Service game, or Why I’m applying for reappointment to the Planning Commission.
Recently, I’ve been asked by multiple well-meaning friends when I would be resigning from the planning commission. Not if. When. Because I’m not known for tossing cats, the suggestion seems a bit odd on its face. But my friends aren’t implying that I’m not qualified to serve. They’re saying I should step aside as a white man from the west side so that my seat can be filled by a person of color from the east side. And maybe they’re right.
Before we dig into that, a little background…
The San José Planning Commission has 7 members, all of whom are appointed by the City Council to four-year terms with no term limits. There are no requirements for service other than residency and voter registration within the city’s boundaries, and the council is not obligated to ensure geographic diversity among the commissioners. (State law also prohibits the use of race, gender identity, and other factors in the appointment process.)
Currently, 3 of 6 members, including myself, reside in Council District 6 — with another D6 resident resigning within the past week due to a professional conflict. Ostensibly, this creates a standing majority from D6 on any given vote. While this may be concerning, it should not be surprising. In fact, it’s a natural byproduct of the structural racism in our city that leaves some west siders with more access, opportunity, and free time than many of our fellow San Joséans who live on the east side of Highway 101.
Rightly so, this has become a point of contention among traditionally underrepresented and marginalized communities — particularly since the politically-tinged appointment of a former councilmember to the commission a little more than a year ago. And as you may have already guessed, it’s the impetus behind the friendly suggestions I’ve received to step aside. (In case you missed it, here’s something I wrote about it at the time.)
Bottom line: I will not be stepping aside, and I’ll tell you why. The current appointment process is vulnerable to the same tone-deaf, pay-to-play system that handed us the unbalanced commission we have now. And given the opportunity, I will continue to use this position to ensure all voices — especially those who are underrepresented — are elevated and heard.
I am well aware of my white male privilege. I make a point of reminding myself of it every day. I have a deep love and respect for my hometown and its unparalleled diversity. I can’t change my demographics any more than I can cut out my heart, and I’m not so blind that I don’t see the logic of moving on.
Indeed, when this issue flared up last year, my first instinct was to resign in protest of the council’s poor decision and obvious bias. After taking the time to talk to some of my closest confidants, I decided to stay put. I believe that my voice adds a diverse, experienced, nuanced perspective to commission deliberations that benefits the entire city and takes into account our most vulnerable neighbors as well as the undeniable and insidious factors that prevent meaningful and lasting change.
Community and city leaders have spent hours debating proposed changes to the Planning Commission structure and appointment process, with many ideas worth pursuing — expanding the commission, giving each councilmember the power to appoint a commissioner, a limit of no more than two commissioners from any council district. However, the appointment process and the commission itself will only be as strong, diverse, and equitable as the applicant pool.
It’s been great to see an influx of new applicants and commissioners who are more reflective of our city. But we won’t get to where we all say we want to be until our elected leaders use their positions to educate and inspire their constituents — beyond the usual suspects — to get involved. (Isn’t that part of their job description?) Until then, I find myself torn between a desire to raise up voices that need to be heard and an uncertainty about where and how those voices may be discovered, nurtured, and amplified.
At the end of the day, I refuse to give the city council an opportunity to fill another vacancy with a political power grab or by propping up a connected colleague. If the council decides that my services are no longer of value, they will have an opportunity to say as much if and when I am invited to a reappointment interview. And if we end up with a diverse cohort of kick ass applicants, I’d be more than happy to be passed over.
You can watch it all go down live from the comfort of your couch. Make sure to get your popcorn ready, and put your cat on mute!