Securing the San Jose Mayor

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales has taken 40 political and business trips in North America during the past four years, and every time he goes, San Jose taxpayers pick up an unusual cost: They pay for a city cop to accompany him. In a few cases, there are two.

No other San Jose mayor has received such protection, a post-Sept. 11 precaution that Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas -- all bigger than San Jose -- don't provide their mayors.

The officers often leave a day in advance of Gonzales to set up logistics and have run up $60,000 in travel costs -- about three times more than taxpayers have paid for the mayor's travel tab. They stay at the same hotels as the mayor, at rates as much as $300 a night.

They escort Gonzales to conferences of city mayors; to Washington, D.C., when he lobbies Congress for federal money; to visits he makes to cities with the chamber of commerce; to Phoenix when he held a press conference at spring training last year to promote his effort to bring baseball to San Jose.

One officer accompanied him in December 2004 to an Aspen resort for a private retreat of the Democratic Leadership Council, the national political group to which Gonzales belongs.

San Diego sends an officer when its mayor travels. So does San Francisco, which is smaller than San Jose but whose mayor's national profile is much bigger.

``People have a hard time recognizing the mayor of San Jose anywhere 60 miles away from San Jose,'' said former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery, a frequent critic of Gonzales who calls the traveling security ``pretty ridiculous.''

``If there's any threat, it would occur for the mayor the same as anybody else,'' McEnery said.

The use of a police escort began in late 2001 at the same time Gonzales ramped up his traveling habits, after rarely leaving San Jose during his first three years in office.

Why the police practice changed isn't clear because the two chiefs who have authorized the expense gave conflicting reasons for it.

Former Chief William Lansdowne, who said it was his decision to begin sending the officers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Gonzales needs police escorts to speed his return to San Jose in case an attack or natural disaster occurs at home. A police officer can help ``get you to the airport and get a seat'' faster, said Lansdowne, who left San Jose to become the chief in San Diego in 2003.

Different explanation

But Lansdowne's successor, Rob Davis, said he never heard that rationale and says the reason is simply ``to provide security for the mayor.'' In fact, Davis said he believes officers might actually slow the mayor's return to San Jose in an emergency because they have to go through extra security measures to board a plane with weapons.

The mayor's chief of staff, Rebecca Dishotsky, said security decisions are left to the police department.

``We don't in our office make any of those decisions,'' she said.

Although they join Gonzales on all his domestic city or political trips, officers did not travel with him on his three overseas city trips since 2002 or when he has gone on private vacations, such as to Orange County and Mexico last year.

Getting Gonzales back to town for an emergency has never been crucial, because San Jose's mayor is not its chief executive and has no authority over emergency operations. Lansdowne said it was important to have the mayor available to serve as a spokesman during emergencies. The city council next week is scheduled to formalize the mayor's role as ``principal spokesperson'' by adopting a change to the city's emergency operations plan.

Follow-up to censure

Council members next week also are scheduled to consider whether to strip this mayor of some of his authority as a follow-up to their censure of him last month for his conduct in hiding information about a garbage contract and rate increase.

When the council last exacted punishment on one of its members after a censure action for unethical conduct, they prohibited then-Councilman Terry Gregory in December 2004 from traveling on city business. In fact, it was Gonzales who proposed that punishment.

When he came into office in January 1999, Gonzales showed little interest in traveling or attending conferences. City records show Gonzales traveled just once on city business in 1999, once in 2000, and twice in 2001 before Sept. 11. Each trip was to Washington, D.C., and he had no police escort.

Dishotsky, the mayor's chief of staff, said Gonzales has traveled more often in recent years because ``it became clear to us that in order to be effective representing a large city in America that you have to do this stuff.'' She said he was asked to serve on committees associated with national city organizations, requiring more trips.

The mayor's travel expenses are paid from a variety of sources. City taxpayers have footed about $18,000 for his travel expenses since he took office, records show. More often, his costs have been covered by his political benefactors, his hosts, or another government agency such as the Valley Transportation Authority.

No matter who picks up the mayor's costs, the city always pays for his police escort, such as nearly $6,500 for the two officers, Bobby Avila and Rubens Dalaison, to attend the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

They also serve the mayor's other non-business needs, such as driving him to appointments with four different Los Angeles labor leaders in September 2004 when he was considering whether to run for a state office, a trip the mayor had combined with a housing conference at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Avila and Dalaison are compensated for all their working hours spent with the mayor whether in San Jose or while traveling. Under the police labor contract, they are limited to 1.5 hours a week in overtime pay, receiving compensatory time for other hours beyond a normal work week.

Local protection

Officers have accompanied all San Jose mayors locally -- where he or she has been a recognizable figure -- since the late 1970s, after San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was killed at City Hall by Supervisor Dan White.

``At city council meetings, you need someone there, and at rare public events, but almost all the time just traveling around the city, I wouldn't have security with me,'' said McEnery, the mayor from 1983 through 1990.

But Chief Davis said despite Gonzales' lack of national recognition, the escorts were justified.

``Either you provide security for the mayor or you don't,'' he said. ``If we have somebody go out and hurt the mayor, people will criticize the police department for not providing the security that was needed.''

Knight Ridder content Copyright 2005 provided via The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.