Residents call for changes to San Jose government, elections
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    San Jose is asking residents to weigh in on the city’s ruling document—and some say radical changes are needed.

    The city’s Charter Review Commission, a 23-member panel that meets every two weeks to discuss changes to the city charter, held its first public hearing Monday on changes to the city’s governance. The two major changes being mulled: To give the mayor more powers under a “strong mayor” form of government and to shift mayoral elections to presidential years to boost voter turnout.

    The commission is holding a series of public hearings each month through Nov. 6 to gain residents’ input on changes to the city charter.

    The city charter is San Jose’s ruling document and defines how different parts of city government operate, including the mayor, City Council and city employees. San Jose created the current commission last year to study changing the city’s form of government and the timing of elections.

    The commission is studying whether San Jose should adopt a “strong mayor” form of government, in which the mayor wields authority over government operations including hiring and managing city staff. The commission formed last year following Mayor Sam Liccardo’s failed push to secure more power for the office.

    San Jose is one of the only major U.S. cities without a strong mayor. Neighboring cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, which have hundreds of thousands of fewer residents, both tout the mayor as the chief executive of the city.

    Some residents voiced concerns that power would become too concentrated in the hands of a single individual under a strong mayor government.

    Brett Bymaster, executive director of the Healing Grove Health Center, said he has heard from some of the center’s low-income Spanish speaking clients that a “strong mayor” system could help speed up construction permit processes. Faster permits could help put money in the pockets of construction workers, who don’t get paid while projects are pending at City Hall.

    But he added that his clients also worry a strong mayor system would weaken low-income communities’ representation in government.

    “A lot of people feel like a weak mayor or a city manager model is more effective at providing representation,” Bymaster said. “We want to see options from the Charter Review Commission on getting the best of both worlds: making sure that local people have representation that actually has power, and making sure that the city can become more responsive to the needs of people and the needs of business, particularly around creating jobs for people living in poverty.”

    One resident worried awarding more authority to the mayor would essentially put the city’s governance in the hands of developers.

    The new governance structure would go into effect after Liccardo terms out in 2022. The Charter Revision Commission will have until March 2022 to research what systems would be best for the city and make recommendations for a ballot measure.

    Meanwhile, at least one commissioner, San Jose State University professor Garrick Percival, has advocated for moving the city’s mayoral elections to the same years as presidential elections. He and other proponents say the move would boost voter turnout, particularly among disenfranchised voters and communities of color.

    A labor-backed initiative to change the timing of mayoral elections failed in 2019.

    Some residents at Monday’s public hearing said the timing of elections is a civil rights issue.

    Walter Wilson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Minority Business Consortium, said he was amazed when the City Council voted against shifting elections in 2019.

    “These elected officials would vote not to move the mayor’s election to the presidential year… so that more people can have a say, and particularly people of color have a say, in who runs this city,” Wilson said. “Quite frankly, they’re no different than those white supremacist states who want to make sure Black people don’t vote.”

    Matt King, political director of Sacred Heart Community Service, said the commission should consider adding more council districts to San Jose.

    “There are so many more people in our city than there were when we got to the 10 that we have now,” King said.

    Police accountability was also a common theme of Monday’s public hearing.

    Helen Kassa, policy and advocacy coordinator with the African-American Community Services Agency, and Ellina Yin, co-founder of Local Color, called for the independent police auditor and police chief to be made into elected positions. Right now, both positions are appointed by the City Council.

    “The community would like to see the independent police auditor and the police chief become elected positions,” Kassa said. “They also demand more public and transparent processes with all facets of commission work, including subcommittee work.”

    The commission did not discuss the specific proposals Monday, only soliciting public feedback as it works to craft recommendations for the City Council to consider. Those recommendations are expected by Dec. 14, according to the commission’s latest work plan.

    The commission has 23 seats, with two seats for each council district and three citywide seats. To craft recommendations to the City Council, the commission will be divided into various subcommittees to study particular topics, such as voting and elections, governance structure, policing and municipal law.

    The commission will hold its next public hearing on July 29, focused on voting and elections. You can learn more about the Charter Review Commission and the topics of upcoming hearings at the city’s website.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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