San Jose is one of the last cities without a strong mayor
Mayor Sam Liccardo and City Manager Dave Sykes are pictured in this file photo.

San Jose is a big city anomaly when it comes to the way it is governed.

In the 10th largest city in America, it’s the city manager who calls the shots – not the mayor. It’s an issue that politicos have debated for decades over whether San Jose should shift to a strong mayor system and give the mayor authority to hire and fire department heads, along other powers.

“The only other big city that has a council-manager system is Dallas,” said San Jose State University Political Science Professor Emeritus Terry Christensen. “It’s generally something cities move to as they grow. San Jose hasn’t moved all the way, but we don’t really have a pure council-manager system either.”

San Jose’s current governance is in large part due to a 1980s ballot initiative called Measure J. Unlike other cities with a council-manager system, it gave mayors more power and allowed them to issue a budget message and then present a final budget for City Council adoption in June, in addition to overseeing the Public Information Office.

In addition to managing the city’s $3.2 billion budget, Liccardo appoints a vice mayor and councilmembers to various committees. Beyond that, the mayor in San Jose is just one vote on a 11-member council.

The debate over giving San Jose’s mayor additional powers has revitalized as the City Council last week discussed shifting the mayoral election year to align with the presidential election. Some councilors who opposed to the idea, like Lan Diep, previously noted that the mayor has no true executive power, so the change would make little sense.

The silicon valley organization and some of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s closest allies, like Norm Kline, are also reportedly part of a committee examining moving San Jose to a strong mayor system. The svo, however, declined comment on its efforts.

Liccardo told San José Spotlight that he would likely not be the beneficiary if any change does come to fruition, but was hesitant to say where he stood on the issue.

“I’m very much in research mode,” he said. “It’s not obvious to me that you want to put every department under the hire and fire authority of a mayor. For example, the Independent Auditor’s Office (or the) police chief. There are some offices where it makes sense to have some independence.”

In an interview this week, ex-councilman Pierluigi Oliverio acknowledged that there could be a risk in allowing mayors to appoint department heads – especially if they have no experience in that field. But Oliverio, who just won a seat on the Planning Commission, has repeatedly advocated for the mayor’s right to hire and fire the planning director.

“Emulating what other large cities do I think would be a good discussion for people to have,” he said. “Right now in a city manager form of government, when there are issues residents are concerned about they’ll usually go to the figure head. (But the) mayor is not the executive branch.”

Oliverio added that having a mayor with more direct power – like the president does over the country – will also allow voters to hold him or her more accountable.

Strong mayor in other cities

As the largest city in Northern California, San Jose stands alone in how it’s governed. Neighboring cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, which have hundreds of thousands of fewer residents, both tout the mayor as the chief executive of the city.

In San Francisco, the mayor can veto a law, direct resources in case of an emergency and appoint department heads, among other powers. Oakland’s mayor does not have veto power, but can cast a tie-breaking vote for the eight-member council and appoint individuals to boards and commissions.

Christensen said that cities usually decide to give mayors more power as a result of collapse.

“It takes significant momentum to make that change and usually that happens when the government breaks down and you want to fix it by introducing a strong executive who is directly accountable to the voters,” he said.

City Attorney Rick Doyle, who has been with the city for two decades, said that he thinks San Jose’s current system is working.

“There’s a history letting that system work,” he said. “It’s not like San Francisco or Los Angeles where special interest groups are far more institutionalized.”

Doyle said that there are two different options for San Jose to switch to a strong mayor system. The first would be for the City Council to propose it and then seek voter approval to amend the City Charter. The second, would require residents to gather enough signatures – 15 percent of the voting population – to place the amendment on the ballot.

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

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