Don't destroy San Jose commissions that give residents their voice

By Larry Ames and Helen Chapman



Special to the Mercury


Posted:   02/24/2012 02:30:37 PM PST



"Envision 2040" is a thoughtful vision for San Jose: grand boulevards and neighborhood main streets, urban villages and walkable, bikeable communities. Built upon previous general plans and Mayor Chuck Reed's Green Vision, it was crafted over several years in a public process involving elected officials, planners, residents, developers, business owners and others. But what happens next will depend on the people charged with maintaining the vision.


A proposal before the City Council threatens the power of neighborhood residents and community advocates to influence development -- to keep the city true to the 2040 vision even when influential builders can make higher profits by building something different. Residents have influence through city boards and commissions, but now the very existence of those groups is in doubt.


Here's what's at stake.


In any development plan, there are three dynamics at work. The mayor and council decide what can be built, working through the city manager, various department directors, planners and inspectors. Developers bring it to reality, sometimes trying to enhance profits with plan changes along the way. The residents, who change housing into homes, have to live with what is built.


City commissions balance these three forces.


Commissioners are residents who volunteer to become immersed in subjects such as parks, libraries and the arts. They review proposals and listen to public comment.


For example, when residents worry that a project appears too dense, planning commissioners can suggest fewer units or larger setbacks from existing properties. The developers can then modify their proposals or appeal to the council. Everyone is heard.


San Jose also has been trying something new and innovative: a Neighborhoods Commission selected not by the council, which appoints other commissioners, but by the community. Nearing the end of its two-year trial period, the Neighborhoods Commission channels neighborhood concerns to city officials and improves relationships between residents and City Hall. It has dealt with community outreach, street-tree maintenance, community policing and the budget. Members would like to address more regional neighborhood issues such as preserving creekside habitats, defining how new main streets connect with established neighborhoods and helping urban villages to be welcome additions to San Jose.


But the council has directed the city clerk to recommend how to streamline all city commissions except the ones required in the city charter, such as the planning commission.


Some ideas make sense: standardized agendas and bylaws, for example. However, supposedly to save money, the recommendations include consolidating groups of commissions, the most egregious lumping the following into a single conglomerate: Arts, Early Care & Education, Library (including parcel tax oversight), the Neighborhoods Commission, Parks & Rec, and several Bond Oversight Committees (Libraries, Parks & Rec, and Public Safety).


No one knows how much money this would save; city staff says only that it takes some time to post agendas and take minutes. Commissions proposed ways to raise money, but they appear not to have been included.


So the question is: What is the value of public participation -- the concerns and creative solutions of the folks most affected by projects? Will there even be time to speak during combo-commission meetings? Cost cuts already leave fewer planners and inspectors to review proposed developments. Restricting public participation could leave developers' plans unchecked.


Council members will hear the recommendations at the Rules Committee meeting Wednesday. Tell them the commissions are a vital part of the city's checks and balances: Preserve these avenues for citizen input, and renew and enhance the invaluable Neighborhoods Commission.


The citizens of San Jose need to have their say for a balanced vision for their city in 2040.


Larry Ames is a member of the San Jose Neighborhoods Commission. Helen Chapman is past chair of the San Jose Parks and Recreation Commission. They wrote this for this newspaper.