An argument over the hot-button issue of banning oversized vehicles in East Palo Alto turned into a shouting match that nearly became physical between a candidate for the City Council and a city employee during a city meeting on Sept. 19, according to witnesses.
The incident reveals both the passion and strain community members are feeling as the city grapples with gentrification and the displacement of residents.
The argument, which involved council candidate Patricia Ape Finau Lopez and city Administrative Services Director Marie McKenzie, flared up as McKenzie spoke in favor of a proposed ordinance to ban oversized vehicles from parking overnight on city streets. Lopez, a supporter of people who are homeless and living in RVs, is against the ordinance.
Court Skinner, a former city planning commissioner who is also a council candidate this fall, said he was sitting between Lopez and McKenzie during the Public Works and Transportation Committee meeting.
"Patricia was in the back, and I was sitting stage left, so to speak. There was a lot of discussion, and then it was time for the audience to comment. Marie got up (to the microphone) and started making comments. Patricia yelled out, 'You can't talk. That's a conflict of interest,'" he said, referring to McKenzie's employment by the city.
At some point, McKenzie turned around and pointed a finger toward the door.
"Patricia took it as an invitation to fisticuffs, that Marie meant to 'bring it on.' Half a dozen people went out after them before they could land any blows," he said.
Committee member Bernardo Huerta, another candidate for council, agreed that Lopez had begun shouting about a conflict of interest and that McKenzie had turned around and gesticulated at Lopez after returning to her seat. McKenzie pointed to the door and the women continued their argument as McKenzie walked out. Lopez followed about 20 feet behind, he said.
Huerta, who has known Lopez for many years, said she cares deeply about the community and can "get hot" if someone says something personal. But McKenzie also inflamed the situation, he said.
"Marie should have known better. She is older and she works for the city. I think she owes the city an apology," Huerta said.
Robert Jones was one of the people who followed Lopez and McKenzie into the hallway. Some people gathered around McKenzie and others around Lopez to keep the two separated until they calmed down, he said.
He had been sitting in the audience behind McKenzie.
"Whatever took place, Patricia said, 'What you are you looking at?' I had the sense that the conversation might have come up before," said Jones, executive director of local nonprofit organization East Palo Alto Community Alliance and Neighborhood Development Organization (EPA CAN DO).
At one point, McKenzie said, "Let's take this outside," Jones recalled. "When a person in the neighborhood says 'take this outside,'" it can be taken as wanting to fight.
But, he said, McKenzie may not have intended it that way.
"I've been around people enough to know the inflection of words, or using the wrong words can escalate the situation. You never know how the heart really feels. It could've been said to take the high road (as in 'let's go outside and talk') or 'Let's take this on.' To get to that point, there had to have been other conversations somewhere else. All it took was a situation to escalate it," he said.
Acting City Manager Sean Charpentier said that McKenzie had every right to speak at the meeting and had no conflict of interest. She was not acting in her official capacity, he said. She also does not have any voting power in her role within the city.
McKenzie said she has been an advocate for recreational-vehicle dwellers. She favors the city's process of getting East Palo Alto residents who are living in vehicles to a safe location and supporting them with a full range of services. But the Public Works and Transportation meeting was about removing oversized vehicles in general, including commercial trucks and RVs, which are crowding residential streets.
"Of course, I reserve my First Amendment rights as a resident, homeowner and taxpayer to speak. ... I rarely speak as a resident; however the Public Works/Transportation meeting was about removing large vehicles off the city streets, and I am in favor of that," she wrote in a Sept. 21 email to the Weekly.
About her role in the incident, McKenzie said: "I simply asked her, 'If you have something to say to me, come outside and address me. Stop yelling in this meeting.' I stood up and softly encouraged her to talk to me outside. From whatever ghetto thinking she comes from she thought I meant 'Let's go outside and fight!'
"Of the 100 or so people there, everyone knows me and knows my reputation for the last 17 years I've worked for the city and 55 years I lived in this city," McKenzie said.
Lopez, for her part, said that during the meeting she had asked a representative from Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto if it was a conflict of interest for McKenzie to speak publicly. Lopez maintained that she did so quietly but that McKenzie overheard her.
"When she sat down, she turned and yelled at me: 'Look here. I have every right to speak as a resident and a taxpayer of the community.'"
Lopez admits she took McKenzie's demeanor and gesture as an invitation to fight.
"She jumped up and called me out as if we were going to fight. I should've never responded to her luring me in. She said, 'You want to take this outside?'"
Once separated by other people, Lopez said McKenzie's demeanor and tone changed.
"She looked at me across the people and said, 'I only wanted to talk to you. That's all I wanted to do.'"
Witnesses and city staff appear not to hold either party chiefly responsible for the altercation. Charpentier called it a heated moment between two people that, with some community members' intervention, allowed them to calm down and the meeting to resume after a five-minute recess.
But committee member Andrei Garcia said that the altercation was significant enough for Chairman Richard Tatum to warn that no further disruption would be tolerated and that police would escort the offending parties from the room should it happen again.
Despite what Charpentier said about the brevity of the incident, McKenzie was initially so concerned by Lopez's reaction that she said on Sept. 21, two days after the dispute, that she planned to file a restraining order.
McKenzie referenced a statement that Lopez wrote on Facebook about the dispute that mentioned boxing: "I almost let my boxing days get the best of me. ... The more the enemies continue to provoke me, the more it makes me stronger. I must keep fighting because there's so many lives at risk. Campaign, campaign, campaign! p.s. please I need lots of prayers."
McKenzie herself has been involved in another conflict aside from the dispute with Lopez: She is currently scheduled for an Oct. 15 jury trial over an assault charge for allegedly throwing items at a Redwood City Safeway employee and a charge of cutting off a utility line in October 2017. (She allegedly grabbed a telephone away from the Safeway employee who was calling 9-1-1, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.)
McKenzie says the charges are racially motivated, according to an Oct. 2 email to the Weekly.
"I have many supporters regarding this case. As far as the charges leveled against me, I have this to say: I vehemently deny the allegations and look forward to the facts coming out in court. I was 'shopping while black!'"
She added that she will not be filing a restraining order against Lopez; the two have made up.
"As good East Palo Alto residents, working for the betterment of our community, Patricia Lopez and I did what people can do: reconciled their differences with a smile and a hug. That's what we did. I was glad she and I could do that! My mother always said, 'Find the good!'" she wrote.
"If Patricia Lopez was elected, I would treat her like I treat all the council members who run our great city, with respect and support."
She said she doesn't dislike McKenzie and can remember only one prior disagreement. But disagreeing wouldn't change how she treats McKenzie if Lopez were elected to the council.
"I would treat her with respect and hopefully she'll respect me in the same manner. There's been lots of complaints from the community on how the city staff treats people. People have complained about being disrespected, harassed, showing favoritism, denying and blocking people from reserving different places in the city to have events that's been in the city for years,” she said.
"I believe when you work in an environment that deals with people on a daily basis, it should be mandatory to go to training classes for customer service, respect and how to deal with a diverse community. I know how it is to try and maintain a positive attitude when dealing with difficult people, and when you have one or more people that are behaving badly, it will affect the whole team."