San Jose councilmembers voted 6-5 to approve a November ballot measure to expand Mayor Sam Liccardo’s power, extend his term until 2024, shift mayoral elections to presidential years and enact a slew of campaign finance reforms.
Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, Councilmembers Johnny Khamis, Pam Foley, Dev Davis and Lan Diep voted in favor of the measure, while Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sylvia Arenas, Maya Esparza and Sergio Jimenez voted against it.
The narrow decision followed 11 hours of heated debate, in which councilmembers against the measure charged Liccardo with rushing a back-room deal, pushing a “self-serving” measure and failing to gain adequate community feedback.
“This deal was already negotiated, and it was negotiated without any of us being at the table,” Carrasco said. “… Individuals who have sworn that you’re two degrees away from the title of Satan were (in) the room. Y’all made a pact. You didn’t take the Latino Caucus into account, who represent half the city to ask us, ‘do you think this is a good direction for your residents?'”
Liccardo was expected to term out in 2022. The plan – dubbed the “strong mayor” initiative – will extend Liccardo’s term by two additional years after Jones made a last-minute decision to eliminate alternatives to voters, such as electing a new mayor in 2022 for six years or electing a new mayor in 2022 who would seek re-election in two years.
“This is a power grab, and I think the nuances, how the mayor added the strong mayor as a part of the election, those two things shouldn’t be together,” said Andrew Bigelow, an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug. “It was sneaky. It’s unethical.”
But supporters of the plan said it would align authority and accountability.
“This modest reform will create an electable, accountable mayor who will be directly responsible for the city and to the residents of San Jose who elect him or her,” said Matt Mahood, CEO of the Silicon Valley Organization.
If the ballot measure is approved by voters in November, Liccardo would have the power to hire and fire the city manager, which would usually have to be approved by the City Council. The mayor would additionally be able to direct city staff and other department heads. Right now, the unelected city manager has those responsibilities.
The measure would also require councilmembers to recuse themselves from votes dealing with special interest groups that contributed to their campaigns. Khamis recommended approving language from Jones’ proposal that bars the mayor, councilmembers and top city leaders from accepting gifts from lobbyists, city contractors or direct beneficiaries of city contractors.
Davis amended the measure so that councilmembers would disclose campaign contributions more frequently for the city attorney to review.
“We don’t know what’s happened in February or March until the next filing,” City Attorney Rick Doyle said.
But lawmakers and residents criticized the “strong mayor” initiative Tuesday, criticizing the lack of public input and community engagement. The mayor argued the COVID-19 pandemic and protests over the police killing of George Floyd and systemic racism prompted the push to expand his office’s powers.
“In a crisis, basically my authority is constrained by a multi-month process of proposals, hearings, meetings and council votes,” Liccardo said.
Liccardo referring to COVID-19 to expand his authority sparked outcry from other councilmembers.
“I think it’s reprehensible to use the pandemic as an excuse for this,” Esparza said.
Esparza and the other dissenters also said the proposal was too last-minute for sufficient review and included campaign finance reform to make it more appealing to voters. Arenas compared it to sneaking vegetables in her kids’ lasagna.
“I had to chop up my zucchini so fine, so that my kids don’t know that I’m feeding them vegetables, and that is exactly what you have done here by marrying this, you know, Kamikaze of initiatives together,” Arenas said.
Esparza suggested approving the campaign finance reforms without a ballot measure. By removing that from the measure, voters would only decide on giving Liccardo more powers, extending his term to 2024 and moving mayoral elections.
Peralez, who penned an op-ed for this news organization denouncing the measure, also said the city would have to scrape up $1.7 million to print ballots, as it plunges into a $100 million deficit.
“My main concern is that it did not get vetted through our community in the process that it deserves,” Peralez said.
After the demise of the Fair Elections Initiative, which would have prohibited campaign contributions from businesses and shifted mayoral elections to presidential election years, Liccardo unexpectedly suggested a compromise. He had previously opposed moving mayoral elections and extending his term.
When questioned by Peralez, who is eyeing a run for mayor, Liccardo said he didn’t support extending his term then but that “it makes more sense now” under the current circumstances.
“But I can tell you I’m not going to die on that sword,” Liccardo said. “I’m not in this to get an extra two years.”
Liccardo refused to abstain from the vote, as demanded by Arenas, who said he would benefit from the measure. Doyle said Liccardo was not legally required to.
Supporters such as Diep said the current form of government limits the city’s top elected leader.
“We have a situation where a mayoral candidate can win, but he or she will be constrained from implementing the platform that was promised to voters because of the anachronistic system that we have in San Jose,” Diep said.
Under the current system, most executive authority is under City Manager Dave Sykes. The mayor has only slightly more authority than a councilmember by creating budgets and making council committee appointments — but he cannot veto council decisions nor can be hire, fire or direct staff or department heads, including the police chief who recently came under fire for use of force and aggressive tactics during George Floyd protests.
Liccardo dubbed the changes as “low-hanging fruit” and ultimately necessary to run San Jose more efficiently.
He said a large city such as San Jose should model itself after other metropolitan areas in California such as San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles where the mayor has more power.
A slew of council memos were released prior to Tuesday’s meeting, staking each lawmaker’s position on the controversial measure.
Carrasco and Esparza unsuccessfully sought to create a charter review committee for public discussion on the initiative. Jimenez agreed with the additional campaign finance rules, and proposed the creation of a Blue Ribbon Task Force to assess the effects of the changes and recommend charter revisions for the future.
However, Peralez said creating a task force after an initiative is passed would fail to prevent any actions that run counter to the community’s interests.
The City Council will approve the language for the measure during a special meeting July 28. The ballot language must be submitted to the county Registrar of Voters office by Aug. 7.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.