Last Tuesday, the Palo Alto City Council without saying a word reduced the size of its Human Relations Commission (HRC) from seven to five seats. During a national outcry to address systemic racism in our country, five council members voted to shrink the commission tasked with addressing systemic racism, with only council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou voting to preserve it as is.
Members of the community have asked in the days since, why did the council do this?
Although the city gave dubious rationales, including a purported lack of volunteers, the real reason is me. They eliminated my seat despite, or perhaps because of, the work I've done during my term to fight bigotry and sexual harassment, push for police reform and swifter action on teen vaping; increase funding for mental health and homelessness services; increase access for special needs families and individuals of all abilities; and be an advocate for women, LGBTQ+, immigrants and other marginalized communities.
My interactions with the council over the three years of my term reflect a City Hall culture that is unaccountable, resistant to change and dissenting views, overly deferential to a staff that is unresponsive and out of touch with the community's needs. Although this might seem "inside baseball," the story of the Human Relations Commission provides insight into systemic issues with our city government.
By now, a vast majority of our community agrees that Palo Alto needs substantial police reform. That consensus, however, is relatively recent. When I advocated for police reform during my term, colleagues both on the HRC and the council chastised me for overstepping our commission's role and damaging our positive relationship with the Palo Alto Police Department.
This happened, for example, when I pushed back on the PAPD's proposed body camera policy two years ago. The PAPD, city staff and the council hoped the HRC would simply rubber stamp it, but I had questions and concerns regarding police transparency, accountability and protocol. I wanted a more comprehensive and public review and revision of those policies — which never happened.
As another example, one year later, a local news outlet requested PAPD's use of force records, as required under AB1421. Although many neighboring cities generally chose to comply with these standard records requests, Palo Alto continued to conceal those records over my and a fellow commisioner's objection.
In both cases, my public advocacy earned me a reputation as a troublemaker amongst the city establishment.
I was similarly punished for speaking out for the homeless and mentally ill. As part of our regular bi-annual funding review, I urged greater attention to Palo Alto's growing problem of homelessness and its crisis-level need for mental health services. Given the large and growing numbers of families and individuals living out of cars in Palo Alto, and the still-large numbers of suicides, I was surprised that these priorities were not shared by other commissioners. Rather, perplexingly, I was criticized for going against the grain and holding opinions that diverged from the status quo.
In February 2018, I proposed a gender equality initiative that had been vetted and approved in many cities nationwide, known as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW codifies well-accepted gender equity principles, including examining hiring and salary practices and implementing best practices to level the playing field. After some vigorous debate and despite much initial pushback from my colleagues, we unanimously recommended to the council that it should enact a CEDAW ordinance.
To the numerous women in our community who had pushed so hard for a CEDAW ordinance, this was a big win. Unfortunately, their victory was short-lived. Over the course of eight months, the council continued to postpone its consideration and eventually it simply referred the ordinance to its Policy and Services Committee, where it continues to linger, unaddressed, after almost two years.
Off the record, council members have told me that they don't think gender discrimination is a problem in Palo Alto nor do they plan to bring it back to council for a vote and implementation.
The council's lack of concern over sex discrimination was reaffirmed in its recently handling of the Downtown Streets Team contract. Despite well-publicized credible accusations of serious incidents of harassment by Downtown Streets Team leadership, the council summarily approved the contract's renewal. I and a colleague strongly advocated for the very standard practice of providing records and reports regarding the alleged harassment prior to signing a new contract with the alleged harasser. The council, however, viewed my demands for transparency — the same transparency a private organization would seek as a matter of course — as overstepping and intrusive.
In actions that a reasonable person could perceive as retaliation, the council pushed for canceling HRC's meetings, and ultimately, as happened last week, reducing the size of the commission to eliminate incumbents, such as myself, who were up for reappointment. The thought of retaliation would not have occurred to me if these decisions were not accompanied by private text messages and emails from council members, scolding me for speaking out against their status quo.
These stories are just some of the many things that have happened behind the scenes in the pursuit of change and progress.
But even as I've been disappointed with and rebuked by the Palo Alto establishment, I have and will continue to find comfort, inspiration and strength to fight the good fight from you — my fellow Palo Altans and neighbors who speak out and work tirelessly every day to make Palo Alto a more welcoming, inclusive, forward-looking and responsive community for all.
It is with you — and because of you — that no matter what comes, I will continue to serve this amazing community as long as I can and in whatever ways that I can. Onwards, Palo Alto!
Steven Lee is a Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioner whose seat was recently eliminated by the City Council. The views expressed above are his alone. He can be emailed at [email protected] and followed on Facebook at facebook.com/StevenLeePaloAlto.