The Soap Opera at City Hall: ‘As San Jose Turns’

A recent San Jose Inside story uncovered the hubris exhibited at the top levels of our city’s government. The piece shatters the mythology that “professional” governance is somehow better than elected leadership. But salacious details aside, the fact remains that San Jose will remain a second-class city until we adopt a strong-mayor form of government.

The major reason we do not already have a big city government is that the body politic is united in its mistrust of the process. Progressives don't want to grant this mayor more power, and voters who backed Mayor Sam Liccardo would likely oppose such a move had Dave Cortese won the election. The theory is that a strong-mayor system is somehow more dangerous than a city manager run amok. Ed Shikada demonstrated the absurdity of that argument, much to the chagrin of our elected leaders.

The simple fact is we’ve lived with a quasi-mayor form of government for years. Each mayor brings in their own brand of “yes-person” to do their bidding. Not since Dutch Hamann have we had a city manager who ruled with certainty. And his form of growth caused the sprawl that clogs our freeways and divides our neighborhoods.

Our current mayor should put a charter amendment on the 2018 ballot to change the way San Jose operates. The number of council members should be reduced from 10 to seven and the mayor would become the chief administrator of the city. In this structure, the council would remain a policy making body and the mayor would get veto power.

Each of the seven members would still represent a different region within the city, thus preserving the idea of district elections. They would elect a council president to lead the meetings. The number of committees would be reduced and three members would serve on each, thus streamlining the process.

Putting this idea to voters would help avoid the appearance of a power grab. He would have to be re-elected in order to serve in this new, stronger administrative role. The current position of city manager would become the chief operating officer, leading to a reduced salary and smaller staff. The city would also be wise to reduce the amount of department heads and increase the number of line-service providers.

There is no question that San Jose is in transition. Reordering chairs on the Titanic is not a prescription for success. We should build a new, bigger and better ship for the future, and finally act like a big city rather than the butt of a joke.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.

14 Comments

  1. Rich I was interested in this until I read…

    Not since Dutch Hamann have we had a city manager who ruled with certainty. And his form of growth caused the sprawl that clogs our freeways and divides our neighborhoods.

    It’s been what.. 40+ years since Dutch was around? I grew up in the post Dutch era, and saw San Jose still had plenty of opportunity to turn things around. Nearly every ranch that the Cortese’s owned, is now houses. This all happened in my lifetime.

    Why does every successor blame the dead guy from 40 years ago? I know why, so I’m basically asking this as a rhetorical question.

  2. San Jose is the butt of a joke precisely because of the actions taken by the previous mayor and council, and that was as they served in their traditional roles. How could they have not seen that PD would be in such disarray? They were simply too arrogant to encourage a collaborative relationship with the very employees that provide the actual service.

    The fallout from the sacking of the City Manager, was everything about an arrogant, new mayor getting his own person into the City Manager position, without regard to the what would happen by doing so. This was a very disruptive move that is being felt throughout the entire City organization, and leading more people to consider their options. This resultant brain drain will end up costing taxpayers in the end.

  3. Sam!?!?! Is that you? Nice piece Mr. Liccardo, or is it Mr. Reed? Purely self serving and timed.

    • Rich Robinson supported Dave Cortese’s campaign. If you think that Sam Liccardo is “self serving” because of something Rich Robinson said, that’s completely absurd. Would it be “self serving” of Obama if Fox News publicly urged him to begin using his executive powers more aggressively? Judge a man by his own actions, not the actions of completely different people who he has no relationship to.

  4. …and END term limits.
    This will end the ability of office holders to “blame the previous” office holder. Every election can be a RECALL on current office holders and perhaps engage voters back into the process.

    …and while we are at it NO MORE BALLOT INITIATIVES. Hold the politicians accountable for their votes, not the voters.

    • Term limits have never been a good idea. Term limits is what’s ruined California. Politicians only need to appease businesses and corporations that can give them high paid “consultant” jobs when their terms are up, or appease them to finance their next run for another position (assembly to city council to county board of supervisors or whatever). They have no long term stake in the decisions they make.

      • Exactly. As the City of SJ continues to implode because of decisions and policies enacted by now termed out politicians we can only look to current pols whose terms will one day expire to foul things up even further.

        Political livelihood should live and die based on results.

        • > Political livelihood should live and die based on results.

          Nice theory. But incumbency has enormous privileges and electoral advantages.

          You can’t have “hope and change” without regularly changing the butts that occupy the seats in government.

    • Initial funding for California’s high speed rail was approved by the voters in 2008. To date, a shovel hasn’t hit the ground. The CA line will be 520 miles (840 km.) long. The Beijing-Moscow line will be 4,350 miles (7,000 km.). Since the China-Russia line will not stop for several years of litigation if someone spots a salamander or an endangered maggot along the right of way, I’d bet the Beijing-Moscow line will be up and running at least 10 years before the CA line, even though the Beijing-Moscow line is more than eight times longer. Doubtful? Think SF-Oakland Bay Bridge.

  5. Rich- people like are part of the problem. Professional city employees don’t vote for absurd policies. I believe city staff recommended against measure B and other poor policies that were voted in bu council. Wake up.

  6. You mean to be like NY, LA and Oakland? Oh yeah these are well run cities ! San Jose was doing just fine until Measure J passed in the 80s and gave the Mayor more power. This is where it all started with Gozales thinking he is an emperor and Reed was its his way or the highway. The less you inject politics the better your professional staff can act….

  7. Rich, of the top 10 Largest California cities, name one that works well with a “strong Mayor” model….