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.