A proposed ballot measure to expand the San Jose mayor’s power has garnered varied opinions from more than half the City Council ahead of today’s meeting.
The initiative, which was unveiled by Mayor Sam Liccardo in mid-June, would let voters decide whether to amend the city’s charter so that San Jose’s form of governance aligns more closely with that of other major municipalities.
For decades, the nation’s 10th largest city has operated through a council-manager system where the city manager is in charge. But most large cities across the country—such as Oakland and San Francisco—are run by “strong mayors” that wield the power to hire and fire department heads and veto legislation.
But since Liccardo released his original proposal on June 19, eight other council member—as well as City Manager Dave Sykes—have chimed in on what they think voters should decide at the ballot box this fall. Here’s a summary of each proposal.
Vice Mayor Chappie Jones
The vice mayor was the first to speak out on Liccardo’s strong-mayor idea. In a memo, Jones said he would like the mayor and city manager to have the power to hire and fire department heads, while the city manager retains his or her power to appoint new department heads—subject, of course, to council approval. The council would be able to overturn a director’s dismissal by a two-thirds vote.
The mayor’s ability to fire department heads wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2023, which is when Liccardo was originally supposed to term out. However, Jones recommends changing mayoral races to align with presidential election years. Labor leaders have backed the idea, which is meant to increase voter turnout for the city’s one universally elected position, in the form of the Fair Elections Initiative. Earlier this month, however, the measure failed to qualify for the November ballot.
Under Jones’ proposal, Liccardo would get two more years in office—a concept that the mayor previously voted against when it came before the council last year.
“Just as the pandemic has shed light on the inequities and injustices across our society, it has also highlighted the need to move San Jose to a ‘21st century governance model’ that allows nimble decisions and accountable actions in times of urgency and non-urgency,” Jones wrote. “Increasing voter engagement and participation has been a longtime priority citywide. In that spirit, an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy is crucial in creating a more inclusive government and thus the proposed package includes moving the next mayoral election to the November 2024 general election.”
In the campaign finance reform portion of his proposal, Jones suggested that the mayor and council members sit out votes that involve any person or entity that made a contribution to their campaign in the last 12 months and the three months following the vote. Lobbyists would also be barred from making any contributions.
The mayor, council members and senior management would not be allowed to accept any gifts from lobbyists or city contractors, as well.
Lobbyists and city contractors would also not be allowed to serve on city boards or commissions two years after working for the city.
The final portion of Jones’ proposal would be to form a blue ribbon commission to review both immediate and long-term reforms to San Jose’s governance.
Councilman Raul Peralez
Peralez, who has expressed interest in running for mayor in 2024, wants to scratch the idea of a ballot measure altogether. While the downtown councilman has been a strong supporter of shifting the mayoral election year to align with the presidential election cycle, he says Liccardo’s proposal is a “last minute attempt to place [an] extensive and expensive measures on a ballot without community input.”
“Springing these significant changes upon the council and expecting support for a ballot measure is surprising enough, but springing this on our community is insulting and demonstrates a lack of consideration for true community engagement,” Peralez wrote in his memo. “The mayor suggests that recent community feedback is justification for him suggesting these changes, but we haven’t heard anyone demanding our mayor should have all these added powers or an additional two years in office.”
Instead, Peralez wants to convene a Charter Review Commission to discuss any changes before moving forward with a ballot measure.
Peralez issued a second memo on the subject Monday evening, saying that that since issuing his first memo, the “topic has become even more convoluted, highlighting how recklessly this proposal is being put together without proper community engagement.”
Council Members Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza
While Carrasco and Esparza expressed support for placing a measure on the fall ballot, it’s not quite the same one envisioned by Jones.
Rather, the pair’s proposal calls for all the campaign finance and conflict-of-interest reforms mentioned in Jones’ memo, but asks voters to consider extending the terms of both the mayor and five other council members.
Council districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 are all elected with the mayor during the gubernatorial election cycle. By extending the terms of the respective council members, San Jose would hold all of its elections every four years in concurrence with the presidential election.
“Moving the election is a proven way to increase voter turnout,” Carrasco and Esparza explained. “Last year during a very contentious debate on this issue, Mayor Liccardo argued against moving the mayoral election last year stating, ‘shifting elections would…decrease voter turnout for odd-numbered districts years in tandem with the mayor.’ Hence moving the elections of odd districts and the mayor will make sure that our local issues will be the focal point during the election.”
“This is designed to remedy electoral injustices at the ballot box,” they added in their joint memo. “It ensures and creates new avenues of political power for people of color and other underserved communities.”
If the measure is approved by voters, Carrasco and Esparza want to convene a Charter Review Commission to discuss the potential expansion of the mayor’s powers.
Councilman Sergio Jimenez
Jimenez originally issued a proposal identical to the one from Jones. But on Monday evening, the District 2 councilman issued a second memo that did not include expanded powers for the highest-ranking elected official in the city.
Instead, his proposal focused on a ballot measure on campaign finance and conflict-of-interest reforms. He also wants to establish a Charter Review Commission to evaluate whether the city should move toward a strong mayor form of government in the future.
