East San Jose Councilwoman Rallies for More Diversity on City’s Planning Commission

San Jose’s most prominent city commission has been thrust into the limelight once again.

This time, at a news conference convened Thursday by District 5 Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco, who joined a host of constituents in calling for more diversity—and a voice from East Side—on the predominantly white Planning Commission.

The seven-member group of City Council appointees, which weighs land-use decisions and issues policy recommendations, has become a flashpoint in a politically charged conversation about equitable representation in local government.

“You cannot be making decisions on somewhere you don’t live in and you don’t even know the community,” said Olivia Ortiz, a 25-year resident of the Mayfair neighborhood  and one of a couple-dozen East Side residents to rally behind Carrasco on Thursday. “If there’s going to be construction around here or development, they have to figure out stuff that’s going to fit the community.”

To understand how the normally mundane process of appointing land-use commissioners became so fraught, just rewind the clock to this past spring.

The council had three people to choose from to replace Ada Márquez, who resigned from the Planning Commission several months prior. Santa Clara County Planning Commissioner Aimee Escobar, former District 6 Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio and Voler Strategic Advisors Chief Strategy Officer Rolando Bonilla.

In a split vote, they chose Oliverio, making him the fourth white person from D6 to join a commission that represents one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation. The decision ignited a firestorm of controversy that has ebbed and surged in the time being.

Since the April vote to install Oliverio, two more commissioners have resigned. Namrata Vora left in May and John Leyba earlier this month, leaving two more vacancies to fan the flames of parochial politicking over what’s meant to be a procedural post.

That leads the saga to Thursday morning.

SOMOS Mayfair helped Carrasco organize the Thursday morning rally. (Photo by Grace Hase)

Carrasco, surrounded by D5 residents and activists from community advocacy nonprofit SOMOS Mayfair, stood in front of an empty lot on Alum Rock Avenue. They held up signs reading “desarollo sin desplasaminento” and “no more politics as usual.” They chanted and spoke about displacement and gentrification plaguing the largely Latino East Side.

The empty plot of dirt where the group convened—1936 Alum Rock Ave., a fenced-off swath of gravel with blockish townhomes on one side and drab low-slung buildings on the other—marked a case in point for the rally.

Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, the executive director of SOMOS Mayfair, said that despite community members objecting to a project proposed for the site, the Planning Commission gave it the OK. The council didn’t even have to weigh in. That’s because the Alum Rock neighborhood lies in something called a form-based planning zone, meaning the land-use commissioners have full power to greenlight a project as long as it meets the city’s building code standards.

“It is this example and countless others that make us disappointed in the current makeup of the Planning Commission, as well as lack of community process,” Llanes-Fontanilla said. “We support the more holistic reforms of the Planning Commission with structural change to ensure historically excluded communities have representation and power.”

The appointment of two new commissioners comes up for a vote at Tuesday’s council meeting. There are several candidates to choose from. Before Leyba stepped down, three applicants made it to the finalist round: Voler’s Bonilla, Santa Clara County Probation Department Deputy Director Mariel Caballero and James Lick High School Vice Principal Louis Barocio.

After Leyba’s departure, City Clerk Toni Taber added another name—District 10 resident and real estate lawyer George Casey—to the list of finalists, stoking still more frustration over a process already decried as opaque and inaccessible.

Carrasco chided the city for roiling an already contentious ordeal.

“The process in my opinion lacked transparency,” she said. “It happened last-minute and we already had three candidates that had been advanced through a complicated process. The fact that they reopened it is troubling.”

Peter Allen—one of a couple white D6ers on the Planning Commission to decry their own overrepresentation—told San Jose Inside that the lack of geographic and racial equity is a “systemic problem” that extends beyond any one board. To help fight it, he says the city needs to attract more diversity to the “pool of people who are getting involved.” In his view, that means elected council members should lead the way, using their public profile and political clout to bring underrepresented communities into the pipeline.

“We need our leaders to take charge and make change when it isn’t convenient or they’re running for office,” Allen said, referring to Carrasco’s 2020 bid for Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese’s seat. “It’s surprising to me that council member Carrasco is hosting this [press conference]. She’s a city leader. She could implement the transparency by making the [appointment] process more transparent.”

Allen also voiced his criticism about the whole brouhaha in a Medium post earlier this month that took a swipe at Bonilla—Carrasco’s preferred finalist—for mischaracterizing the nature of a planning commissioner’s job.

It’s no secret where I stand on the issue of equitable representation on the Planning Commission,” Allen wrote. “We absolutely need a diversity of perspectives at every layer of government and public service, from the 1st floor of City Hall to the 18th. But that issue can and should be addressed on a separate track outside the appointment process, and it should involve the elected leaders who actually have the ability to enact change.”

Some change from the 18th floor is forthcoming.

Earlier this year, in response to backlash over the Oliverio appointment, Carrasco joined Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilwoman Maya Esparza in co-authoring a proposal to bar more than two people from the same council district from serving on the Planning Commission.

The group has also pushed for an amendment to the city’s charter, which would structure the land-use commission to mirror the City Council by including one member from each of the 11 district—plus an at-large member. That kind of restructuring, however, will be left up to voters in the 2020 election.

For now, in the week ahead, the question is which two of the four finalists will the council choose to fill two spots on a commission with coveted clout but limited authority.

