The city of San Jose is facing a crossroads in terms of dealing with racial inequities and abuses of power.
It was heartening to see the large numbers of residents peacefully protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. While there were some people who damaged public and private property, we can’t lose focus on the diverse community calling for change. The focus of that message was partially drowned out by the means and methods the San Jose Police Department decided to utilize during the protests.
While we collectively need to deal with reforms for SJPD, I would like to focus this column on the issue of racial inequity and the lack of an equity lens in San Jose. This issue was first raised in 2019 and didn’t gain any traction. In my opinion, the preponderance of councilmembers who voted against it last year hoped that it would be forgotten and we’d return to business as usual.
But the pressure of the moment created by protestors and citizens demanding change has caused that majority to rethink establishing an Office of Racial Equity. This was approved with the adoption of San Jose’s 2020-21 budget.
That was good news — a needed first step — however a troubling sign was that staff convinced the City Council to reduce the budget for the new office from $1.5 million to $1 million. The caveat was that the City Council could allocate more money this fall. On top of that, City Manager Dave Sykes said this is one-time money and the city “needs time to figure out how we fund this ongoing.”
That is an unacceptable answer. When the mayor pitched the Climate Smart San Jose program and the City Council approved it in 2018, there wasn’t any hesitation about how to fund it and whether it could be funded on an ongoing basis. That is not to say one is more important than the other — they are both needed as ongoing departments. But rubber stamping one and then hedging on the viability of the other shows the lack of commitment by the city of San Jose to change behavior.
I think the city needs to fully commit to this office and make the director of the new Office of Racial Equity a council appointee like the City Manager, City Auditor, City Clerk, City Attorney and the Independent Police Auditor. This gives the office the independence needed to ensure that San Jose is making the changes necessary without pressure from the City Manager’s Office or the mayor.
Another item that needs to happen is that all future staff reports need to have a section created called Office of Racial Equity so this office can comment on each council action and how it affects the equity goals of San Jose. When the city created Climate Smart San Jose, it got its own section in all staff reports like below:
We need an independent voice holding up a mirror to staff reports and explaining whether we are moving the city of San Jose in the right direction in terms of equity. The need for independence might be necessary now more than ever with the potential for shifting our governance structure to a strong mayor hybrid.
Isn’t it about time we take this issue seriously and show the residents of San Jose that we will not let this problem be shelved conveniently due to budgetary or staff bandwidth? We have an opportunity to really make a difference, let’s make it count. Onward and upward.
San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.