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Downtown Streets Team issues apology, retraction after board chair's 'inaccurate' comments

Board chair Owen Byrd was 'wrong' when he disputed Weekly's reporting on claims against nonprofit's leaders

The Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit whose leaders have been accused of sexual harassment by former employees, issued a public apology on Monday and formally retracted the false comments that its board chair made last month, including a baseless claim that the Weekly "got it wrong" in reporting about the accusations.

Former employees of Downtown Streets Team accused CEO Eileen Richardson, above, and her son, Chris Richardson of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior. Courtesy Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.

The nonprofit, which provides work support and counseling to homeless individuals, has been facing increased scrutiny over the past year after multiple employees complained about its hard-drinking culture and cited incidents of sexual harassment by senior staff, including CEO Eileen Richardson and her son, Chris Richardson. The reports had prompted investigations by San Jose Inside and the Weekly, which in a Jan. 22 story detailed allegations from numerous former employees against the nonprofit's top executives.

The 2020 story also included a link to a ruling from the state Unemployment Insurance Board, which considered allegations of sexual harassment from former Downtown Streets Team employee Zia MacWilliams and upheld her claims for unemployment benefits.

"Based upon the claimaint's sworn testimony, which was provided in a manner which caused the administrative law judge to conclude her testimony credible, it is found that the claimant was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment," the ruling from Robert Dresser and Ellen Corbett of the state Unemployment Insurance Board states.

The state board had also concluded that MacWilliams' testimony is accorded "greater evidentially weight and probative value than the sworn testimony of the employer witness which was lacking in conviction and frequently nonresponsive to questions posed to her regarding the issue of sexual harassment."

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But on Dec. 7, as the Palo Alto City Council was considering a new contract with the Downtown Streets Team for maintenance of downtown streets, alleyways and parking lots, the nonprofit's board chair Owen Byrd characterized the complaints of sexual harassment from former employees as "allegations brought in the press" and asserted to the council that these allegations "have never been the subject of any civil or criminal matter."

After then-Vice Mayor Tom DuBois asked specifically about the rulings that the Weekly had reported on, Byrd falsely maintained that the Weekly "got it wrong."

After Byrd's testimony, the council voted 6-0, with council member Alison Cormack absent, to approve a one-year contract with Downtown Streets Team for $107,748. Prior to the meeting, staff had recommended a three-year contract worth $323,244.

During Monday's council meeting, Elaine Wood, a board member at Downtown Streets Team, read a letter that publicly retracted Byrd's statements and apologized to the council, the public, city staff and the Weekly. Byrd's statements, she said, were wrong.

"Mr. Byrd's statement that the Weekly 'got it wrong' was incorrect when he was asked about the reporting that an Administrative Law Judge had ruled on November 17, 2017," the letter states. "As the Weekly correctly reported, the judge made such a finding, as did the two-person panel that reviewed the final employee appeal of the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board," states the letter, which is signed by Byrd and Richardson.

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The Downtown Streets Team board also provided to the city on Monday copies of the rulings from the administrative law judge and the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board.

The letter from the Downtown Streets Team states that the nonprofit and Byrd "deeply regret Mr. Byrd's inaccurate answer to Vice Mayor DuBois' questions and for impugning the accuracy of the Palo Alto Weekly's reporting."

"To be clear, we do not believe the Palo Alto Weekly was inaccurate in any of its reporting on DST and the claims of sexual harassment by a former employee. It got nothing 'wrong.'"

The nonprofit issued a statement more than a month after Bill Johnson, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly, first demanded that Byrd retract his false allegations that the Weekly "got it wrong." When no such retraction came, Johnson sent a letter to the nonprofit putting it on notice about a potential legal claim for defamation.

"The fact that this comes at a time when the credibility of responsible media organizations and their journalists across the nation is under malicious attack by those who seek to delegitimize their important work makes the damage done even greater since it plays directly into a false narrative," Johnson wrote in the Dec. 24 letter to Byrd.

Johnson also observed in the letter that Byrd did not give any indication during the Dec. 7 discussion that any court documents pertaining to sexual harassment allegations exist. Rather, Byrd "listened while councilmembers and the city attorney struggled over how the city attorney might look further into proceedings that might shed light on the sexual harassment allegations."

"Instead of helping clear up their confusion by acknowledging that there was indeed a case and a written ruling on the sexual harassment allegations by an Administrative Law Judge and the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, you remained silent about the case," Johnson wrote. "Amidst the confusion that you helped create, the council then proceeded to approve a new contract with DST (albeit for only one year), accomplishing just what you had come to achieve."

