San Jose grants few former employees lobbying exemptions
San Jose has a "revolving door" policy that prohibits former employees from lobbying the city for two years. File photo.

    In San Jose, when you leave a job working for the city you are barred from lobbying anyone at City Hall for at least two years—but a handful of ex-employees are exceptions to the rule.

    The latest example is Allie Hughes, a former staffer for San Jose Councilmember David Cohen. She recently left the city to work as a lobbyist for Canyon Snow Consulting, a Los Gatos-based firm co-founded by Leslee Guardino, the wife of Carl Guardino—who once led the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

    But city rules prohibit prior employees from using their relationships with former colleagues at San Jose City Hall to lobby or attempt to influence policies. The aim of the city’s “revolving door” policy is to avoid personal gain or an unfair advantage when it comes to deal making.

    Exemptions to the rule, like the one requested by Hughes, must be approved by the San Jose City Council. At least three exemptions have been granted since 2019.

    Hughes received unanimous support from the council’s Rules and Open Government Committee this week for an exemption. The full council will vote on it next week.

    Hughes argued the exemption should be granted because she only worked for the city for three months. She worked on issues such as an interim housing site at Noble Avenuetree canopy policies and the need to increase staffing levels within the San Jose Police Department.

    Now at Canyon Snow Consulting, she will lobby for clients such as the developers of Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom Temple, the Special Olympics of Northern California and the Ranked Choice Voting Coalition, to name a few.

    City Attorney Nora Frimann recommended the exemption, citing Hughes’ limited time with the city and her unrelated work. Lobbyists in San Jose must register, pay a fee and file weekly reports disclosing who they met with at the city and why.

    Another recent exemption came from Christina Ramos, who served as chief of staff for former Councilmember Raul Peralez, after she took a job at PG&E when her boss termed out of office. City officials said Ramos’ seven years in city hall and extensive work across departments made her a good fit for the lobbyist role and ironically for the city.

    “Ms. Ramos will be working on critical issues regarding power, infrastructure and emergency services that could benefit residents of San Jose,” Frimann wrote to the council. “The waiver allows Ms. Ramos to use her extensive background and experience to work with PG&E on crucial matters.”

    The policy lacks clarity

    According to City Clerk Toni Taber, San Jose doesn’t keep a running list of former employees who were granted exemptions to lobby at city hall.

    Adrian Gonzales, who formerly chaired the city’s ethics commission, said San Jose must do its “due diligence” to understand the influence a person may have had in the city and how it could impact their role in the private sector.

    “If a staff (member) who focused on housing and land use is granted an exemption to work at a lobbying firm where they are expected to influence housing and land use policy in San Jose, this could be perceived as creating an unfair advantage,” Gonzales told San José Spotlight. “But if the individual becomes a lobbyist working on land use in other cities… the ability to create an unfair advantage might not exist if they are working with different officials.”

    Frimman said the city attorney’s office ensures exemption requests meet city requirements, but it’s up to the city council to determine if there’s conflict of interest.

    Since 2019, Hughes, Ramos and Kyra Kazantzis, who worked as a senior policy advisor for former Mayor Sam Liccardo, have requested waivers. Kazantzis received an exemption in December 2019 to become CEO of the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits.

    In recommending the exemption, the city attorney said the group doesn’t receive city dollars.

    Nonprofits aren’t covered by the revolving door policy, though the city is weighing prohibiting former city officers and staff from working for a nonprofit once they leave the city.

    “If we start to see an increase in exemption requests,” Gonzales said, “it could be beneficial for the city clerk’s office to establish an administrative process for tracking.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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