A powerful San Jose commission that in recent years faced criticism over its lack of diversity is beginning to look more like the city it serves.
But one member is bemoaning the choice of another man to lead the majority-male panel.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Planning Commissioner Pierluigi Oliverio told San José Spotlight. Oliverio, from the wealthy, majority-white enclave of Willow Glen, chaired the commission since last summer.
Oliverio nominated Planning Commissioner Sylvia Ornelas-Wise—a Latina woman with a decade of experience as a former planner for Santa Clara County—to replace him as chair.
“Over this past term, we as commissioners have talked about, for example, how the makeup of the commission was oddly one-sided,” Oliverio said ahead of the vote. He called Ornelas-Wise, one of the commission’s only two women, “ultra-qualified.”
His colleagues did not all agree. The commission instead chose Justin Lardinois to be chair in a 6-4 vote, and elected Ornelas-Wise as vice chair. Fellow Commissioner Michael Young nominated him, calling him intelligent and thoughtful.
The San Jose Planning Commission in 2019 came under harsh scrutiny after San José Spotlight’s reporting revealed stark disparities: The commission was stacked with white men, mostly from affluent districts like Willow Glen, and lacked representation from vulnerable neighborhoods like East San Jose. When the San Jose City Council in 2019 appointed Oliverio in a split vote, he became the fourth white commissioner from affluent District 6, winning out over two Latino candidates.
Policymakers adopted sweeping reforms in the wake of the backlash to ensure broader ethnic and geographic diversity. In 2021, the number of seats on the commission rose from 7 to 11, and new rules require the appointment of one person from each of the city’s council districts and one at-large member. They also bar more than two members from the same district from serving together, among other tweaks.
As a result of the changes, councilmembers apppointed two Latino representatives: Mariel Caballero and Rolando Bonilla, who in 2020 went on to serve as chair and vice chair, respectively. It was 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 makes land use decisions and recommendations on on rezoning and redevelopment requests.
Bonilla, who represented East San Jose, told San José Spotlight that he’s “very satisfied” with the planning commission’s current makeup. He pointed to Lardinois as a younger voice on the commission, and to Ornelas-Wise’s professional background.
“The fact that now we have Justin as chair and Sylvia as the vice chair is precisely why we needed the planning commission to be diversified,” he said.
Oliverio later told San Jose Spotlight the vote not to promote Ornelas-Wise was a “missed opportunity,” but stressed there was “zero acrimony” between current members.
Lardinois, who said he’s the commission’s first openly LGBTQ member, acknowledged the commission still “has some challenges” in terms of diversity, particularly around class background and gender. But Lardinois said he hoped to encourage San Jose residents who don’t have much prior knowledge about housing and land use policies to nonetheless weigh in on community decisions.
“I want to take a step back and use my role to help make sure we’re hearing from everybody on the commission, and that members of the public have their opportunity to contribute as well,” he told San José Spotlight. “I don’t want to be always using my power to have the last word.”
Bonilla noted that while commissioners can select their chair and vice chair, the demographic makeup of the panel is ultimately up to the San Jose City Council, which appoints new members.
“At the end of the day, what was important to me was that every councilmember (would) have the opportunity to appoint someone,” Bonilla said. “The responsibility now lies in the hands of the city councilmembers individually to ensure that the voices of their community are at the table.”
Ornelas-Wise told San José Spotlight that being a working mother has uniquely informed the way she approaches the planning commission’s decisions—she pays particular attention to whether projects include areas for children to play safely, for example. She hopes more residents step up to fill vacancies on city commissions and boards.
“I invite people to step up and step forward and speak out,” she said. “So many people have so much to say, and I want to listen.”
Contact Graph Massara at g[email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BylineGraph.
Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez, spouse of Rolando Bonilla, serves on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.