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San Jose’s “Mayor-Manager” System

Can San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo truly lead our city with limited powers given the mayor by the city charter?

San Jose’s form of government is unique among large cities.  Most, like San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, operate under what’s called the “strong mayor” form of government.  The mayor appoints department heads, oversees administration, proposes the budget and has veto power over actions of the city council.

In San Jose’s hybrid “mayor-manager” system, the mayor has only shreds of those authorities.  He or she proposes the budget—which is referred to the city manager for its ultimate structure and for implementation.  The city manager—not the mayor—appoints department heads and oversees administration.

The mayor does have the authority to nominate the manager, subject to council approval.  Otherwise, the mayor is just one vote on the council on the budget, approval of the manager’s nominees as department heads and everything else.  By calculated budget allocations and appointments to council committees, the mayor may gain some leverage over council colleagues—and of course the mayor is the only one who represents the entire city rather than a district—but ultimately, to be successful in San Jose, the mayor needs the support of his/her council colleagues.

So how’s Mayor Liccardo doing?   Since the 2016 election, he’s faced some challenges.  Four new members joined the council.  Some of them helped form a labor/liberal majority that’s beaten the mayor on a few issues (rent regulations, a labor agreement for the Museum Place development).   To complicate matters, on the mayor’s right the new council includes three Republicans—the most since the 1960s.

Despite the split, the mayor leads a majority—usually unanimously—on the vast majority of issues.  He’s won unanimous votes on past budgets and expects the same this year.  But he could face challenges ahead if the progressive majority firms up.  And next year will produce at least one new council member who could shift the balance.

We asked Mayor Liccardo about this on the June episode of Valley Politics—check it out!

–Terry Christensen, Professor Emeritus San Jose State University and Host and Co-producer of Valley Politics

The Outlet