After a hard battle, East San Jose wins a seat on the planning commission

A drawn-out, months long battle over racial representation on San Jose’s Planning Commission came to an end Tuesday after two new appointees were chosen by the City Council, following hours of intense debate from both sides of the political aisle.

After a lengthy interview process, Rolando Bonilla and Mariel Caballero were appointed to one of the city’s most powerful commissions. Caballero had the most votes, securing 10 from the City Council, while Bonilla secured 6.

The four candidates competing for two seats on the commission were Caballero, a Santa Clara County deputy director at the probation department; Louis Barocio, vice principal at the East Side Union High School District; Bonilla, a business owner; and real estate attorney George Casey.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Magdalena Carrasco, Dev Davis, Lan Diep, Maya Esparza, Pam Foley, Sergio Jimenez and Raul Peralez voted for Caballero.

Arenas, Carrasco, Esparza, Jimenez, Khamis, and Peralez voted for Bonilla.

Khamis was the sole councilmember who voted for Casey, while Davis, Diep, Foley, Jones and Liccardo voted for Barocio. Candidates needed to receive six votes to be appointed.

The vote Tuesday came after demands from East San Jose community leaders for representation on the commission, sparked by San José Spotlight’s reporting, as well as concerns about adding a fourth candidate to the finalist pool at the last minute. Bonilla’s appointment now makes him the only representative from East San Jose — a lower-income, community of color on the 7-person commission.

“I’m left with huge concerns the way this process was handled,” said Carrasco, who rallied for equal representation last week as the community faces growing rates of displacement due to a spike in new development. “The concerns really arise from what feels like a real lack of transparency.”

The East Side councilwoman, along with SOMOS Mayfair, called for more equity, transparency and racial representation on the commission after a fourth finalist — Attorney George Casey — was added to the pool after three other finalists were already chosen.

The move raised eyebrows in the Latino community, who criticized city leaders for including Casey when City Clerk Toni Taber had previously said no new contenders would be added. Taber said she was directed to include a fourth applicant during a council committee meeting at the suggestion of Khamis.

Taber confirmed that up to five candidates can be considered for the two vacancies. There were originally 26 applicants.

At the meeting Tuesday, Carrasco made a motion — which failed — to exclude Casey from the pool of existing applicants, citing concerns that he was not vetted by the entire City Council, unlike the other three candidates.

“I mean no disrespect to the fourth candidate, but it’s the process that I’m having an issue with,” said Carrasco. “We already have three well qualified candidates that have moved forward to the final process.”

Carrasco and Liccardo faced off over the decision to include Casey. She questioned why there was a need for a last-minute applicant, but Liccardo fired back, denying a lack of transparency and saying it’s within the purview of a city committee to make those decisions.

“There was no nefarious conspiracy,” said Liccardo. “This was in a public hearing and the city clerk suggested rather than go through an entirely new process — we already have a pool of candidates. Let’s simply add to the pool so that we can choose among them.”

Khamis said he initially wanted to avoid the conflict of adding the fourth finalist by reopening the second vacancy to a new set of applicants. But to expedite the process, Khamis expressed support to include Casey, calling it a “compromise” given the time constraint.

“My original intent was to only appoint one person and then open it up all over again to have a whole new vetting process for this new opening,” said Khamis. “I was hoping to avoid this exact discussion we’re having. I don’t want to be accused of doing something unethical. It was a compromise we thought would be well appreciated.”

The appointments of the new commissioners tempered fears from East San Jose that the community’s voice won’t be heard on the influential decision-making panel.

Barocio is also from East San Jose’s District 5 and Caballero is from District 3 in downtown. Casey is from affluent District 10, much like former San Jose Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio, whose appointment initiated the highly-politicized fight in April. East Side leaders denounced Oliverio’s appointment as they were hopeful that former commissioner Ada Márquez’s newly-vacant seat would be filled by a person of color.

Oliverio became the fourth commissioner on the 7-person panel from affluent District 6. Since then, the resignations of two more commissioners — Namrata Vora and John Leyba — followed soon after. Now, both former commissioners were effectively replaced by Caballero and Bonilla.

Before the vote, each candidate pled their case to the lawmakers, answering questions on solving the region’s housing crisis, while also acknowledging the need for more jobs, curbing the effects of displacement and gentrification to protect those communities that are most vulnerable, building affordable housing and preventing the use of discriminatory practices such as redlining to mitigate the effects of inequity and poverty.

“The best ideas come from the people who are impacted,” said Caballero, acknowledging how displacement is affecting residents throughout the city. “The best ways to mitigate come from those folks. I spend a lot of time in meetings listening to what people have to say and trying to figure out and find a way to come to a reasonable resolution where all of the stakeholders can benefit.”

Bonilla also expressed support for more development while also tapping into the need for more equitable representation.

“Decisions get made in the background which is why representation matters,” Bonilla said. “Conversations are only enriched, decisions are only better when all perspectives are taken into account. You have to understand the vision of that community before you say, ‘yes that’s great.’”

Caballero will be appointed to a term ending in June 2020, while Bonilla’s term ends in June 2023.

Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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