San Jose City Council: Who pays their staff the most?
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Kyle Martin.

On the top floor of San Jose City Hall, more than 100 staffers work behind the scenes to help engage the community and bring policy ideas to life. But while their bosses – the ten city councilmembers and the mayor – are at the mercy of a city commission for their salaries, the councilors are the ones holding the purse strings for their staff.

Each of the ten district offices are allocated the same amount of money to be spent hiring and other office expenses, explains Budget Director Jim Shannon. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the city allocated $661,272 per office. But that number is just a starting point.

“If an office had significant savings in the previous year and requested to carry that savings forward (i.e. rebudgeted) into the current year, they might have more money available to spend this year than another Council Office that didn’t have much savings from the prior year to carry forward,” Shannon wrote in an email.

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones’ office topped out in the new fiscal year with a $1.3 million budget, while Councilmember Johnny Khamis’ office has the least to spend with $949,958. Mayor Sam Liccardo, who has a different budget altogether, had $5,699,124 to spend on staff salaries.

According to data obtained by San José Spotlight, Liccardo will spend $2.7 million on his 27 employees for the 2019 calendar year as the mayor typically has more established positions than the other elected offices. In fact, five of the mayor’s employees in 2018 earned more than his base salary of $130,532 with senior policy advisor Khanh Russo and Chief of Staff Jim Reed earning the top pay at $159,785.

The salary information provided by the city included non-pensionable wage increases, but excluded cash compensation like bilingual pay, health-in-lieu, dental in-lieu, professional development pay and cellular stipends.

The remaining councilors operate with five to ten staffers on average, with District 3 Councilmember Raul Peralez shelling out the most on wages in 2019 with $590,639.8 for his nine staff members. Peralez’s Chief of Staff Christina Ramos also makes the most for her position – with a wage set at $109,609.87 for this year – after Reed.

District 4 Councilmember Lan Diep, who has the smallest staff on the 18th floor, expectedly has the lowest payout at $331,765.53 for his five staffers. Diep currently does not have a chief of staff – typically the highest paid position in each district – and says he often supplements the workload by staying late and doing it himself.

Who pays interns? 

Also working on the floor is a few dozen interns – but they’re not all paid. Most of the councilors without paid interns, however, said that they often offer interns salaries if they wish to continue past their internship period.

A spokesperson for Liccardo confirmed that while his office offers year-round paid fellowship programs, lower-level high school and summer internships remain unpaid.

Jones’ Chief of Staff David Gomez said their July to August internships are also unpaid, but if they want to continue, the vice mayor can offer them a paid internship or a part-time to full-time position.

District 2 Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said he doesn’t pay his interns because of budgetary restrictions.

“My staff values interns but hasn’t traditionally compensated them due to budget constraints,” Jimenez said.” As a former intern for District 10 Councilmember Nancy Pyle, I wasn’t paid, but nonetheless valued the experience and continue to believe the work of the intern is mutually beneficial.”

Diep currently does not pay the intern in his office, but said he’s paid interns in the past. He added that he wants to establish an environment in which interns could “imagine” themselves as future staffers or even elected officials.

“Generally, interns are students who show up as their class schedule allows,” he said. “They don’t show up to meet the demands of my office. I try to create a meaningful and educational experience for each one within the constraints of the limited time they show up.”

In districts 5, 6, 7 and 9, Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Dev Davis, Maya Esparza and Pam Foley have all set a precedent of paying their interns.

“Paying your interns shows them they are a valued member of the team,” Davis said. “If I’m going to give them real responsibility, then they deserve real income.”

Carrasco and Esparza could not be reached for comment.

In Councilmember Sylvia Arenas’ office, Chief of Staff Patrick McGarrity said that unpaid internships are an opportunity for a “foot in the door for students without previous experience and limited available hours.” However, Arenas employs paid interns, too. Two of them are paid through the San Jose Works summer jobs program, McGarrity said.

“Councilwoman Arenas is really pleased to be able to offer opportunities to young people through the internship program that we run,” McGarrity said. “We have three categories of internships, and work to make sure each category supports the goals of our district, but also helps young people succeed in their careers.”

Foley, who joined the council this year from the private sector, said interns tend to be more “motivated” when they’re paid.

“Some of my staff are early in their career, and some are more experienced, but all of them deserve to be compensated for their merits,” she said. “Our interns tend to be students. Some of them have to take out student loans. All of them have to afford the cost-of-living in Silicon Valley. And they deserve to be paid a fair wage for their hard work and for their talents.”

Khamis doesn’t pay his current interns, but told San José Spotlight that some of his interns have landed paid jobs as full-time staffers.

“We provide a valuable experience to people who want to learn about local government and policymaking while volunteering for their community,” he said. “The recommendation they get is also valuable as they seek higher education or paid employment.”

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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