SJ Mayor Unveils Measure to Expand Powers of His Office

For decades San Jose’s mayor has lacked the powers afforded to other big-city counterparts across the country. But that could change come November.

Late in the afternoon Friday, Mayor Sam Liccardo unveiled a proposal for a ballot initiative that focuses on campaign finance reform, accountability and transparency while expanding the powers of his office.

Traditionally, San Jose has operated through a council-manager system where the city manager calls most of the shots. In the 1980s, voters approved a ballot initiative called Measure J that gave the mayor a few more privileges, including the ability to issue a budget message, present a final spending plan for City Council adoption in June and oversee their own public information office.

Beyond that, San Jose’s mayor has largely remained just another vote on council.

Recent protests and the ongoing pandemic, however, have prompted Liccardo to reexamine the role for future mayors. “Thousands of emails, texts, and social media messages urge that I respond one way or another to the protests, for example, or to help people get back to work more quickly amid this devastating recession,” he wrote in a recently released memo. “San Jose residents reasonably expect and demand action from their mayor, particularly as they see mayors in other large cities routinely issue executive orders that respond to those expectations.”

While Liccardo didn’t get into specifics on what kinds of powers his successors may have, other big city mayors in places such as Oakland and San Francisco have the authority to hire and fire department heads and veto legislation.

Liccardo told SJI that while he feels “blessed” that the city’s leadership has been aligned on key priorities, “the reality is that particularly in times of crisis, it’s clear that there are expectations for the public that are not aligned with the structure of city government.”

“I’m responsible and yet incapable of actually changing [decisions] except through a multi-week or multi-month process,” he added. “I think it’s important for residents to know who’s responsible for making decisions that impact their lives and knowing that the buck does stop with the person they vote for or against.”

In his memo, Liccardo also expressed interest in reforming the city’s campaign finance rules. “Public confidence in City Hall—if not accountability—is diminished to the extent that residents believe that specific organizations and interest groups have undue influence over the decisions of the council and mayor through their contributions to campaigns,” he said.

As part of the potential voter-approved city charter amendment, Liccardo wants the mayor and council members to recuse themselves on votes that have a “direct impact” on an interest group that contributed to their election campaign or other causes the councilor may be fundraising for. The mayor added that he also wants to ban contributions from lobbyists and gifts from both lobbyists and city contractors. City policy currently allows gifts as long as they are under $50.

The campaign finance reform part of the proposal mirrors what’s used by other public agencies like the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and is modeled after restrictions from the state’s Fair Political Practice Commission.

Liccardo cited a recent poll commissioned by the Silicon Valley Organization that found 68 percent of respondents initially supported placing a measure on the ballot to expand the mayor’s powers. Although vague, Liccardo said he is interested in a two-step approach, with the first being “long-overdue changes” that occur via a voter-approved charter amendment. The second, he said, would be a charter-revision commission that gathers public input on more “robust changes” to be approved by voters in the future.

“These structural reforms can give San Jose mayors the modern tools of city governance so critically needed in an era of rapid change and immense challenge,” he said. “More importantly, such changes can enable our community to have greater accountability—both in perception and fact—over the local decisions that affect their daily lives.”

The proposal will be reviewed next Wednesday by the City Council’s Rules Committee.

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

11 Comments

  1. > Liccardo also expressed interest in reforming the city’s campaign finance rules. “Public confidence in City Hall—if not accountability—is diminished to the extent that residents believe that specific organizations and interest groups have undue influence over the decisions of the council and mayor through their contributions to campaigns,” he said.

    G-O-O-G-L-E. Wink, wink.

  2. Per recent study, San Francisco, Oakland, and San José have successfully engaged in gentrification, THEY HAVE PUSHED LOW AND MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE OUT OF THE AREA AND REPLACED THEM WITH TECH PEOPLE. If Liccardo gets more power, this City will officially be GOOGLELAND!

  3. never let a crisis go to waste

    usually though right wingers expand powers

    and left wingers subvert institutions

  4. The biggest problem with SJ city government is not whether the mayor’s position is strong or weak. The biggest problem is the district election system, which came about after the Passage of Measure F in 1978. Before that, there were 7 council members and a mayor, all elected citywide. After, there were 10 council members, elected by district, and only the mayor was elected citywide. The result of that was the Balkanization of San Jose, with most councilmembers becoming one trick ponies; winning by pandering to the largest special interest in their district. It’s like a mini version of the US House of Representatives, where every incumbent strives to bring the most pork to his/her district. Sam’s current move follows in the footsteps of Tom McEnery’ s failed attempt to become a much more powerful mayor. He got a little increase in power, and more budget setting responsibility, but the day to day is still run by the City Manager, allegedly a non-political official. A city with as small a population as San Jose needs all it’s leaders to be concerned with the city as a whole; not with little fiefdoms pandering primarily to one group within a district of about 100,000 people these days. I doubt there would be much interest in returning to all citywide elections. Folks hate to give up their dedicated pork provider. So, I suggest we try something new. Go back to seven council districts, and a mayor and three council members elected citywide.

  5. How long is this verification check going to last, Jenn? Thank you in advance for your response.

  6. Oakland, San Francisco and LA all have a strong mayor system. San Jose needs strong leadership now more than ever – having a Mayor sit in meetings 80-hrs a week is an absurd waste of time. Letting department heads, who can’t perform (Housing Department), stay on the job for decades without accountability is a waste of resources.

    There is a reason London Breed and Libby Schaaf are always ahead of us – it’s because their hand aren’t tied by pandering to a council who literally has no subject matter expertise on major priorities. San Jose Council meetings, if you have been to one, really define why we are so unproductive. The City Manager has no clue what he is doing – and i’m not the biggest fan of Sam, but to his credit, he has not been able to do his job.

    Let the Mayor lead. Let the Council focus on policy. I can’t wait to vote on this item.

    • “Oakland, SF, and L.A. all have a strong mayor system.” And they are more screwed up than SJ. Schaaf, Breed, and Garcetti are like the three stooges of mayors.

      • > And they are more screwed up than SJ. Schaaf, Breed, and Garcetti are like the three stooges of mayors.

        You pass! Advance to the bonus round!

        If you count Garcetti as like two or three stooges, they would together make up four or five stooges.

  7. On the face of it I am with Sam on this one. At least the Mayor and future Mayors will be held accountable by the voter, unlike the unseen and unknown city manager position.

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