UPDATE: San Jose council approves police reform, tax hike, food relief measures
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the economy and discussions of race and police brutality dominate the national conversation, city leaders approved measures for the 2020 ballot to address food insecurity, police reform and economic hardship in San Jose.

In its first regular meeting since the July legislative break, the San Jose City Council voted Tuesday to ask voters in November whether to expand the authority of the city’s police auditor, increase taxes on card rooms and restructure the planning commission.

Councilors also approved extending the life of public meal programs to assist residents lacking access to food during the pandemic.

Police reform and a more diverse planning commission 

Voters in 2020 will get to decide whether or not to increase the powers of the city’s Independent Police Auditor. If passed, the measure will allow the auditor to review reports of officer-involved shootings, investigate use of force allegations and other investigations against police officers. The council voted unanimously to move the measure forward.

“These are absolutely necessary reforms that will help us reform our police department and make sure that we can discipline and hopefully remove police officers who are not behaving in a manner commensurate to the law,” Councilmember Johnny Khamis told the San José Spotlight.

During public comment, San Jose resident Paul Soto said he was tired of trying to convince people that systemic racism exists in law enforcement.

“Why do we have to allow or even have a ballot measure to give the police auditor more power? Here’s the reason why: because the police department is not following the law,” Soto said. “When you use the law to break the law, you are no longer fit to enforce it.”

The IPA currently has the authority to review complaints sent to the police department and determine whether investigations are complete and fair. The office can recommend policies based on its assessment of the department and it’s responsible for community engagement and outreach.

“Thousands of people have taken to the streets in San Jose, in California and across the nation to protest and grieve the death of George Floyd and other Black lives. Now is the time to begin a re-imagining of policing,” Carol Watts, president of the League of Women Voters, wrote in a letter to the council. “We look forward to a broad community engagement process to help determine the future of policing in San Jose.”

The same measure will ask voters to restructure the San Jose Planning Commission, changing its size from seven members to 11, enacting term limits for members and prohibiting lobbyists from serving on the commission. The larger commission would comprise one member from each of the ten council districts and one at-large member.

Lawmakers approved the plan in June after facing criticism over the lack of ethnic and geographic diversity on the planning commission.

The measure will allow councilmembers to extend the timeline for redistricting due to potential delays with the U.S. Census results.

“We put decided to put all those on one ballot measure to save money, and they’re all charter changes so it seemed to make sense,” Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said. “I think folks are generally going to be supportive of all that.”

Feeding San Jose

As of July 31, more than 52 million meals citywide have been supplied to seniors, low-income children and families, people experiencing homelessness and others who have been economically impacted by the pandemic.

The meals were distributed to residents thanks to the city’s partnership with several organizations, including World Central Kitchen, Team San Jose, Hunger at Home, the Health Trust and Deloitte Consulting. The relief effort was a short-term solution for solving the immediate problem of hunger in San Jose, amplified by unemployment and lack of access to stores during shelter in place.

Many of these programs were scheduled to end this month, but the City Council approved renegotiating food delivery agreements that allow organizations to continue feeding people through September and October.

But councilmembers, including Maya Esparza, expressed concern about the quality of existing food delivery programs.

“We’ve had a number of instances where delivery trucks are arriving one to two-plus hours late,” Esparza said.

And when the boxes do arrive, Esparza said they are sparse, containing a head of cabbage and maybe some lemons and limes. “I don’t think they’re enough to feed a family for a week,” she said. “And sometimes the food in the boxes may not always be, frankly, edible.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo suggested the city look into how the nutritional value of the food can be increased.

The food delivery programs related to COVID-19 relief have recently come under fire. A San José Spotlight report in July found a statewide program — Great Plates Delivered — only served a little more than 1,000 residents in Santa Clara County as of July 16. The 66,730 meals were prepared by just eight local restaurants.

Two weeks ago, nonprofit leaders accused the city of failing to reimburse them for costs related to providing thousands of meals to Silicon Valley’s neediest residents.

New cardroom tax could fund city programs

If passed by voters, a measure to raise the city’s card room tax from 15% to 16.5% and would generate $15 million annually for the city’s general fund. The revenue would support fire protection, disaster preparedness, 911 emergency response, street repair and youth programs, according to city leaders.

The measure would also add 15 extra tables games per establishment for a total of 30 more tables citywide.

“The casinos have been one of our biggest — if not the biggest — income producer in the city of San Jose, and they’ve been asking for more tables for more than 20 years now,” Khamis said. “I think the expansion of 30 tables is not that huge. It’s not going to all of a sudden become Las Vegas and it will actually increase the amount of money that we receive without taxing the general population.”

Liccardo was the only member to oppose the measure, citing concerns about adding more tables and promoting casinos in general.

“There are ample studies to demonstrate the expansion of gambling is correlated to — if not causative of — serious problems in our community, and it is not worth the cost,” said Liccardo, referencing studies about gambling addiction. “The long term costs are too great and too significant. They’re not easily identified. They’re often behind the scenes, behind closed doors, not immediately identifiable to any one casino’s activity.”

The 2019-2020 card room tax was on track to generate $18.9 million for city programs, but the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order led to an anticipated $5.4 million loss. The tax hike would help make up for the deficit.

Separately, the council discussed plans to help businesses use public sidewalks to create socially-distant spaces during the pandemic, reported on what the city was doing to help those experiencing homelessness and provided updates on increasing digital inclusion throughout the city.

“Today was I think was a good example of how diverse our agenda has been. Talking about homeless action plans, to the airport, to ballot measures, Jimenez said. “We even talked about the feeding of the population and making sure people have access to food. So, I think it’s a good start to the remainder of the fiscal year and there’s a lot to do.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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