Why is half of San Jose City Council in Japan on taxpayers’ dime? - http://travelporn.info | luxury travel sitesApril 9, 2018 8:36 pm
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Even as San Jose faces a budget shortfall, half of the City Council — and some of their staffers — are visiting Japan on the taxpayers’ dime this week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the sister city relationship with Okayama.
Now, Mayor Sam Liccardo wants to make sure such a big group trip doesn’t happen again by tightening San Jose’s “sister city” travel policies.
As the delegation to Japan prepared to visit Okayama University, the city’s historic castle and partake in a Japanese tea ceremony, a memo by the mayor questioning the necessity of such a large delegation circulated through City Hall.
The city’s current travel policy states San Jose officials and staffers can travel at the city’s expense as long as there’s some public benefit. But it doesn’t limit how many people can go, so council members Lan Diep, Sergio Jimenez, Sylvia Arenas and Raul Peralez all decided to participate. Johnny Khamis also went, but is paying his own way.
Received a warm welcome from Mayor Masao Omori and San Jose’s Sister City of Okayama, Japan! pic.twitter.com/HOo6XBTMTB
— Sergio Jimenez (@D2SergioJimenez) April 9, 2018
“The public justifiably sees declining marginal returns with the attendance of each additional member,” Liccardo, who stayed behind, wrote.
The three-day trip to Japan includes visits to Korakuen Garden, the model for San Jose’s Japanese Friendship Garden in Kelley Park, and Kibitsu-jinja, a unique Shinto shrine. There are also meetings with city officials and the Okayama Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and plans to discuss high-speed rail.
“It doesn’t make sense for half the council to be jetting off,” said Pat Waite, head of the San Jose-based Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, who agrees with the mayor’s proposal to limit such trips. “Any policy San Jose wants to enact to make the city a better steward of taxpayer dollars is worthwhile.”
On Monday, spokeswoman Elisabeth Handler couldn’t say yet how much the city was paying for the trip, but she said a total of 34 people went on the trip, including a worker from the city’s Office of Economic Development, five City Council staffers, six family members of City Council members, and eight members of the city’s San Jose-Okayama Sister City Committee.
The city is only footing the bill for city employees and elected officials, not their family members or others from organizations.
“Citizen diplomacy, such as through a sister cities program, is important now more than ever, to combat the populism, nativism, isolationism and protectionism that is challenging democracies around the world,” Diep, who brought one of his staffers, wrote Tuesday via Twitter from Japan.
In the future, Liccardo said he’d like to see a single member of the council represent San Jose on such visits. If more than one member goes on a publicly funded trip, Liccardo wants them to have formal approval from City Council and thinks additional members who want to participate should use private funding. City Council members, he added, should not be able to use public dollars to bring extra staffers along.
— Lân Diệp (@LTDiep) April 9, 2018
Last year, Okayama sent a 120-person delegation to San Jose to commemorate the two cities’ 60-year relationship, complete with a drumming performance by San Jose Taiko and a cherry blossom festival in San Jose’s Japantown.
While the mayor acknowledged in his memo that “sister city” travel can help build economic relationships and cultural understanding, he also pointed out that the trip has “interrupted city business” at home.
Tuesday’s City Council meeting is light on substance because half the council will be missing. A committee meeting had to be cancelled and another study session was rescheduled.
“Interrupting meetings for lobbying trips to Sacramento or Washington may understandably have superseding priority — for example, to obtain critical resources for our city,” wrote Liccardo, who plans to be in Sacramento on Wednesday lobbying for a bill that would give cities more money to address homelessness. “Travel on sister city trips is substantially less compelling as a public priority, however.”
While Okayama is San Jose’s oldest sister city, there are plenty of others that are attractive destinations: San José, Costa Rica; Veracruz and Guadalajara, Mexico; Tainan, Taiwan; Dublin, Ireland; Pune, India; Ekaterinburg, Russia.
San Jose voters supported bond measures in the past because they trusted the council would spend the money wisely, wrote Liccardo, who is up for re-election this year. The council is considering another bond measure on this year’s ballot to fund capital projects.
“That trust is vital to our ability to do our jobs, and to serve our residents,” he warned in the conclusion to his memo. “I urge that we enact some minor reforms in the policy to ensure that we preserve that trust.”