San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo will likely be on another continent when voters decide who will replace him next month.
On Wednesday, the city Rules and Open Government committee approved Liccardo’s travel request to Egypt from Nov. 4-12. He’s flying on his own dime to the U.N. Climate Change Conference to speak about San Jose’s innovative environmental solutions. All voted in favor except Councilmember Sylvia Arenas. It will go to the full city council next week for final approval.
Arenas said she has two concerns: how Liccardo is spending his last two months in office and Egypt’s record on women’s rights. Liccardo is terming out in December and the vote for his successor will be on Nov. 8.
“There are a lot of issues with women’s rights in Egypt,” Arenas said at the meeting. “And not only that mayor, you have two months remaining in your term. And I think we need to focus on San Jose, and making sure that we have what we need from you before (your term ends).”
However, other councilmembers disagree and said Liccardo representing San Jose at the climate conference puts the city on the map globally. Vice Mayor Chappie Jones told San José Spotlight that he isn’t concerned with Liccardo being out of the country during the Nov. 8 elections because Liccardo is not running.
“I think it’s a very worthwhile cause and an opportunity for him to make connections and get San Jose’s name out there in terms of being a climate leader,” Jones said. “Which will give us hopefully access to resources and funding.”
Liccardo justified the trip as being beneficial for San Jose. For example, the city is not a member of the climate organization C40, which enables cities to get significant resources to accomplish climate goals such as being carbon neutral by 2030 or having more clean, reliable electrical grids. He said going to the U.N. conference helps pave the way for San Jose to make those connections.
“The way you get to be a member, obviously, is to be able to be part of the convenings, be engaged with other members and ultimately get voted in,” Liccardo said. “So essentially, you gotta be there. You don’t show up, you don’t get in. It’s kind of the way it goes.”
Councilmember David Cohen agreed and said it’s important for San Jose to be represented internationally.
“I’ve been proud of the leadership that San Jose has done in the last few years, probably dating back four or five years now, on climate and environment,” Cohen said. “It’s important that the city find a way to be globally recognized for it and make sure that other cities are watching what we’re doing and using us as a model.”
In his final state of the city speech, Liccardo touched on some of those successes, highlighting the city’s 2018 launch of San Jose Clean Energy that draws on zero-emission sources such as solar and wind. San Jose is also America’s largest city to require all-electric utilities in newly constructed buildings, is expanding public transit and increasing public electric car charging.
Other travel issues
This is not the first time Arenas has disapproved of a travel request from the mayor. Over the summer, the foreign ministry of Qatar invited Liccardo on an all-expenses paid trip to attend the country’s Environment and Energy Research Institute and learn about water conservation efforts. The city council voted 8-3 to reject the invitation, citing human rights concerns.
Councilmembers did not raise concerns when Liccardo requested to go to France in June, Amsterdam in October or his other travels throughout the year.
Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Arenas’ scrutiny on only Muslim-majority countries is a concerning pattern.
“She has twice now targeted Muslim-majority countries, while ignoring women’s rights and human rights violations in other countries, including France,” Billoo told San José Spotlight. “We urge Councilmember Arenas to assess the double standard she’s applying and invite her to meet with and learn from the local Arab and Muslim community who could educate on the detrimental impact of this type of Islamophobia.”
Arenas said she welcomes discussion and has not specifically targeted Muslim-majority countries.
“I have been concerned about official acts of the city of San Jose that could be used as PR by repressive regimes, and I have had disagreements on many occasions with mayor Liccardo about that,” Arenas told San José Spotlight. “Most notably, I tried to end our sister city relationship with Russian’s 4th largest city earlier this year over their crimes against humanity in Ukraine, which the mayor blocked.”
Liccardo’s request to go to Egypt came a day after arriving from Amsterdam for a conference focused on innovative solutions to solve big city problems, called CityLab 2022.
All of his international travel has been covered by his own dime or other organizations. However, his domestic travel uses city dollars.
The mayor has spent nearly $12,000 in public dollars on other travel in 2022 including three U.S. Conference of Mayors trips and one to Washington, D.C. to discuss gun violence with other elected officials.
The city has spent more than $21,000 this year for travel expenses for the mayor, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones’ trip to a National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C. and four of Councilmember Sergio Jimenez’s trips such as the Sister Cities Spring Leadership conference. Cohen also took a trip on the city’s dime to the League of California Cities Annual Conference and Expo in July.
This is double the money San Jose spent last year on travel, but on par with previous years.
In 2019, Liccardo alone went on 11 trips—to Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tennessee and Honolulu, Hawaii, among others—which cost the city about $7,500 total. Taxpayers shelled out roughly $20,000 that year for officials’ travel expenses.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.