San Jose commission criticized for lack of diversity now led by Latinx leaders
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

A year ago, one of San Jose’s most powerful city commissions had a majority of white people on it.

Today, the San Jose Planning Commission is led by two Latinx commissioners — with a woman in the top spot as chair. It is believed to be the first time in the commission’s history that two people of color held the chair and vice chair positions.

The commission on Wednesday elected its newest leaders — Mariel Caballero as chair and Rolando Bonilla as vice chair. Both commissioners were appointed in October, following widespread backlash over the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on the commission. At the time, the commission was stacked with white people who primarily lived in San Jose’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

San Jose councilmembers, who appoint members of the Planning Commission, in April 2019 filled a vacancy with ex-Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio — who lives in affluent District 6 —  instead of a person of color who lives in East San Jose. The city’s east side, which is ground zero for massive development that threatens to displace minority-owned businesses and working families, had no representation on the powerful panel.

Outcry ensued following San José Spotlight’s reporting on the commission’s lack of racial and geographic representation and led to a slew of reforms, including expanding the commission from seven members to 11 representing every district in San Jose, enacting term limits and prohibiting lobbyists from serving.

Now, the commission has five vacancies and councilmembers are conducting interviews to fill the spots. Fourteen people have applied for those seats, including current commissioner Peter Allen, former San Jose City Council candidate Huy Tran and Aimee Escobar and George Casey, both of whom were finalists in the last round of vacancies.

More interviews and appointments are expected Monday.

In October, Caballero was appointed to fill a partial term ending this month which is why she’s seeking re-appointment, while Bonilla’s term ends in June 2023.

‘The powerful retaining power’

As the nation confronts systemic racism, a reckoning on police bias and violence and new reports that reveal devastating inequalities in Silicon Valley, commissioners sent a powerful message by selecting the two Latinx members — who fought for a seat on the dais — into the leadership roles.

But getting to that point wasn’t easy.

The former chair, Shiloh Ballard, fought for Caballero to replace her. Ballard, a white woman, wrote a stinging column for this news organization in April 2019 demanding her white male colleagues step aside and make room for women of color to lead.

“Women of color are more likely to have experienced systemic racism and sexism,” Ballard wrote in a letter to her colleagues. “That lived experience is incredibly important in being able to see the problem and be motivated to fix it. As this city manages growth and development, it is critical that we have leaders in place who recognize how zoning, land use, gentrification and more play out along race, gender and class.”

Of the 15 past chairs, Ballard said, only five have been women. Only two have been women of color.

“That’s not for lack of smart and capable women or women of color. It is because of patriarchy and white supremacy,” she added.

Oliverio last month was temporarily elected vice chair to fill in for Melanie Griswold who resigned.

After Bonilla on Wednesday recommended Caballero to become chair, there was a long silence waiting for another member to second the motion. Another awkward pause came when it was time to second the motion to elect Bonilla as vice chair. And at the last minute, Oliverio attempted to stop the nomination process.

Oliverio argued that the commission decided to wait until the five vacancies were filled in July to select a new chair and vice chair. Ballard says the move shows that white men in power resist giving it up.

“Unless men actively seek to cede power, what is clear is that they won’t without a fight, even when they are clearly not the best people to lead,” Ballard told San José Spotlight. “Ironically, this all happened on the day a proposal for the Mayor to get two more years came out. The powerful retaining power.”

Caballero on Saturday told San José Spotlight that it’s important for people of color — including women of color — to know that their voices matter and are heard.

“In my 18 year career in local government, I’ve been able to bring my knowledge and voice to the table through a variety of leadership roles,” Caballero said. “My life experiences and understanding of the Eastside community where I grew up, enable me to articulate not only the challenges that individuals and families face, but also the resiliency that is part of the fabric of our community.

Bonilla said he believes diversity is what makes San Jose such a great city.

“With (Wednesday’s) vote,” he said, “we made clear that we must work to create a city government that is truly reflective of all of our constituents.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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