Expertise vs. Geography on City Commissions

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.

Peter Allen was born and raised in San Jose and lives in Willow Glen. He is a board member of the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association and vice chair of the city of San Jose Arts Commission. Follow him on Twitter at @pjallen2.

One Comment

  1. Appointments made by individual council members is a bad idea.  I agree with Mr. Allen – appointments should be based on qualifications and expertise, not who knows who on the council, or geographic distribution.

    In Santa Clara (city), appointments to committees/commissions are made by the council as a whole (majority vote), and even that hasn’t prevented the appointment by a majority of the council of people who donate to/volunteer for the campaigns of council members.  If the campaign donors/volunteers/friends of council members would have qualifications and expertise above the qualifications of other applicants, that would be one thing, but they often don’t. 

    Case in point.  The SC City Council formed a charter review committee to review how the city conducts its elections (by seat, and the seats are not tied to geography or any districts, rather, the seat system serves to prevent a slate of candidates from having to run against each other.)  One of the applicants has been a paid campaign consultant to many city council members, and has harassed/cyberbullied the opponents of council members for years.  He was appointed to the Charter Review Commission even though other applicants clearly had better qualifications, and his harassment/cyberbullying behavior should have been seen as a violation of the city’s ethics code.  The council majority even enlarged the committee from the advertised 15 members to 16 members in order to include the applicant who harasses/cyberbullies council majority opponents. 

    Candidates applications are put online in SC, and the interviews are held in public, so we can see when the council is not selecting the most highly qualified applicants.

    Another case.  Our of a group of applicants, there were two highly qualified candidates for an important appointment to another city commission.  They were both passed over because the council majority appointed someone who had helped manage the campaign of one member of the council majority.  Who does that serve? Not the people here.

    When you start to see city committees/commissions stacked with people who would vote just like the council majority – and know that the committees/commissions are often the farm team for people who later run for council – you can see how keeping people with divergent points of view off of the committees/commissions can end up later keeping people with divergent points of view from running for council or being able to get elected.  This isn’t always true, but it’s happened often enough here to be a noticeable pattern.