San Jose approves sweeping changes to the planning commission
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

Major changes are coming to one of San Jose’s most powerful commissions after lawmakers earlier this month approved long-awaited reforms to make it more inclusive.

After facing widespread criticism for the San Jose Planning Commission’s lack of geographic and ethnic diversity, the City Council approved expanding the 7-member panel to 11 commissioners. The plan alters the city charter and requires approval by voters, either later this year or in 2022 if it reduces costs of placing it on the ballot.

In the meantime, lawmakers approved other changes to ensure more equitable representation from people of color and those living in vulnerable districts. Under the plan approved Tuesday, no more than two people from the same City Council district can serve on the commission and commissioners will be limited to two consecutive four-year terms.

If there are not enough applicants for the commission, the city can overturn the districting restrictions with a 3/4 supermajority vote. City officials initially recommended a simple majority to override the rules, but Councilmember Maya Esparza expressed concerns and called for a higher threshold.

The proposed changes are part of a phased approach to expand the commission, city officials said, after the COVID-19 pandemic stalled outreach to create a measure for the November 2020 ballot.

The plan to add more members to the commission came after a series of San José Spotlight reports highlighted inequitable representation on the powerful panel that makes major land-use and real estate decisions for the nation’s 10th-largest city. For example, the commission did not have representation from East San Jose despite the district facing major development deals that threaten to displace minority-owned businesses.

Esparza said that the city should consider moving forward with expanding the commission to 11 members in 2020 if there was another council-directed ballot measure on the November ballot, citing financial concerns of adding a last minute measure.

City Attorney Rick Doyle said that the Fair Elections Initiative could potentially be on the ballot, but there was no guarantee.

Halfway through the discussion, Mayor Sam Liccardo unexpectedly proposed an alternative to expanding the commission to 11 members, contrary to his initial support for the idea last year.

He said allowing City Council members to appoint commissioners from their districts would mean only people who are politically connected will be chosen. Instead, he proposed keeping the seven seats but redrawing the districts to ensure inclusivity.

“We want this planning commission to be independent from the council,” Liccardo said.

Esparza questioned Liccardo’s reasoning and why he had swayed from his initial support of expanding the commission.

“We have swaths of the city that is not represented,” Esparza said. “We could still have seven seats and still have three council districts who could not be represented.”

Some residents shared similar concerns during the meeting.

“The position this country is in is a result of decades of inequites,” said San Jose resident Bobby Gonzalez. “These inequities will continue to exist as long as our physical environment is decided by a disproportionate number of white folks from affluent communities relative to our local demographics.”

Countering the argument for equal representation, Councilmember Lan Diep said that appointments on the planning commission could not ensure equity because ultimately planning decisions are made by the City Council.

“I don’t want to get into a situation where we’re kind of racing to find somebody, just who lives in a certain area, just because they’re willing to or we only find one applicant who for some objective reason may not be qualified,” he said.

However, Esparza said that the council should have enough time to take steps to conduct widespread outreach.

“We kicked it back because we wanted more applicants. We wanted more community representation,” Esparza said.

The coronavirus pandemic forced San Jose to cancel in-person meetings during the shelter-in-place order, prompting city officials to phase in the revisions over the course of three years.

The proposal comes more than six months after a drawn-out process to fill two seats on the influential panel angered East Side community leaders, who said more equitable racial and geographic representation was needed. The appointment of former Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio sparked outcry after he became the fourth commissioner from affluent District 6 while a lower-income area in East San Jose had no representation.

“It could be chalked up as unpleasant,” Carrasco said. “Let’s just say it was a very rich debate about diversity and representation.”

Though two people of color were appointed – one from East San Jose – some city leaders proposed sweeping changes to the appointment process to ensure more people of color remain on the commission.

“We want to make sure we have a representative at the table who understands the nuances and the needs of District 5 specifically, not to be confused with the other two (districts), which are much wealthier neighborhoods,” Carrasco said.

The Planning Commission will have five vacancies by the end of June and need at least two seats to be filled.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at mslaplante19@gmail.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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