San Jose commission votes to decrease mayor’s powers
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is pictured in this file photo.

San Jose already has a “weak mayor” system, but the city’s top elected office could soon see its powers diminished further.

The San Jose Charter Review Commission voted Monday to “increase equitable practices,” which gives the City Council and the mayor joint power to nominate the city manager. This takes the sole responsibility away from the mayor. A second measure would have granted the mayor rather than the city manager the authority to declare a civil emergency, but it failed. 

The first item breezed through on a 19-2 vote to split the responsibilities for city manager nominations. Commissioners Lan Diep and and Tobin Gilman voted no. Commissioner Elizabeth Monley was absent.

The second item inspired debate.

“You’re voting to increase the powers of the mayor, politicizing emergency powers as a result of the protests last year,” resident Ellina Yin said during public comment.

For the last two years, San Jose has grappled with how much power its mayor should hold. In June 2020, Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed to create a strong mayor measure, which would have extended his term to 2024 and granted him the power to hire and fire the city manager and department heads. Currently, the City Council must approve any hires or dismissals, and the city manager directs city staff and department heads.

After squeaking by the City Council with a 6-5 vote, the measure was set to appear on the November 2020 ballot. But after months of pressure, Liccardo backed down from the initiative, saying it created a “contentious political environment” and more outreach and community engagement was needed.

Following the debate around this issue, the Charter Review Commission was formed with residents appointed by the mayor and City Council to help decide whether a strong mayor measure is right for San Jose, if mayoral and presidential elections should coincide and on campaign finance reforms.

While Liccardo won’t be affected by the potential sharing of nomination powers when choosing a city manager, his replacement could be. Councilmembers Dev Davis and Raul Peralez were not immediately available for comment. Supervisor Cindy Chavez and Councilmember Matt Mahan did not respond to requests for comment.

When it came to the second measure, Commissioner Linda LeZotte supported granting civil emergency powers to the mayor. Commissioner Barbara Marshman concurred, saying it would hold the mayor accountable.

“We’ve had a couple of events: Flood, chaos downtown, that people were rightfully concerned about,” Marshman said. “Nobody was directly responsible, but everybody gets mad at the mayor. Whoever is mayor, I feel, ought to take responsibility when people’s lives are at stake.”

Commissioner Magnolia Segol voiced concerns about the mayor having too much power. She argued the mayor could block any protest—as it could potentially injure people or property—encroaching on citizens’ basic civil rights.

Segol wanted the motion made by LeZotte to remove the civil unrest language and limit it to natural disasters, but LeZotte refused.

“You don’t look at who is creating the emergency,” LeZotte said. “You look at what is happening to the people or property.”

The motion failed by a vote of 15-6. Commissioners Diep, Gilman, LeZotte, Marshman, Huy Tran and Thi Tran were in favor.

The commission’s role is to make recommendations to the City Council regarding charter changes. If passed by the council, the item is placed on the ballot for voters to approve.

This month, the 23-member commission recommended shifting the mayoral election to presidential years starting in 2024 to increase voter turnout. If passed by the City Council and voters, a mayor elected in 2022 could run for two additional terms in 2024 and 2028.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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