The Mercury News
`Divisive language' results in censure
Planning leader offers an apology but questions the precedent action makes
Los Gatos Town Council censured a planning commissioner for using “divisive language” in an email to the state, in which she said “rich, white, anti-housing men” organized the referendum on the town's plan for future growth.
Council voted unanimously Feb. 15 to censure Commissioner Kylie Clark, an action that serves as a formal disapproval of her comments.
Clark emailed the state Department of Housing and Community Development last November to notify leaders of the referendum on the town's 2040 General Plan, and said it was “paid for and passed by the rich, white, anti-housing men in our town.”
Members of the public complained to town staff about Clark's email, saying it negatively impacted the town during the Housing Element process, represented the town poorly and used “racist” and “biased” language.
“I guess I'm one of those rich white men that she's speaking about,” resident Jim Zanardi said. “When she says that, it offends me. She needs to be removed, not censured.
“If that word `White man' was replaced with `Black man' or `brown man' or `yellow man' — if I'd written that letter — I'd be run out of town because I'd be a racist. What makes her any different? She's a racist.”
An evaluation committee consisting of the mayor, vice mayor, town manager and town attorney found Clark's comments were in violation of the Town Council's code of conduct but did not pose a conflict of interest or negatively impact the town's state-mandated Housing Element, a strategic plan for future housing.
Clark said she's “at peace” with the censure, but said she's concerned about the precedent it sets for other commissioners.
“I emailed HCD out of concern
for our town. From what I heard, they weren't aware of the referendum, and I felt it was my civic duty as an engaged and concerned citizen to notify them,” Clark said. “Now, because I did what I believed to be right and made a mistake along the way, I am facing one of the harshest forms of punishment available to the town without being spoken to once throughout this entire process.”
Several residents spoke during public comment and called for Clark's removal from the commission for her “bias,” “lack of experience” and “racial slurs” used against the white men in the community.
The Los Gatos Community Alliance, a slowgrowth community group that filed the referendum last year, said they did so because they believed it would make it possible for 12,000 housing units to be built in town in the next 20 years. Town staff has publicly denied this several times, saying there's no guarantee that the town would even grow by 3,000 units.
The referendum essentially forced the town to adhere to its 2020 General Plan, which keeps zoning and density requirements the same, while it works out a solution. Town Council will decide later this year whether to put the 2040 General Plan on the November 2024 ballot, hold a special election in 2023 or significantly revise the plan.
“Bias and prejudice against any socioeconomic group is inconsistent with the values of this town,” alliance organizer Jak Van Nada said. “What Miss Clark did was calculated and written with a goal in mind. It simply cannot be viewed as a mistake.”
Cory Wolbach of the housing coalition SV@ Home spoke in support of Clark's email, saying it was written in good faith.
“The state of California's own guidance points out and warns cities, including yourself, that the reality is wealthier, whiter residents tend to dominate conversations and policymaking around housing,” Wolbach said. “Recognizing and pointing out the realities of racialized and class privilege and power, and segregation we do see in Silicon Valley, is not itself racist.”
Some members of the public were applauding and laughing during the hearing and, after two warnings from Mayor Maria Ristow, one person was asked to leave the meeting for speaking out of turn.
Town leaders said this disciplinary process was unusual, and Clark said she was “extremely concerned” she did not receive fair treatment during the disciplinary process.
The evaluation committee took a “patchwork” approach to determine the process, pulling from the Town Council's code of conduct and the commissioner's handbook.
The code of conduct calls for bringing in outside legal counsel for serious violations that require in-depth investigations, and for minor violations to be resolved privately through mentorship, without a public hearing.
Clark's offense fell in the middle, and Town Manager Laurel Prevetti said the evaluation committee determined that while no outside counsel was needed to gather more information, Clark's actions warranted more than private counseling.
Ristow tasked town staff with re-evaluating the disciplinary process for commissioners going forward.
“There's a lot we learned going through this process, and as we work through this, there's a lot that we can do to help our commissioners understand what constructive conversation is, and our community can understand what constructive conversation is,” Ristow said.
Per the state, Los Gatos must plan for 1,993 new housing units to be built between 2023 and 2031 to meet the needs of people across all income levels. This is known as the Regional Housing Allocation Number, and all cities in the state must submit a plan called the Housing Element that identifies potential housing sites, densities and policies to incentivize housing.
“I have full faith that commissioner Clark will use this opportunity to reflect on her choice of words and what she said,” Ristow said. “I also have full faith that this community will be able to understand that people make mistakes and people have an opportunity to make amends.”