San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo sat down with San Jose Inside’s Josh Koehn last week to discuss the state of the city and what he intends to accomplish in the remaining two years of his first term. Topics included the performance of President Obama, what he expects to happen during Donald Trump’s presidency, how police department recruitment efforts are progressing and the city’s legal tussles with Santa Clara. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. —Editor
Josh Koehn: I’m curious just before we launch into all the city issues and national issues, what are your thoughts on Obama’s performance these past eight years and what he’s meant to, say, a city like San Jose.
Mayor Sam Liccardo: It’s no secret that I’m a big Obama fan. I felt a sense of personal loss, honestly, watching the farewell address. We’ll miss his inspiring words, but even more I will miss the standard of leadership that he offered for those of us who aspire to lead in any community. Someone who is incredibly ethical, someone who focuses on how we can lift people up and try to keep our eye on how we can move forward rather than constantly fighting over whatever happened in the past. Certainly, Obama had his challenges in the last eight years. It’s not easy to get things done when your party doesn’t control Congress and there’s no question that his accomplishments in the domestic arena were greatly limited by that. On the other hand, it’s not a bad thing to be able to say you just pulled the country out of the worst recession in three quarters of a century. And beyond seven or more years of growth, we’ve also been able to expand the ranks of those who have health insurance by many, many millions.
There’s no question that the role of the federal government in cities has diminished enormously over the last several decades. But what I thought Obama did that was particularly effective was, without money, he enabled a lot of cities to convene partners, stakeholders around key goals that could enable all of us to move together. I’ll give you a couple of quick examples. In this city we’ve been able to substantially reduce veteran homelessness. In just one year, we had a goal of over 700 homeless vets—how we could eliminate veterans homelessness in this valley by 2018, which is the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day? County Supervisor Dave Cortese and I, and Destination Home, we adopted this goal really because the White House helped to show cities how it could be done. And they didn’t give us any money. I wish they’d give us given us money but they didn’t. They just said, ‘Hey, here’s a pathway for doing it and here’s a road map. Now see if you can make it happen.’ A year later we’ve housed over 510 of those homeless vets. Now, we’re not done yet. We’ve got more work to do. But I think that’s an example what can happen.
We should talk about who’s going to be succeeding President Obama, Donald Trump.
Oh, did he win?
He did. He’s been pretty critical of San Jose going back to that rally he had here. Some of his supporters ended up filing a lawsuit saying they thought the way they were protected at that rally was inappropriate. You and Police Chief Eddie Garcia had a press conference in early December basically saying, ‘We are going to remain status quo in how we treat our relationship with federal immigration enforcement.’ Can you say clearly in a few sentences what exactly that means, when you say we’re not going to cooperate with ICE and other federal immigration enforcement?
In the simplest terms, local police departments don’t enforce federal environmental laws or federal tax laws. And typically we don’t enforce federal immigration laws, either. And most major city chiefs throughout the country agree, because we don’t have the bandwidth and the resources to go around enforcing every federal law. But secondly, because in the case of immigration laws in particular, there is a real need for us to develop relationships and trust in a community. And if someone feels that they’re reporting a crime could subject someone in their household to deportation if a call was made to La Migra, then we’re going to have a very difficult time getting people to come forward to report crimes, coming forward to talk to detectives about gang activity in the neighborhood, having witnesses testifying in court—all the things that law enforcement needs, a community that trusts law enforcement.
I had a quick post about how there are discussions about easing codes and permitting for churches so that they can basically take in undocumented immigrants and almost give them a sanctuary from these potential deportation forces. That is actually a way of potentially blocking deportations, even though I’m sure if federal agents really want to they could storm a church—it just wouldn’t be good press.
I’m not sure about the law exactly on that one. Look, the first thing we need to do is be honest with everyone about our authority and our lack of authority. And there’s not a sanctuary city in the country that can prevent a lawful deportation. And nobody is talking about standing in the way of federal agents who are lawfully present, doing what they’re lawfully entitled to do. On the other hand, there’s certainly a centuries-long tradition of churches and synagogues and the faith-based communities providing sanctuary. We have recently, that is last year, streamlined the ability for churches to be able to participate in a network of shelters for homeless families.
