San Jose commissions have struggled for years to fill the ranks with new members. A closer look at demographic data shows the commissions are also struggling to keep up with the city’s changing makeup.
There are 29 commissions in the city, totaling 326 seats, according to data provided by the city clerk. Fifty seats are vacant. Five commissions, which make up 39 seats, offer stipends to members ranging between $100 to $450 per month depending on the commission.
A voluntary survey of commissioners shows about 45% of members identify as female, while 52% identify as male—with 1% identifying as nonbinary and 2% preferring not to say. The data looked at the makeup of city commissions as of August. As some commissioners declined to participate in the survey, the data isn’t a perfect picture. And according to the city clerk, demographic data was not tracked before 2014.
Based on the available data, half of all commissioners are white, 24% are Asian, 15% are Hispanic/Latino and 6% are Black. Native Americans account for 1%. For comparison, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, white residents of non-Hispanic origin make up 23.3% of the city population, 38.2% are Asian, 31.2% are Hispanic or Latino, 2.7% are Black, 3.6% identify as multiracial, 0.34% identify as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and 0.19% identify as Native American or Alaska Native.
There are also disparities among applicants and those who eventually get appointed to seats: 37% of applicants are Asian and 34% of applicants are white.
“I think everybody noticed some of the disparities with the number of applications received by certain ethnic minorities and certain members who were appointed of certain ethnic minorities,” Ellina Yin, commissioner on the Council Appointment Advisory Commission, told San José Spotlight. “The highest number of applications are from our Asian community, but the members who we’ve appointed are 50% white. I definitely think there’s room for improvement on more balanced representation according to our population.”
The city has been criticized for its lack of diversity on several of its bodies, including the Planning Commission. In June 2020, after months of backlash over the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, two people of color received appointments to be chair and vice chair. The commission had previously been stacked with white residents from San Jose’s wealthiest neighborhoods—far from the city’s east side, which regularly sees massive development that threatens the displacement of minority residents and minority-owned businesses.
“There are different parts of the city that have different needs, so it’s really important to have someone who represents different sections of the city that sits on not only the Planning Commission but every commission on the city and nationwide,” Planning Commissioner Sylvia Ornelas-Wise told San José Spotlight. Last month, Ornelas-Wise and three other residents were appointed to the Planning Commission. “We all want the best for our city. To sit at that table with other folks who care as much about the community as I do makes me very proud.”
The demographics study is part of Yin’s push to increase representation among commissioners in the city. She cites decisions such as the continuing shrinking of the San Jose Flea Market as an example of decisions being made without diverse input.
“If you don’t have representation and people speaking on that type of view, then you’re not going to see that issue taken with more gravity and the impact it could have on communities of color,” Yin said.
The most represented districts on commissions are District 6 which includes Central San Jose and Willow Glen, District 3 which includes downtown and Japantown and District 10 which includes South San Jose. While some commissions, such as the Planning Commission, require membership from each council district, others such as the Arts Commission do not have the same requirements.
Yin admits that since some commissioners are appointed at the council’s discretion and not every commissioner goes through the same nomination process, there isn’t an easy explanation—or solution—to disparities of representation. She did float one idea for how to fill more seats: Mandate that all commissioners be paid.
“Providing a stipend for commissioners, especially if you’re spending a lot of time reading documents, attending meetings, listening to your community, would be a good way to show people and residents that we value their time,” she said.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly interpreted data from the U.S. Census Bureau.