Pandori: San Jose mayor shows budget politics should be about working together
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan outside City Hall on Jan. 2, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Consistent with his campaign of common sense, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan’s recent budget message implements his goals of ending the era of homeless encampments, cleaning up trash and blight throughout the city and improving public safety. It’s a back to basics budget built through consensus and listening to good ideas, wherever they come from.

The newly-elected mayor did something even prior mayors didn’t do: invited people inside and outside his campaign to participate on budget committees to help craft his first budget message. Every member of the council led a committee as a chair. Imagine Congress crafting a budget based upon Republicans and Democrats working side by side instead of fighting back and forth.

Of course, not everyone agreed with every recommendation made by the mayor’s budget committees. When does that ever happen? But wide consensus grew because as our new mayor has said, there’s much more that we have in common than divides us.

But bringing home the worst aspects of Washington’s divisive politics, county labor leaders have relentlessly played divisive, attack-style politics through the mayor’s first 100 days. To try to preserve their current power on the San Jose City Council, labor leaders opposed the mayor’s democratic idea that the newly created vacancies on the city council should be filled by elections instead of appointed by the council. Labor made the mind-bending argument that giving voters the right to elect their own representatives would result in electing someone who didn’t deserve to be on the council.

This divisive, self-interested nonsense didn’t end there. Last week, Bob Brownstein attacked the mayor and his budget message, even though it was supported by the entire council, including Brownstein’s labor allies.

Brownstein argued Mayor Mahan’s budget lacked focus, proposed spending in excess of revenue and delegated too much decision-making to the city manager. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Under state law, all city budgets must be balanced. Unlike the federal government, local governments are not permitted to engage in deficit spending.

As for delegating power to the city manager, under the city charter the mayor does not draft the city budget, but proposes a budget message that sets the direction for the city manager’s draft budget. The March budget message sets fiscal priorities for the city. If the city council approves the budget message, then the city manager is required to develop a specific budget that meets those priorities. After the city manager submits the proposed budget, the mayor proposes a second budget message recommending specific additions and cuts to departments, projects and programs.

As for the claim of lack of focus, Brownstein criticized three specific priorities the mayor—and city council—approved in Mahan's budget message: hiring more police officers, providing more emergency shelter for the homeless and working with the county to provide facilities for severely mentally ill people.

This is proof that power politics and the need to attack a perceived political opponent have blinded labor leaders. The labor movement has traditionally been about empowering the voiceless. Labor should be supporting the mayor in ending the current era of homeless encampments, not opposing efforts to provide needed shelter. Labor should be helping the mentally ill who cannot help themselves, not opposing solutions. The current revolving door of severely mentally ill men and women moving back and forth between sidewalks and ineffective county care isn’t working.

Regarding the mayor’s modest proposal to add 30 more police officers, this was one idea both candidates for mayor agreed on in last year’s election. I worked as a deputy district attorney for 22 years and was a member of our labor union. Most victims of crime are poor and working-class people. Restoring the staffing in San Jose’s depleted police department will go a long way to helping people in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

It’s never too late to start working together. As is often said, there is a time for campaigns to end and governing to begin. Now that the 2022 election is over, I hope that labor leaders will drop the attack politics and work with others in search of common ground to make San Jose a better city.

David Pandori is a former District 3 San Jose councilmember and retired deputy district attorney. He recently served as the co-chair of the mayor's transition committee on homelessness.

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