Like an inclement weather, that kind of situation?
This is much different, though, because when I see those kinds of words—sanctuary, churches, shielding people from deportation—I think, and this could be extreme, but my head kind of went to Anne Frank hiding in the attic of a home in Amsterdam. Is this the kind of thing that we could potentially be looking at?
Well, I do believe there are real limitations to the authority of a federal agent and searching a home without a warrant. The good news is there’s still a constitution. I also think it’s unlikely that ICE has the resources or, as a tactical matter, thinks it’s a very good idea to engage in raids of homes or schools. But I’m not going to guess as to what folks in Washington might be cooking up. I don’t think we’ve seen a significant number of raids like that probably since the ’80s. Nonetheless, what we want to do is make sure we prepare. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but what we can do is better inform people, ensure they understand their rights and legal options. To give an example, we’re talking to San Jose State University and the Journalism department and CreaTV about how we might be able to very inexpensively broadcast television on the cable network, the government access channel, which can help provide information to people about immigration rights and laws. Those are things that don’t cost much money and we should be doing anyway.
You mentioned sanctuary cities, and I guess by definition San Jose would be one.
We do not call ourselves a sanctuary city and I’d be happy to explain why that is. Eddie said it very clearly at the last press conference. I think it’s misleading.
It’s a loaded term at this point.
It is a loaded term. That’s true. But it’s also misleading. We’ve got tens of thousands families right now that are very worried, very scared. I think it is misleading and disingenuous for us to say to people: We are somehow going to be a sanctuary from the operation of federal law. We can certainly say we’re going to do everything we can to protect and empower our community, but I don’t like that term.
There is talk from Trump’s administration about pulling federal funding for what he deems to be sanctuary cities. What steps is the city taking to potentially shield itself, or do you even have a sense of what’s going to happen if he were to pull funding on things like BART and other infrastructure projects?
There seems to be significant federal case law, federal precedent, that Congress can certainly withhold funding where it relates to a local jurisdiction’s unwillingness to comply with federal law, as to that issue. But Congress does not have the authority to withhold funding as to unrelated, separate matters.
So retribution, a vendetta over immigration would not apply then to infrastructure funding?
Yes. I think the vulnerability of the city of San Jose is somewhat limited, partly for that reason and partly because we really don’t get much federal money. The federal government got out of the business of supporting cities for the most part over the last 40, 50 years. There’s no Great Society anymore.
It seems like every story somehow has to have a Trump tie-in so we can maybe move away—
I should mention since we’re now being recorded, I’ve got that invitation on my desk to the Inauguration.
If you can translate it from the original Russian you’re entitled to take it.
That’s a good joke. You mentioned the county. There’s been a pretty close working relationship since you were elected mayor between you and your opponent in that race, Dave Cortese. You guys have really come together on homelessness. Can you tell me a little bit more about the working relationship?
Well, I think I’m blessed by having colleagues in the county who understand the importance of working to get things done, and Supervisor Cortese has really demonstrated his leadership in that regard. And bluntly, he’s a grown up. We get past elections and recognize we’ve got to work together. I think there are a lot of things that really haven’t gotten a lot of media exposure but are really important that we’re working on right now, that he’s been really instrumental in helping to push forward. For example, we’ve got a serious challenge right now in improving our emergency medical response. That’s a partnership, essentially, between our fire department and the county, which has a private ambulance service.
Well this been an ongoing problem. I’ve been with Metro/San Jose Inside for six years and for pretty much all six of them it’s been a major issue.
Correct. So, it’s certainly an issue from the standpoint of whatever shortcomings there might be with the ambulance company, but also with our own fire department and our inability to meet minimum response times. And it’s primarily a resources issue. We’re starting to change that. But there’s also other things we can do. Technology can certainly help a lot. And we’ve had a lot of challenges with the staff, but the city and county just—
I was going to say Jeff Smith, the county executive, has not necessarily been the most easy of partners to get along with for the city. There’s been quite a bit of combativeness over the years. Has that changed?
