When Ada Márquez stepped down from San Jose’s most powerful city commission last year, community leaders were hopeful that lawmakers would appoint another person of color from East Side to fill her spot.
But that’s not what happened.
“The council had a chance to embrace diversity and instead they chose to replace a seat that was held by a young Latina with a middle-aged white man,” said Peter Allen, chair of the San Jose Planning Commission, about the City Council’s decision Tuesday to appoint Pierluigi Oliverio. “They certainly weren’t thinking about underrepresented neighborhoods.”
Councilors had three finalists to choose from: Ex-Councilman Oliverio, former City Hall staffer Rolando Bonilla or county planning commissioner Aimee Escobar. The council chose Oliverio with six votes from Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Dev Davis, Johnny Khamis, Pam Foley and Lan Diep.
“I am disappointed for the residents of District 5 because they deserve a seat at the table at every level of our city’s government,” said Bonilla, the only finalist from East San Jose, about his loss on Wednesday. “San Jose will only achieve its true potential when it empowers every resident of our city.”
Allen, along with Latino and East San Jose leaders, on Wednesday sharply criticized Oliverio’s appointment to the commission because he’s now the fourth representative from affluent Willow Glen, a predominantly white enclave of Silicon Valley. With Oliverio’s appointment, commissioners from District 6 hold a majority of the 7-member panel.
Allen, also a white man from District 6, said the appointment was clearly politically motivated by Liccardo and the council majority who selected Oliverio. Allen said the controversial decision has made him question his own qualifications.
“Instead of looking for equity, it shows they were looking for political expediency,” Allen said. “They made a decision they felt was in the best interest of furthering their political agenda. It just perpetuates the divide in our community right now.
“A decision like this makes me question my own abilities and merit to be on the commission,” Allen added. “Am I there because I’m a white man from District 6 with political connections or am I there because the council thought I would be the best person for the commission?”
Liccardo could not immediately be reached for comment.
San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said she’s “appalled” and “livid” by the decision to bypass an East San Jose representative. The vote, Carrasco said, was drawn along racial, elitist and economic — westside versus eastside — lines.
“I’m so disappointed with the outcome – and that’s an understatement,” Carrasco said. “We have worked so hard over the past five years since my election to make sure that East San Jose has a seat at the table and that our residents feel that they are being represented. And yesterday felt like a slap in the face.”
Before the vote, Carrasco implored her council colleagues to support Bonilla.
“Despite my statement and urging of councilmembers, I cannot believe that right out of the gate over half the council chose to keep the power structure in one of the wealthiest communities in the city,” she added. “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. What are we thinking?”
Carrasco said she’s now scrutinizing all city commissions to ensure East San Jose is represented.
Fellow Planning Commissioner Shiloh Ballard, also from District 6, denounced Oliverio’s appointment.
“After last night’s City Council vote on the Planning Commission appointment, I’m sitting here this morning in my Kaepernick jersey, wearing my RBG socks drinking coffee from a mug that reads, ‘I’ve got 99 problems and white heteronormative patriarchy is all of them,” Ballard posted on Facebook.
Amid the growing criticism, Oliverio on Wednesday said that he will make decisions as a planning commissioner that benefit the entire city, not just one district.
“Ultimately, councils and boards choose to fill vacancies based on that moment in time and qualifications of all the candidates,” said Oliverio, hours before he gets sworn in as a new commissioner. “I’ve always made decisions based on what was best for citywide goals and made it a point to attend community meetings in every single council district.”
In a year, four positions will open on the influential Planning Commission, which adopts the general plan, makes land-use decisions and approves zoning and redevelopment plans.
But East San Jose advocates say it’s critical to have representation now — especially as Alum Rock and other parts of the district become ground zero for massive redevelopment. Those communities, they say, are most vulnerable to displacement and gentrification.
Longtime community leader and education trustee Peter Ortiz said the City Council vote on Tuesday sent a message to East San Jose: It does not deserve representation and lacks “the leadership capability to make decisions on our own behalf.”
“The City Council’s decision to choose a District 6 nominee instead of a candidate from East San Jose is remnant of institutionalized white supremacy that exists within our city government,” Ortiz said. “There is a bias against our community and they don’t need to say it outright because it is apparent by their actions. It is an action by the old guard to maintain power in District 6 and disenfranchise East San Jose communities.”
Advocates on Wednesday also questioned the appointment process since the councilors voted using secret ballots instead of reading out the votes or displaying the results on a big screen. City Clerk Toni Taber said there was “no particular reason” for not reading the vote tally into the record, but said she posted the results on Facebook and Twitter.
Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, said it’s “disappointing” that a large and diverse city such as San Jose lacks geographic and ethnic representation on the Planning Commission.
“As developments are changing our neighborhoods across our city, it is critical to have different voices, lived experiences and perspectives represented,” Llanes-Fontanilla said. “Reform and transparency in the recruitment, appointment and structure of the Commission must be prioritized. The status quo is not equitable, nor is it acceptable.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at email@example.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.