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Council candidate, city employee get into altercation

Differences on overnight-parking ban fuel shouting match

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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."

Lopez agreed.

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."

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Comments

28 people like this
Posted by Willie Sutton
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2018 at 8:59 am

Incredible. And people wonder why EPA tends to get a bad rep. City employees and those running for public office should show a bit more decorum and set a positive example for its residents.

Maybe they should have had a moderator to control the flow of commentaries and presentations. In any event, hotheads have no place in city government and its administration.

Like other cities around here, the camping-out in RVs has become a very touchy issue. Poverty and tenant displacements have played a major role in this ongoing problem. Resentment is running rampant between regular residents and those who park RVs near their homes. Excessive noise, the spewing of garbage, raw sewage and various shady activities seem to be accompanying these transient living arrangements.

If further restrictions are implemented on transient RVs in EPA, don't be surprised if some of them gravitate to Palo Alto being that PA is both conveniently located and its ordinances pertaining to RVs are seemingly lax.

Our RV problem will now become Palo Alto's but perhaps to a greater extent.




12 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2018 at 1:46 pm

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

It is very common at EPA Meetings to step outside to discuss something, as talking in the meeting hall is disruptive to the proceedings inside. Asking someone to, "step outside" is not an invitation to fight, it is an invitation to converse about an issue without disturbing the ongoing meeting. People step outside dozens of times at every city hall meeting. This is, however, the first time I am hearing of someone being attacked after asking someone to discuss an issue!


14 people like this
Posted by Dixie
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2018 at 2:03 pm

I am frankly concerned that Patricia F. Lopez does not have the stable temperament to be a sitting City Council member. The East Palo City Council requires a level headedness & an individual that will not be overreactive when disagreements arise with members of the community or with adjacent cities when designing regional approaches.


16 people like this
Posted by Let's All Try to Get Along
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 12, 2018 at 2:31 pm

> Asking someone to, "step outside" is not an invitation to fight, it is an invitation to converse about an issue without disturbing the ongoing meeting. People step outside dozens of times at every city hall meeting.

I've only heard that phrase in dive bars where there is a lingering difference of opinion.

Is this protocol unique to EPA?


9 people like this
Posted by bemused
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2018 at 5:30 pm

I would like more information about the timing of this article. The article states that McKenzie was in touch with the Weekly staff about the incident at least as early as two days after, on September 21. Was the incident not considered newsworthy then, but something changed in the following three weeks? Or is three weeks a normal amount of time to investigate something like this?


74 people like this
Posted by EPA Protocols?
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 13, 2018 at 1:42 pm

No Parliamentary Procedures in EPA? Just interruptions followed by, "Let's step outside."?

What a colorful way to settle disputes.


30 people like this
Posted by R. Davis
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2018 at 9:30 am

^^^^ I guess it comes with the territory as everyone has their own way of settling their differences.


8 people like this
Posted by No Big Deal
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2018 at 2:30 pm

> It is very common at EPA Meetings to step outside to discuss something...This is, however, the first time I am hearing of someone being attacked after asking someone to discuss an issue!

>> I've only heard that phrase in dive bars where there is a lingering difference of opinion.


[Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]


1 person likes this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2018 at 3:38 pm

The above three comments are disgusting, snide and unnecessary.


26 people like this
Posted by Who Has the Floor?
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 14, 2018 at 11:14 pm

> No Parliamentary Procedures in EPA?

Apparently not according to the PA weekly reportage. Just an invitation.




2 people like this
Posted by sueppr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 15, 2018 at 10:59 am

sueppr is a registered user.

I have worked with Marie McKenzie for several years and have the utmost respect for her as a leader in city government and her community. I have no doubt that her request was as others have said, to step out of the meeting and discuss the issue in a calm and reasonable manner.


20 people like this
Posted by When in Rome
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 15, 2018 at 1:56 pm

>>I have worked with Marie McKenzie for several years and have the utmost respect for her as a leader in city government and her community. I have no doubt that her request was as others have said, to step out of the meeting and discuss the issue in a calm and reasonable manner.

>>>From the PA 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!'"


Is 'ghetto thinking' a positive attribute or a negative distraction when it comes to seeking public office in EPA?

Since every town is different based on its demographics, one might assume this thought process is customary to EPA?


18 people like this
Posted by Watching From a Distance
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 15, 2018 at 4:56 pm

>>Is 'ghetto thinking' a positive attribute or a negative distraction when it comes to seeking public office in EPA?

If EPA is considered a ghetto, then yes it can be a positive attribute as ghetto people often think and behave differently in order to get things done.

On the other hand, if EPA is striving towards gentrification then their civic leaders should consider showing a bit more decorum.



1 person likes this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 16, 2018 at 3:56 pm

It's been great that in recent years our elected officials have behaved well, and at the same time worked to prevent displacement of vulnerable residents. Neither of the subjects of this article acquitted themselves very well, overall - Lopez for her behavior at the meeting and McKenzie for how she described the interaction.


3 people like this
Posted by Lourdes Carini
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2018 at 1:48 pm

I Worked with Marie while opening the San Mateo Crefit Union Branch. She was instrumental in the success of the branch and introducing me to many community leaders. Her passion and commitment to the residents of East Pallo Alto is real.
It saddened me to read this article portraying her as wanting to pick a fight. She’s the type that hugs all she meets and she is one of the many friends I miss from East Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2018 at 5:47 pm

Oh please, stop with the "striving for gentrification." A lot of our leaders aren't pro gentrification, thankfully. But hey- we all know that's when the fights get real - we just have to look at our neighboring cities to see how they handle arguments - with lies, lawyers and lawsuits.


10 people like this
Posted by Culture Shock
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 17, 2018 at 5:56 pm

> A lot of our leaders aren't pro gentrification, thankfully. But hey- we all know that's when the fights get real...


Is that when things are 'taken outside'?


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