New leadership coming to this powerful San Jose commission
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    One of San Jose’s most important legislative bodies will begin its next term with new leadership.

    The San Jose Planning Commission, a powerful panel that oversees development and advises lawmakers on the city’s planning policies, will add two new members. The City Council is expected to approve the appointments on Tuesday.

    Chair Rolando Bonilla is terming out this month and commissioner Maribel Montanez — who was appointed last year — is not seeking another term. Commissioners Justin Lardinois (District 1), Pierluigi Oliverio (District 6) and Michael Young (District 9) are being reappointed to 4-year terms this week.

    The new appointments raise questions about the diversity of the 11-member commission — a major sticking point for the body — and whether it can maintain it.

    The San Jose City Council two years ago approved sweeping reforms to the commission after San José Spotlight revealed a lack of ethnic, racial and geographic diversity on the panel. The commission lacked representation from District 5, which encompasses East San Jose, and had a disproportionate number of white men serving from District 6, one of the city’s wealthiest communities on the west side.

    Following outcry from East San Jose leaders, lawmakers approved adding four new seats to the commission representing each council district and an additional citywide seat. They also approved a term limit of two consecutive 4-year terms, and no more than two residents from the same district can serve on the commission.

    White leadership

    Both the new appointees — Barinder Ahluwalia and Louis Barocio — are people of color. So while there is no loss of diversity from the new appointments, there will be one notable change. The commission, once led by Bonilla and Mariel Caballero, will now be led by two white people.

    The commission nominated Oliverio as chair and Lardinois as vice chair at a meeting earlier this month.

    Lardinois said he understands the gravity of that change.

    “It’s a great level of responsibility to make sure as white men leading the commission that we’re not taking up too much space, and that we’re using our roles to empower the entire commission and the public rather than to empower ourselves,” Lardinois told San José Spotlight.

    Matt Gustafson, a community organizer with East San Jose-based nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair, told San José Spotlight he’s encouraged by Lardinois’ remarks.

    In 2020, the group wrote a letter to Mayor Sam Liccardo and the City Council saying commission candidates should understand the impact of land use decisions on vulnerable communities.

    “It’s incredibly important for leadership to acknowledge that they do see and understand the historical root causes of how people in their position have created marginalization and exclusion in our city, and that they’re aware of that,” Gustafson said.

    Gustafson said changes like adding more members to the commission and establishing term limits are a good start, but don’t address the underlying issues surrounding diversity.

    “With the revised rules you could still end up with, for example, a commission full of wealthy homeowners who have no understanding or concern for the severe impacts planning decisions can have on marginalized communities,” Gustafson said. “That’s a big problem. The policy as written doesn’t ensure racial diversity or socioeconomic diversity.”

    Oliverio was nominated for the chair position by outgoing chair Bonilla, who fought for the changes to the Planning Commission. Bonilla cited Oliverio’s experience as a councilmember, policy expert and mentor to younger colleagues.

    “To have him there at the helm, I am extremely confident that we are going to have another strong and successful year, where the Planning Commission will continue weighing in on critical issues with the city of San Jose,” Bonilla told San José Spotlight.

    Meet the new commissioners

    Ahluwalia currently serves on the city’s neighborhood commission and the Santa Clara County Roads Commission. Ahluwalia said having a clean environment, good roads and safe neighborhoods are issues the commission should address.

    Barinder said in his application that he is “full of gratitude doing public service.”

    Barocio, an associate principal of educational development at the East Side Union High School District, said affordable housing, zoning and transportation are his main issues. Barocio added that he would use his experience as a public school administrator to ensure priorities at the local, state and federal levels are aligned with the needs of diverse residents. He previously sought a seat on the Planning Commission.

    “I am interested in serving on the Planning Commission so I can offer my experience and input on the ongoing efforts to establish a more fair and equitable San Jose for all its diverse residents,” Barocio wrote in his application.

    Contact Eric He at [email protected] or @erichejourno on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez, spouse of Rolando Bonilla, sits on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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