It’s up to San Jose voters to decide whether Mayor Sam Liccardo should be given more powers and two extra years as the city’s highest-ranking political leader.
After 12 hours of debate at a meeting that stretched from Tuesday evening into late Wednesday afternoon, the City Council voted 6-5 to place the controversial measure on the November ballot. Council members Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas and Maya Esparza cast the dissenting votes.
The initiative, which was backed by the council’s business-friendly voting bloc, is made up of a list of provisions that its supporters say will make San Jose’s mayor more accountable to constituents. For decades, the mayor of the self-branded Capital of Silicon Valley has largely represented just another vote on the council. For the most part, however, it’s the council-appointed city manager who calls the shots.
But under the proposed ballot measure, San Jose’s mayor would be given the power to hire and fire the city manager and department heads starting Jan. 1, 2023.
As a check, the council would have the chance to overturn proposed terminations by way of a two-thirds vote. The mayor would also have the power to direct the city manager and department heads to take action on policy. Currently, the council has to wait for the yearly priority-setting session to decide on which issues to focus.
The measure also includes a provision to align San Jose’s mayoral races with the presidential election cycle in an effort to increase voter turnout. Over the last year, labor leaders have endorsed the idea in the form of the Fair Elections Initiative, which recently fell 2,248 signatures short of making it onto the ballot. Last spring, the mayor and the five other council members who supported the measure that came up for debate this week, voted against placing a similar proposal on the ballot.
In order to shift the election cycle, Liccardo would get two more years in office to bridge the gap between the next midterm and the subsequent presidential election. The mayor, who was elected in 2014, was originally set to term out at the end of 2022.
If voters approve the measure before them on Nov. 3, he’ll serve through the end of 2024.
But the proposed initiative drew accusations from the council’s Latino caucus that it was crafted in secrecy, in a backroom deal with hardly any public input.
The five Latino council members, who represent the city’s poorest neighborhoods, lambasted Liccardo and his allies for trying to fast-track the proposal without polling residents or holding more hearings to give people more chances to weigh in.
Esparza—whose predominantly Latino and Vietnamese District 7 spans parts of East San Jose—slammed the decision as one made “out of complete self-interest.”
“Suddenly we have six people on the council who have changed their mind within one year to be willing to move an election that they were ultimately opposed to last year to a new process,” she said over Zoom. “The part that really disturbs me is in the rush to put things to the November 2020 ballot is that it’s capitalizing on an election that folks feel really passionate about. It’s an election where many people of color are expected to come out to vote so this is just gross to me.”
Liccardo defended the plan, however, arguing that recent crises highlighted the importance of acting sooner rather than later. Between the pandemic and the protests, the mayor said, the public has expected him to take action in ways he cannot.
“I believe strongly that we do need to move forward now because this is a city that clearly needs to align accountability with the expectations that residents reasonably have about who is truly accountable,” he told his colleagues in the virtual council session. “That is authority and accountability have to be aligned. If you have a misalignment of accountability and authority, ultimately what you have is a charade.”
The mayor also emphasized that the initiative would not actually enact a “strong mayor” form of government in the traditional sense of the term. In many big cities across the United States, so-called strong mayors act more like a chief executive by casting tie-breaking votes or vetoing legislation, he explained.
Even if the proposal doesn’t enact as sweeping a change as some fear, Arenas said any adjustment made to San Jose’s government structure should be more thoroughly vetted by residents through a charter review commission, among other things. “If our residents decide they want to have a strong mayor, so be it,” she said. “But I’m tired of hearing that San Jose needs to grow like the other big cities around us—like San Francisco does. If ‘growing up’ means having a public works director who was racketeering and full of corruption, I don’t want San Jose to go to that level. I don’t want it to ‘grow up.’”
Soon after, Arenas took a shot at Liccardo by quoting Lizzo’s hit song “Truth Hurts,” telling the mayor “why are men great until they gotta be great?”
As San Jose continues to grapple with more big city issues, Councilman Lan Diep suggested that they let voters decide on moving ahead with a strong mayor system so that they don’t have to go back to the ballot box again in the future. The North San Jose councilman, who reps District 4, argued that the city needs a mayor who can spend his or her time advocating for the municipality as a whole.
“There are 11 of us, but we each lay claim to one-sixth of the votes that are needed to make something happen, and that is frustrating,” he said. “We each have our concerns because we are reflecting the desires of our respected constituents, but we also need somebody to be a champion for the city and we can’t have that because we’re fighting with each other. Somebody should take the ball and run and right now the mayor can’t take the ball and run with it.”
Diep’s proposal ultimately fizzled out, but it could be discussed by a charter review commission at a future date.
Councilwoman Dev Davis called the winning motion “compromise” because of the labor-backed provision that would realign the mayoral election.
The District 6 rep said she originally opposed of the idea of moving the mayoral race because she had concerns with what would happen to voter turnout in midterm elections. Santa Clara County’s commitment to making it easier to vote by sending each voter a mail-in ballot, however, may remedy that issue.
“We’re going to have one presidential election year where we have the mail-in ballots, and we’ll see in 2022 what that does,” Davis said. “My hope is that it increases turnout a lot for everyone because having 50 percent or less turnout is a travesty to our representative democracy.”
Jimenez, like many colleagues in his labor-aligned voting bloc, had a different compromise in mind. The South San Jose District 2 councilman originally issued a memo in support of expanding the mayor’s powers in an effort to craft something that could get bipartisan support. But after engaging in conversations with community members and other experts, he said he reconsidered, and wanted to allow residents to weigh in first.
“I thought that was a decent compromise,” he said of the review commission. “If we truly are interested in getting all folks on the same page—I think that’s assuming you get your two years and we have that continuity that’s been expressed is very important—I suspect you’d get the majority of the folks on the council today in agreement with this.”
The proposed initiative will also contain a number of campaign finance and conflict-of-interest reforms. The mayor and council members would be required to sit out of any vote involving a person or entity that has made a contribution to their campaign or other cause in the last 12 months and the three months following the vote.
At Davis’ behest, staff will also explore the possibility of having the city attorney track campaign donations so they can know when to alert councilors to abstain from votes.
Lobbyists would be barred from making campaign contributions, and the mayor, council members and senior administrators would be unable to accept gifts from lobbyists or city contractors. The proposed measure also includes the creation of a charter review commission, which was supported by the full council.
The council will hold a special meeting on July 28 where they will review the proposed ballot language before sending it off to the county Registrar of Voters.