A proposal by business-friendly San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to expand the powers of the city’s highest office now claims support from across the aisle.
Liccardo ally Vice Mayor Chappie Jones has teamed up with union-backed D2 Councilman Sergio Jimenez to flesh out the plan, which would require a ballot measure and vote of the people to enact. In a compromise between business and labor, the initiative would include a provision to align mayoral races with presidential elections.
Details about the proposal have been trickling out since Friday, when Liccardo announced plans to grant more authority to the mayor and enact stricter campaign finance rules—changes that would require a voter-approved update to the city charter.
For decades, San Jose has operated under a council-manager system in which the city manager largely calls the shots. But according to two separate memos released today by Jones and Jimenez, the city manager would serve at the pleasure of the mayor. That means the mayor would have the power to fire, hire and direct the city manager.
In their proposals, Jones and Jimenez said both the mayor and city manager would have the power to fire department heads, while the city manager retains his or her power to appoint new department heads subject to council approval. The City Council, however, would be able to overturn a director’s dismissal by a two-thirds vote.
Under the plan, the mayor’s ability to fire department chiefs wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2023—when Liccardo was originally supposed to term out.
Over the last year, labor leaders have been pushing the idea of changing up mayoral election cycles in the form of the Fair Elections Initiative. This past week, however, the union-backed proposal fell 2,248 signatures short of making it onto the fall ballot, prompting labor leaders to call on the mayor and council to bring some negotiated iteration of the measure to voters instead.
Last spring, the council voted 6-5 not to place a similar proposal that focused on changing the election year on the ballot. Jones and Liccardo both voted no while Jimenez, who has been a fierce proponent of the Fair Elections Initiative, voted yes.
“Just as the pandemic has shed light on the inequities and injustices across our society, it has also highlighted the need to move San Jose to a ‘21st century governance model’ that allows nimble decisions and accountable actions in times of urgency and non-urgency,” Jones wrote. “Increasing voter engagement and participation has been a longtime priority citywide. In that spirit, an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy is crucial in creating a more inclusive government and thus the proposed package includes moving the next mayoral election to the November 2024 general election.”
Since Liccardo’s tenure ends at the close of 2022 and the subsequent presidential election occurs in November 2024, that would give him two extra years in office.
The Fair Elections Initiative originally proposed to elect a mayor for a two-year term until 2024. But other cities that have enacted similar changes, such as Los Angeles, have opted to bridge the gap with a longer mayoral term instead.
In his memo, Jimenez said that he felt it was time to move “conversation of reforms from the theoretical to the real.”
“I have always been a strong supporter of inclusive democracy and bringing additional transparency to campaign financing, which strengthens trust with our community,” he added. “Additionally, moving the mayoral election to the presidential cycle is an important goal to achieving higher voter turnout that is truly representative of the diversity of our city.”
The third provision of the proposed initiative would focus on campaign finance reform. The mayor and council members would be required to sit out any vote that involves a person or entity that has made a contribution to their campaign or other cause in the previous 12 months and the three months following the vote. Lobbyists would also be completely barred from making campaign contributions.
The proposal also asks to impose tighter restrictions on gifts. Current city policy allows the mayor and council members to accept gifts as long as they don’t exceed a $50 value. Under Jones and Jimenez’s proposals, however, the mayor, council members and senior management would not be allowed to accept any gift from lobbyists or city contractors.
Lobbyists and contractors would also not be allowed to serve on San Jose boards or commissions within two years of working with the city.
The final part of the measure would be the formation of a blue ribbon commission to analyze immediate and long-term reforms to help San Jose transition to a true strong-mayor form of government. The proposal comes up for review Wednesday by the Rules and Open Government Committee.