All eyes on San Jose Planning Commission following new vacancy

A month after a San Jose Planning Commission appointment sparked public outcry and proposed reforms, another seat has opened on the powerful panel — raising questions about whether it will lead to more equitable representation.

The showdown over the seat began in April when San Jose lawmakers chose ex-Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio for the highly-coveted position on the 7-member commission. Community leaders decried the decision to appoint a white male from affluent District 6, instead of two Latino candidates from underprivileged East San Jose and downtown, especially since the commission had four others representing District 6.

But Commissioner Namrata Vora on Wednesday announced that she’s resigning from the commission, leading to another vacancy. Vora said in an email that she’s joined Saint Gobain’s dynamic glass unit as vice president of sales, and her new gig will leave little time for the commission.

“It’s an amazing leadership opportunity at the world’s largest building materials company,” said Vora, who represented west San Jose.  “However, the travel that comes with the job will not permit me to do justice to my role as a planning commissioner. I hope to return to it someday especially since my new role gives me a chance to not only see development across the U.S. cities but in cities across the world.”

Rolando Bonilla, a longtime political consultant from East San Jose, was one of two finalists turned down for the commission in April. East San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, who voted for Bonilla, said her colleagues chose to keep the power structure in one of the wealthiest communities in the city. She called it a “slap in the face.”

“It’s not only disappointing, it’s alarming and it’s shameful for one of the most diverse cities in the state of California and the largest in the country to lead in this way,” Carrasco said at the time. “What are we thinking?”

Following the news of Vora’s resignation, Bonilla told San José Spotlight on Thursday that he’ll reapply for the job — and he’s hoping for a different outcome.

“The mayor and the City Council have an opportunity to make it clear that we truly are one San Jose,” Bonilla said. “I believe firmly that I can take a global view of what is in the best interest of San Jose while keeping in mind the needs of other communities whose voices are not being heard.”

Bonilla on Thursday rebuked a whisper campaign that he’s a lobbyist. Councilmembers suggested banning lobbyists in their reform package, though city records show Bonilla is not a registered lobbyist in San Jose.

Santa Clara County Planning Commissioner Aimee Escobar, who also lost her bid to Oliverio, also plans to reapply.

“It just remains to be seen how they want to go about this,” Escobar said Friday. “It would be nice if it was actually about merit, equity and experience, not so much the political motives. I would hope there were lessons learned. I’m the only one who’s actually trained to do this.”

Following outcry over Oliverio’s appointment, Mayor Sam Liccardo joined Carrasco, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmember Maya Esparza to propose reforming the planning commission. Among the sweeping changes, the proposal calls for prohibiting more than two people from the same district from serving, banning applicants who were lobbyists in the last two years and asking voters to expand the size of the commission to 11 members.

Planning Commission Chair Peter Allen, who sharply criticized Oliverio’s appointment, said the outcome this time could be different following political pressure and heat lawmakers received. Allen hopes the councilmembers live up to their promise for more equity on the commission when filling Vora’s vacancy.

“Given the fallout from the last appointment, it would not look the best for them to do it any other way,” Allen said. “Those issues will come to the floor because they were so widely talked about last time around. I’m hopeful that the process and the conversation around the process will be different, otherwise they’ll be in a whole world of political hurt.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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