San Jose Downtown Association meeting took an unexpected turn
Scott Knies, San Jose Downtown Association executive director, spoke Friday at the organization's annual meeting. Photo by Katie Lauer.

A roomful of San Joseans gathered inside a church hall Friday to hear about the state of downtown amid a rapidly changing landscape from a longtime Silicon Valley leader.

Instead, they got an earful about a labor-backed measure that Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, called “devious” and “duplicitous.”

The initiative, which won widespread endorsements from elected leaders the same day Knies blasted it, seeks to cap money in local political campaigns by prohibiting special interests – such as corporate landlords, developers and contractors – from making campaign contributions to the mayor and City Council candidates. But Knies said the fact that unions were excluded from that list would give organized labor a hold on future San Jose elections.

“If the labor unions really wanted campaign finance reform, they would have included all special interests, instead of excluding themselves,” Knies said. “Make no mistake, this devious measure would give organized labor a headlock on all future San Jose elections. Where is the equity in that?”

During his annual State of Downtown speech, Knies discussed local politics and equity, relating to the the city’s growing division between the “haves and have nots.” Saying that tactics of anger and division have taken root locally, he was especially critical of the Fair Elections Initiative pushed by the South Bay Labor Council and local lawmakers, slated for the Nov. 2020 ballot.

Amid a few raised eyebrows, Knies responded to criticism that his speech went off topic by diverting from the usual “highlight reel” of SJDA’s progress. He said he didn’t think his speech was from left-field, saying that all of the issues are interconnected.

“I’m going to focus on politics and policy because it’s in the way of getting all the things we talked about done,” Knies told San José Spotlight. “Labor really forced our hands with their ‘Unfair Elections Initiative,’ because if that gets in, it’s locked down. So, it’s like game on. It’s not really about labor, but it’s really about about the political measure that they’re doing.”

South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field said he’s not shocked by Knies’ comments.

“I think we expected that special interests would line up against the initiative, so we weren’t surprised,” Field said. “Special interests have been benefiting from ‘pay-to-play politics.’ Of course they want to preserve that benefit.”

Knies was also critical of moving the mayoral elections to the presidential cycle, another cornerstone of the measure, saying residents will only have their eyes on national elections. Labor leaders have said this move would help boost voter turnout, particularly among communities of color.

Instead, Knies said, this move would “go hand in glove with (labor’s) efforts to stymie campaign contributions and separate themselves in order to make sure only their candidates are elected.”

Committee reports

Also during the annual meeting, SJDA committee directors outlined the organization’s successes and updated the attendees on its progress during the last year. Henry Cord, who represented the Downtown Parking Board, said it was a busy year in the city’s urban core – reporting that downtown lots and garages saw 1.6 million visitors over the last year and generated more than $18 million in gross revenue.

PBID Board president Doug Bartl highlighted the new Groundwerks app, which allows San Jose residents to report issues of cleanliness around town. Bartl also discussed how the city’s Secondary Employment Unit, which contracts off-duty police officers, is fully staffed for the first time, accounting for seven percent of the SJDA expenses.

Ramona Snyder from the Downtown Foundation said its Downtown Doors program, which displays high school artists’ work on utility doors and boxes throughout downtown, saw 206 design submissions from local students from 22 different schools to pick from – a single-year record number of entries. “This is an arts education program, and a public place making program, and it’s a winner all the way around,” Snyder said.

Rob Lindo, an attorney at Casino M8trix who works with the Downtown Community Development Corporation, said his group has supported the revitalization of downtown in its first year through private and public partnerships and investments, such as the Almaden Boulevard Gateway Project.

“What we want to do is, is figure out a way to improve downtown through projects that improve the streets’ alleyways – the beautified things that encourage businesses to invest in downtown increase employment,” Lindo said.

Dave Buchholz, senior vice president of the commercial real estate firm Colliers International, shared his support for the City Council’s recent decision to extend a program that waives fees for downtown high-rise developers. He also applauded the SJDA’s ability to help shape the early development plans for Google’s massive downtown campus.

Next year, Buchholz said the advocacy committee will be advocating for a strong mayor initiative, as well as closely monitoring council races and potential ballot measures that may affect the downtown community.

Meanwhile, SJDA’s homelessness committee is hosting a donation drive for people moving into The Villas on the Park, a supportive housing facility, by collecting toiletries and household supplies through Nov. 15 to help individuals exiting chronic homelessness.

Contact Katie Lauer at klauer77@gmail.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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