Sam Liccardo rejected his raise. What about his San Jose council colleagues?
The San Jose City Council is pictured in this file photo.

Less than a year ago, Mayor Sam Liccardo and his council colleagues backed a measure to drop the political hot potato that threatened to burn them every two years — setting their own salaries.

They supported Measure U, a Nov. 2018 ballot initiative that took the decision to approve salaries out of the City Council’s hands, and instead authorized a city commission to set the salaries. Not “recommend” salary amounts that needed council approval — as the commission did in the past —  but to actually set them.

Some of Liccardo’s loyalists, including Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino and former Mayor Tom McEnery, lined up to sign arguments in favor of the measure. It passed by a whopping 86 percent.

But before the ink could dry on the new policy, Liccardo on Tuesday bucked the system by saying he doesn’t want the hefty $58,000 raise set by the commission — as allowed by the measure. The City Council must adopt an ordinance to reduce salaries — putting the decision back into lawmakers’ hands and, some say, undermining the spirit of Measure U and the will of voters.

And the decision, while applauded by many city employees who rarely, if ever, see such big raises, has put Liccardo at odds with some of his council colleagues. Not all of them agree that the City Council should reject the raises set by the commission, nor do they agree with adopting a lesser amount.

Many of them work side jobs to make ends meet, while governing in America’s 10th largest city.

The city commission on Monday set a $28,000 raise for councilmembers, raising their salaries from $97,000 to $125,000 and a $58,000 increase for Liccardo, bumping his pay from $132,000 to $190,000. In his memo rejecting the raise, Liccardo suggested receiving a 3 percent pay hike, which is in line with raises given to most city workers.

Despite Measure U, Liccardo turned down the raise and proposed his own salary. And in the wake of that decision, San José Spotlight surveyed his colleagues on their thoughts — and whether they’ll follow his lead.

  • Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who left a high-paying job at Apple to run for City Council, said he will not reject the salary increase set by the commision. The pay increase will encourage “qualified candidates to run” for office, he added.
  •  District 2 Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said he’ll support the “will of the council” but is wary about sidestepping Measure U. “I’m sensitive of the fact that we’ve put this to voters and they’ve decided and now we’re going in circles,” he said. “I took a pay cut to do this job and did so willingly and with eyes wide open, but I also see clearly the challenge of raising a family in one of the most expensive places to live.”
  • District 3 Councilmember Raul Peralez said he will accept the raise, adding that Liccardo “seems to be confused” about the process and misleading others. “The mayor is now taking us back full circle, negating what nearly 86 percent of the voters approved, and inserting politics back into the decision,” Peralez said. “The mayor might not agree with the Salary-Setting Commission, and he may be politically afraid of accepting their fair and honest recommendation, but I am not. Personally, I can tell you that not all councilmembers are in the same financial situation and unlike the mayor, I don’t own my home in San José nor do I own or have I recently sold any rental properties like he has.”
  • District 4 Councilmember Lan Diep, who opposed taking the salary decision-making power away from the City Council last year, said he will support the commission’s decision. “The council thought it was politically awkward for us to approve our own salaries so we asked voters to empower the Salary-Setting Commission to set our salaries for us,” Diep said. “I see no reason to reopen the debate on this matter.”
  • District 5 Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said reducing salaries set by the commission “sets a bad precedent” for those who succeed (Liccardo) who may not have the means to serve as mayor. “The public entrusted the commission to use data to set the mayor and council’s salary and his memo would undo that work,” Carrasco said.
  • District 6 Councilmember Dev Davis said she hasn’t decided whether she’ll accept the raise set by the commission. “I need to think about it,” Davis said. “I want to respect the voters who chose this process and the independent commission who decided on the salary increase. If we disregard all the work that the independent commission put in, we take the chance that fewer people will want to serve on a commission.”
  • District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza said she will accept the salary increase. “I’m a renter, I can’t afford to buy a house,” Esparza said. “A competitive salary will hopefully attract residents from all of San Jose otherwise we’re creating a special class to govern our city.” Esparza added that there are many restrictions on councilmembers’ getting outside jobs.
  • District 8 Councilmember Sylvia Arenas could not immediately be reached.
  • District 9 Councilmember Pam Foley said councilmembers and their staff deserve a raise because they work hard and they’re underpaid. Many councilmembers work part-time jobs to survive, she added. “With this raise maybe they don’t have to have part-time jobs,” Foley said. “Perhaps (the salary increase) would attract a diverse population. It’s a high cost-of-living in San Jose and for us to stay here is very expensive on a council. The amount of our salary should not be an impediment to encouraging good people to run for the office, that’s the bottom line.”
  • District 10 Councilmember Johnny Khamis is still weighing his options, but said San Jose councilmembers deserve the pay bump. They don’t get overtime and work 60 to 70 hours a week, he said, including weekends and holidays. “I appreciate that the mayor wants to go with the cost-of-living expense, but he makes more money than the councilmembers,” Khamis said. “Other councilmembers might not be as financially capable as myself and I don’t want this to be a job mainly for the rich, people who can afford to have lower income. Most of us have side jobs, that’s why I can afford to do this.”

What’s next?

According to City Attorney Rick Doyle, the new salaries for Liccardo and the council, which include the raises set by the commission, will automatically be rolled into City Manager Dave Sykes’ budget, unveiled on May 1.

But the raises do not go into effect until July 1. That means Liccardo and the councilmembers have between May 1 and July 1 to pass an ordinance to reduce salaries. They’ll need at least six votes to adopt the reduction.

“If six councilmembers vote to reduce salaries, it’s a reduction for everyone,” Doyle explained. “If six vote not to reduce the salary, then they get what the commission says. The council’s only authority is to reduce it.”

Since councilmembers get paid the same rate, there would have to be two votes for a salary reduction — one for the councilmembers, which impacts all members, and another to reduce Liccardo’s mayoral salary.

Doyle added that councilmembers can individually forgo a raise following IRS guidelines. Asked whether Liccardo’s decision to decide his own raise undermines Measure U, Doyle said he doesn’t interpret it that way.

“Ultimately the council has the power to make those final decisions,” Doyle said. “The measure still contemplates that they can make a reduction — that’s part of the system too. I don’t think it undercuts it, but reasonable people can differ.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter. Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter. Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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