San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo miffed some of his colleagues earlier this week by suggesting that the city rein in public officials’ travel. The proposal arose out of frustration that five of 11 City Council members left the country for a sister city junket to Japan, which interrupted or delayed official business back home.
Council members Raul Peralez and Lan Diep took offense at timing and tenor of Liccardo’s memo. They said it downplayed the importance of diplomatic travel and failed to mention the fact that the mayor voted to approve their trips more than a month ago.
Peralez called the memo self-righteous, ill-timed and misleading.
Hours after San Jose Inside reported on the backlash, the mayor shot back, calling Peralez’s response “puzzling” and explaining that the requests for travel approval came in piecemeal over a four-week span. It was only later that Liccardo said he realized so many people would be gone at once.
“Only after council votes were taken in successive weeks did it become clear to me, and others, that so many council members were traveling that it would become necessary to cancel and rearrange meetings,” Liccardo said through a spokesman. “At that time, I reached out to several of them, including ... Peralez, to express my concerns and to encourage them to reconsider their plans. When that proved unsuccessful, I determined that the council must consider changes to the sister city travel policy to reduce the size of the city delegation for future trips.”
All told, 34 people joined this week’s jaunt to Okayama, Japan, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the international alliance. That includes five council members—Peralez, Diep, Sylvia Arenas, Sergio Jimenez and Johnny Khamis—as well as five council aides and one City Hall staffer. Only Khamis pledged to pay his own way.
How much this will cost taxpayers remains to be seen, since they have to first turn in their receipts for reimbursement.
The mayor said he wants to clamp down on travel approvals to avoid having his council colleagues leave en masse like they did this week, which forced the city to cancel one meeting and table another.
Liccardo has come under scrutiny for skipping council meetings to accommodate his relatively frequent flying before. But he defended his trips as vital to the public interest—a justification required by city policy.
“I have limited my public-funded travel to trips that help us secure more funding and key strategic partnerships to advance initiatives important to San Jose residents, and to advocate in Washington and Sacramento for city priorities with our legislatures,” he said. “I do not use public funding for travel on sister city delegations. For international travel, I will continue to rely on sponsorships from foundations and non-profits that dramatically reduce costs to the taxpayers.”
Since taking office, the mayor has publicly reported that he took 23 trips for city business, which cost taxpayers $31,507.83.
As for the timing of the memo, the mayor said he wasn’t trying to ambush anyone by circulating it when they were gone. He said he actually submitted it last week after unsuccessfully trying to convince the sister city participants to rethink their travel plans.
On Tuesday, Peralez said he plans to cover the cost of his sister city trip with campaign cash he won’t need because he’s not facing a challenger this year. He also noted that not all of the city’s elected officials could afford to pay out of pocket to travel for public business, and that trips shouldn’t be reserved for the financially privileged.
“The mayor may not be in agreement on the value or benefit from our sister city relationships, and I look forward to a conversation with him on that, but for him to propose that somehow only independently wealthy enough council members should be allowed to travel and represent the city of San Jose is absurd,” the downtown councilman wrote on Facebook. “It’s demeaning to people like myself, a renter in San Jose, who represents the working families and diverse constituencies of our great city. I appreciate that my colleague Councilmember Khamis decided to pay his own way, but I believe the people of San Jose aren’t interested in a monolithic representation of our city as we send delegates on the many trips that we all, including the mayor, participate in.”
Jimenez echoed that sentiment.
“Contrary to other suggestions, city business-related travel should not be funded only by special interests or available exclusively to independently wealthy individuals,” he wrote in an email to constituents on Wednesday.
According to previous news reports, the mayor has outspent his counterparts in San Francisco and Oakland when it comes to city-funded travel. In the past, conservatives on the council turned down trips to avoid even the appearance of wasteful spending.
Former Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio notably spent just $30 in public funds on city travel during his decade on the dais. And former Mayor Chuck Reed, who led the city through a crippling recession, took only one trip in his eight years at the helm.
Diep, a Republican who professes fiscally conservative values, defended jet-setting to Japan on the public dime as a way to elevate San Jose as a world-class city.
But with the city asking residents to approve tax hikes to cover core city services, the mayor said it’s important to have a serious discussion about how these out-of-town trips actually serve the public. If residents don’t trust the council to manage their money well, it could jeopardize future efforts to pass tax measures like the ones voters supported in 2016, Liccardo cautioned.