San Jose’s new planning director was chosen by powerful developers and lobbyists—many of whom have projects pending at City Hall.
San José Spotlight has learned that developers, real estate companies and land use lobbyists comprised a large portion of a committee that interviewed and recommended hiring Chris Burton, the city’s new planning director. The interviews took place on May 10 and involved nine candidates.
Burton started the high-ranking job on June 21, replacing former Planning Director Rosalynn Hughey who was promoted to deputy city manager. The planning director is one of the most powerful positions in San Jose’s government because they make initial decisions on major developments and land use projects—from the massive 80-acre Google campus to towering high-rises and everything in between.
“As we proceed with high-level recruitments, we will want to include community members,” city spokesperson Carolina Camarena said in an email about the committee. “It is important that the community feels welcomed and comfortable in participating.”
The members of the committee included:
- Kip Harkness, Deputy City Manager
- Ben Leech, Preservation Action Council
- Jacky Morales-Ferrand, Housing Department
- Laxmi Ramasubramanian, San Jose State University
- Rosalynn Hughey, Deputy City Manager
- Allison Koo, Sand Hill Property Company
- Matt Cano, Public Works Department
- Gerry DeYoung, HMH Engineers
- Ron Davis, Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Employee
- Peter Weingarten, Gensler
- Nanci Klein, San Jose Office of Economic Development
- Gary Dillabough, Urban Community
- James Williams, Fire
- Katherine Cushing, CommUniverCity
- Katia McClain, Steinberg Hart
San José Spotlight independently confirmed that Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant with long ties to the city, also served on the committee. His name was excluded from the city’s list. When asked why, Camarena said they had inadvertently omitted him.
“We strive to have a diverse panel of relevant stakeholders,” Camarena said. “This panel included architects, design professionals, developers, CommUniverCity—a community-serving organization—and city employees. The (Planning, Building and Code Enforcement) Director touches many aspects of our community and development services customers.”
Several of the individuals on the committee have high-profile projects pending with the city. Sand Hill is in the midst of planning the redevelopment of part of the El Paseo de Saratoga Center into a mixed residential and commercial space. Venture capitalist Gary Dillabough is preparing to renovate the Bank of Italy building as part of a plan to revitalize downtown San Jose.
Schoennauer’s involvement on the committee—and the city’s initial failure to disclose him— raised some eyebrows among local leaders. He represents the Bumb family, which fought for months to get approval for a multi-million square foot development at the site of the San Jose Flea Market. After months of negotiations, the City Council approved the controversial project.
It’s unclear whether Burton had any involvement with the flea market plans, which were well underway by the time he was promoted. On Wednesday, Burton approved a site development permit that Schoennauer applied for on behalf of a client who wants to demolish a gas station and build a new 7,800 square foot commercial facility at the corner of Almaden Expressway and Cherry Avenue.
Kelly Snider, an urban planning lecturer at San Jose State University, expressed surprise that City Hall forgot to disclose Schoennauer helped interview and select Burton in May. The hearings over the flea market happened in June.
“I absolutely think it’s a huge conflict of interest,” Snider said. “There’s a lot of reasons why it could have been so harmless, and the fact that they didn’t disclose that in those very tense, very fraught negotiations is suspicious.”
Schoennauer doesn’t view his involvement with the interviewing committee as a conflict of interest because it’s an advisory position, with the ultimate hiring decision left to the city manager.
“I don’t see any conflict,” Schoennauer told San José Spotlight. “It seems prudent to have people who are knowledgeable about the industry or the city to participate in the process.”
A city insider with knowledge about hiring processes in San Jose’s planning department said it’s not unusual to have developers and land use lobbyists on interview committees for high-level jobs such as planning director. They said this is by design because San Jose’s government wants planning directors who will green light development projects, which have become an increasingly important part of the city’s economic growth strategy.
But John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that even creating the appearance of a conflict of interest can be damaging to a government or an official—even if this is standard practice.
“It undermines the credibility of the individual, as one potential outcome,” Pelissero said.
Burton has been with the city for 15 years and previously served as deputy director of business and economic development in the City Manager’s Office of Economic Development.