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For years, one of San Jose’s most influential commissions has been overwhelmingly controlled by white representatives from some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. But that’s about to finally change.

The San Jose City Council has appointed five new members from different areas across the city to the Planning Commission after public scrutiny for its longtime lack of racial and geographic diversity.

The commission, which evaluates land-use policies and gives recommendations on planning and development proposals, will now include three Latinx residents, three white residents and a Black resident — all seven of whom reside in separate council districts. The council, however, did not appoint any Asian-American candidates even though nearly a third of the city’s population is made up of people of Asian and pacific island descent.

“We got an excellent pool of candidates, which speaks volumes about the council’s willingness to step up to this kind of commitment and I’m grateful to all the people who applied,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said during the appointment meeting on Monday about the pool of 14 candidates.

In the coming years, the Planning Commission will help mold projects with long-lasting impacts on the city — from the proposed Google transit village to the expansion of its bike lane network to housing projects and developments along business and transit corridors across San Jose.

The makeup of the new commission follows more than a year of calls for more representation from the city’s low-income and minority communities. Earlier this month, the council passed reforms to limit the term of planning commissioners to two consecutive four-year terms and prohibit the appointment of more than two commissioners from the same council district.

Matt Gustafson of Somos Mayfair, a nonprofit organization in the Mayfair neighborhood of East San Jose, was one of the community members pushing for a more equitable group makeup. In an interview after the appointments, Gustafson said he was “disappointed” with the outcome.

For East San Jose community members and leaders, those elected to the city’s planning commission can sometimes wield as much power as the council in approving developments that could lead to more gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Urban village plans on the city’s east side only require project approval for the planning commission, rather than a recommendation by the planning commission and approval by the city council.

“It’s not just about geographic representation,” Gustafson said. “I don’t think that several of the candidates have demonstrated that they understand the negative impacts of certain kinds of development on marginalized communities.”

“If a planning commissioner doesn’t have concerns for displacement, that’s really bad for Mayfair,” he added.

In particular, Gustafson questioned the council’s decision to pass over two qualified candidates with years of applicable experience — Huy Tran, a former council candidate and former San Jose housing commissioner,  and Aimee Escobar, a senior housing policy analyst for Santa Clara County Housing Authority and a member of Santa Clara County’s Planning Commission. Escobar also has a master’s degree in urban planning.

“How much more experience can you get?” Gustafson said of Escobar. “It’s clear that there are politics that go into choosing candidates.”

The council faced serious backlash last year when it bypassed two Latinx candidates, Rolando Bonilla and Aimee Escobar, to replace Ada Marquez, the only woman of color on the commission at that time. Instead, the council appointed former councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio — a decision that solidified the commission’s all-white makeup.

Commissioner Shiloh Ballard, whose term ends at the end of June and decided not to try for reappointment, noted at the time that the body made of a majority of white men did not “accurately reflect the makeup of our city.”

“With so many key land use decisions being discussed on a regular basis, it’s important that our planning commission be made up of individuals that have deep ties in communities throughout the City,” Ballard wrote on Facebook after the appointment. “It saddens me that decisions will be made without thinking of the potential impacts in areas like Mayfair, Capitol Park, Mt. Pleasant, and the Washington Neighborhood.”

Since then, the council appointed two Latinx commissioners, Mariel Caballero, who was appointed in October to fill a partial term ending this month, and Rolando Bonilla, whose term ends in June 2022. Last week, Caballero was elected by her fellow commissioners to serve as chair and Bonilla as vice-chair.

The city council was tasked with filling five slots on the commission this week — one vacancy due to the resignation of Melanie Griswold on April 15 and four vacancies due to commissioners with terms ending at the end of June.

The new chair of the commission, Caballero, was unanimously approved for another term on Tuesday. Caballero is a deputy director of prohibition administration for Santa Clara County and lives in the city’s downtown area, District 3.

Speaking to Caballero during the virtual interview, council member Raul Peralez, who represents her district, said she has represented his district “proudly” and her quick appointment to the chair was a “testament to your ability to serve on this commission.”

The other newly-elected commissioners include:

  • George Casey, an associate attorney at Morrison Foerster and a resident of District 10
  • Jorge Antonio Garcia, an account executive by Redwood Mortgage and a resident of District 8
  • Justin Lardinois, a software engineer at Google and a resident of District 1
  • Deborah Torrens, a self-employed family child-care provider and a resident of District 2
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Current commissioners Oliverio, a District 6 resident, and Bonilla, a District 5 resident, will serve until the end of June 2022.

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