Some criticized Thursday's protest as a political ploy. (Photo by Grace Hase)

Grace Hase is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_hase.

11 Comments

  1. I really like Peter Allen, but if he believes in what he is saying I do not understand why he has not resigned his position. Everytime this story comes up he is the one voicing moral outrage at the possibility of a white male from D6 joining the planning commission, but it’s okay for him to be a white male from D6 on the commission because he’s already on it? Seems hypocritical at best, straight up exploitative at worst for him to be saying, “Yeah, it’s really not fair that I’m here” and not resign his office. Most of the time that people go out in front of the media and lament about how they’re enjoying what they see as an unjustly acquired privilege, it’s a prelude to relinquishing said privilege. You can’t both enjoy the moral superiority of denouncing your inheritance as blood money AND enjoy the blood money.

    • “Speaking truth to power”.

      But, since you’re speaking to Peter Allen, it’s really speaking truth to an unemployable political hack.

      He CAN’T relinquish his job. He would never get another one.

      • I don’t think Peter Allen is an unemployable political hack. He has had a lot of success running campaigns for others and has really great communication/PR skills that could help him find employment in any number of sectors. I think he’s doing the right thing in holding Carrasco accountable for exploiting this issue for her campaign while taking no action as a city leader to solve it. I also think he’s right that the appointment process is an inappropriate venue for addressing the systemic underrepresentation on the commission (and all commissions, as he pointed out), and that the issue should be solved through widening the field of candidates and reforming the way the commission is structured. I simply feel that he has put himself in an awkward position with many of his comments casting aspersions on his own appointment.

        • > I don’t think Peter Allen is an unemployable political hack.

          Possibly true. But only because there is likely a Democrat politician somewhere who WILL employ ANY unemployable Democrat political hack.

    • I think the Carrasco doth protest too much. Carrasco has made a career of false addresses and backing people who have one qualification, ties to common law husband, Kevin DeLeon, who lives in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Buena Park, Compton, and Simi Valley. Carrasco does not represent diversity, except the color green

  2. Sound like the entire east side would just like to de-gentrify back into a low income housing barrio, loaded with taquerias
    strip malls, bars and blank walls to paint colorful Mayan and La Raza graffiti on.

    Diversity at any cost would be better than endless Euro-block condo’s built around bankrupt transit hub empire’s designed by guilt-ridden white socialist’s.

    We deserve better, but you not going to get it fighting about race as a prerequisite qualification to anything.

  3. “Sin desplasaminento”? That’s not even correct Spanish. It’s desplazamiento. Geez . . . .

  4. Identity politics. Thats all “they” have left. Mag has burned this mantra to the ground…..

  5. ‪I wonder what they would say in Willow Glen’s District-6 to a high-rise building (4 stories) as living quarters for 160-320 individuals which happen to be only “Chronic Homeless”.

    Yes, there is a disparate impact on us here in District-7. In 2016 the planning commission approved the Conditional Use Permit for a 100% Chronic Homeless Housing facility of 162 units which could hold a total of 320 homeless individuals at 2500 Senter Road. There was no one representing us here on the East Side of the City. So it got unanimous approval to go ahead. This then got kicked up to the City council which voted 10-1 to approve the facility.

    The facility is four stories high on a 2.46 acre plot of land. It is surrounded on two sides by single family homes. It was once the location of a one story church with parking lot. The neighbors being within spitting distance were against it. We raised hell and nobody listened. We didn’t realize at the time how politics worked against the Eastside. We will now have the largest in the nation of such a facility. They put it in District-7, because “that is where the homeless are” and “the land is cheaper there” according to some on council. Put this mental facility on Linclon and Minnesota and the real estate will be cheaper there too. District-7 has had enough of this White Willow Glen Privileged run Planning Commission.

    The definition of Chronic Homeless later became known to us:
    ‪The HUD terminology for Chronic Homeless is being on the street for (12) months or more and with a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, a serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness or disability, including the co-occurrence of two or more of these conditions.” In addition, “a disabling condition limits an individual’s ability to work or perform one or more activities of daily living.” ‬

    ‪So we have a population which would not allow for children. These Chronic had to be individuals or unaccompanied adults. The population is too hard core derelict to allow for children. Most Chronic are dual diagnosis which is the most difficult to handle. Dual Diagnosis is Mentally ill and also self medicating with street drugs. This behavior will be allowed to continue under the Housing First program. Alcohol and drugs are allowed within the individuals living unit. No sobriety is required. These will be our new neighbors within walking distance to four elementary schools. Prior felonies which are older than 7 years are not a deterrent from living here. Forty seven thousand felons were let out of California State prisons in 2010 due to overcrowding. Most of which could not get a job in the recession and became the Chronic Homeless. These will be our new neighbors. ‬

    • > There was no one representing us here on the East Side of the City. . . .

      > We raised hell and nobody listened. . . .

      > They put it in District-7, because “that is where the homeless are” and “the land is cheaper there” . .

      Dear Bruce:

      Sucks, bro. Sounds like you’re screwed.

      Fortunately, most of us DON’T live in District 7, I’m sure the Mayor and the City Council would never allow such a permanent high rise homeless camp in any district that has sufficient white privilege.

      My advice to you is to somehow goose up District 7’s white privilege quota.

      Maybe Kanye West could give you some aid:

      https://sjoutsidethebubble.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/kanye-coupon.png

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