How to Make, Change Laws in San Jose

New laws pass almost every week in San Jose, often several of them at a single City Council meeting in the form of an ordinance that revises municipal code, enacts a ban, raises fees or changes policy. Then there’s the most important legislation up for debate every year: The city budget.

Occasionally, citizen-led intiatives musters enough support to land on a ballot, such as the Measure D minimum wage hike that goes into effect in March.

Each new policy change starts small, usually as a conversation. Most of the time a councilmember suggests it, but sometimes a constituent brings it forward, like almost-retired attorney Maurits Van Smith, who recently penned a proposed ordinance to impose new gun control rules on assault weapons.

So how do those ideas evolve from concept to actual law? It depends on the issue, but generally it takes the following course:

Write it down
Whether it comes from a public official or a private citizen, the process looks pretty much identical: Put your thoughts to paper—consulting an attorney might help your chances—and submit them in writing to the city’s Rules and Open Government Committee. This group acts as a gatekeeper.

“It can be as simple as a letter,” says Michelle McGurk, spokesperson for Mayor Chuck Reed’s office. “Anybody can propose stuff. We get letters with proposals every week, whether from an advocacy group or another committee … the list goes on.”

Those letters get placed on the public record and distributed to committee members. This year, those members include Mayor Reed and Councilmembers Madison Nguyen, Pierluigi Oliverio and Pete Constant, with Rose Herrera as the alternate.

Figure out the workload
The committee then discusses the requests—as it did at an afternoon meeting today—and forwards them to city staff for what’s called a “workload assessment.” The assessment details how many hours of city employee time it would take to create the new policy.

Councilman San Liccardo, for example, recently authored a proposed ordinance that would give businesses incentives to move into vacant storefronts in downtown. The idea centers on landlords reducing lease prices while the city waives permitting fees. The proposal went before the Rules committee today, where they discussed how much time it would demand from city staff.

Pass it on
When the city staff assessment comes back to the Rules committee, it decides whether the proposed ordinance is worth the trouble of pursuing. If the committee deems it worthwhile, the proposed ordinance is passed on to the council, one of its subcommittees or a citizen commission for further review. Sometimes, it goes straight to budgeting to get wrapped up in the budget hearings.

The budget, by the way, is the most vital piece of legislation for any city—a massive document that sets policy for the next year in terms of how much to spend and how much to cut. Everything’s a trade-off of money or time or services.

“The budget is really the single most important public policy document,” explains David Vossbrink, director of communications for the city manager’s office. “It’s what gets us to decide what services we can afford, what can we do to improve them, what we have to cut, how we allocate revenues.”

Set priorities
Twice a year, San Jose city officials get together for what they call a priority setting meeting, where they sort through hundreds of proposed ordinances to figure out which ones they’ll focus on in the coming months.

“We only have so much staff, who have to deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of running a city,” McGurk says. “So we have a priority setting process twice a year where the council ranks which proposals they plan to work with, which ones are worth the time and budget commitments.”

This year some of the biggest priorities include pension reforms and how to implement the new minimum wage increase, says City Attorney Richard Doyle.

“It’s increasingly likely for someone who wants something done to get it put on a council priority setting session,” he says.

Elected city officials will discuss those priorities at an upcoming council meeting after they get a report from a community priority setting session, where the public has a say first, says Community Services Supervisor Ernest Guzman.

Before that happens, various neighborhood groups and the city’s Youth Commission help facilitate the half-day meeting, which invites the public to share their views about budgeting and other priorities for the coming year. City administrators, like the fire and police chiefs and different department heads, attend to explain how an idea would translate in actual workload for their employees.

Participants use Monopoly money, which they use to vote on how to prioritize something by placing it at a placard naming the issue.

The next priority setting sessions takes place from 9am to noon on Jan. 26 in the Wing Committee Rooms 118-120 at City Hall. To sign up, call Guzman at 408.535.8171 or email him at [email protected]. Only one rep per neighborhood group and 120 people max are allowed to register as participants, but anyone can show up to watch.

Ballot initiatives
Sometimes, a law starts outside of City Hall. The minimum wage increase to $10, which voters OK’d last election, started as a signature drive. It’s uncommon for these types of proposals to pass because it’s so expensive and time-consuming to garner enough support.

To start, you have to write up the ordinance in advance, and then file paperwork with the City Clerk. You get a limited timeframe to collect enough signatures, as Save San Jose Libraries is well aware. Assuming you get the correct information, the exact amount depends on a calculated percentage of registered voters and varies case by case.

If enough signatures are gathered, the initiative goes to the council, which can accept it or pass it on as a ballot measure for voters to decide.

Steps to DIY
Talk to your district’s councilmember.

Call the city clerk.

Attend a Rules and Open Government Committee meeting.

Register for the Jan. 26 priority setting session.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. San Jose needs a Charter change to mandate that public safety departments gets a defined percentage of the *overall* City budget.  Not just General fund.  Our politicians play too many games with the other funds while ignoring the current Redevelopment debt.

    City worker benefits (pay, health care and pension) should also have parity with others in the area, so that they are not over/under paid.  Currently, San Jose workers are at a disadvantage, which explains why so many are leaving and why very few live within the City.  It’s important to have employees who are invested in their work, and having their own neighborhoods be affected is an excellent way to make that happen.

  2. What a joke, Chuck and his clowns won’t even consider thoughts from the other council members who have great ideas because it is chucks way or the highway.

  3. I disagree. One of the biggest problems with the state budget are the defined percentages written into the state constitution. We elect councilmen and legislators to make decisions. I’m all for new solutions to pay our first responders, but we don’t need to guarantee anyone a permanent position of a changing budget.
    I’d love to increase city worker benefits, too but decades ago city workers were moving to other locales, especially firemen, who take advantage of schedules. I think if cities want their first responders to live in the city they’ll have to make it a job requirement.

    • last part is wrong because new employees cannot afford to live in san jose.  Especially now that chuck is making them pay over 25% of check to retirement.  Then you have fed, state taxes, medical and all other crap.  You want to be public safety and take home is min. wage?

      • San Jose is the least expensive city to live in for Santa Clara County, so I don’t think this assessment is correct. If you can’t afford to live in San Jose you can’t afford to live in Silicon Valley. However, I do agree that city employees and police should get a significant pay increase.

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