San Jose Commission Mulling ‘Strong Mayor’ Plan Stresses Equity in Outreach

After three meetings, a new San Jose commission tasked with reshaping San Jose’s governance has not yet dug into switching to a strong mayor system — the main reason the commission was formed.

The city’s Charter Review Commission is tasked with helping the San Jose City Council decide whether the mayor should have more power and other charter changes, including moving mayoral elections to presidential years. But commissioners said they must first figure out how to reach residents from all parts of the city and get their input on decisions.

The commission was formed in July after Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed for a “strong mayor” model of governance — a system in which the mayor is given the authority to hire and direct department heads without council approval.

The proposal, which also would have extended Liccardo’s term by two years, was called a power grab by critics. After taking heat, Liccardo dropped the plan and the council created a commission to review charter changes — such as the proposed strong mayor system — on behalf of each San Jose district.

After compiling feedback and studying the issues, the commission will issue a report to the San Jose City Council with recommended charter changes. The council would decide whether to put the changes on the ballot for voter approval.

Commission chair Frederick Ferrer said the group is mulling how to convince residents to weigh in on the city charter, which governs how San Jose operates. The group plans to host community meetings to ask residents how City Hall should change.

“A charter sometimes is described as the constitution of a city,” Ferrer said. “The task of a charter review commission is to really look out for the best interests of the city. What makes sense at this time? Since the city has changed, how do we maintain the value of our city while looking at what kinds of needs and changes are appropriate?”

The commission has 23 members, including three appointed by the mayor to represent the city at large. The mayor’s choice of defeated ex-Councilmember Lan Diep raised eyebrows and some questioned whether Liccardo had given preferential treatment to his former ally on the council.

Reaching vulnerable neighborhoods

At its meeting in February, commissioners discussed equity in outreach and listening to residents about whether they favor a strong mayor system.

“I would propose that every other Monday when we’re not meeting that we just have an hour where we listen to public comment,” said District 6 Commissioner Magnolia Segol. “We definitely want to give a city of a million people two hours a month where we just listen, because this is really important what what we’re doing here.”

Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, and Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart, stressed the importance of reaching people who may not be involved in civic affairs or understand why the charter is being reviewed.

The goal, officials said, it to ensure all residents have an opportunity to share their thoughts on reshaping city government — especially those in East San Jose where challenges such as the digital divide and language barriers loom.

Commissioners noted the importance of using social media, ethnic media and community organizations to reach underserved communities who don’t always get a chance to weigh in.

Llanes-Fontanilla and Guevara said translating information to Spanish and Vietnamese is a key part of reaching some San Jose residents. City Clerk Toni Taber said the city doesn’t have money for translation services at every Charter Review Commission meeting but said translation will be provided at meetings that are likely to be of greatest interest.

The commission explored potentially hosting socially-distant in-person meetings about a strong mayor system for residents who do not have internet access.

Guevara said systemic oppression in San Jose has grown because lower-income residents and people of color have been left out of crucial policymaking conversations. To build their trust, the commission should provide an idea of the policy changes that could result from their input.

“It is incredibly disrespectful to ask people what they think, and then (you) don’t do a darn thing about it,” he said. “Don’t ask people questions about how to improve their lives — or how to make any kind of decision — if ultimately, you’re just going to decide to ignore it.”

The commission will meet next on March 8 to discuss its work plan.

View this article in San Jose Spotlight.