The San Jose city council is photographed during a special meeting called by the council with regard to the Feb. 21, 2017 flood that inundated some communities in San Jose that are adjacent to Coyote Creek, which overran its banks. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE — Politicians in San Jose can soon accept gifts up to $470 — nearly a 400 percent increase from what the current city law allows.
Those policy changes, approved by the City Council on Tuesday, go into effect in July. Newcomer Councilman Lan Diep proposed raising limits to $470 to match state law.
“If we have a distinct set of rules at the city, we’re basically creating rules for just 11 people,” Diep argued. He said aligning city rules with state law means less confusion, less work for city staff and easier enforcement of the law.
City law had limited elected officials to gifts worth no more than $50 to avoid the appearance that valuable gifts can influence their votes. Under the new rule, Mayor Sam Liccardo could score the latest Apple watch for $399 from a political supporter.
Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco could say “yes” to a Louis Vuitton wallet for $440. The exceptions include gifts from a spouse, flowers for a funeral or wedding gifts.
But Liccardo, who tripped the city policies in 2009 when he accepted three Sharks tickets that were valued higher than the state’s $390 limit and violated city gift policies, fought hard Tuesday to keep the gift limits at the current $50.
“I know that people on this panel feel strongly that they will not be corrupted with a gift of $400, but to many of our residents that is a lot of money,” Liccardo told his colleagues. “And the appearance is very important to me.”
The council backed Diep’s idea on a 8-3 vote — with Liccardo, Carrasco and Councilman Donald Rocha opposed.
San Jose is known for establishing its own transparency rules — usually more stringent than the state — but sometimes it gets the city in trouble. Diep and Liccardo, for example, were among dozens of candidates and elected officials who violated San Jose election laws in 2015 by not filing certain campaign disclosures because the city rules varied from state law.
Also on Tuesday, the City Council overhauled its reporting rules for lobbyists to require them to file more often.
San Jose requires lobbyists to register at City Hall, pay fees for each client and file quarterly reports to show the public who they’re meeting with and what was discussed. But a Mercury News story in 2015 uncovered how those disclosures often came weeks — or months — after the City Council already voted on a policy. That meant the public couldn’t see how a lobbyist might’ve influenced a vote.
Now, lobbyists will be required to file that report every week by Monday. The quarterly disclosures will be eliminated. It’s unclear how City Clerk Toni Taber, who oversees the reports, will fine lobbyists for late filings. She said there will be a grace period through July 2018.
Today lobbyists pay $106 per day for up to 60 days when they miss a deadline.
“There won’t be late fees for the first year,” Taber said. “After that, if we discover that it is a problem, we can charge late fees per day.”
Longtime lobbyist Sean Kali-rai, who owns Jackson and Main, said the changes will take some getting used to, but more sunshine is never a bad thing.
“Nobody wants to be a Sean Spicer — except Melissa McCarthy — so now more than ever disclosure is important,” Kali-rai said. “At the end of the day, transparency in government is a net positive for everyone.”