Rule change prompts San Jose lawmakers to reduce travel

San Jose lawmakers have significantly reduced city-funded travel, a San José Spotlight analysis found, and some say it’s because of a trip five elected officials took to Japan nearly two years ago.

The city has since implemented a new travel policy, which restricts how many councilmembers can travel at a given time. The policy, approved in September 2018, was proposed by Mayor Sam Liccardo after half of the City Council, members of their staff and family members in April of that year took a “Sister Cities” trip to Okayama, Japan, sparking a wave of controversy.

Multiple legislative meetings were canceled because of a failure to reach a quorum, alarming Liccardo.

The travel policy for elected officials previously allowed lawmakers and their staff to travel on the city’s dime with no cap on the number of trips or officials who could attend.

The policy now prohibits more than five councilmembers from traveling at the same time if their absence affects meetings where a quorum is needed. The policy also allows the mayor to designate a councilmember to represent the city for city-sponsored travel like the 2018 Japan trip, funded by the mayor’s travel budget if he is unable to go.

Despite requesting approval for travel at weekly San Jose City Council meetings, the requests are approved in one motion as part of the “consent” calendar, and rarely get pulled for discussion. The memos do not list the taxpayer costs of the requested travel.

While not all councilmembers saw a decline in taxpayer-funded trips — Raul Peralez’s travel, for example, doubled from one trip in 2018 to two in 2019 — some said the publicity from the Japan trip and the new policy curtailed their desire to take city-sponsored trips.

“I really do think it’s possible it’s had a chilling effect,” said Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, who was on the Japan trip in 2018. “It has made me be more thoughtful.”

In 2018, Jimenez went on five city-sponsored trips. But in 2019, Jimenez went on just one trip — to Sacramento to attend a board meeting for the League of California Cities — which he paid for out of pocket despite being allowed to use city money for such conferences. While he was invited to the Silicon Valley Organization’s Study Mission event on neighborhood beautification in Nashville, Tennessee, he opted not to go.

Liccardo, Peralez, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Pam Foley and Lan Diep attended.

In Nashville — the City Council’s most significant and costly trip of 2019 — Diep used $2,932 in city funds, Peralez used $2,877, Jones spent $3,399, Foley used $2,500 and the mayor spent $133.

“Did I see value to go into another city and explore what they do to combat some of the same things we’re dealing with here? Yes, I do see value in that,” Jimenez said. “But I did not go because I don’t want an impression to be left on my constituents, and for someone to use that politically to attack me.”

The Japan trip, which led to the travel policy changes, collectively cost taxpayers $22,308, city records show. Each councilmember used city funds, except Johnny Khamis, who paid his own way. The Almaden Valley councilmember’s travel dropped from five trips in 2018 to none last year — when he kicked off his campaign for state Senate.

“I’m just busy running a campaign,” Khamis said, adding that there were fewer invitations to travel in 2019.

Like his colleagues, Khamis said scrutiny of the Japan trip could make some think twice about traveling at the city’s expense.

“It’s not a very flattering light,” he said. “At a minimum, there’s a hesitation because it’s worth thinking, ‘Is this trip worth being in the media for?’ Before, people would take (a trip) as an opportunity to learn or represent the city, but now there’s more consideration that in the past people didn’t think about as much.”

Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco also reduced her city-funded travel last year. The East Side councilmember took seven trips using her office funds in 2018, but no trips in 2019.

“Last year, I was no longer on the Board for Sister Cities International or the League of California Cities, which both required regular attendance of meetings in other countries, states and cities,” Carrasco said.

Similarly, Diep traveled seven times in 2018, which included cities such as Seattle, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., as well as one trip to Ireland. In 2019, Diep only went on three trips — two of which were for city business.

The mayor’s travel

Liccardo came under fire in his first term in office after the Mercury News reported that he went on two international trips in three months. His predecessor, Chuck Reed, took just one trip in eight years in office. Now, the mayor’s yearly travel is listed on the city website — unlike his council colleagues.

Last year, some of the cities Liccardo traveled to included Honolulu, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

He spent $2,529 in city funds to travel to Honolulu for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, while he and Diep used $2,515 for a trip to Washington to lobby on behalf of San Jose for federal funds for immigration reform, climate change, expanding affordable health care and cybersecurity.

Liccardo’s office accounted for the largest chunk of taxpayer-funded trips — about $7,500 in 2019, compared with about $8,000 the previous year. But to some, it makes sense that the mayor would travel more than his council colleagues.

“I think it’s important — he’s our primary representative,” Pat Waite, president of the San Jose-based Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, told San José Spotlight. “He’s the only one on the council that represents all of San Jose. We want San Jose to be seen as a significant city. He needs to be out there, making sure that he’s visible and he is in places where significant cities in the country are gathering to decide policy and other visions.”

Traveling has given the mayor the opportunity to speak on panels on issues such as gun violence, economic mobility and racial inclusivity. Liccardo says he prioritizes city-funded travel that provides a “good return” for taxpayers.

“We focus our travel on events and relationships that can translate into direct benefit for city residents, whether it’s more BART funding, securing millions for our Digital Inclusion Fund or to better combat greenhouse gas emissions,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “The 2018 travel policy helped the city focus on travel most likely to provide a good return for San Joseans.”

Peralez agrees with the policy, saying it makes travel more “transparent.”

“The new policy is only to help make it more transparent about the purpose of travel and its relation to our city work,” he told San José Spotlight. “As councilmembers, we do have responsibilities to represent the city of San Jose and its interest across the nation and internationally.”

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

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