Under the Gonzales Mayorship, Councilmembers Exercise Unprecedented Power in San Jose Government
By William Dean Hinton
Published July 21st 2004 in Metro Active
Last fall, a group of west-side homeowners gathered at Country Lane Elementary School to tell their councilmember they opposed 75 townhomes a developer wanted to build on acreage where a dilapidated bowling alley sat. It wasn't that the homeowners wanted to save the bowling alley. Saratoga Lanes had long ago degenerated into an eyesore. But the townhouses would add traffic and crowd Country Lane Elementary, which is the reason many young families move to the Country Lane subdivision.
According to several reports, the meeting with District 1 Councilmember Linda LeZotte's office did not go well. She was unable to attend, so she sent her chief of staff, Jim Cogan, whom one attendee called an "arrogant punk." A follow-up meeting several months later also went poorly, with Country Lane residents shouting her down and LeZotte failing to handle the confrontation with grace. "She had this really cavalier attitude," says Bill Blockie, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years. "Her attitude was, I hear you but I don't agree with you. I know the big picture in the valley, and I think this project is a good thing. I want this to happen."
The neighbors later won their case at the city's planning commission meeting. But when it came time for the City Council to hear the issue in February, LeZotte led other councilmembers in favor of the development. Country Lane homeowners were shut out 10-0.
What Country Lane residents experienced was what has become known as the "minimayor" phenomenon in San Jose city government. As the name implies, each councilmember acts like a mayor for approximately 90,000 residents within their district, treating it like their own small fiefdom--only one way in, and one way out.
The one representative-per-district system is generally preferred to the method used by San Jose until 1980--electing candidates at-large, in 10 citywide races. The at-large system makes it difficult for minority candidates to win and generally favors pro-business politicians who would likely have to spend a bulk of their campaign cash on television and radio.
Of the 60 largest American cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 32 are, like San Jose, single-member-district governments. Detroit, Austin, Seattle and four other of the biggest cities still use the at-large system.
The drawback to single-member districts is that they are known for the same kind of parochialism that Congress and state legislators are known for. Constituents expect them to bring pork into their districts. That results in a kind of "logrolling" mentality, a term political scientists define as the trading of votes to gain passage of favored projects.
"It's an unintended consequence of term limits," says District 10 Councilmember Pat Dando. "We've created a situation where we're so focused on our districts that perhaps we overlook the greater view of the entire city. We look to other district members' recommendations."
As with the Country Lane townhome issue, most of the trade-offs occur in the debate over whether to convert industrial and commercial-zoned property into houses and apartments. More than 600 acres of industrial property are already under consideration to be rezoned in the city, which is a concern for long-term planning because commercial and industrial properties generate more tax dollars than residential but cost less for fire and police to protect.
"Ten years ago, we did not get as involved in the planning process," Dando says. "We left the planning to a professional staff. Once most of the details were worked out; councilmembers were briefed on it. Now we get involved early on. We may be too closely involved over the months projects are being developed. In some instances, our focus could be on other areas."
Some members of the council, like District 2's Forrest Williams, say the minimayor system has been overblown, mainly by the San Jose Mercury News, which has published 17 editorials since last summer decrying minimayors. "How has the city suffered?" Williams asks. "I've been trying to see what the problem is, and I haven't found one yet." He points to the decision to put the Calpine power plant in Coyote Valley several years ago. He was against the proposal, he says, but councilmembers approved it after former Gov. Gray Davis' office became involved during the 2000 energy crisis.
"Having a representative in a district doesn't mean you get what you ask for," he says. "But at least you get to raise issues and concerns. People think because you ask for something you automatically get it. That's not true."
Calpine might not be the best example, though. Councilmembers unanimously rejected the idea initially, then were forced to work out a deal with the utility company once the state stepped in. In any event, District 4 Councilmember Chuck Reed, who often is the council's voice of conscience, says logrolling is only the beginning of the problem. "It's not just a deferral issue," he says. "It is how we as a council handle the power we've been given. That power creates the trouble."
