Mahan: Hold politicians accountable for results, not political rhetoric
The San Jose City Council chambers during the March 29 meeting. Photo by Jana Kadah.

I thank Councilmember Sergio Jimenez for continuing the debate over how to bring greater accountability and effectiveness to San Jose City Hall.

As a fellow councilmember, who also has a background founding a business designing tools to hold government accountable, I was surprised after taking office that city leaders were not measuring and managing against outcomes in a systematic way. There were general goals, aspirations and promises, but no accounting for, or consequences of, failing to meet these goals or keep those promises.

In San Jose crime is up, the level of street homelessness has increased by more than 10%, our streets are dirtier than ever and housing is still unaffordable to virtually every working family.

Do you call that success? I don’t.

Do you think politicians and senior administrators failing to meet our community’s vital goals should qualify for raises—including raises that by law must help protect politicians from inflation even when many average families don’t have such protections?

I don’t.

Right now, the City Charter provisions around setting pay for city politicians do not require the Salary Setting Commission to account for success—but the law directs that the pay of politicians should keep up with inflation. Raises for top administrators are virtually automatic with no transparent nor formal provision linking measurable community outcomes to raises.

The accountability proposal I have put forward, which Councilmember Jimenez is challenging, is basic management practice in virtually every successful private company or nonprofit entity. I propose setting clear and measurable goals around top community priorities, such as ending street homelessness, lowering crime rates and cleaning our city; publishing those goals for all to see; tracking our progress against those goals and then making sure leaders are held accountable if we fail to meet those goals—including by ending raises for politicians and top department heads until they meet our community’s agreed upon goals.

This is not some new idea. Many Spotlight readers will recall the state budget was nearly always late, and sometimes so late that state workers had to be paid in IOUs and state services were curtailed. Voters finally said “enough” and passed a law that denies pay to legislators who can’t deliver a budget on time. Since then, the budget has always been on time.

Other governments have successfully pioneered small “incentive pay” for managers and leaders—driven by the foundation of any successful management system in a large government, nonprofit or business: clear and measurable goals that everyone can see.

In San Jose, this policy could take shape in many forms. The charter and the Salary Setting Commission are not the straitjackets Councilmember Jimenez makes them out to be. The city manager could send the commission a report of the city’s performance and a formula-based recommendation for the size—if any—of the raises for the mayor and councilmembers based on measurable results and outcomes.

Alternatively, if the voters agree with me, we could together put a measure on the ballot to alter the charter and codify our accountability plan. Ballot measures aren’t small undertakings, but the greater focus and accountability would pay dividends for our city.

And, of course, the council absolutely does have the ability to dictate the pay structure and incentives of top department heads, who in San Jose have great influence over the direction of our city.

We can’t always run government like a business, nor should we. But we can adopt foundational principles of any effective organization—transparency, focus and accountability—starting at the top.

Councilmember Jimenez is right—our government is driven by political promises. It shouldn’t be. Our leaders should be held accountable for measurable results. And that’s what we are working to achieve.

Matt Mahan is the councilmember for San Jose’s District 10, representing Santa Teresa and Almaden. 

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