I guess what I’d say is there have been challenges certainly with staff coming to agreement. It has helped that we have started to elevate the issue, to allow electeds to see if there are some common objectives here, and I think clearly there are. We’re all serving the same residents and we know how essential this service is and Dave Cortese and Ken Yeager have really played an important role in helping us get past some of the roadblocks and really focus pragmatically how we can both invest in the system in a way that will improve our emergency medical response. In transportation, that’s where Cindy Chavez has been really helpful and we’ve been working together most recently on Measure B.
I’ve been told that the city is having some major issues getting people hired, even though there are a lot of vacancies, there are a lot of applications coming in, but apparently there’s some issues with H.R. not necessarily being able to move at the speed of business.
Yeah, there are major issues with H.R. I think you may have heard at the most recent council meeting [Jan. 10], I was very vocal about my concerns about our inability to fill about 800 vacancies we have right now in the city. With police it’s slightly different. The good news is we’ve got a great recruiting team in place now—
Not the one that went to Hawaii six or eight months ago?
You already got me on record about that issue. But the good news is what we saw in the last Academy is 34, 35 recruits—about quadruple where we were just six months ago. They’re clearly accelerating and attracting good talented officers and we’ve not reduced our standards a bit. And that’s critically important, because I think people are under the impression that there aren’t many people applying but in fact I think we had 1,700 or 1,800 applicants in the last pool. It’s just a very small number meet these high standards. So we’re starting to rebuild on the police side. You know, to be more honest, I’d say we’ve certainly stemmed the bleeding. The rebuilding is going to take more time and the police contract we’re in negotiation right now, it’s going to be important as part of that as well. (Editor’s note: The city and its police union struck a tentative deal last Friday.)
On the H.R. side, with regard to all the other departments, we’re mightily challenged. And I think Norberto Dueñas, our city manager, certainly gets it. Over the last several months he has really focused additional effort and energy on seeing how we can fix that. There’s simply not enough throughput and we’ve got the population of residents that is increasingly frustrated by a lack of services—and we’ve got to deliver those services. So, we all agree that this is critical for us and we’re going to have a study session on this in just a few weeks and focus on what needs to get changed that hasn’t already been fixed.
We talked a little bit about police department beefing up the ranks. Last year they counted 47 homicides in San Jose, which is the highest in about 25 years. What’s your sense on the level of crime and public safety in San Jose this last year?
No mayor is ever going to say they’re happy with the level of crime in their city, right? It’s always too high. Two things can be equally true. One is we absolutely need more police officers. We know that because we have by far the most thinly staffed department in the country, of any major city, and a lot of good will result from adding more officers. We also need to be working on gang prevention efforts. And the jobs program that I launched last year, which is really starting to take off now—we’re getting 1,200 teenagers living in gang impacted neighborhoods a job this year. That’s really important in the summertime. Having them working and building a resume rather than a rap sheet is a great thing for them and for the city. So there’s a lot of things we need to do, but certainly it starts with rebuilding the police department. That being said, it is also true, as any criminologists would say, homicide numbers are going to fluctuate wildly from year to year, particularly when you’re talking about a relatively low number starting point.
Like Chicago to San Jose are not really comparable.
Or compared to Oakland or San Francisco, which are smaller cities than ours but still have obviously much higher homicide rates. We are a relatively safe city. We have a very low violent crime rate relative to other big cities. That being said, it’s still too high.
Who’s going to be your choice for vice mayor?
That’s why I asked it.
Yeah, we’ll release that next week.
I assume it’s probably going to be Magdalena Carrasco, just looking at the makeup of the council. I mean I could be way off, but she seems to be an ally on some issues and others more independent. The city is different than it was a few years ago. It’s not necessarily just Chamber and Labor over here. There’s a little bit more go-between, but Magdalena seems to be that person who could help you get over the hump on a 6-5 issue.
