San Jose panel discussing ‘strong mayor’ wants more money
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

A San Jose panel tasked with deciding how much power the city’s mayor will wield is getting more than $100,000 to do its work.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved more funds for the Charter Review Commission, along with a bigger push for more community outreach.

“I don’t know if we’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of race and equity and integrating that into our work,” Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said. “We’re certainly not at where we probably would love to be.”

The money will be used to hire at least one consultant to review the city’s charter and share advice on potential changes, as well as hiring interpreters and resources to outreach with grassroots organizations to gather community input.

The commission formed in July after Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed for a “strong mayor” model of governance—a system where the mayor has the authority to hire and direct department heads without council approval. This mirrors other large cities, which also give their mayors veto powers.

Critics called the strong-mayor proposal, which would have extended Liccardo’s term by two years, a power grab. Liccardo eventually dropped the plan amid criticism. Instead, the council created a commission to review charter changes, including the city’s governance model. The commission has yet to submit a strong mayor proposal for City Council approval.

The commission wants to increase outreach efforts on social media and ethnic media to reach low-income and minority communities in neighborhoods such as East San Jose, which has historically been the least engaged and underrepresented in local decisions.

According to a recent memo, the commission is requesting $35,000 for consulting services, about $12,000 for translation services and $63,000 for grassroots organization outreach. It identified several organizations to partner with, such as the African American Community Services Agency, Amigos De Guadalupe, SOMOS Mayfair, the Asian Law Alliance and Silicon Valley De-Bug, among others.

The commission also asked for $125,000 to hire outside legal advisors, a proposal the council rejected Tuesday. The extra money for outside counsel sparked concern for Liccardo and Councilmember Dev Davis, who preferred extra funds be used for community outreach.

“We ought to take advantage of the expertise we have in-house,” Liccardo said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Paying hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per hour for a private law firm to render those same services doesn’t seem to be the optimal use of scarce resources.”

Other councilmembers, such as Arenas, believed that outside counsel would avoid possible conflicts of interest arising from using the city’s legal team.

“Not every commission is deciding the future fate of how we are going to govern ourselves,” Arenas said. “This is a very different type of commission with a very specific ask from us.”

City Attorney Nora Frimann said no one from her office has any conflicts of interest.

Councilmembers requested more community outreach focusing on residents who don’t speak English and minority communities.

A sample graphic the commission is looking to have translated into several other languages as part of its outreach program. Photo courtesy city of San Jose.

“More than ever, our communities are engaging and want to know more and want to learn,” Charter Review Commission member Veronica Amador said during a recent council committee meeting. She noted that the commission had limited resources to begin with.

Arenas agreed, hoping that some funds would be redirected to more research on equity.

The commission has since taken up additional proposals, such as reexamining election cycles for City Council districts. Twenty-three residents from each of the city’s 10 districts and several at-large seats comprise the commission.

“My hope is there will be enough public dialogue to where commissioners can confidently say they are in-tune with the overall room temperature of how comfortable folks are in proceeding with a certain direction that ends up shaping San Jose politics for the foreseeable future,” Commissioner Thi Tran told San José Spotlight.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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