Another finalist named in San Jose Planning Commission saga
An aerial view of Valley Fair shows some of the construction currently happening at the sprawling shopping center on the border of San Jose and Santa Clara. Image credit: The 111th Aerial & Architectural Photography & Video.

A fourth finalist for the San Jose Planning Commission was named late Friday, the latest wrinkle in what’s become a highly-politicized process to fill two seats on the city’s most powerful commission.

Attorney George Casey was named a fourth finalist and will compete for one of two vacancies on the panel.

The winding saga of the Planning Commission has been filled with unexpected twists, turns and growing tension. With East Side community leaders still reeling from San Jose lawmakers’ controversial decision in April to appoint ex-Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio to a vacancy on the commission, another spot opened up a month later when Namrata Vora resigned. Oliverio’s appointment angered advocates because East Side, which is home to many minority communities and faces an uptick in major development, did not have any representation on the commission that makes land use and planning decisions.

They also expressed concern with a lack of diversity. Two Latinx candidates were passed over for Oliverio, a white man.

Under pressure and heightened scrutiny, leaders scurried to fill the new vacancy from Vora’s resignation but not before another commissioner, John Leyba, resigned. Now, city officials are left with three finalists — Mariel Caballero, Louis Barocio and Rolando Bonilla — to fill two vacancies on the commission. But some lawmakers called for expanding the candidate pool.

“I didn’t know we had two open positions and it didn’t seem fair to have three options to pick from for one position and then no options to pick for the other one,” Councilmember Johnny Khamis told San José Spotlight. “When we had one position, we were allowed to pick three people to be considered. And now there’s another opening, we’re being allowed to add more names to consideration.”

Khamis’ colleagues on a council committee last Wednesday agreed and directed city officials to go back to the initial pool of 26 qualified applicants and ask lawmakers to submit up to two more names for consideration. But they only came back with one — Casey. The four finalists will be publicly interviewed on Oct. 1.

“The same set of applications that generated the original three candidates were sent to all councilmembers,” City Clerk Toni Taber explained in a memo late Friday. “All council offices returned their selections to me. In this round, George Casey received four or more indications of interest.”

But East Side community leaders say adding a fourth finalist at the last minute jeopardizes public trust and stifles community outreach and input.

“We are disappointed that the limited community process that was made available has been circumvented even further by allowing for more candidate recommendations at this time,” Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of the nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair, wrote a letter to councilmembers. “Unfortunately, this is another example, in a string of examples, of the City not taking community engagement or community commitments seriously.”

Casey, a real estate attorney, lives in San Jose’s District 10, which encompasses Almaden and Blossom Valleys. In 2018, he worked as a policy and legislative director for Councilmember Chappie Jones for about two months, according to city documents.

Bonilla and Barocio live in District 5, which spans East San Jose, and Caballero lives in District 3, which is downtown San Jose.

“I’ve resided in San Jose for nearly 40 years and I am intimately aware of its strengths and weaknesses,” Casey wrote in his application. “As a graduate student studying Urban Planning, I examined the historical decisions that continue to influence San Jose today.”

Casey also said he’s acutely aware of San Jose’s crippling housing-to-jobs imbalance and its affordable housing crisis. He quickly disclosed that he does not represent any real estate clients in San Jose.

Fuel to the fire

The already contentious appointment process was kicked up a notch after Bonilla earlier this month challenged his two fellow finalists, Caballero and Barocio, to a public debate about the unique needs of East San Jose, a move that appeared to be supported by SOMOS Mayfair. But Caballero and Barocio fired back by saying they won’t engage in political rhetoric or “waste time tearing each other down.”

And while some critics say adding Casey as a finalist reeks of City Hall secrecy, Taber said it’s not unusual to increase the applicant pool to provide councilmembers with more choices.

One finalist will be appointed to a term ending in June 2020 and the other ending in June 2023. The candidates must receive six votes from councilmembers during the Oct.1 meeting to be appointed.

If no candidate or only one candidate receives six votes, Taber said, her office will continue recruitment efforts to select additional applicants for consideration within 90 days.

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

Editor’s Note: Rolando Bonilla is the chief strategy officer of Voler Strategic Advisors. The CEO of Voler Strategic Advisors, Perla A. Rodriguez, sits on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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