In my conversations with commercial developers, business owners, and those that would simply like to see more high-quality jobs, the most common complaint is that San Jose is a difficult city for conducting business. Our permit process is cumbersome, approval periods are unnecessarily long, and the amount of risk assumed by developers it too great. This is nothing new. Time and time again, previous administrations have formed exploratory committees focused on creating a planning department that is more nimble, responsive, and streamlined. So far, these efforts have produced zero tangible results. The backlog of pending development projects continues to grow, and the cost of this inefficiency is forgone economic growth for our city. I feel that a bold move may be required to disrupt the status quo, and it rests with a slight modification to the powers of the mayor.
San Jose has as a “city manager” form of government. Elsewhere, the “strong mayor” form of government prevails. Some find the distinction confusing. Many residents believe that the mayor is the boss, which is really not the case in San Jose. In actuality, the mayor, who is the only official elected citywide, is merely one vote out of 11 on the City Council.
In a city manager form of government, a career administrator (the City Manager) implements policy from the elected body. The specifics on implementation and responsibility of overseeing personnel also sit with the city manager.
In strong mayor cities, including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, the mayor has the authority to hire and fire department heads, including the Chief of Police. Political insiders have discussed changing our government structure to the strong mayor variety. Instead of a complete change in our city’s governance, however, I would propose an incremental modification.
In this hybrid solution, the city manager form stays intact, but the mayor is granted the authority to hire and fire only the director of the planning department. Why just the planning director? Simply put, of all the positions that serve at the pleasure of the chief administrator, the planning director is perhaps most closely linked to future economic development. If the mayor could hire and fire this individual at will, and if the planning director was at risk of losing their job if deemed ineffective, then chances are good that improvement efforts would move forward expeditiously. The planning logjam would be broken, and greater economic development would ensue. As more employers set up shop in San Jose, job opportunities would multiply, and a higher tax base would result. With this proposed change, the mayor would ultimately be judged not only on their own performance, but also on the success or failure of their hand-picked planning director.
(reprinted from the Silicon Valley Business Journal)