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New San José Mayor Matt Mahan Seeks Allies to Tackle Homelessness, Policing

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San José mayoral candidate Matt Mahan at his campaign headquarters in San José on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San José’s new mayor, Matt Mahan, will wield the gavel for the first time on Tuesday, as he leads his first city council meeting as the city's top elected official.

Mahan was welcomed into his first week in office with a massive storm that led to evacuation orders and urgent warnings for unhoused residents to relocate from the city’s waterways.

Now, Mahan will assume the lead of a council with four new members, in the wake of a hard-fought election and a bitter debate over the fate of two vacant council seats. Residents of the Bay Area’s largest city will be looking for signs of progress on the issues that dominated the mayoral campaign, such as homelessness, affordability and public safety.

Building a working majority

Under San José’s weak-mayor system, Mahan has just one vote on local ordinances, without the veto power or the direct oversight of department heads wielded by mayors in cities like San Francisco and Oakland. Building a working majority will require Mahan to find six votes for his agenda, on a council in which all returning members endorsed his opponent in the mayoral election.

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Mahan’s attempts to build a coalition at the ballot box were thwarted last month, when the council took the controversial step of filling vacant council seats in District 8 and District 10 through appointments instead of special elections.

On Friday, Mahan took a step toward reconciliation. He tapped West San José Councilmember Rosemary Kamei, who received backing in her campaign from both labor and business groups, to be the city’s vice mayor.

“Rosemary Kamei is collaborative, thoughtful, independent, has a ton of common sense and is a great listener,” Mahan said in a statement. “She is excited about assuming more leadership responsibilities than vice mayors traditionally have in San José and is committed, as I am, to putting unnecessary conflicts behind us, as we focus on driving results on homelessness, community safety and blight.”

Mahan also opted to give committee chair positions to four returning council members who opposed his run for mayor — Sergio Jimenez, David Cohen, Dev Davis and Pam Foley — and not Bien Doan, the only current council member to back Mahan’s campaign. Mahan said he will soon release his recommendations for the vacant council seats, which the council is expected to fill this month.

Public safety and policing

On the campaign trail, Mahan said his top priority was hiring more police officers in the hopes of lowering response times and assuaging concerns about crime. Like many offices in the city, the San José Police Department is thinly staffed compared to similar departments in large U.S. cities — the result of San José’s financial turmoil in the wake of the Great Recession.

Details of how Mahan plans to pay for the staffing increase will come in the mayor’s March budget message. In an interview with KQED, Mahan said he is putting together “transition committees that will include council members and community stakeholders" to help craft that plan.

The push for more police officers will come as the council considers reforms to how the department deals with wrongdoing by SJPD officers. As soon as April, the council could vote to move some investigations of officer misconduct from the department’s internal affairs to the city’s independent police auditor.

Mahan said he supports that move, but some civil rights advocates say the reform falls short of changes demanded by protestors in the wake of George Floyd's murder and subsequent protests in San José. They argue the policy could be undermined by keeping the power to discipline officers in the hands of SJPD.

“The police shouldn't be the ones dictating what the disciplinary actions should be on the involved police officers,” said Raj Jayadev, co-founder of the community organizing group Silicon Valley De-Bug. “So while I think this is better than what is the current model, I think there's a sort of fatal flaw in the approach in that it's still the police chief deciding what, if any, action should be taken on the officers that cross the line.”

Mahan said he has “total confidence” in Police Chief Anthony Mata and his ability to discipline officers.

“He's a public figure himself and is in the spotlight and will receive public scrutiny, and so I think there are some mechanisms in place for accountability there,” Mahan said.

Homelessness

Days before he took office, Mahan joined a ceremony memorializing the unhoused residents who died on city streets in 2022, a stinging indictment of San José’s response to rising homelessness.

Mahan’s solution: focus on constructing quick-build interim shelters instead of costlier, permanent affordable housing.

On the agenda this year is building the hundreds of emergency interim units that the council already approved last year. Each additional shelter proposal promises a pitched battle with neighbors.

“It's going to take courage,” said former Mayor Sam Liccardo, in an interview with KQED. “There are those community meetings where you're going to be there with 300 very unhappy people, all asserting that they are going to vote you out if affordable housing for the unhoused is anywhere in their neighborhood.”

Neighborhood opposition has left vast swaths of the city, such as West San José, with no emergency or temporary housing for the unhoused.

A map from San José's 2021 housing inventory count shows emergency shelters, group shelters and transitional beds in the city. (Courtesy of City of San José)

“I want to see every single council district have safe parking, have tiny homes, have something to do with the unhoused,” said homeless advocate Gail Osmer.

Mahan said he would like to identify sites for emergency housing in council Districts 1 and 9, in the west and southwest areas of the city, by the end of the year.

“Over time, I fully expect that every district in San José will take on part of the solution to homelessness,” Mahan said. “That being said, it won't look exactly the same in every district. There are reasons that some districts have more space than others. The land use is different, access to transit looks different, the cost of land is different.”

Investment in the community

Like many Bay Area cities, San José needs to accelerate its construction of affordable housing to keep up with state-mandated goals.

Mahan said he’ll fight against new fees and regulations on developers, and use his bully pulpit to push for reforms at the state capitol to ease environmental reviews on new projects.

“I've been very willing to say that we're in the way in government, and we need to get better at facilitating investment in the community,” he said.

Many of San José’s most powerful developers backed Mahan’s run for mayor. Now, Alex Shoor, executive director of housing advocacy group Catalyze SV, wants to see Mahan use those relationships to push developers to include more affordable units in the new projects they build.

“Is he going to push equity? Because it’s like you're playing blackjack with developers and they never show their hand [on how many affordable units they can afford to build],” said Shoor. “And when you're the mayor of a city, you need to ask for someone to be transparent and open about what they can and cannot do as a development.”

'Matt was the sign'

Mahan’s vice mayor and committee appointments may have signaled a détente in the city’s political battles, but the election calendar could force the mayor back into campaign mode before long. Mahan’s initial term will span only two years, and 2024’s primary will be held in March, not June.

Maintaining engagement with his grassroots supporters could work to Mahan’s advantage. He rallied hundreds of residents to City Hall during the debate over vacant council seats and may need to turn out his backers at a moment’s notice if he faces opposition on the council.

Janet Holt, a board member with the Evergreen Leadership Neighborhood Association, credits Mahan’s dogged engagement with residents for helping him carry a neighborhood that had voted for more progressive candidates in previous elections.

“During his campaign, he was everywhere. You know, it wasn't just all these signs of Matt everywhere, Matt was the sign," Holt said. “He was at many, many events, he listened to people, he gave his vision, he answered questions.”

In 14 months, Mahan said, improvements should be apparent to residents.

"When residents drive around our city in a year's time, they need to see a cleaner city, the city to feel safer and to be a city where they want to spend more time and and hang out with their family and friends," he said.

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