San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan is facing claims of a toxic work environment from ex-employees who say the office is rife with condescension, broken promises and overwork—leading to staff turnover.
Since taking office in January, six people have left the mayor’s team of about 25 people, compared to other freshman policymakers who have seen a maximum of two people leave in the same time period, according to data provided by the city’s office of employee relations. Some say they left for new opportunities, while others claim they were forced to find new jobs because of problems they could no longer ignore.
“People are pushed and worked too hard and morale is extremely low,” a former employee told San José Spotlight. “We work every single day, every weekend, every event and we weren’t getting compensated fairly for it.”
San José Spotlight reached out to dozens of current and former employees to gain insight into working conditions in Mahan’s office, stretching back to his days as a councilmember and his campaign for mayor. Five employees corroborated a range of difficult work experiences that led to frustration and feeling overwhelmed. Others spoke highly of the mayor, calling him a fair leader and mentor. Most declined to comment. San José Spotlight granted anonymity to staffers who feared retribution.
Mahan and his team refuted the claims, saying morale in the office is high and that some staff turnover is unavoidable.
“We’ve prioritized creating a culture where everyone feels comfortable saying what they think, proposing solutions and pushing for better outcomes,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I’m committed to a culture of continuous improvement so we’re always looking to get better, and our team is one of the best I’ve had the honor of leading.”
Four former employees said Mahan speaks to staff in a patronizing tone, including questioning their ability to complete tasks under their purview. Two former employees said colleagues complained about Mahan asking them to run personal errands, such as picking up his dry-cleaning. One former employee claimed Mahan used his taxpayer-funded police security to drop his two young children off at school. His office denies this allegation.
Jim Reed, Mahan’s chief of staff, said one employee picked up the mayor’s suit from dry-cleaning before the mayor’s inauguration.
“This request was clearly conveyed as exactly that, a request, and a staffer who lives by the mayor did volunteer and deliver the dry-cleaning,” Reed told San José Spotlight. “Neither I nor our management team is aware of any other occasion that anybody in our office has helped the mayor with anything remotely personal.”
Long hours, no overtime
Others claim Mahan failed to deliver the pay raises he promised, causing resentment among staff who say they consistently work more than 40 hours a week and occasional weekends.
A current staff member chided at the allegation that Mahan’s office was “toxic” or that morale is low. The expectation to work long hours was made clear ahead of time, they said. For people working in politics, long hours are part of the culture, and it’s the passion and mission of the office that drives staff—not the perks.
“Of course there is tension sometimes, it’s the mayor’s office, it’s a high pressure situation,” the current staffer said. “But he never yelled at us.”
Mahan said most of his staff work “well over” 40 hours a week, “but we also recognize the importance of a healthy work-life balance.” Most of the mayor’s full-time employees are salaried and do not qualify for overtime pay, and while some raises were promised upon hire, Mahan’s office said city rules prohibit raises until July 1 when a new budget is passed.
“We are always trying to find the best trade offs to ensure our team loves what they do and feel valued, respected and supported in their jobs while working with the same sense of urgency our neighbors feel about ending the era of encampments, making our neighborhoods safer and cleaning up San Jose,” Mahan said.
Officials in Mahan’s office aren’t shaken by the turnover and said most staff departures can be explained.
“At the start of Mayor Liccardo’s time in office, several staff from the previous mayor agreed to stay on for a limited length of time to help with transition, and that happened with Mayor Mahan’s tenure as well,” Reed said.
A team in transition
Mahan hired 11 people from Liccardo’s office to fill his staff of 22 people at the start of his term, including Reed, according to a roster obtained by San José Spotlight.
San Jose has struggled to fill more than 900 vacancies this past year, leading to threats of striking and burnout by dozens of employees. For years, city staff have decried that wages are not competitive enough to fill vacant positions, forcing them to do more work with less pay.
Problems stemming from low pay and a thinly-stretched staff could be trickling into the mayor’s office. One employee retired six months into the job. Another longtime employee only stayed with Mahan for two months. One longtime city hall employee, who started with Mahan in January, was fired after one week because of internal conflicts.
Rachel Davis, Mahan’s former director of communications and a household name in city hall, left in June for her dream job as press secretary at the General Services Administration within the Biden Administration. Another now works for San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller.
Another former employee said it no longer felt like there was a vision from the new mayor to improve San Jose. They said it has felt like the “Mahan show” and that he chooses to attend events that cater to his campaign promises—something other councilmembers have criticized Mahan for. It became hard to justify the long hours at work, they said.
“Instead of being the mayor of San Jose, he’s like the mayor of affluent people,” a former employee told San José Spotlight.
While she didn’t work for Mahan as mayor, Elizabeth Barcelos served as digital strategist for his council office until she left in July 2021 because of political differences and getting a higher-paying job.
“I left because I thought I was being underpaid,” Barcelos told San José Spotlight.
Barcelos has publicly criticized Mahan’s policies on Twitter, but said he respected her ideas and communicated his expectations clearly.
Most of her colleagues appeared to be happy, she added, but noted the pressure as a freshman councilmember is vastly different than a new mayor.
Mahan said his leadership style has been consistent in the private sector, campaign trail or the city’s top office, and that he’s focused on his goals of creating a safer city and transitioning homeless people off the streets.
“I’ve had the great honor of learning from some incredible mentors throughout my life,” he said, “and I hope to be even half as helpful to the people who wish to learn from me.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.