After spending the last two months advocating for a ballot measure that would expand his office’s powers, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo now wants to delay the initiative and instead create a Charter Review Commission to examine potential governance changes.
In a Monday morning memo, Liccardo wrote that the decision to postpone was part of an “11th-hour effort to find a compromise that would unite several city stakeholders behind a single measure.” The proposed measure had drawn backlash from both the council’s progressive voting bloc and community members.
During a marathon meeting earlier this month, five council members accused Liccardo and his business-friendly allies of making backroom deals with special interest groups and rushing forward with a measure that would change the way San Jose is governed.
In his memo, Liccardo wrote that while voter research has shown support for the “strong mayor” initiative, the proposed ballot language was confusing to many voters.
“[Voters] seemingly had difficulty interpreting the 75-word ballot statement in a manner consistent with their stated support for the individual components of that measure,” Liccardo wrote. “That complexity and confusion may not be the fault of the city attorney, but rather the result of summarizing a complex set of proposals in 75 words or less.”
Under San Jose’s current governance structure, the city manager—not the mayor—calls the shots. Liccardo has argued in the past that the arrangement presents a problem since many residents assume the mayor has powers to take direct action.
The proposed ballot measure aimed to fix that by giving the mayor the power to hire and fire the city manager and department heads.
It also would have given the mayor the power to direct the city manager and department heads to take action on certain policy recommendations—something that’s usually reserved for the council’s yearly priority-setting session.
But expanding the mayor’s powers was only one part of the ballot measure. The initiative also included a set of campaign finance and conflict of interest reforms, as well as a labor-backed provision to realign the mayoral election with the presidential election cycle.
The latter was part of a compromise with labor leaders after a similar measure, referred to as the Fair Election Initiative, failed to make it on the November ballot.
Liccardo’s latest proposal recommends moving forward with changing the mayoral election year in an effort to increase voter turnout.
The quest to expand the mayor’s powers, however, won’t end here. Liccardo wants the city to convene a Charter Review Commission by January 2022.
The commission would review a number of provisions, such as requiring council members to recuse themselves from voting if they’ve accepted a campaign contribution from individuals or organizations that would benefit the vote and giving the mayor the presiding power over the city instead of the city manager.
“Over the next year or so, I urge that the commission evaluate the best ways to address the fundamental irony of our local democratic process—that elected city officials held accountable by the voters for key decisions too rarely make those decisions,” Liccardo wrote. “Until we change the charter, those individuals responsible for a host of critical decisions with broad public impact—such as hiring (or firing) key city department heads, warning (or not) residents of a potential flood, opening (or closing) a park during a pandemic, clearing (or creating) a 2,000 building permit backlog, halting (or allowing) the use of rubber bullets during a crowded protest or disclosing (or withholding) video footage of potential police misconduct-will never be directly accountable to our voters.”