As San Jose’s elected leaders quibble about equity in the city’s budget, another test of their fidelity to the principle is on the horizon with the next person they appoint to the currently all-white Planning Commission.
When the City Council in April bypassed Latino candidates Rolando Bonilla and Aimee Escobar to replace Ada Marquez, a woman of color, with former Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, it brought the commission’s homogeneity into stark relief.
The lack of ethnic and geographic variety on a board that represents one of the most diverse cities this side of eternity made some of the white commissioners—most notably Peter Allen and Shiloh Ballard—a tad self-conscious about the biases that might’ve swayed the councilors who appointed them.
Of the seven seats, six are now repped by white folks and four by people who live about a mile or so away from one another in District 6. A month later, the only other ethnic minority on the influential commission, Namrata Vora, announced her resignation, which prompted Bonilla and Escobar to re-apply.
While the council’s centrists and progressives alike joined a call to expand the commission to 11 seats, limit the number of reps per district to just two and prohibit lobbyists registered within the past two years from applying, those changes probably won’t take effect before the next appointment comes up for a vote.
That means it’ll be up to the council to make good on its stated commitment to diversity.
In a way, though, officials who promised to reform the commission are already falling short by making no apparent effort to publicize the vacancy to under-represented people and places in San Jose. No official notice even went to the most recent contenders from any of the council offices or City Clerk Toni Taber.
Starting the application process without letting the broader public know about it is a sure way to ensure that only insiders get shot, Ballard remarked in a phone call with Fly.
To make up for the city’s radio silence, Allen, who chairs the commission, put out a call for applicants on his Facebook page. “Did you know we have another vacancy on the city of San Jose Planning Commission?” he wrote in a post with a link to the application portal. “It’s OK if you didn’t. Nobody seems to be making a big deal out of it.”
San Francisco has been called to account for a similar problem—a dearth of outreach perpetuating a lack of diversity on its planning board. In a letter to the council, Ballard—who runs the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition—and heads of several other local nonprofits offered to help San Jose city leaders as they figure out how to fix that problem locally.
“We were born into a system that advantages white people and the wealthy,” the letter stated. “While none of us created that system, many of us benefit from it. To ignore that fact, to be willfully ignorant of it, and make the kinds of decisions that continue to deny certain segments of the community access to power is to be complicit.”
The council now has a chance to redeem itself, Ballard told Fly.
Thankfully for the city’s professed aims, either of the contenders would diversify the commission. Both are Latino; both come from districts with little to no representation on the board. Although, the South Bay Labor-aligned Bonilla—who has close ties to former East Side councilors Nora Campos and her younger brother Xavier Campos—would arguably be a more political appointee. In other words, par for the course.
Escobar, who boasts a masters degree in urban and regional planning from San Jose State, lives in District 3 and works by day as an analyst for the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara. On her own time, she serves as a county planning commissioner, where she weighs in on complex land-use decisions involving Stanford University expansion and the proposed construction of a new mosque in San Martin.
Bonilla lives in District 5, which encompasses the historically under-served East Side. The former aide to then-D5 Councilwoman Campos before she went on to serve in the state Assembly and Bonilla founded his own lobbying outfit Ford & Bonilla.
Bonilla now works for Voler Strategic Advisors, a PR company helmed by his wife Perla Rodriguez. Though Voler was registered with the city of San Jose as a lobbying firm in 2016, Bonilla—for what it’s worth—disputes the notion that he’s worked as anything but a communications consultant. When asked about his work for Voler, a question that already came up during the last round of Planning Commission interviews, he batted away claims of him being a lobbyist, calling it a distraction and part of a politically motivated “whisper campaign” to sully his reputation.
What matters, he said, is that he has a deep understanding of land-use policy and that he represents a part of San Jose that has long struggled to gain a seat at the table.
“Without a doubt, you know, Ms. Escobar and myself are more than equipped for this opportunity to serve the city,” Bonilla added. “My suggestion [for the council] would be to look at your finalists and make the decision between two very qualified candidates. I feel like we’ve both got the best credentials and the best experience for the job.”