San Jose mayor’s chief of staff triggers election law proposal
A view of downtown San Jose from the 18th floor of City Hall. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose is looking to strengthen its election rules, with the push targeting the mayor’s right-hand man.

    The San Jose City Council is considering whether to prohibit elected officials and their staff from working on independent expenditure committees that raise money for local races. This move comes after residents and city leaders questioned the extracurricular political activities of Jim Reed while he served as former Mayor Sam Liccardo’s chief of staff. Former Councilmember Maya Esparza was one of the first to call on the city to change local election laws last year. After her concerns went largely ignored, her proposal is coming back with new support from current councilmembers.

    Under Liccardo, Reed helped raise six figures to elect Mayor Matt Mahan last November. Then, he became Mahan’s chief of staff. While his highly involved fundraising activity was allowed then, it could soon violate city policy.

    Officials will also consider amending the city’s revolving door policy to prohibit former city officers and staff from serving within a political action committee (PAC) or nonprofit for one year following termination of office or employment.

    Current city policy only prohibits someone running for office from working on independent expenditure committees. If approved by the council, “candidate” would be redefined to include elected city officials and their employees. The shift would align San Jose with state law.

    City Attorney Nora Frimann said she isn’t sure why San Jose didn’t align all along.

    “We think it may have just been a mistake in the drafting initially because everything else seems to follow the same (state) format, but the definition of candidate does not,” Frimann said at the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee meeting on Wednesday. “It’s led to some issues over the last few years.”

    Frimann referred to last year when Liccardo and Reed launched two political organizations during the mayor’s final years in office. Reed was at the helm of both organizations—while serving as Liccardo’s chief of staff for eight years.

    In February 2021, the pair launched Solutions Silicon Valley, a 501c(4) organization, to advocate for “common sense” policies. The group ended up lobbying on divisive issues such as reopening public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic and opposing water rate hikes. Then, nine months later, Liccardo and Reed launched Common Good Silicon Valley, an independent expenditure committee, that raised millions to elect business-friendly, moderate policymakers like Mahan. The group effectively replaced the now-defunct San Jose Chamber of Commerce PAC that tanked in November 2020 after publishing a racist ad.

    Reed previously told San José Spotlight he served as executive director of Common Good while working for Liccardo. But he said he wasn’t paid by either organization and did all the work—whether lobbying or fundraising—after hours outside of his time at City Hall.

    Political insider Judy Pipkin leveled a complaint against Liccardo for his involvement in Common Good, but it was dismissed by the city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices because Liccardo didn’t fit the city’s definition of candidate, and therefore he didn’t violate city election rules.

    Ethicists said even if it’s not illegal, it’s still unethical. Strengthening the city’s rules is a good move, Sean McMorris, an ethics expert at Common Cause, told San José Spotlight.

    “It’s good government policy, it’s anti-corruption policy, but the devil is in the details,” McMorris said. “I would include a 12-month pre-hiring period where no one could have worked for an independent expenditure 12 months prior to working for an elected official as well.”

    He said this would help eliminate conflicts of interest. If someone who worked for a PAC gets a $100,000 donation from a millionaire developer, that may result in favors for that donor within City Hall.

    Mahan is up for reelection in 2024. Reed still volunteers with Common Good, but once election season begins, he will be asked to step away, the mayor said.

    “When I run for reelection, neither Jim nor any other member of my team will be allowed to work on an outside campaign involved in the race,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “It would be difficult to do both while abiding by election laws, and I don’t want to get anywhere near that line.”

    However, he may be unscathed by the rule change because the policy may only prohibit staff from being officers of an independent expenditure committee. Reed maintains he’s just a volunteer.

    Reed told San José Spotlight he’ll step away from Common Good and other groups supporting the mayor regardless of any policy changes.

    Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said he thinks the change has the right spirit, but he hopes to narrow it even more so people can’t skirt local laws through technicalities.

    “We may need to add some additional language to make sure we’re cutting off the various avenues folks use to legally circumvent the rules.” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “That’s what (Liccardo) did. He was threading the needle and being very technical about his role which allowed him the space to maneuver around the rules.”

    The city council will vote on these changes on May 23 at 1:30 p.m. Learn how to watch and participate.

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

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