The council did not discuss the Downtown Streets Team contract on Monday, though several members had expressed concern in recent months about both the allegations against nonprofit executives and about the organization's steadfast refusal to provide to the city the results of its own internal investigation. The nonprofit had commissioned in 2018 an independent investigation of complaints from five former employees by the Law Firm of Amy Oppenheimer. But despite multiple requests from the city, the Downtown Streets Team has declined to provide even a redacted version of the report.

While council member Lydia Kou and former council member Liz Kniss had each expressed concern in recent months about the nonprofit's failure to provide the report, the council has continued to provide funding to Downtown Streets Team. In June, the council approved an allocation of $336,400 in federal funding to the Downtown Streets Team from the Community Development Block Grant. And on Dec. 7, despite some misgivings, the council moved ahead with a new street cleaning contract.

In response to the Monday retraction, Johnson lauded the nonprofit for correcting the record.

"We appreciate that Mr. Byrd and the Downtown Streets Team board of directors have retracted Byrd's statements and have apologized to the City Council and to the Weekly," Johnson said in a statement. "Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Weekly editors carefully researched and fact-checked our January 22, 2020, story before it was published and it was completely accurate.

"Our reputation as a reliable source of local news is especially important in an era when news organizations are being regularly (and usually falsely) accused of bias and presenting 'fake news.' Trust in our reporting is essential to our continued success, and we are glad DST has corrected the record."

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Downtown Streets Team issues apology, retraction after board chair's 'inaccurate' comments

Board chair Owen Byrd was 'wrong' when he disputed Weekly's reporting on claims against nonprofit's leaders

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Jan 11, 2021, 11:40 pm

The Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit whose leaders have been accused of sexual harassment by former employees, issued a public apology on Monday and formally retracted the false comments that its board chair made last month, including a baseless claim that the Weekly "got it wrong" in reporting about the accusations.

The nonprofit, which provides work support and counseling to homeless individuals, has been facing increased scrutiny over the past year after multiple employees complained about its hard-drinking culture and cited incidents of sexual harassment by senior staff, including CEO Eileen Richardson and her son, Chris Richardson. The reports had prompted investigations by San Jose Inside and the Weekly, which in a Jan. 22 story detailed allegations from numerous former employees against the nonprofit's top executives.

The 2020 story also included a link to a ruling from the state Unemployment Insurance Board, which considered allegations of sexual harassment from former Downtown Streets Team employee Zia MacWilliams and upheld her claims for unemployment benefits.

"Based upon the claimaint's sworn testimony, which was provided in a manner which caused the administrative law judge to conclude her testimony credible, it is found that the claimant was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment," the ruling from Robert Dresser and Ellen Corbett of the state Unemployment Insurance Board states.

The state board had also concluded that MacWilliams' testimony is accorded "greater evidentially weight and probative value than the sworn testimony of the employer witness which was lacking in conviction and frequently nonresponsive to questions posed to her regarding the issue of sexual harassment."

But on Dec. 7, as the Palo Alto City Council was considering a new contract with the Downtown Streets Team for maintenance of downtown streets, alleyways and parking lots, the nonprofit's board chair Owen Byrd characterized the complaints of sexual harassment from former employees as "allegations brought in the press" and asserted to the council that these allegations "have never been the subject of any civil or criminal matter."

After then-Vice Mayor Tom DuBois asked specifically about the rulings that the Weekly had reported on, Byrd falsely maintained that the Weekly "got it wrong."

After Byrd's testimony, the council voted 6-0, with council member Alison Cormack absent, to approve a one-year contract with Downtown Streets Team for $107,748. Prior to the meeting, staff had recommended a three-year contract worth $323,244.

During Monday's council meeting, Elaine Wood, a board member at Downtown Streets Team, read a letter that publicly retracted Byrd's statements and apologized to the council, the public, city staff and the Weekly. Byrd's statements, she said, were wrong.

"Mr. Byrd's statement that the Weekly 'got it wrong' was incorrect when he was asked about the reporting that an Administrative Law Judge had ruled on November 17, 2017," the letter states. "As the Weekly correctly reported, the judge made such a finding, as did the two-person panel that reviewed the final employee appeal of the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board," states the letter, which is signed by Byrd and Richardson.

The Downtown Streets Team board also provided to the city on Monday copies of the rulings from the administrative law judge and the Unemployment Insurance Compensation Board.

The letter from the Downtown Streets Team states that the nonprofit and Byrd "deeply regret Mr. Byrd's inaccurate answer to Vice Mayor DuBois' questions and for impugning the accuracy of the Palo Alto Weekly's reporting."

"To be clear, we do not believe the Palo Alto Weekly was inaccurate in any of its reporting on DST and the claims of sexual harassment by a former employee. It got nothing 'wrong.'"

