Waite: Pump the brakes on the rushed ‘strong mayor’ initiative
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo is featured in this file photo. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

“Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” – Niccolò Machiavelli

On July 1, the San Jose City Council voted 6-5 to place a ballot measure amending the City Charter on the November ballot. The proposal would move the mayoral election to the presidential election cycle, enact certain campaign contribution restrictions and increase the power of the mayor’s office. It has been referred to as a strong mayor initiative, but it is more of a shift in authority over the San Jose bureaucracy from the council to the mayor. In a traditional strong mayor government, the mayor sits as the executive of the city with a separate legislative body. This is nowhere near that.

For all of San Jose’s imperfections, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (CFR) believes that our city is much better run than many of our peer cities, those both inside and outside the Bay Area. We attribute a significant amount of that to the Council-Manager form of government, where professional administrators oversee the delivery of the city’s services. The city’s managers are seasoned professionals, not political appointees subject to the whim of the occupant of the mayor’s office.

CFR believes that has by and large turned out to be a good thing in San Jose.

CFR has not yet taken a position on whether the City Charter should be changed, but we have an opinion on the proposed ballot initiative. It is best summed up as “what’s the rush?” Charter changes of the magnitude proposed require a significant vetting process. The decision process must include public engagement beyond the one-minute comments allowed at the June 1 council meeting or the 30-second sound-bite advertisements of an ensuing political campaign.

In the past, San Jose has used a Charter Review Commission to deliberate significant changes to the City Charter. Nearly 35 years ago, a Charter Review Commission review spanned sixteen months. The current initiative schedule would allow a mere three months for voters to study and decide on the actual written initiative.

The issue today, Mayor Sam Liccardo posits, is that San Jose needs to “align authority with accountability.” He claims that people “vote for a mayor with an expectation that the person they vote for has an executive role in the government.” CFR believes this is not justification for an accelerated Charter change process, but a reason for engaging in educating voters about our current form of government. Then, they can make an informed decision on what that form ought to be through the thorough process of a Charter Review Commission. The timeline of the current proposal is grossly inadequate.

Besides the issue of the compressed timeline, the current ballot measure proposal suffers from several other significant problems. First, and most obvious to our members, the mayor’s proposal includes halting “political contributions to candidates from lobbyists” in contravention to the 2010 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC. That should invalidate the measure.

The Citizens United ruling was a significant rationale used by the City Council in deciding against earlier efforts to place a similar measure on the ballot.

Second, without the draw of a mayoral election, voting in off-cycle elections is liable to be lower than previous off-cycle elections. The joint memorandum from Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza points out that turnout in the 2014 election in Santa Clara County was 50%, while that in the 2016 presidential election was 83%. No doubt moving the mayoral election would exacerbate that discrepancy, resulting in even lower turnout, especially in the primary.

It is interesting to note that Carrasco won both of her council terms during off-cycle June primaries, garnering 4,369 votes out of 8,221 in 2014 and 6,707 of 9,729 in 2018. Nearly half of the council could be elected by a small fraction of registered voters. If the mayoral election is moved, perhaps all council elections ought to be moved as well, but that could be quite disruptive to continuity within the City Council. We could conceivably see an election where 100% of the council turns over.

Third, presidential election campaigns are very noisy. Voters are inundated with advertisements and sound bites focused on national political issues. It is dangerously likely that discussion and debate of San Jose issues will be drowned out by national static. We will end up with more voters determining who should lead San Jose, which is a good thing, but they may be much less informed on the issues facing our city, which is not.

The City Council needs to pump the brakes on this issue. Rather than a headlong rush to place a Charter Amendment on the November ballot, the council should defer to a Charter Review Commission that is tasked with the objective of determining what Charter best suits our city.

On July 28 at 9 a.m., the City Council will review the language for the initiative. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility recommends that you inform your council representative that you would prefer they use a more thorough and open process to effect such significant change. We have posted a sample letter on our website. Please feel free to pass that along to your council representative and our mayor.

Pat Waite is a longtime San Jose resident and president of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.

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