UPDATE: San Jose leaders advance ballot measure for strong mayor system, campaign finance reform
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

Despite criticism about a lack of public input, a San Jose council committee Wednesday advanced a proposal from Mayor Sam Liccardo to expand the powers of his office.

The unanimous decision means the San Jose City Council next week will consider asking 2020 voters to decide whether the mayor should have more power in city government and whether councilmembers should recuse themselves from votes that would affect special interest groups that contribute to their campaign coffers.

San Jose is the only large California city where the city manager has more power over local government than the mayor. Los Angeles and San Diego — the only two cities with larger populations — have strong mayor governments that allow their top political leaders to direct department heads and make key decisions about deploying city resources. Even Bay Area cities with smaller populations like San Francisco and Oakland have strong mayor systems.

But Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Sylvia Arenas on Wednesday denounced Liccardo for what appeared to be a power grab without much, if any, community engagement or public input. Arenas said the process of making these changes is “very skewed” and lacked transparency.

“I question whether our government is in such a failed state that we actually require a restructure,” Arenas said during the committee meeting. “Our current form of government keeps corruption and cronyism at bay. With a strong mayor we wouldn’t necessarily have qualified public administrators, those jobs would likely go to the mayor’s allies.”

She and Peralez raised strenuous objections to the idea of giving the mayor more authority.

“Springing these significant changes upon the Council and expecting support for a ballot measure is surprising enough, but springing this on our community is insulting and demonstrates a lack of consideration for true community engagement,” Peralez wrote in opposition to Liccardo’s proposal. “The Mayor suggests that recent community feedback is justification for him suggesting these changes, but we haven’t heard anyone demanding our Mayor should have all these added powers or an additional two years in office.”

Last June, a public opinion poll obtained by San José Spotlight found that a majority of 669 respondents — a sample of likely 2020 voters — did not support a strong mayor system.

The City Charter amendment proposal — backed by the Silicon Valley Organization — would also move the next mayoral election to 2024 to align with presidential election years and extend the current mayor’s term to December 31, 2024.

“San Jose is the tenth-largest city in the United States, yet it is stuck in the 1980s, with a management structure more suited for small cities,” SVO President and CEO Matt Mahood said in a statement. “In times of crisis, we need government to be nimble, responsive, and accountable to the community for results and to bring local government into the twenty-first century.”

Liccardo, who brought the proposal to the Rules and Open Government Committee on Wednesday, said the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests shed new light on the need for a more powerful, more accountable role for the city’s top elected leader.

“Through the pandemic and protest of recent weeks, many residents have understandably demanded that I take specific actions or direct city officials in ways that — unbeknownst to them — exceed my lawful authority under the City Charter,” Liccardo said in a memo. “San Jose residents reasonably expect and demand action from their mayor, particularly as they see mayors in other large cities routinely issue executive orders that respond to those expectations. No mayor in San Jose’s modern history has ever had such authority.”

The proposed charter amendment would also bar lobbyists representing special interest groups from contributing directly to a mayoral or council candidate’s campaign, and from giving them gifts.

“Public confidence in City Hall — if not accountability — is diminished to the extent that residents believe that specific organizations and interest groups have undue influence over the decisions of the council and mayor through their contributions to campaigns,” Liccardo said.

The mayor cited “developers, unions, businesses ranging from technology companies to marijuana dispensaries, political action groups, landlords, and their associations” as special interests. A similar measure, backed by labor unions, called the Fair Elections Initiative also sought to move mayoral elections to presidential years to boost voter turnout, but was opposed by Liccardo.

That measure, which last week fell short of gathering enough signatures, also would have prohibited special interests from donating to mayoral or council campaigns, though it excluded labor unions.

Liccardo’s proposal was also supported by Councilmember Sergio Jimenez.

“I have always been a strong supporter of inclusive democracy and bringing additional transparency to campaign financing, which strengthens trust with our community,” Jimenez wrote in a memo. “Additionally, moving the mayoral election to the presidential cycle is an important goal to achieving higher voter turnout that is truly representative of the diversity of our city.”

Jones said the proposed campaign finance reforms ensuring transparency and preventing undue influence on councilmembers and the mayor by special interest groups were “long overdue.” But in the end the full City Council will decide Tuesday whether voters should expand the powers of the mayor’s office.

City Manager Dave Sykes said that if voters approved the amendment to the City Charter it would take effect in January 2021 — with the exception of the provision giving the mayor the power to fire the city manager and department heads, which would take effect July 1, 2023.

“There are going to be opportunities for this to be vetted,” Jones said Wednesday. “We’re going to discuss it Tuesday and we’ll discuss it again in July or August, and if it passes there will be a campaign and ultimately it will go to voters.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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