The nonprofit issued a statement more than a month after Bill Johnson, publisher of the Palo Alto Weekly, first demanded that Byrd retract his false allegations that the Weekly "got it wrong." When no such retraction came, Johnson sent a letter to the nonprofit putting it on notice about a potential legal claim for defamation.

"The fact that this comes at a time when the credibility of responsible media organizations and their journalists across the nation is under malicious attack by those who seek to delegitimize their important work makes the damage done even greater since it plays directly into a false narrative," Johnson wrote in the Dec. 24 letter to Byrd.

Johnson also observed in the letter that Byrd did not give any indication during the Dec. 7 discussion that any court documents pertaining to sexual harassment allegations exist. Rather, Byrd "listened while councilmembers and the city attorney struggled over how the city attorney might look further into proceedings that might shed light on the sexual harassment allegations."

"Instead of helping clear up their confusion by acknowledging that there was indeed a case and a written ruling on the sexual harassment allegations by an Administrative Law Judge and the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, you remained silent about the case," Johnson wrote. "Amidst the confusion that you helped create, the council then proceeded to approve a new contract with DST (albeit for only one year), accomplishing just what you had come to achieve."

The council did not discuss the Downtown Streets Team contract on Monday, though several members had expressed concern in recent months about both the allegations against nonprofit executives and about the organization's steadfast refusal to provide to the city the results of its own internal investigation. The nonprofit had commissioned in 2018 an independent investigation of complaints from five former employees by the Law Firm of Amy Oppenheimer. But despite multiple requests from the city, the Downtown Streets Team has declined to provide even a redacted version of the report.

While council member Lydia Kou and former council member Liz Kniss had each expressed concern in recent months about the nonprofit's failure to provide the report, the council has continued to provide funding to Downtown Streets Team. In June, the council approved an allocation of $336,400 in federal funding to the Downtown Streets Team from the Community Development Block Grant. And on Dec. 7, despite some misgivings, the council moved ahead with a new street cleaning contract.

In response to the Monday retraction, Johnson lauded the nonprofit for correcting the record.

"We appreciate that Mr. Byrd and the Downtown Streets Team board of directors have retracted Byrd's statements and have apologized to the City Council and to the Weekly," Johnson said in a statement. "Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Weekly editors carefully researched and fact-checked our January 22, 2020, story before it was published and it was completely accurate.

"Our reputation as a reliable source of local news is especially important in an era when news organizations are being regularly (and usually falsely) accused of bias and presenting 'fake news.' Trust in our reporting is essential to our continued success, and we are glad DST has corrected the record."

Comments

Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 12:08 am
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 12:08 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Nadia Naik
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2021 at 8:23 am
Nadia Naik , Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 8:23 am
45 people like this

Congrats to Bill Johnson and the Weekly Staff for excellent reporting and forcing Mr. Byrd to come clean. Today, more than ever, the role of local media is incredibly important. As residents, we value your work - because, without it, we'd have no idea what is happening in our City.

Thanks for doing what you do!


Lee Forrest
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2021 at 8:33 am
Lee Forrest, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 8:33 am
2 people like this

[Post removed.]


Not Good Enough
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2021 at 9:12 am
Not Good Enough, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 9:12 am
35 people like this

A good first step by DST to issue this needed aplogy in response to Bill Johnson's letter. It hardly had a choice given the legal reality and I assume was sincere. Thank you Mr. Johnson for defending your fine Newspaper, the reporter and the 4th Estate.

Foremost, Palo Alto must protect the DST workers who are innocent bystanders and must continue their good work here. If DST can't, we must find another non-profit that can.

DST must do much more before it gets one more penny approved by our Council:
It must cut ties with Board Chair Owen Byrd. He didn't just make an innocent mistake, he agreesively and repeatedly denied any sex harassment cases before and during the council meeting in order to obtain over $300,000 in contracts. He urged before and during the meeting to simply trust him and that there was nothing relevant of interest in the investigator's report. This was at best reckless negligence. Ridiculous given his lack of credibility which began to emerge during the meeting.

That the Richardsons remain with DST is irresponsible, Eileen as CEO. No responsible non-profit would keep two people in an organization when legal cases found their involvment in sex harassement, creating a drinking culture and/or creating a hostile work environment. Bringing in an HR person hardly compensates.

We know little about what occured at DST over the years. It refuses to come clean, to provide the investigator's report that includes verified employee complaints, refusing even a name-redacted version to council in a closed session. This from an organization that holds contracts with 16 cities worth $2.6 million.

The city must hold DST strictly accountable or fail in its due diligence. It must know DST is a responsible transparent organization moving forward. Free of harassment, respectful to women, wages paid in full and on time, with a responsible board free of Byrd, and with a new CEO, and the Richardsons gone.


