slow, lethargic and often ineffective.

The current form of government, called a Manager/Council, dates back to 1916. The elected council sets policies and an unelected City Manager executes them. Thirty years later, people wanted more direct oversight over the City Manager. A change required the manager to go on the ballot every two years to get reconfirmed. That lasted until 1966, when the provision was removed and the mayor was named as the leader of the city.

Well, it was really in name only. Besides chairing the council, there wasn’t very much specified.

As the city grew in the 1960s, many in the community saw the problems coming. A Charter Review Committee was formed in 1972 and after many months of work, recommended fundamental changes. The city grew so fast from 1945 to 1965, that it found itself to be a Major League City with a Minor League form of government.

The committee recommended two major changes. The form of government should change to a Mayor/Council, with the mayor being the CEO and the City Manager and department heads reporting to him or her. The mayor would have the power to veto Council legislation subject to override by two-thirds majority vote of the council. They recognized that strong leadership and a strong set of tools were necessary to move a large city forward.

The second change was to have the Council represent the city through districts. Up until then, council members were elected at large; supposedly representing all the city. This created a situation where most City Council members lived in just a few areas, resulting in clearly unfair representation.

It took another six years before the second recommendation was approved when Measure F passed in 1978. The City Council seats were set up in the ten districts as we know them today.

However, the Mayor/Council form of government was never adopted. Eventually the ten city councilmembers would become known as mini-mayors and special interests began to build very high walls; labor vs. business, downtown vs. suburbs, developers vs. neighborhoods. This not only affected policy, but the day-to-day operations of the city. No central authority could move the city in any direction for any specific amount of time, much less ‘excite’ the levers of government to move quickly when necessary.

Eventually the mayor received some additional abilities to recommend a budget and direct public relations, but the unelected City Manager runs the city.

What do we do now? I suggest re-reading that original 1972 document and taking another run up that hill to achieve a more appropriate form of government for the 10th largest city in the U.S.

Norman Kline is a San Jose businessman, entrepreneur and former San Jose planning commissioner.

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