The City Council agenda was unusually light on Tuesday and the dais nearly half-empty with five of San Jose’s elected officials off on a “sister city” junket in Japan. Their absence forced the city to cancel a committee meeting and reschedule a study session.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, who stayed behind, said the city should rethink its travel policies to avoid these kinds of disruptions to city business.
“Interrupting meetings for lobbying trips to Sacramento or Washington may understandably have superseding priority—for example, to obtain critical resources for our city,” the mayor wrote in a memo. “Travel on sister city trips is substantially less compelling as a public priority, however.”
The delegation this week to Okayama, Japan, for the 60th anniversary of the sister city bond comprises 34 people—11 of whom work for the city, according to San Jose’s Office of Economic Development spokeswoman Elisabeth Handler.
That includes one City Hall staffer (international affairs manager Joseph Hedges), five elected councilors (Sergio Jimenez, Lan Diep, Raul Peralez, Sylvia Arenas and Johnny Khamis) and as many policy aides (T.L. Dang with Diep, Christina Ramos with Peralez, Vanessa Sandoval with Jimenez, Lauren Urhausen with Arenas and Louansee Moua from Councilman Tam Nguyen’s office). The rest are private citizens or members of the San Jose-Okayama Sister City Committee, Handler said.
I've arrived in Okayama, Japan! I am here this week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Okayama and San José — the 3rd sister city relationship in the USA.
— Lân Diệp (@LTDiep) April 8, 2018
Council members participating in the delegation bristled at the mayor’s memo, which they said diminished the importance of diplomatic travel and seemed to insinuate that there was some kind of ethical lapse.
“To argue that engaging our sister cities is not a compelling public priority suggests that we are not ready for a place on the world stage,” Diep tweeted.
— Lân Diệp (@LTDiep) April 11, 2018
Upon hearing about the mayor’s criticism, Peralez took to Facebook to defend himself and to call out Liccardo for neglecting to speak up about his concerns before he cast his vote supporting the trip.
“I am disappointed that our mayor took this particular opportunity to speak out,” the downtown councilman wrote in a lengthy statement this afternoon. “He voted in public open sessions, along with the entire council, as is required, to approve the travel requests for every council member on this trip. In fact, he voted to approve my travel over a month ago on Feb. 27, the same day he voted in favor of his own travel to Washington D.C. He did not mention anything at that time nor subsequently during any of the other public opportunities. Rather, he waited until our delegation was away on the trip to submit a misleading and self-righteous memorandum, leading tax payers to believe that something inappropriate is happening.”
It’s unclear how much the trip will cost taxpayers because they have yet to submit receipts for reimbursement, but Khamis reportedly plans to pick up his own tab, and the city will only foot the cost for council members and staff.
Liccardo said he’d prefer to have only one councilor join future sister city visits. If additional colleagues plan to go, he suggests having them ask him or the council to sign off on the trip. And the city shouldn’t foot the bill for extra staffers, he added.
In his memo, Liccardo said he’d be “fine” with reining in his colleagues’ travel by returning to a system in which he, “as the city’s political leader,” decides who should represent the city on each trip.
With budget deficits on the horizon and voters entrusting the city to be a good steward of revenue from recent tax measures, Liccardo said it’s important to cut back nonessential costs. Per city policy, out-of-town trips must have a clear public benefit—a standard that’s open to a degree of interpretation.
Peralez, however, argued that travel shouldn’t only be afforded to city officials who have the resources to pay out of pocket—people like Liccardo, who come from a financially privileged background. And though he didn’t originally intend to advertise the fact, he said he already planned to donate his campaign cash to the city to cover his travel costs since he's not facing a re-election challenger.
“I have been generally pleased with the actions and candor of our mayor over our tenure together, which is what has really surprised me with this particular issue having been so misrepresented, mis-timed and misleading to our taxpayers,” Peralez said. “I look forward to the rest of our events and work in Japan and sharing the lessons from our trip with our residents when we return.”
Liccardo’s contention may have more to do with the number of city officials who joined the delegation this week than the total cost of trip.
Regardless, it’s important to note that the mayor—who plans to travel to Sacramento this week to lobby for a bill that would provide more funding for cities to address homelessness—set a new pace for travel when he took San Jose’s highest office. And he wasn’t always able to clearly define the public benefit beyond general funding and business opportunities, according to past news reports.
During the first nine months of 2015, Liccardo missed four council meetings to take two trips to Europe and three to other states. The city paid for three of those trips.
His predecessor Chuck Reed, by comparison, took one international trip in eight years.
In 2016, a Mercury News report found that Liccardo’s office alone spent $8,047 that year and $12,383 the year prior jet-setting to Rome, Washington D.C. and advocacy trips for his friend Carl Guardino’s Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
That’s far more money than other big-city mayors spent in the same timeframe. The article found that the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the 11-member Board of Supervisors spent a combined $15,713 on travel in 2015 and $22,729 in 2016.
Since becoming mayor, Liccardo has reported 19 trips that cost taxpayers $24,419.16. But that’s according to the most recent tally, which as of Tuesday afternoon hadn’t been updated since November. (UPDATE: Sometime after this story was published, the mayor’s office revised its list of publicly reported trips, bringing the grand total to 23 trips worth $31,507.83.)
This article has been updated to include statements from Diep and Peralez.