You won’t read about it in the Mercury News, and NBC Bay Area probably won’t do an in-depth investigative report, but a significant shift has occurred in the halls of 200 E. Santa Clara St. that stands to undermine the transparency and effectiveness of governance in San Jose.
A curious coupling of Councilmembers issued a 4:59pm memo last Friday recommending the City Council adopt what sounds at first like a reasonable idea: Allow each councilmember to appoint a member to every city board and commission.
Unfortunately, the path to bad policy is often paved with reasonable ideas.
San Jose has more than 20 boards and commissions, comprised of hundreds of community volunteers with specialized skills and interests in the various fields they represent. Shrinking resources have stretched city staff as thin as Taylor Swift in providing support for meetings, subcommittees and other events. That’s why, nearly two years ago, City Manager Debra Figone asked the City Clerk to develop a plan for consolidating redundant commissions and reducing the associated workload for city staff. I wrote about the early stages of this plan last year.
Thankfully, public input and rational thought have made the proposal much less draconian than originally intended. But that didn’t prevent the Friday memo from Councilmembers Pete Constant and Xavier Campos that gummed up the works. Their premise is that San Jose’s 10 council districts are disproportionately represented on our boards and commissions. This is true, of course. And I’ll be first to agree that geographic diversity is a worthy goal. But the crafters seem to ignore a few obvious points:
1. The City doesn’t have enough qualified applicants, regardless of which council district they call home. According to the city’s website, there are currently 33 vacancies on boards and commissions ranging from the Library Commission (three open seats) to the Historic Landmarks Commission (two seats). Granted, a few of these groups are due to be consolidated under the current workplan, but you’d think that a city as engaged and neighborhood-driven as San Jose could produce enough warm bodies to fill those seats. Perhaps city staff could use a communications consultant.
2. Nothing currently prevents councilmembers from recruiting interested applicants from their districts. But you wouldn’t know it from the sob session that stretched across nearly the entire dais during Tuesday’s council meeting. Not one of the councilmembers offered any insights as to how the city could improve its outreach. Instead, they blamed a politicized system that empowers commission liaisons to play favorites with their constituents. It’s enough to make you wonder if our elected officials have heard of this thing called Facebook.
3. Allowing councilmembers direct appointments could politicize our boards and commissions to an even greater extent than they already are. Santa Clara County uses a supervisor-based process to appoint commissioners, but it’s not always transparent. Sometimes, when a county supervisor needs to fill a vacancy, they simply call up a friend and ask them to apply. The appointment becomes a favor for a campaign supporter or a reward for a persistent gadfly, regardless of qualifications. By the way, the last time San Jose city councilmembers each had direct appointments to a city commission, it was the cohort that reset council district lines following the 2010 census. And what a bang-up job they did.
My fellow blogger, Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio, noted that the City Council is geographically representative of the city. While he is indeed quite observant, he is off base in arguing that our commissions should be as well. The council has purview over every policy area. Boards and commissions exist to provide input on specific policy areas. As such, priority should be placed on recruiting and appointing residents with expertise in those areas. Geographic diversity would be a happy bonus.
P.S. The Elections Commission currently has two vacancies, and the deadline to apply is today — if you’re interested. When I was appointed to the Arts Commission, I was one of two applicants for two seats. In other words, throw your hat in the ring. You never know…
Peter Allen wears many hats, among them city of San Jose arts commissioner. He is a proud native of District 6.