San Jose’s most prominent city commission has been thrust into the limelight once again.
This time, at a news conference convened Thursday by District 5 Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco, who joined a host of constituents in calling for more diversity—and a voice from East Side—on the predominantly white Planning Commission.
The seven-member group of City Council appointees, which weighs land-use decisions and issues policy recommendations, has become a flashpoint in a politically charged conversation about equitable representation in local government.
“You cannot be making decisions on somewhere you don’t live in and you don’t even know the community,” said Olivia Ortiz, a 25-year resident of the Mayfair neighborhood and one of a couple-dozen East Side residents to rally behind Carrasco on Thursday. “If there’s going to be construction around here or development, they have to figure out stuff that’s going to fit the community.”
To understand how the normally mundane process of appointing land-use commissioners became so fraught, just rewind the clock to this past spring.
The council had three people to choose from to replace Ada Márquez, who resigned from the Planning Commission several months prior. Santa Clara County Planning Commissioner Aimee Escobar, former District 6 Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio and Voler Strategic Advisors Chief Strategy Officer Rolando Bonilla.
In a split vote, they chose Oliverio, making him the fourth white person from D6 to join a commission that represents one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation. The decision ignited a firestorm of controversy that has ebbed and surged in the time being.
Since the April vote to install Oliverio, two more commissioners have resigned. Namrata Vora left in May and John Leyba earlier this month, leaving two more vacancies to fan the flames of parochial politicking over what’s meant to be a procedural post.
That leads the saga to Thursday morning.
Carrasco, surrounded by D5 residents and activists from community advocacy nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair, stood in front of an empty lot on Alum Rock Avenue. They held up signs reading “desarollo sin desplasaminento” and “no more politics as usual.” They chanted and spoke about displacement and gentrification plaguing the largely Latino East Side.
The empty plot of dirt where the group convened—1936 Alum Rock Ave., a fenced-off swath of gravel with blockish townhomes on one side and drab low-slung buildings on the other—marked a case in point for the rally.
Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, the executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, said that despite community members objecting to a project proposed for the site, the Planning Commission gave it the OK. The council didn’t even have to weigh in. That’s because the Alum Rock neighborhood lies in something called a form-based planning zone, meaning the land-use commissioners have full power to greenlight a project as long as it meets the city’s building code standards.
“It is this example and countless others that make us disappointed in the current makeup of the Planning Commission, as well as lack of community process,” Llanes-Fontanilla said. “We support the more holistic reforms of the Planning Commission with structural change to ensure historically excluded communities have representation and power.”
The appointment of two new commissioners comes up for a vote at Tuesday’s council meeting. There are several candidates to choose from. Before Leyba stepped down, three applicants made it to the finalist round: Voler’s Bonilla, Santa Clara County Probation Department Deputy Director Mariel Caballero and James Lick High School Vice Principal Louis Barocio.
After Leyba’s departure, City Clerk Toni Taber added another name—District 10 resident and real estate lawyer George Casey—to the list of finalists, stoking still more frustration over a process already decried as opaque and inaccessible.
Carrasco chided the city for roiling an already contentious ordeal.
“The process in my opinion lacked transparency,” she said. “It happened last-minute and we already had three candidates that had been advanced through a complicated process. The fact that they reopened it is troubling.”
Peter Allen—one of a couple white D6ers on the Planning Commission to decry their own overrepresentation—told San Jose Inside that the lack of geographic and racial equity is a “systemic problem” that extends beyond any one board. To help fight it, he says the city needs to attract more diversity to the “pool of people who are getting involved.” In his view, that means elected council members should lead the way, using their public profile and political clout to bring underrepresented communities into the pipeline.
“We need our leaders to take charge and make change when it isn’t convenient or they’re running for office,” Allen said, referring to Carrasco’s 2020 bid for Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese’s seat. “It’s surprising to me that council member Carrasco is hosting this [press conference]. She’s a city leader. She could implement the transparency by making the [appointment] process more transparent.”
Allen also voiced his criticism about the whole brouhaha in a Medium post earlier this month that took a swipe at Bonilla—Carrasco’s preferred finalist—for mischaracterizing the nature of a planning commissioner’s job.
“It’s no secret where I stand on the issue of equitable representation on the Planning Commission,” Allen wrote. “We absolutely need a diversity of perspectives at every layer of government and public service, from the 1st floor of City Hall to the 18th. But that issue can and should be addressed on a separate track outside the appointment process, and it should involve the elected leaders who actually have the ability to enact change.”
Some change from the 18th floor is forthcoming.
Earlier this year, in response to backlash over the Oliverio appointment, Carrasco joined Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilwoman Maya Esparza in co-authoring a proposal to bar more than two people from the same council district from serving on the Planning Commission.
The group has also pushed for an amendment to the city’s charter, which would structure the land-use commission to mirror the City Council by including one member from each of the 11 district—plus an at-large member. That kind of restructuring, however, will be left up to voters in the 2020 election.
For now, in the week ahead, the question is which two of the four finalists will the council choose to fill two spots on a commission with coveted clout but limited authority.