Well, the good news is by press time you’ll know the answer and then you can go back and change whatever you just said for the recording and then you can say I told you so. (Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the mayor’s office announced Carrasco as the next vice mayor. She will be officially appointed at the Jan. 24 council meeting.)
How do you view the work that gets done this year compared to the work that was done last year, because both times: pretty green people on the council dais?
The good news is we have a very bright council and it’s more important to me that we have people with strong work experience, life experience, education that enables them to grasp complex issues. You look at somebody like Dev Davis, who’s doing research at Stanford—
I imagine she’ll be similar to Pierluigi (Oliverio) on a lot of votes, but say someone like Lan Diep and Manh Nguyen in District 4. You had an interesting role in that race, because Lan worked on your campaign a little bit. You endorsed Mahn.
Yeah, so I stayed out of their first race the second race I got involved.
And now Manh’s out and Lan’s in. How do you think Lan will be in his first term and the differences in representation?
He’s a very bright guy. He’s going to get down the learning curve very quickly. And I’ve had some good conversations with him about what he needs to do in his district. I think he’s got the energy and the intelligence to do an exceptional job in this city and beyond, whatever his aspirations are in leadership.
There are people who say this mayor has been too close with developers and corporations and trying to court them, and that by trying to attract these high-rises through incentives and cuts on taxes that we’re basically just rewarding people that don’t necessarily need that extra money. What is your response to that kind of criticism?
That’s the most recent issue that came up in December. We were looking at a skyline that had exactly one project with a crane overhead and a downtown that has not seen a crane like that emerge in two years. And when you go to Seattle or San Francisco or L.A. or any other city on the West Coast, you’ll see dozens of cranes. It was very apparent to me, from the empirical evidence, that we weren’t getting much built and this was in the boom time. This is in the best of times when Silicon Valley is booming. This is a time when we should be seeing that kind of redevelopment. And if we’re not, that says there is something wrong here. So I asked a lot of folks what is wrong. ‘Why aren’t you building? What can we do to get a shovel in the ground?’ And the answer was very clear. The economics of building high-rises are very difficult in downtown, because you can’t build very high. You don’t get the profit that you would get from building over 25 or 30 stories, because that’s where we’re capped with the airport. We also can’t build very low because we have a high water table and we have very high labor costs in the valley.
So for me it’s a very simple question: Are we getting anything or not? If we’re getting stuff built there’s no reason to give anybody a cut in fees or taxes. On the other hand, if we’re not getting anything built: first, we’re not losing anything by reducing fees because we weren’t going to get those fees anyway; and secondly, you look at a piece of vacant parking lot in downtown—if it’s an acre maybe it’s worth two and a half million bucks, maybe three on a good day. And you think about the property taxes you can get out of that vacant parking lot and then you fill it with a tower that has a valuation of $150 million and you can pretty quickly figure out the taxpayer comes out way ahead if we actually get something built. What was imperative to me when I came into office was that we make clear to the rest of the organization that there is an enormous cost of doing nothing, and the cost of indecision is far greater than the cost of taking a risk and making an imperfect decision.
You’ve got dueling lawsuits with the city of Santa Clara—Santa Clara has got a lot of lawsuits going on right now.
The city of San Jose doesn’t like the City Place project that’s going by Levi Stadium. It’s going to be six times the size of Santana Row. And then Santa Clara sues over the Santana West project. What’s really going on there?
I have no problem with (City Place project), but the ratio of 2.4 (jobs to residents in Santa Clara) is way out of whack in terms of the balance of jobs and housing and community. San Jose has a jobs employee/resident ratio of like .84 or .85. It’s obvious that San Jose is on the hook for providing a lot of services to residents who work in other cities. That’s a real challenge for us fiscally. It’s a huge problem for the entire valley in terms of traffic and in terms of environmental impact. This uneven distribution of jobs and housing in this valley is the primary cause of the gridlock that everyone experiences every morning heading north on 101 and 280 and 85 and every evening heading south. It is precisely because of this imbalance.
