Three San Jose officials spent at least $8,000 in tax dollars on trips this past year—a fraction of what the city used to spend on business travel prior to the pandemic.
Lawmakers traveled to Washington, D.C., Ohio and nearby cities like Sacramento for conferences and White House events—with taxpayers footing the bills, according to city documents.
These trips were important opportunities to boost San Jose’s image, as advocates for the city and to learn from others across the nation and world, lawmakers said.
“Each of the trips was important to key objectives of San Jose, particularly the emphasis on infrastructure funding,” Mayor Sam Liccardo told San José Spotlight, referring to his Washington, D.C. visits.
In 2021, the mayor took three city-sponsored trips: one to Dayton, Ohio for the U.S. Mayor’s Conference and two to Washington, D.C., where Liccardo discussed gun violence with President Joe Biden and lobbied for public transit.
His travels totaled more than $5,100, making him the biggest spender on the City Council. Liccardo’s July trip to the nation’s capital cost the public $2,266.
Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and David Cohen also traveled on the public’s dime this year.
Jimenez went on a four-day trip to Washington, D.C. for Sister Cities International in November, which cost $1,265. Most of the conference was accessible via Zoom, the conference’s agenda shows, but the District 2 representative said it was important for him, as a new board member, to be there in person and build relationships with other leaders in the country.
“That was one of the first in-person leadership meetings that they had in a while,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight, adding the majority of the association’s board members were at the conference in person. “This was an opportunity to really get to know some of the people (who) have been instrumental in the organization for a long time.”
Cohen spent $1,790 for a three-day conference in September with the League of California Cities in Sacramento. Cohen’s spokesperson Lam Nguyen said the biggest cost came from the Hyatt hotel rooms, which was recommended by the conference because of its convenient location.
“This was a three-day fact-finding session for the councilmember,” he said.
Cohen also traveled to Monterey in December for a meeting with the league, documents show. The city didn’t provide details of the trip’s expense in time for publication, but Nguyen said the trip cost significantly less than the Sacramento trip.
COVID, city’s policy curtail traveling
In total, San Jose funded six business trips for three officials in 2021. While that’s more than how often lawmakers traveled at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, it was still significantly fewer trips 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. Taxpayers shelled out roughly $20,000 that year for officials’ travel expenses.
“It’s understandable that council travel was very infrequent in 2021,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “There were few in-person conventions or conferences to attend, and COVID surges had us all re-thinking travel during the winter months.”
Other councilmembers think a decline in taxpayer-funded trips in the past few years—even before the pandemic—stemmed from a travel policy proposed by Liccardo that took effect in 2018.
“The way he approached things on that occasion was very questionable for me,” Jimenez said. “I think it put a chilling effect on people wanting to participate in some of these boards and things of that nature, because it was politicized.”
The 2018 policy put a restriction on how many councilmembers can travel at any given time. It came after half of the City Council, members of their staff and family took a trip to Japan, forcing the city to cancel a number of legislative meetings and prompting a wave of backlash.
“(Liccardo) goes on trips often… and rightfully so—he’s the political leader of the city as he should,” Jimenez said. “I have no issues with it, but he seems to have issues with other folks going.”
Jimenez worries the policy might have a long-term impact on San Jose officials going on trips that would benefit the city.
“I just don’t understand, at that time, why the mayor would dissuade us or make it challenging for us to want to participate and broaden the voice of the city,” he said.
Liccardo didn’t respond to Jimenez’s criticism.