San Jose City Council decisions are almost always final, but they don’t start that way: Most major decisions go through a commission of appointees before they head to the council’s 11-member dais.
Before a law or policy is passed, it’s usually first taken up by the relevant commission. After presentations from city officials, public comment and debate, the commission votes in favor or against an item. The process can take place over a single meeting, like many land-use decisions for the city’s planning commission, or over several months, like decisions related to the city charter. San Jose has 18 total commissions with most members appointed by the City Council.
For major land-use items, decisions start with the city’s Planning Commission. For governance? The Charter Review Commission. For how the city’s districts are carved up? The Redistricting Commission
But an analysis by San José Spotlight found commissioners’ voices are often stifled in San Jose and their decisions overridden by the City Council—despite their knowledge of certain topics.
Once a commission rules on a subject, most times the item will go to the City Council. The City Council is free to deny any recommendations a city commission makes. So while appointees wield some power, city councilmembers are free to ignore their input.
“Any seat in government is only good as the person in it,” Planning Commissioner Chair Rolando Bonilla told San José Spotlight, who won his seat in 2019 after San José Spotlight highlighted a startling lack of ethnic and geographic representation on the powerful panel. “It really comes down to your willingness to participate in the public dialogue and to be true to yourself.”
For example, the planning commission in October voted 5-4 to leave Coyote Valley, a large swath of green space, designated for industrial development amid calls from environmentalists to preserve it. But the council two weeks ago ignored that recommendation, voting to reject a plan to develop 314 acres in the valley.
“I felt it was irresponsible to pass anything on Coyote Valley when major questions were still up in flux,” said Bonilla, who voted to keep the land zoned industrial. “The council should always have the final discretion, but the council should take into account our point of view.”
A May recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve a plan to shrink the city’s flea market was met with controversy. The commission’s decision was deemed a threat to vendors who occupy the space. The plan approved by the City Council looked significantly different from the commission’s recommendation—adding more than $5 million in benefits for market vendors. Yet another decision over height limits downtown split the City Council and the Airport Commission—commissioners voted against raising building heights near the airport, while the council voted to increase them.
Another interesting aspect is who applies to join city commissions.
Nearly all commissioners are appointed by the City Council and must be approved by the same body. Some are relative newcomers, but many are insiders shifting roles within San Jose’s political scene. For example, some former city councilmembers, such as Lan Diep and Pierluigi Oliverio, sit on the Charter Review and Planning Commission, respectively. Often commissioners are eyeing a run for higher office.
Still, some lack experience to weigh major decisions.
Some commissioners think more training for their appointed positions is needed—everything from parliamentary procedure to expressing their thoughts before a vote.
“Some commissioners are taught to be so nervous. What if they say they wrong thing or send something from the wrong email?” Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kelly Snider told San José Spotlight. “It feels like sometimes the police are going to come and arrest them like Steve Bannon. That shouldn’t happen. Even if commissioners make a mistake, that’s all it should be.”
Snider and Bonilla suggested commissioners be trained by political experts, former commissioners and community leaders to better understand how government works.
“I do think that councilmembers historically have not necessarily leaned completely on the recommendations of commissions, unless there’s a political point to make,” Bonilla said. “But (commissioners) need to be seen as think tanks on certain matters. I don’t believe they need to accept all our recommendations, but they should absolutely be put on a path where our recommendations are actually a big part of the conversations they’re having.”
Editor’s Note: Rolando Bonilla is married to San José Spotlight board member Perla Rodriguez.