San Jose Planning Commission gains equity with more members
To increase diverstity and representation, the San Jose Planning Commission added four new members. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    The San Jose Planning Commission added four additional members in July following community demand for diversity and citywide representation.

    Rolando Bonilla, chair of the commission, says the change is needed and a long time coming.

    “The city of San Jose, the largest city in the Bay Area, needed to set an example of how to properly govern,” Bonilla told San José Spotlight. “When you had a Planning Commission that wasn’t taking every part of the city into account, that was just not the right message.”

    The sweeping changes to the planning commission, one of San Jose’s most powerful legislative bodies, came after San José Spotlight revealed how the panel lacked ethnic, racial and geographic diversity. The Planning Commission is an advisory body that oversees development and advises lawmakers on San Jose’s planning policies.

    After facing widespread criticism in the wake of the reporting, the City Council approved expanding the 7-member panel to 11 commissioners—one for each City Council district and an additional citywide seat. The plan altered the city charter and required approval by voters. Voters passed Measure G which permitted the expansion of the commission last November.

    City leaders suggested the changes to help give underrepresented communities a voice.

    The new commissioners include Maribel Montanez representing District 4, Sylvia Ornelas-Wise for District 7 and Michael Young for District 9. Charles “Chuck” Cantrell is the citywide commissioner.

    Cantrell previously served as a board member of the Committee for Green Foothills and worked at a community development agency in St. Louis. He told San José Spotlight that expanding the number of seats provides for better equity.

    “You can’t have a Planning Commission that makes plans for communities where they have no involvement and no real say,” Cantrell said. “What’s great about having additional commissioners is that we’re going to get a broader point of view from all areas of the city.”

    Cantrell said he’s interested in facilitating balanced growth and sees an opportunity on the Planning Commission to “work together to create a community for everyone.”

    “I want to make sure when development happens, legacy communities get to bring their thoughts to the table, enhance the process and benefit from the growth as well,” he said. “Building a condo is good for the developer and probably the people who buy the condos, but not necessarily that great for people who have to vacate businesses and residences.”

    Young first moved to the city in 1985 and applied to join the Planning Commission because of his interest in public service. He previously worked as a fire marshal in Campbell and Mountain View before retiring as a fire chief in 2008. He also worked on the Neighborhoods Commission and District 9 Leadership Group.

    “As a fire marshal, you get involved in land development and land use, so I have a good background in that,” he told San José Spotlight. “The time I spent on the Neighborhoods Commission was invaluable in helping me understand the issues that are important to the residents and the city.”

    Young said the additional commissioners will provide a broader point of view from all areas of the city.

    Bonilla welcomes the increase in commissioners and said a small group of people led the conversation for far too long.

    “We are folks that members of the community can connect with as their bridge to City Hall,” he said. “It’s about creating a pathway for members of our community to be civically engaged, to contribute in the shaping of the city.”

    Ornelas-Wise wanted to join the Planning Commission to make a difference in her community, according to her application. She did not respond to a request for comment.

    As a professional planner for Santa Clara County, Ornelas-Wise managed, processed and facilitated complex land use applications. Born and raised in San Jose, Ornelas-Wise said on her application that the commission should address homeless prevention, affordable housing and smart growth.

    Montanez, a development director for Gardner Health Services, previously served on Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Racial Justice and Equity Task Force and as mayor of San Fernando. She said on her application that she adds diversity to the commission as a woman of color and brings perspective as a resident of the North San Jose and Alviso communities. She did not respond to a request for comment.

    Her biggest concern is equity.

    “We must address land use policies that are inherently discriminatory,” she wrote on her application, “and create policies that limit the displacement of hard-working people and communities of color whose services are needed for the city to thrive.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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