Peralez: Rushed ‘strong mayor’ initiative is politics at its worst
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

Today a constitutional convention will take place, proposing changing how people are represented and how government operates. A frenzy of proposals contemplating complex restructuring, an extension of current leaders’ term-limited time in office, the value of neighborhood representation, consolidation of power and increasing voter participation will be considered in a 12-hour political showdown.

This affront to thoughtful governance is not going to occur in some far off land under a dictator, it will happen here in San José.

Only 11 out of 1.1 million people will debate the future of San José with no public process, vetting or outreach. Contemplating the next chapter of our city’s future is a good thing, but only if we make it a community conversation.

A nearly year long community-led effort manifested itself into the Fair Elections Initiative intended to increase voter participation by aligning the mayor’s election to the presidential cycle, and give constituents an equal voice in government by limiting campaign contributions from special interests. The initiative received endorsements from several regional leaders, including myself, but despite widespread community outreach and receiving over 66,776 valid signatures, it fell short of the November ballot by merely 2,248 signatures.

Conversely, just over a week ago, as hopes of the Fair Elections Initiative were fading, Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed a political compromise to place a watered down version of the Fair Elections Initiative on the ballot while changing the structure of our government and expanding his own powers. He suggested making “modest but long overdue changes,” although he conveniently omitted what those modest changes were.

Since then, five different memos from councilmembers, all submitted within the last week, have provided clarity — clear as mud — on what those changes should be. These memoranda are all over the place, and include changes that would give the mayor hiring, firing and veto authority, and extend his term by two years without an election by the people.

The Fair Elections Initiative professed that democracy should be for all of us and not just special interests, and that “Democracy works best when it reflects all our voices, no matter what we look like or what’s in our wallets.” Yet this “unfair elections and strong mayor initiative” has blatantly excluded the community. Now that the Fair Elections Initiative failed to qualify for the ballot, we have a rushed effort to cobble together a compromise with no community input.

Less than a year ago, Mayor Liccardo vehemently spoke out against and voted down a council-led effort to align the mayor’s election to the presidential cycle. Yet today somehow we are to believe he simply had a change of heart. I call foul. What we have here is government and politics at its worst.

Springing these significant changes upon our community is insulting and demonstrates a lack of consideration for true community engagement. The mayor suggests that recent community demands are justification for his proposal, but we haven’t heard anyone demanding our mayor should have these added powers or an additional two years in office.

None of these recommendations require immediate action, they won’t resolve current community concerns and there is no reason to bypass a true community process before going to the ballot. A measure to move the mayor’s race to align with the 2024 presidential election can still be proposed in the future by the council or through another community effort and does not need to be decided today.

How can we remedy this? Simple. Slow down and honestly engage the community before placing anything on the ballot.

Since 1915 every time we changed or attempted to change the structure of our City Council or the power and structure of our government, a Charter Revision Commission was formed to allow for robust community engagement lasting typically over one year before anything was placed on a ballot. The currently proposed charter changes gave the public one week, during a pandemic, over Zoom, to weigh in.

Mayor Liccardo pretends to support community engagement through the creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the reforms, and report on the effectiveness or need for modifications after placing the initiative on the ballot — any recommended changes at that point would require funding another ballot initiative for voter approval.

Not once, in changing the structure of our government, or any other charter amendment, have we recklessly made the changes and then created a commission and community engagement process afterward to clean up our mistakes. Reckless is how you describe making policy with no process. Shameful is how you describe asking a community to clean up mistakes in policies you rushed in making.

The rushed nature of these proposals significantly stifles community voices and eliminates equitable participation. This is not good governance, it falls below our standards of transparency and lacks the engagement our community deserves.

Raul Peralez is a San Jose councilmember first elected in 2014 to represent District 3, which spans downtown San Jose.

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