Poll: Majority of San Jose voters don’t support strong mayor government

Months after a poll sponsored by a business group revealed that San Jose voters favored switching to a strong mayor government, a new poll sponsored by a labor organization is suggesting the opposite.

The poll, obtained by San José Spotlight, was conducted by EMC Research and found that at least 56 percent of respondents were not interested in switching the city’s current system to a strong mayor alternative, citing concerns that the switch will “consolidate too much power in the hands of the mayor.”

The poll was conducted as a public opinion email-to-web survey from June 6 to June 11 among 669 randomly selected likely Nov. 2020 voters in San Jose.

The first poll, commissioned by the silicon valley organization (SVO) and conducted by FM3 Research, found that 68 percent of participants were interested in the idea of a strong mayor government. That poll surveyed 400 likely voters by phone.

But labor leaders say the business poll did not contain ballot language, only tested the general concept of a strong mayor form of government and wasn’t objective. So, they decided to sponsor their own study and found alarmingly different results.

SVO officials declined to release an informational memo with their poll results or comment on the difference between the two polls.

“The way the strong mayor measure was described in the SVO poll contained an argument for the measure,” said Ben Field, executive director of the South Bay Labor Council. “When a ballot measure is described, the person who describes it — in this case, it would be the city attorney in San Jose — is legally bound to give an objective description and to not insert into that description any sort of created language that might sway the voters in one direction or another. So the language of the measure that was tested in the EMC Research poll is very objective.”

The exact wording of the labor poll asked respondents: “Shall the city of San Jose amend its charter to establish a strong mayor governance structure wherein the elected mayor has the power to veto City Council decisions, subject to a veto override of two thirds of the Council, and has the authority to hire and fire department heads including the city manager?”

EMC Research also found that 61 percent of respondents said they thought a strong mayor form of government is “bad for neighborhoods and gives power to mayors who care more about downtown development,” while 57 percent found it “convincing” that a strong mayor form of government is “undemocratic and takes power from City Council
members.”

“When presented with a realistic look at a potential strong mayor measure, we see that a majority of voters are opposed,” Emily Kirby Goodman, senior vice president at EMC Research, told San José Spotlight. “The survey provides additional information, both in favor of a potential measure and against a measure, because we wanted to see how support changed or not with additional information. In the end, we found that despite sharing positive and negative information, the majority were still opposed.”

A strong mayor system gives the mayor more oversight by allowing him veto power over the City Council’s decisions, granting him the ability to fire and hire department heads and have more authority over the city’s budget. Currently, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is one of 11 votes on the City Council and the city manager is appointed by the council, though Liccardo makes a recommendation. The city manager manages department heads and staff.

Goodman said providing actual ballot language is a better way to measure voters’ opinion on the potential initiative.

“We only get as good a data as the questions that are asked. If we’re asking questions that are swayed in one direction or the other, that doesn’t get useful data,” Goodman added. “It’s important to ask it in a balanced way — in a way that’s close to what we think could be on the ballot — because we want a real read on what support would be.”

But some experts say the city could benefit from the changes. Many other big cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have a strong mayor system.

“Large cities move toward a strong mayor form of government because as they grow, they become more diverse, politics becomes more conflictual, and you need stronger leadership,” said Terry Christensen, a political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University.

Christensen said he supports a strong mayor form of government for San Jose —  but under certain conditions.

A “competent” mayor is needed, as well as a good balance between the mayor and City Council. Still, Christensen said the process of putting the strong mayor initiative on the ballot is worrisome because it excludes the city’s charter revision commission from any oversight.

“I don’t think an initiative is the right way to do this. It’s gonna take a ballot measure because it’s a charter amendment,” added Christensen. “In San Jose, on major changes, like when we changed the district elections for example, it went through a charter revision commission.”

According to Christensen, if the City Council votes to put the strong mayor measure on the ballot, it can skip including the city’s charter revision commission. That means community groups and stakeholders would be left out of the process.

Despite that concern, Christensen said 2020 is a good time for the measure because the census could force city officials to redraw district lines. If a strong mayor system is implemented in San Jose, Liccardo’s seat on the City Council could be replaced by an 11th council member.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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