Time for San Jose to Grow Up

It is high time San Jose joined the big leagues and moved to a strong mayor form of government. The recent response by City Manager Debra Figone to Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio’s public suggestion on who should be the next police chief is simply another example of the bush-league government system that regulates elected officials to second-class status.

If this were New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles, such a rebuke from the hired help would have never occurred. Moreover, it is the duty and the right of elected officials to opine on weighty matters such as who should serve in our city.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Councilman Oliverio’s opinion on the matter, a stinging public reprimand from an appointed public employee at an elected official is out of line.

Nobody voted for the city manager and she is supposed to work for him and the council—not the other way around. If a councilmember wants to give their opinion, a subordinate should not be publically chastising them. Moreover, it should be taken into consideration, not dismissed as interfering with the process.

But the larger issue is that San Jose suffers from its governance. If San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee or Oakland Mayor Jean Quan talk to officials in Sacramento, Washington or a business that wants to relocate, they can make the deal. They have authority. Mayor Reed can only opine. Under the arcane city manager form of government, Reed has to defer to an unelected appointee who has the actual authority to make things happen.

In nearly every other large city in the nation, it is the mayor and not the bureaucrats who run the public business. This makes the most powerful public official in those cities directly accountable to the people. It also gives these cities a huge advantage, because they can make decisions in real time.

The difference in clout is enormous. When Ed Lee calls MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, do you think his calls are returned? We know Mayor Reed’s calls are not. Can anyone imagine the political fall-out if Selig failed to call back Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel? Because of their influence, they could have a profound effect on those who regulates baseball. These mayors are not to be trifled with and real power can be exerted on behalf of those they represent.

The arguments against a strong mayor don’t have merit. Some people don’t like this mayor or that mayor. So what? That’s who we elect. They are the face of the city, they get the credit or the blame for anything that happens anyway. The majority of voters don’t even know the current city manager’s name, let alone what she looks like, what her policy agenda is or how she implements it.

But when something goes wrong, everyone blames the mayor and council. When something happens, constituents call Mayor Reed, not Deb Figone. The mayor shouldn’t have to put them on hold and plead with an unelected bureaucrat to get something done. He should be able to authorize it on the spot.

Some say a city manager is more “professional.” Well, that works in Morgan Hill, but big cities need someone who can speak for them and provide the leadership and clout that causes Sacramento, Washington D.C. and especially businesses to take them seriously.

In the 1980s, Mayor Tom McEnery increased the clout of the mayor’s office, in what many considered a transitional phase to a strong-mayor form of government. Thirty years later, it is past time to complete the transition and put the people’s representative fully in charge.

Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. I agree 100% for moving the city towards a stronger Mayor form of city government.  San Diego successfully transitioned during the last few years and we should start the process now.

    San Diego was able to make the transition with a simple change to their charter and gave citizens the right to approve through a vote and then to reaffirm with another vote several years later. 

    I wrote an article in SanJoseInside.com in April 2011 supporting and detailing this position.  It doesn’t solve all the problems out here, but it is time to give it careful study.

    Here is the link.


    • Totally disagree.  If Reed were to be allowed to run rampant, the damage he has done to the Police, Fire and Public Works Departments would be 10-fold.  San Diego is a shambles, and their public safety system is a joke.  None of these clowns has a clue as to how to run a City, not to mention the 10th largest City in the U.S.

  2. I don’t agree.  Figone can do that because she has the support of the Council.  It’s her job to hire the next police chief, and most would agree that she should be left alone to do it.  Oliverio was meddling.

    A lot of people complain about the current police chief being a lapdog.  If something like that happens, it happen regardless of who hires the chief.  Or are you suggesting we vote for the police chief too, like Santa Clara?

    WRT Oakland, I see that as what can happen when politicians have too much to say about the day to day.  Does anyone listen to Jean Quan?  Give me a break!

    • Making the COP position an elected one would actually be of great benefit to the city. It would ensure that the individual directly responsible for the safety of the public is accountable to the public and can be honest with the public.

      An elected Chief could and should tell Ladoris Cordell to pound salt when she intrudes herself into the disciplinary process in a way that exceeds her mandate.

      An elected Chief could speak freely and publicly about the consequences of Measures V W and B – particularly on public safety. In fact, he could have spoken freely prior to voting against those measures.

      An elected Chief could do what’s good for the Police Department without fear of retaliation from Chuck Reed and his clowns at City Hall.

      • I think sheriffs and district attorneys being elected and chiefs being appointed must be historical.  There isn’t a good reason for either.

        Those kids at San Jose State showed us what can be done with their minimum wage measure.  I would support an elected police chief.  Have at it!

  3. Rich,

    agree with most of what you have to say in this post BUT Chuck has created his clown council and for the most part has single handedly destroyed this city with his puppet following.  Spent 30 years serving this city but so happy I no longer live here.  Feel sorry for city employees who cannot leave to greener pastures.  Can’t wait to see the sewer system fail for lack of employees at the plant.  But the city will just hire more outside help with no pension plans. Chuck would be happy to out source all city employees with no pension plan or medical pay.  And Bud will never call, who would and what spineless COP will the find?

  4. I totally agree!  The only way for San Jose to grow up is to grow the downtown area to worthy of its size and be as big as Dt. Chicago, SF, Philadelphia, Seattle and maybe even bigger than some of those. Then, we can elaborate on the change of mayor/council system.  Right now,  its downtown is pathetic for the size of the city and not even that!  All the growth need to be downtown, not North San Jo and elsewhere, maybe just alittle growth in Santana Row to ensure its long term success.  First downtown, then big league sport team, then Bart to San Jose and finally, big city mayor system, akin to Chicago’s style.

  5. Hmm, I think the author of this blog is in Cindy Chavez’s back pocket.  Let’s hope, for Rich’s sake, she doesn’t sit down. 

    It’s such an opportune time for libs to want to increase the authority of the mayoral position, with the word on the street being that Chavez will run in the next election. 

    As much as I dislike City Manager, Fig-One, I’d sooner have her mangle SJ’s operations than Chavez.

    • Greg,

      Thanks for making my point.  The issue of a strong Mayor should not be one of personality.

      But I take umbrage at being accused of being in Cindy’s back pocket—that implies I secretly support her agenda.  Nothing coudl be further from the truth.  I openly and proudly support her agenda and leadership.

      Cindy has given every fiber of her being to making this community a better place.  We could only hope that she would become Mayor, though it is my belief she will never again run for public office,  as she has served her time in public office and understands the limitations of being an elected official.

      Also, I now expect to get an angry phone call from Cindy because of this post.  She is well aware of those who hate her and has strongly admonsished me in the past for my comments in support of her character—believing the agenda of working families is not advanced by such a conversation.

      Of course, she is right—as she is in most of our conversations.  But I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent while people attack her.  But that flaw is mine, not hers, and I now will have to endure an unpleasant phone call as a result.

      But it is a call I’m willing to take. . .but out of respect for her this will be my last comment on the subject.


    Want to complain about a San Jose cop? No problem if you are a San Jose resident. All you have to do is look inside your water or garbage bill…

    The IPA and Chuck sends you a card how to complain about a SJ officer. 


  7. As a city councilperson Pierluigi represents the people. When Figone rebukes him for speaking his mind she’s essentially telling the people of San Jose to mind our own business. Not good.
    The more public discussion and awareness on the subject the better and the harder it’ll make it for her to simply hire another puppet.
    So Rich is finally right about something. Had to happen sometime.

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