Following outcry, major changes coming to San Jose Planning Commission

Mayor Sam Liccardo joined with political rivals to propose sweeping changes to the Planning Commision following community outcry, changes that could reshape the size and diversity of the powerful panel.

In a new proposal, Liccardo and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones teamed up with progressives Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza to suggest 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, one from each district.

The changes come on the heels of a contentious Planning Commission appointment that East Side leaders called inequitable. Former Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio was appointed by six votes, making him the fourth white commissioner from affluent District 6 and bypassing two Latino candidates — including a female candidate, Aimee Escobar, and one from East San Jose, Rolando Bonilla.

The commission has no representation from East San Jose or its surrounding vulnerable neighborhoods, sparking outcry from East Side community leaders and lawmakers.

Among the recommendations from Liccardo, Jones, Carrasco and Esparza: Prohibiting planning commissioners from being reappointed more than once, extending a “revolving door” policy to bar outgoing commissioners from lobbying the city for two years and allowing councilmembers to contact applicants before the public interview process to learn more about their qualifications.

Expanding the size of the commission from seven members to 11 — one from each council district and one at-large member — requires a Charter amendment approved by voters. The lawmakers suggested exploring putting the question to voters in the 2020 election.

“The planning commission plays an important role in reviewing development proposals and policy changes, and its decisions have lasting effects on our community’s growth and character,” the lawmakers wrote in the memo. “We have failed to appoint a sufficiently diverse commission, however, both geographically and demographically. We can do better.”

East Side leaders on Thursday applauded the changes, which were largely driven by Carrasco and Esparza, who both represent East San Jose.

“We believe that by diversifying our spaces of decisions our communities will become safer, engaged and more representative of the needs of all San Jose residents,” said Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, on Thursday. “We support any proposal that increases the representation of people of color, women and historically excluded people in our cities governance.”

“I’m happy to see that there’s a recognition of ‘We can do better,'” added Tamara Alvarado, a longtime East San Jose community leader. “This is an excellent step forward. San Jose is not a small town anymore it hasn’t been for quite some time. Our Planning Commission really needs to reflect the entire city.”

Santa Clara County Office of Education trustee Peter Ortiz agreed.

“I think this is a huge win for democracy and the city of San Jose,” Ortiz said. “I’m grateful for our representatives for recognizing the frustration in the community. I think the blatant systemic racism, it’s something that has been going on since the formation of the Planning Commision.”

Sitting commissioners Peter Allen and Shiloh Ballard also criticized Oliverio’s appointment last week.

Allen said Thursday the proposed changes to the commission were “long overdue.” He said it’s critical that councilmembers step up outreach efforts to form an applicant pool in their districts.

“This is really just a part of a roadmap for ensuring a more equitable future for San Jose,” Allen said. “But a memo isn’t going to change our culture of disenfranchisement and while I welcome the proposal, I don’t think the mayor or vice mayor deserve credit for signing on to these changes less than two weeks after blindly disregarding the very institutionalized prejudice this is trying to address. Because of political outcry it became politically advantageous to take this position.”

District 5 neighborhood commissioner Mimi Hernandez said East Side deserves to have a seat at the table.

“The recent decision to appoint yet another commissioner who is not from East San Jose was rather unfortunate,” Hernandez said Thursday. “And it comes at a time when east side corridors, such as Alum Rock Avenue, is facing over seven major high density building projects within less than a quarter mile.”

But Bonilla, one of the candidates passed up for the appointment, said the bigger conversation is about representation and ensuring qualified candidates get a shot.

“Let’s not get lost in inside baseball 18th floor minutia floor talk,” Bonilla said. “Unequivocally, there are people in the city from different backgrounds who can fill these positions and they need to be given an opportunity to serve and feel that their credentials are more than enough. They shouldn’t have to feel like a political operative to have a chance.”

For his part, Oliverio said reorganizing any city committee may “have pros or cons associated with it.”

“In my personal opinion,” Oliverio said, “the single most important consideration should be an applicant’s professional experience, knowledge of the subject matter and their commitment to serve diligently.”

The proposal will now go to the City Council’s Rules and Open Government Committee for consideration.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter. Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

 

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