San Jose’s City Council on Tuesday will consider a proposal by Mayor Sam Liccardo to restrict taxpayer-funded travel. Liccardo pitched the idea last week while five of his council colleagues were out of the country to celebrate the 60th anniversary of San Jose’s “sister city” ties with Okayama, Japan.
Liccardo wants to revise city policy so that the mayor gets first dibs on sister city travel or other delegations overseas. If the mayor were unavailable, he or she would appoint another council member go instead.
If taxpayers foot the bill for the junket, under Liccardo’s proposal, then only one council member may go. Any additional councilors would require formal approval from their colleagues. And if any of them want to bring their district staff along, they would have to pay their own way.
Last week, in five council aides went along with as many council members to Okayama. Only Councilman Johnny Khamis pledged to pay out of pocket for the trip. The rest—council members Raul Peralez, Sergio Jimenez, Lan Diep and Sylvia Arenas—will apply for reimbursement. It’s still unclear how much the trip will cost the city.
But the mayor’s proposal—specifically the timing and tone of it—rubbed some folks the wrong way. Peralez and Diep, especially, criticized the mayor for publicly calling attention to the issue only after they were away.
The mayor authorized each one of those five council members to take the trip, Diep and Peralez noted, which means Liccardo had several chances to address his concerns.
In a memo submitted to his colleagues this week, Diep said there’s arguably no need for a policy change because the mayor could have reined in the number of delegates under existing rules. Further, he said, if the mayor wants other council members to travel on behalf of the mayor’s office for future sister city trips, then the money to fund it should come from the mayor’s budget.
“In effect, the designated councilmember would be performing fee duties of the mayor, who is the city’s ‘political leader’ and de facto ‘head of state,’” the District 4 councilman wrote. “Under such a policy, the designated council member should not have to use the district office budget to pay to perform duties that otherwise belong to the mayor.”
Echoing a point raised by Peralez last week, Diep said it’s important for council members to have the option of traveling on the city’s dime—through their district’s discretionary budget—because not all of the city’s electeds are financially well off enough to pay their own way. And the alternative, having nonprofits or other special interest groups pick up the tab, creates its own conflicts.
“To maintain the independence of council members from special interests and to prevent a dependency op outside organizations to fend city business, council members should retain the discretion to spend their office budgets per council approval and be accountable to their constituents as to how those dollars are spent,” he wrote in his memo. “Requests put before council to approve certain expenses should be scrutinized prior to granting approval. The council should never make policy to simply avoid awkward conversation.”
Councilman Don Rocha submitted a memo on Monday that calls for a public accounting of every trip taken by each sitting council member since taking office.
“The mayor has proposed amendments to the travel policy that would give him increased control over who attends sister city trips,” he wrote. “Before we consider these amendments, I believe we should ask staff to bring forward analysis that helps us better understand the problem we’re trying to solve. The mayor focuses on sister city trips, but members of the council and their staff engage in many other types of official travel besides visiting sister cities. If we’re going to make changes to the travel policy, we should have a full picture of council travel before acting.”
Rocha said the city should drum up a list of the destination of each trip, its intended purpose, the cost and whether it was paid by the city or sponsored by an outside organization. For trips funded by outside groups, the councilors should indicate who paid the cost, he said. The city should also list the number of excused and unexcused absences from council sessions and other public meetings due to official travel broken down by year to give a sense of trends over time, Rocha proposed.
“I’ll close by noting that I have rarely undertaken official travel during my time on the council,” he wrote in his memo on Monday. “I appreciate, however, that my colleagues may make decisions about travel that are different from my own, and that I should not seek to impose my own preferences on everyone else. We were all elected to use our own judgement in the pursuit of our public duties and are all accountable to the voters for our decisions. It’s appropriate for the council to establish policies to ensure that decisions about travel are transparent and accountable, but I don’t think we should enact policies that allow one member of the council to manage or direct how other members of the council do their jobs.”
Two concerned citizens submitted letters to the public record that also asked the city to publish a detailed expense report so taxpayers can judge for themselves whether the Japan delegation was worth the cost.
More from the San Jose City Council agenda for April 17, 2018:
- Councilman Khamis plans to join a business delegation over five days in May to Saudi Arabia to encourage the kingdom to invest in Silicon Valley. The councilor will be traveling with representatives of the Silicon Valley Organization, Google Ventures and other business officials.
- The council will decide whether to approve an additional $236,133 subsidy for a new high-rise development in downtown after the developer promised to up the number of housing units from 610 to 630. The money comes from waived parkland fees for the pair of 28-story SJSC MIRO Towers at 33. N. Fifth St., which already benefitted from nearly $8.5 million in tax breaks.
WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260
This article has been updated to include the proposal from Councilman Rocha.