Not only do councilmembers work directly with developers, Reed says, they often circumvent the city charter by dictating to subordinates how a development deal will happen. "Our charter says councilmembers are supposed to work through the city manager," Reed says. "They're not supposed to be dealing with staff and micromanaging the planning department."
Reed, though, says he's unable to offer examples of council intrusion because most of his knowledge of abuse is based on thirdhand information. City spokesman Tom Manheim declined to comment on behalf of City Manager Del Borgsdorf, who was away on vacation, saying the issue was for the council to work out. But Planning Director Steve Haase says neither he nor his staff feels dictated to. "With all due respect to Chuck, the way he acts is much different than the way other councilmembers act," Haase says. "There's a difference in their professional approach. His standards are more rigorous than his colleagues."
More Expense, More Budget
If, at some point after the San Jose City Council returns from its annual July hiatus, councilmembers decide that the minimayor system has become enough of a problem, they have several ways to blunt the impact. Dando, the only Republican on the council, says she might suggest special rules to limit councilmember contact with developers. Also, she added, small changes in organizational behavior can be enacted, like expecting the planning department to give a citywide update, instead of a districtwide perspective, during the monthly meetings between staff members and individual councilmembers.
There is also an opportunity for the council to discuss whether adding three at-large members to the current 10-district arrangement might be beneficial. Several years ago, the city's redistricting committee suggested that the council study the "possible need" for additional councilmembers by mid-decade. The additions will likely be necessary to prevent large-scale district realignments after the 2010 Census. "Next time, much more radical, controversial and hurtful decisions will have to be made," says San Jose State University political scientist Terry Christensen, who was on the 2000 redistricting panel.
To avoid the battles commonplace to the redistricting process, it would make sense, at least initially, for the three proposed councilmembers to represent the entire city. The new hybrid form of government could be an experiment to see how the trio integrates until the next round of redistricting. About 20 of the largest 60 American cities have a hybrid form of government, including Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis.
There are, however, many pitfalls to adding additional members, the price being the most prohibitive. Councilmembers cost taxpayers about $436,000 per office per year--not an outrageous amount for a city that will have $725 million in discretionary spending next fiscal year out of a $2.4 billion budget. But adding councilmembers will likely be politically unpopular at a time when the city has had to cut employees to close a $69.8 million funding gap.
"I think it makes matters worse," says Reed. "It's more expense, more budget. I don't see it contributing. I think we need to deal directly with the problem."
Besides, there's no guarantee new councilmembers will balance localized interests with citywide interests. What if instead of being an obstacle to piecemeal, ill-advised development, they rubber-stamped every project, beholden to no constituent group except big business? "It's not clear if you're getting the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds," says Steve Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
Hill advocates still another kind of electoral reform called proportional representation that was popular during the nation's progressive movement from 1920 until the 1950s, when the major political parties were able to end the practice. Cumulative and choice voting are two kinds of proportional representation. With cumulative voting, instead of one vote per person, voters receive five votes (for example) to cast on candidates any way they wish. All five on one, for instance, or divided among office seekers. Choice voting allows electors to rank candidates 1 through 10 (or whatever), so that even if their No 1. choice ends up last, their No. 2 or 3 choice might still count toward the eventual winner.
Cambridge, Mass., and about 50 governments in Texas (mainly school districts under threat of federal court orders to diversify board members) use some variation of proportional representation. There is no reason to think San Jose will follow suit. But you'll likely be hearing more about proportional representation since the Supreme Court has made it difficult to gerrymander based on race. Proportional representation should help prevent minimayor malaise, and it would also help minority groups, such as Republicans and Asians, locked out of San Jose's current electoral system. Just be mindful what you ask for. "You have to be careful you're not opening the Pandora's Box of reform," says George Mason University political scientist Michael McDonald, who specializes in elections. "Once we go down the road of reform, we learn there is no perfect form of government."