FormerDSTemployee
Registered user
another community
on Jan 12, 2021 at 9:53 am
FormerDSTemployee, another community
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 9:53 am
25 people like this

I applaud the Weekly's commitment to getting Mr Byrd to admit he lied about the civil procedures, this took some tenacity and grit considering he lied so easily. I still question the City Council that was made aware of these falsehoods (in addition to the numerous articles from a year ago) in the city council meeting the following week. The City Attorney requested the documentation on December 14th and despite providing it on December 14th and several follow up emails did not acknowledge receiving it until January 7th.

However, the Council has still decided to accept an apology from a known liar, reward him and DST financially, and spit in the face of the over a dozen women who participated in speaking up (and proved) that their employer had sexually harassed them.

Another falsehood perpetuated by Mr. Byrd was that he personally apologized to us. [Portion removed.] [T]he only thing we've heard from Mr Byrd is when he's called us liars in the media. That we're merely disgruntled former employees, that there's only one of us. Mr. Byrd should be disbarred for his dishonesty, Eileen and Chris Richardson should be fired, and the City Council should be ashamed of themselves for how they responded to women who merely advocated that they should be able to provide a service to the most vulnerable members of our community without being harassed at work.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:42 am
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:42 am
38 people like this

It would seem when a Board Chairman blatantly "lies" to the City Council and residents that an apology and a resignation are both due.

Mr. Byrd has lost any credibility he may have once had; the DTS Board is best to demand and accept Byrd's resignation. The Richardsons also must resign. Otherwise the organization remains tainted and City money should be withheld.


AllenPod
Registered user
Community Center
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:49 am
AllenPod , Community Center
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:49 am
9 people like this

Good for Lydia and Liz in flagging a problem. Why was the final vote 6 to 0? I smell a rat.


FormerDSTemployee
Registered user
another community
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:52 am
FormerDSTemployee, another community
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 10:52 am
14 people like this

"Good for Lydia and Liz in flagging a problem. Why was the final vote 6 to 0? I smell a rat."

Especially when Liz Kniss greeted her old friend Owen Byrd quite kindly


Disappointed
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2021 at 3:35 pm
Disappointed, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 12, 2021 at 3:35 pm
7 people like this

It seems as if the DST needs a change in leadership. I think that those who benefit from the jobs that DST should not be penalized. However, more oversight is needed during this one year contract in order to determine if there are any other problems. Thanks to good reporting by the Weekly.


PST
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2021 at 12:12 am
PST, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 12:12 am
6 people like this

Well done PA Weekly and Downtown Streets Team Board. Standing up for accurate reporting is essential. Willingness from DST to re-examine their behavior and admit their communication error is admirable. I will remind people the concerns which were investigated and acted upon were four years ago with no similar concerns claimed since that time. Time to move on, thankful for a local press that reports accurately that will stand by it and for a unique and effective non profit that has helped hundreds of people coping in very challenging circumstances.


HM
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 13, 2021 at 7:08 am
HM, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 7:08 am
14 people like this

To quote Mr. Johnson on Mr. Byrd "Amidst the confusion that you helped create, the council then proceeded to approve a new contract with DST (albeit for only one year), accomplishing just what you had come to achieve."

What is the legal definition of fraud? Is Mr. Byrd still on the Board? Are the Richardsons still employees?

What are the City's next steps?

I see DST is looking for board members, but, it would probably be wise to steer away from this mess. And, for current board members, you might want to review your D&O insurance.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 13, 2021 at 10:31 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 10:31 am
9 people like this

@HM, all excellent questions.

Has the city gotten or even investigated Mr. Byrd's "consultant Report" that he claimed found not a single incident of wrongdoing while absurdly noting the homeless hadn't filed lawsuits! Hello, Mr. Byrd, not everyone can afford lawyers well-connected to city hall, especially the homeless.

With the city pleading poverty and claiming it doesn't have the money for so many needed things, maybe the new council could do the fiscally prudent thing and start from scratch.


Name hidden
Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 7:26 pm
Name hidden, Downtown North

Registered user
on Jan 13, 2021 at 7:26 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Michele Dauber
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jan 14, 2021 at 8:20 am
Michele Dauber, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jan 14, 2021 at 8:20 am
8 people like this

It is obvious that DST is an entity that does not hold anyone accountable in a serious way. The leaders have been accused, based on evidence, of sexually harassing employees. The Board Chair has admitted that he lied about it to city government in order, apparently to obtain public funding based on false statements.

DST has refused to provide a copy of the report on sexual harassment that Council has requested but City Manager Ed Shikada has continued to propose that the taxpayers of Palo Alto provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for DST.

The public has good reason to be concerned, based on reporting, that vulnerable individuals are being exploited and harmed by a City-funded organization.

Is there any member of our Council who is willing to stop Ed Shikada from continuing to funnel public dollars into this shameful mess?


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