You’re doing it wrong, or Why a commissioner is not a councilmember.

Peter Allen
4 min readSep 11, 2019


A recent mixed-use proposal for the Bascom Gateway Project

Let’s make one thing clear right off the top: San José has a long history of systemic racism that has marginalized black and brown communities east of Highway 87 (the successor to U.S. 101 as the dividing line in our local socioeconomics) to the benefit of whiter neighborhoods like the Rose Garden, Willow Glen, Cambrian, and Almaden.

This system of discrimination and negligence has spread throughout the bureaucratic beast of City Hall like a cancer, infecting every department, every task force, every commission. Strides have been made in recent decades to extract the cancer from the beast, yet it remains, clogging our arteries and making equitable community empowerment virtually impossible.

But anyone who’s followed local government for more than five seconds knows that it’s up to the 11 elected leaders who take the dais every Tuesday at 1:30pm to enact the policy changes needed to create lasting change.

Councilmembers are the only city representatives who are truly accountable to the people — and their campaign donors. City staffers don’t run for their positions, and neither do commissioners. We’re all appointed by and serve at the will of the Council. (This is an oversimplification for staff, who technically serve at the pleasure of the City Manager, but the Council has oversight of budgets that determine staffing levels, and they hire the City Manager.)

This is an incredibly important distinction to bear in mind as the Council navigates the political land mines involved in filling vacancies on the Planning Commission, which provides insight on critical land use and development projects. Commissioners are not elected by the people, we do not have campaign donors imploring us for favors, and we are not movers and shakers. Our ability to change the status quo of disenfranchisement in the public process is limited to passing along suggestions to the Council and hoping for the best.

Sure, we can vote against professional planning staff’s recommendation on any given project, and we have from time to time (three that I recall in my three years on the commission). But it’s rare when a project doesn’t meet development guidelines that were laid out long before the project was proposed, and that should be the primary concern of activists and self-appointed community representatives currently railing against a process that they see as out of control.

Instead, we have at least one applicant treating the appointment process like a City Council election, even challenging other applicants to a public debate:

If a candidate cannot stand the pressure of being in front of the public answering questions, how are we to expect that individual to make good public policy in a room full of passionate residents for a difficult vote? There is an absolute correlation between how a candidate navigates the process of becoming a city official, and how they do the work of the people once in the position.

This is peak ignorance, and it’s as dangerous as the misinformation being spewed by our president on a daily basis…

First, you’re not a candidate, you’re an applicant. You’re not seeking the votes of tens of thousands of residents. You only need six votes to get this job. It shouldn’t take a lot of “navigation” for an experienced lobbyist and former council chief of staff to get to this point. Also, the people can’t vote you out. To make them think they can hold you accountable is a disservice to the very community you claim to represent.

Second, commissioners are not policymakers. We are policy interpreters (and occasionally, we get to decide if your local CVS can sell alcohol). Council makes policy. Council approves the general plan. Council approves changes to the zoning code. Council approves urban village plans. Council appoints planning commissioners. Yes, there’s a General Plan Task Force, but like the Planning Commission, it exists to advise and recommend, not craft policy.

No matter where you sit in the family tree of civic life, it is incumbent upon you to treat your role with respect and to provide the public with accurate and adequate information with which to better understand decisions being made on their behalf. To intentionally mislead people like this is reprehensible. Period. And the false narrative is already spreading among my activist sisters and brothers — who have legitimate complaints about getting diverse voices to the table — but are now focusing their collective energy where they have no leverage.

It’s no secret where I stand on the issue of equitable representation on the Planning Commission. 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.

Thankfully, it appears the same applicant agrees with me, at least in his initial comments to San José Spotlight:

I’ve also made it very clear that one of the things that differs me from my opponents is that this position should not be a political stepping stone.

(Please hold my beer while I laugh out loud.)

You are correct, sir. This should not be about politics. This is an opportunity to help our neighbors understand the fundamental differences between elected and appointed officials. It would be another small step in the ongoing struggle to build a more educated electorate.

I call on you and other local leaders to join me in the struggle.



Peter Allen

Rehabilitated Public Servant, Communications Specialist, Arts Advocate, Husband, Dogfather