And so the question is: Are cities that have this grossly imbalanced land-use plan going to take the responsibility of housing the people who work within their borders? Currently, San Jose houses four times as many Santa Clara workers as Santa Clara does. So they’re not housing their own. This 9 million square-feet development would create demand for almost 18,000 housing units to house its workers. They said if all goes well they might be able to build a little more than a thousand units on their site—and they want us to applaud. And what we’re saying is, if there are impacts from your development, you pay for those impacts, you pay a traffic impact just as we did in North San Jose. And if there are ways to mitigate those impacts, particularly in a way that is good for the region, then we want you to do that. And there’s an easy way to do it. We have a model. It’s called North San Jose.
Santa Clara and Milpitas and everybody else sued us, because everybody was scared about all the growth. So we agreed what we’d do is we’d phase our development in North San Jose between housing and R&D and office so that we’re not overwhelming the commute patterns. And we were paying tens of millions of dollars for traffic impacts in those other cities. For example, Montague Expressway. We are asking Santa Clara to engage in the same process with us. They’re willing to pay some traffic impact fees, to their credit, and that’s great. I think we can all arrive at a reasonable number based on objective information of what it would cost. What they’re not willing to do is to commit to building the housing within phases of the project. It doesn’t even have to be on the site. They can do it anywhere in the city. We just don’t want the traffic on the freeways and expressways coming from far-flung places, particularly in San Jose, where it just creates a bigger regional mess for everybody.
So there’s an easy way for them to build all 9 million square feet—just agree to build the housing.
And the Santana West lawsuit?
As I recall, they’ve got city officials on record saying that the lawsuit was filed in retribution. That’s an interesting statement to make in public.
But that’s the law of the land now. That’s politics in the U.S.
It’s actually interesting. You mention the law. There are actually laws against that. So we’ll let the lawyers handle that. But, yeah, saying that you are filing a lawsuit in retribution is probably going to land you in some hot water.
Why are we talking about Alviso for Topgolf when we could be looking at the public golf courses that the city owns?
They didn’t want to put it there. That’s the primary reason. I can’t speak for the developer or the owners, but I think they saw the job activity in North San Jose and Santa Clara and the adjoining areas as being a great audience draw for customers and after-work people who would be going there to hit golf balls and have a drink.
Have you been to a Topgolf?
I’ve heard, but I’ve never seen it.
It’s like Dave And Busters for golfers.
Even adults need to have fun, Josh. You should try it sometime.
Maybe someday. What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve accomplished in these last two years and what are the things that you expect to be the biggest accomplishments the next two years?
I’m proud of what our team has accomplished. Certainly getting beyond the acrimony that really paralyzed us from getting anything done in this city—resolving pension reform but still securing the savings that pension reform got for us. I could go down the list of programs that I think have had great starts so far. I mentioned the San Jose Works program with getting 1,200 teenagers their first job, or San Jose Learns initiatives where we’re expanding library hours six days a week. There are a lot of individual things we’re doing that I think have impact. Going forward, what do I think the opportunities are? First, rebuilding the police department is critical for us. And that’s going to continue to be on my plate every day until we can get to a much more comfortable place. We have an opportunity to talk about some new initiatives in the next few weeks. One is going to be laser focused on how we can improve the aesthetics of our city. I think a lot of people are pretty ashamed of what they see when they’re driving down the freeways.
You mean like “Tan Jose,” the nickname.
Oh well, that’s another issue on urban design. I’m just talking about the basics: garbage and trash and graffiti, and clean the place up. Caltrans has not been helpful in that regard. So, we are pushing hard now and they are being more helpful and I think we’re starting to see some changes in the coming weeks. You’re going to hear a lot in the next few months about an initiative we’re launching to expand service opportunities in this city, and how we can become a demonstration city for the rest of the country, with almost an expectation that those who are young and altruistic and ambitious have an opportunity to serve their community in a really meaningful way for a year and be able to save a few dollars for college. We want to see how we can really expand those opportunities. So, those are some of the things we’re working on in the next year and I hope by the end of the four years we’ll be able to look back and say we had a real impact on the future trajectory of thousands of young people in the city.