San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo took an all-expenses paid trip to France this past week, and the timing is raising some eyebrows.
The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and Terre & Cité, a French environmental nonprofit, paid $3,021 for the mayor’s trip to Plateau de Saclay, a town just south of Paris. Liccardo and Assemblymember Ash Kalra were among the officials and academics who traveled abroad to study and compare best policies for land preservation from July 10-15.
It’s not unusual for elected officials to travel during the July legislative recess. Many state and local leaders go on trips or junkets bankrolled by special interest organizations and lobbying groups. But professional development trips are usually reserved for leaders with more than a couple months left in office. Liccardo is leaving City Hall in December.
There’s also the question of public perception when elected officials accept a paid trip from a group that’s lobbied them for a vote or decision. The mayor voted last year to protect Coyote Valley from development—something the Open Space Authority heavily advocated for.
The historic vote to preserve Coyote Valley was unanimous.
“There’s nothing necessarily unethical about that,” John Pelissero, a senior scholar at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, told San José Spotlight. “But the problem is really one of perception. What will the public think about him accepting a trip, all expenses paid, in the months after he lent his support to get their proposal passed by the city government?”
Jim Reed, Liccardo’s chief of staff, said the mayor has long been an advocate of preserving Coyote Valley, so his invitation to France makes sense. Reed pointed to Liccardo’s advocacy against Measure B in 2018 to build affordable senior housing in Coyote Valley in an effort to preserve open space.
“Given the mayor’s leadership protecting Coyote Valley and fighting efforts to develop sensitive hillsides without public input or basic environmental stewardship, it’s understandable why folks at the Open Space Authority would view him as an ally and a champion,” Reed told San José Spotlight.
For decades, city officials have looked at Coyote Valley as the next hub for office space. At one point it even caught the eye of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to build an office. More recently, local landowners have signed contracts with developers to sell the land for millions of dollars to develop Amazon-style warehouses. But in November, the City Council rezoned parts of Coyote Valley from industrial use to agricultural and open space use for farming and wildlife. Some of the landowners are suing the city.
Charlotte Graham, spokesperson for the Open Space Authority, said the trip has been in the works since 2019, after the organization hosted Terre & Cité and others for a tour of Coyote Valley as part of a Global Climate Action Summit in 2018.
“The pandemic caused a two-year delay,” Graham told San José Spotlight. “So, this (trip) is building upon momentum from the initial summit, as well as the international online conferences that have happened over the last couple of years.”
She said Liccardo and his Deputy Chief of Staff Mackenzie Mossing were invited because of his “precedent-setting leadership” on Measure T in 2018 to allocate funds to purchase land for conservation.
Liccardo’s wife joined him on the trip to France on her own dime. They are remaining in the country for a few more days to vacation. Liccardo is covering all travel expenses outside of the conference.
The Open Space Authority and Terre & Cité have been working together for years after a French geographer discovered a parallel between the importance of preserving agricultural and natural lands on the Plateau de Saclay and in Silicon Valley, Graham said. Both are open spaces near tech hubs that have been at risk of major development.
“We recognize climate change is a global issue and this exchange is important to share best practices internationally,” Graham said.
This trip is the first of its kind and the only one the Open Space Authority hosts, with many partners in the delegation including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, the federal and California Department of Food and Agriculture.
It is also the first trip Liccardo has taken this year that has not been paid for by taxpayers.
The mayor has spent nearly $10,000 in public dollars on other travel in 2022, his final year in office, including three U.S. Conference of Mayors trips and one to Washington, D.C. to discuss gun violence with other elected officials.
In June, Liccardo tried to go on an all-expenses paid trip to Qatar, funded by the country’s foreign ministry, for another environmental conference, but it was rejected by the City Council citing concerns over human rights violations.
The city has spent more than $16,500 this year for travel expenses for the mayor, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones’ trip to a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C. and Councilmember Sergio Jimenez’s trips to the Sister Cities Spring Leadership conference and San Jose’s Chamber of Commerce Annual Study Mission.
This is double the tax dollars San Jose spent last year to travel. It was still significantly less than previous years.
In 2019, Liccardo alone went on 11 trips—to Washington, D.C., Nashville and Honolulu, among others—which cost the city about $7,500 total for all 11 trips. Taxpayers shelled out roughly $20,000 that year for officials’ travel expenses.
Reporter Tran Nguyen contributed to this article.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.