As San Jose’s core transforms with taller buildings, BART’s extension and Google’s pending mega-campus, San Jose Downtown Association Executive Director Scott Knies says it’s time for the city to govern itself differently.
Knies delivered the consortium’s annual state of the downtown Friday morning to a packed room of residents, business owners and elected officials at First United Methodist Church. Attendees listened attentively as Knies highlighted the division on the City council, the union-backed fair election initiative and the need for a strong mayor system.
“Our lumbering city bureaucracy cannot keep up with the speed of change in markets and society and we find ourselves perpetually in reaction mode,” he said.
In an impassioned address, Knies conveyed the political tension through stories of the contentious December 2018 land sale to Google where protestors were arrested and the council made a unanimous decision in front of a shuttered and empty chambers.
“But most dismaying of all was having the issue of race invoked by some city council members on the losing side of two 6-5 votes earlier this year,” Knies added. “Is this the new pattern for San Jose with public discourse being made in anger and fear?”
The “losing side” he referred to includes council members Maya Esparza, Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas, who have cast dissenting votes on two recent policy proposals: a tax break for high-rise developers and an attempt to re-align the city’s mayoral election with the presidential election cycle.
None of those five councilors attended the the Friday morning SJDA event, but Jimenez told San Jose Inside in a phone call afterwards that Knies’ thoughts come from a place of privilege and act as the very wedge he says others have created.
“This applies to many people in the city,” Jimenez said. “They come from a position where they don’t need to think about race. That divisiveness, it’s born because we have a lack of leadership in San Jose.”
The District 2 councilman added that the lapse in leadership owes to Mayor Sam Liccardo, whom Jimenez described as having an “inability” to bring people together enough to understand why inequity occurs.
In his state-of-downtown remarks, Knies also called out South Bay Labor’s proposed fair election initiative, which would shift San Jose’s mayoral race to the presidential year and bar certain developers, their consultants and lobbyists from donating to city political campaigns. Business organizations have been highly critical of the 2020 ballot measure, which they say exempts some special interests, such as unions, but not others.
“Labor wants to dupe San Jose voters into thinking this is about special interest money in local elections,” Knies said. “If the labor unions truly wanted campaign finance reform they would have included all special interests instead of excluding themselves.”
“Make no mistake: this devious measure would give organized labor a headlock on all future San Jose elections” he added. “Where is the equity in that?”
The initiative Knies railed against won a number of endorsements from union-aligned state and federal officials Friday morning, including Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and state Assembly members Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) and Kansen Chu (D-San Jose).
Another priority in the business community has been giving San Jose’s mayor more power. Unlike other big-city mayors like Oakland’s Libby Schaaf and San Francisco’s London Breed, Liccardo lacks a number of powers including the ability to hire and fire department heads and veto policies. Instead, City Manager Dave Sykes leads the charge in what’s typically referred to as a council-manager system.
Some local politicos have been trying to make the change to a “strong mayor” form of government for years, with little success.
“The weak mayor system may have worked for San Jose in the days of Dutch Hamann when our population was less than half it is today,” Knies said referring to San Jose’s city manager in 1950. “But in 2020, we need strong leadership, bold strategy and a mayor unshackled from mind-numbing 10-hour council meetings who can promote the city, take risks and drive citywide issues.”
If business leaders opt to put the strong mayor on the ballot, it would most likely not go into effect until 2022, when Liccardo terms out. Knies argued that the timing will give the city the ability to use data from the 2020 Census to redraw electoral maps to include a new 11th council district.
North San Jose Councilman Lan Diep—one of three elected city officials at Knies’ state-of-downtown gathering—said he agrees with the executive director’s sentiments.
“I’m surprised that he said it, but I’m glad he did,” Diep told San Jose Inside. “I don’t think that there’s any single one way to solve San Jose’s political future, but I do think there’s an argument to be made that a strong mayor system would address some of the issues that we have—chiefly the accountability issue.”