Dozens of San Jose commission seats are empty
The San Jose City Council chambers are pictured in this file photo.

    San Jose commissions play a significant role in city government, giving residents an official capacity to provide input on local policies and decisions. But with dozens of vacancies, some worry those voices are missing.

    San Jose’s 25 active commissions need 289 commissioners, and 59 seats are vacant. This means one out of every five seats is empty. Some commissions are just missing one or two seats, while others don’t have enough appointees for a quorum to hold meetings.

    Often before a law or policy is passed, it first comes before a commission. The commission has a hearing, listens to public comment and then makes a recommendation through a vote. The decision can happen quickly like items related to land-use that come before the San Jose Planning Commission. Or over several months, like changes to the city charter. Even though city councilmembers oftentimes vote against a commission’s recommendation, it still provides important insight.

    One of the most impacted is the San Jose Neighborhoods Commission—arguably one of the more important community voices. The 20-member group has 16 vacancies and cannot meet to form a work plan or hold a caucus to appoint new members because they don’t have a quorum. The commission needs the San Jose City Council to bypass the caucus and appoint at least seven new members for commissioners to fill out the remaining vacancies.

    “It’s really a catch 22,” Jim Carter, chair of the commission, told San José Spotlight. “We have some really dedicated people who want to do good work and be able to advise the council and city manager on different things, but we can’t.”

    The San Jose Neighborhoods Commission allocates two seats to each of the 10 districts. The group meets monthly to review various policies and the city’s budget. Commissioners provide feedback and suggestions to the council.

    Carter said his commission, like others, is struggling to recruit new members in part because residents are unaware of the opportunities. He said the vacancy problem can also be attributed to open seats on the Council Appointment Advisory Commission. This group reviews applications and makes recommendations to the San Jose City Council as it relates to appointments to boards and commissions.

    This 11-member board has five vacancies, which means if one member is absent, the group does not have a quorum. Two members are also terming out this year, leaving seven open positions if they are not filled soon.

    “Commissions are really the pulse of the community,” Carter said. “Without us, the city really misses out on what the community is saying, what the community feels and what their concerns are.”

    City Clerk Toni Taber said she’s working to recruit new commission members and attributes the difficulties to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, she would simply reach out to councilmembers, now she is going to neighborhood groups and events, creating more social media content and looking for other creative avenues.

    Her efforts appear to be paying off. About 200 residents submitted applications by the Oct. 31 deadline, Taber said.

    “Some are duplicates, some may not pass the conflict of interest check, so I encourage everyone to apply past the deadline,” Taber told San José Spotlight. “I encourage people to apply anytime they think about it because we have vacancies that come up all the time.”

    Dan Connolly, chair of the San Jose Airport Commission, said he’s been sounding the alarm on vacancies for years. He thinks the pandemic played a part, but places most of the blame on the city.

    “When I applied to the Airport Commission six years ago, there were more than 100 applications for the airport alone,” Connolly told San José Spotlight. “The city used to do a lot of outreach that I haven’t seen since. They were more proactive.”

    His 11-member commission currently has four vacancies, so they are able to hold meetings, but it still makes him nervous because membership has never been this low, Connolly said.

    “I know there’s too much on everybody’s plate, but there’s no way these commissions can be effective if we don’t have minimum numbers,” he said. “Without commissions, residents are not involved in city decisions.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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