After spending $145,000 on a Washington communications consultant to boost his national profile over two years, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo extended her contract again for four months to the tune of $30,000.
Stephanie Craig’s Apeiron Strategies Group was first hired by Liccardo’s office in 2018 and bills the city for placing opinion pieces in major national media outlets under Liccardo’s byline. Sources in the mayor’s inner circle say Craig is actually an integral part of the mayor’s communications team.
One ethics expert told San José Spotlight there’s nothing wrong with paying for this type of press attention. But others question how much Craig’s work benefits the city and how much of it is directed only at improving Liccardo’s public image.
Last November, the city extended Craig’s $7,500 per month contract through June 2021, increasing her total compensation from $187,000 to $229,000 since the contract began in 2018. The mayor’s office hired Craig for a part-time, temporary gig back in 2018, when Liccardo was making regular trips to Washington.
Though it started as a temporary arrangement before the onslaught of a global pandemic that drained the city’s coffers, Craig’s contract has now been extended four times.
Invoices obtained by San José Spotlight through a public records request show the mayor’s office has leaned heavily on Craig since Oct. 2018 to create a national profile for Liccardo and some of his initiatives. Craig was hired around the time the mayor quit a key FCC advisory committee in Jan. 2018. She spent 25 hours getting an op-ed from the mayor published in the New York Times that November about his resignation.
Last June, Craig billed the city for another opinion piece in the Times, plus an interview the mayor did with the Wall Street Journal and an op-ed that appeared in the Mercury News under Liccardo’s byline.
A longtime advocate for government accountability told San José Spotlight the issue is complicated by the fact that Liccardo stands to benefit personally.
“It is obviously an ethics issue at some level,” said John Sims, an emeritus professor at McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento. “At the heart of the question is how much the city benefits from the work this communications consultant does for the mayor. To the extent that a mayor is using city funds to advance the mayor’s interests and not the city’s, that is inappropriate.”
Without a thorough audit of Craig’s work for the mayor’s office, Sims said it’s hard to untangle what’s good for taxpayers from what is just a boon to Liccardo.
But John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and a political scientist, told San José Spotlight it is not unusual for local governments to outside firms for public relations.
Liccardo’s contract with Craig may raise questions, but that’s politics, not ethics, Pelissero said.
“Contractors get hired by cities and states for many reasons, including reputation management and general promotion of the government,” Pelissero said. “One can disagree with how the mayor spends money, but that is a political issue, not an ethical one.”
Ann Ravel, a longtime lawyer for local government who ran for a California Senate seat last fall with Liccardo’s endorsement, agreed the benefits of hiring a public relations consultant would be shared between the city and the mayor.
“It’s one of those things that depending on what exactly she is doing, could raise legitimate ethical questions,” Ravel said. “Getting op-eds placed in national publications or getting the mayor on TV — though it may benefit him personally and politically — is not going to make him a movie star. But it also makes a national audience recognize that San Jose is a place of some import in the country.”
The contract extension comes as questions swirl about what’s next for Liccardo who terms out in 2022.
The mayor faces a tough finale to his mayoral term. He lost his push to create a strong mayor form of government that would grant him more powers and extend his term by two years. He lost his council majority that would ensure his agenda is passed. And he might lose his ability to appoint lawmakers to commissions, one of the key jobs of the mayor.
Two of his allies and biggest political fundraisers — Carl Guardino and Matt Mahood — are no longer leading the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Silicon Valley Organization, respectively. The SVO’s PAC, which financially supported Liccardo, is gone.
Liccardo recently began an advocacy organization called Solutions San Jose to gain some power and control, though it remains to be seen how it will raise funds and what long-term policies it will advocate for.
A spokeswoman for Liccardo insisted taxpayers benefit from having a mayor who is more visible on the national stage.
Liccardo did not agree to an interview.
“San Jose consistently and historically has failed to bat its weight in the national media,” said spokeswoman Rachel Davis. “It’s the tenth largest city in the country with a national profile less prominent than cities a third of its size. That undermines our ability to secure philanthropic dollars from national foundations, to get the attention of Congress and the federal administration over funding priorities, and to be a site for (private) investment.”