Jimenez noted that his opinion changed because he had “deepened [his] understanding of the plethora of concerns shared by many people in diverse roles across this city, both in and out of city hall.”
Like Carrasco and Esparza, Jimenez says he’s in favor of giving Liccardo two extra years in office. “These set of compromises seem to me to be the best options if we are all to have a win on this issue,” he wrote.
Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas
Arenas’ memo expressed support for the part of Carrasco and Esparza’s proposal that included a ballot measure to shift the mayoral and council district elections to the presidential election cycle.
However, the councilwoman asked to create a special two-year term from 2022 to 2024 instead of issuing term extensions. Arenas requested that the special term not be counted as an official term since the City Council has a term limit policy.
Like many other council members proposals, Arenas recommended convening a Charter Review Commission to gather input from the community.
“The writers of the strong mayor memos say they’re looking to improve San Jose’s government,” Arenas said. “They imply the changes are ‘good government’ model change improvements. But they use a cigar-smoke-filled-room process that excludes our community from the conversation and from the benefits. It is not a process that any ‘good government’ advocate could support.”
Instead of including the campaign finance and conflict of interest reform in the ballot measure, Arenas asked to send it to the city’s Board of Fair Campaign and Political Practices to gather recommendations before taking further action.
Councilman Lan Diep
Out of all the memos issued by city council members over the last few weeks, Diep’s proposal mirrors a true strong mayor system the most. In his memo, the councilman stated that, if approved by voters, the mayor would have the power to hire and fire the city manager and all department heads except the city attorney, the independent police auditor, the independent auditor, the city clerk and the director of the budget office.
The mayor would be given veto power for legislative actions, but could be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the council. The mayor would also act more as an executive branch and would not be required to attend or vote at council meetings.
Diep also suggested the addition of a councilor-at-large who would be elected citywide in midterm years starting 2022. Like many of his colleagues, the District 4 councilman recommends aligning the mayoral election with the presidential cycle by extending Liccardo’s term from 2022 to 2024.
Under Diep’s proposal, the role of the vice mayor would be eliminated and replaced with a council speaker who would be elected by a majority of the council every two years. The council speaker would be tasked with chairing council meetings, making committee assignments and leading the council budget process.
“While typical arguments in support of creating a unitary executive have centered on increasing efficiency and accountability, the stronger argument is that having a strong mayor will further democratic norms,” Diep wrote. “Whereas stability and professional administration are the hallmark San Jose’s present council-manager form of government, shifting to a mayor-council form of government will finally vest authority in someone at the city to reflect and act upon the popular will of the people. It will give the electorate more say over their city.”
In terms of campaign finance reform, Diep is recommending that the ballot measure include a provision that campaign contributions would be limited to “the equivalent of earnings from 40 hours of work at San Jose’s minimum wage, rounding up or down to the nearest $25 increment.”
Councilman Johnny Khamis
Khamis’ proposal is almost identical to Jones’, except for a few changes. Instead of giving the mayor the power to unilaterally hire the city manager, Khamis asks that the council be given the opportunity to reject the appointment by two-thirds of the council.
While Jones’ proposal gives the council the power to overturn hiring and firing of the city manager or department heads, Khamis asks that the council review terminations before they are made. If two-thirds of the council votes against firing the city manager or department head at the next meeting, then that individual would not be dismissed.
Jones’ proposal also asks to amend the city charter to allow the mayor to direct other city officials when it comes to crafting new policies. Khamis, however, is recommending that they include a provision that states the mayor cannot direct the city manager or department director from withholding information from the council.
In his memo, Khamis said the changes “address concerns that have been raised by people from a variety of viewpoints.”
“With these small improvements to keep the City Council involved in the hiring and dismissal of the city manager, ensuring there is a free flow of information between the administration and council members, and consulting with the council prior to making consequential termination decisions, we will have a better proposal to put before the voters in November,” Khamis added.
City Manager Dave Sykes
As the person tasked with overseeing the city, Sykes issued his own memo, expressing concerns that some of the proposed amendments to the city charter would take effect on Jan. 1, 2021 and give city officials and the community little time to adjust.
Before moving forward, Sykes asked the council to consider four things.
To start, Sykes argues that the community should be included in the decision—not just non-profits or interest groups.
Next, he said that the city could run into issues with Brown Act rules if the mayor is given the power to make direct policy recommendations before coming to the council. This could prevent the city manager and department heads from independently developing policy recommendations or sharing information with the full council.
The third reason Sykes cited is that the proposed structure around personnel decsions could create “dysfunction.”
“Leadership and accountability is achieved through clear vision and direction,” Sykes wrote. “In the current structure the mayor, City Council and administration play important and distinct roles to serve our community and achieve results. The best forms of local government provide checks and balances as well as separation of powers between administration and policymaking, but with this proposal, the separation of powers is blurred, as the mayor would both lead the City Council in their policymaking role and place the mayor in a new executive administration role.”
Lastly, Sykes noted the bad timing since many city officials have been working overtime due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the council still opts to move forward with a ballot measure, Sykes recommends that they schedule a special meeting during the summer recess to discuss it further.
The City Council meets virtually at 9am today. Click here to read the entire agenda.