In a debate hosted Sept. 30 by the local League of Women Voters chapter, Menlo Park City Council candidate Max Fennell told attendees that he had been asked not to run for the City Council by Karen Grove, who he alleged to be working on behalf of candidate Jen Wolosin.
Wolosin denied any involvement and said she was unhappy to hear that it had happened.
Fennell, 32, is a professional triathlete and owner of Fenn Coffee who has lived in Menlo Park for about five years.
He said that earlier this summer, just after a Palo Alto Weekly story was published indicating his interest in running for the City Council, Menlo Park Housing Commissioner Karen Grove sent him an email inviting him to a phone call with Planning Commissioner Michele Tate.
Both Grove and Tate are also involved with Menlo Together, a fiscally sponsored project of the Foundation for Regional Transit, also known as Friends of Caltrain. It was started with a $40,000 grant from Grove's donor-advised fund. The project advocates in Menlo Park for policies that support housing, transportation, sustainability and equity, according to its website. Up until recently, Wolosin was also a member of Menlo Together.
Both Grove and Tate were acting independently of their roles with Menlo Together and city commissions and were not acting on behalf of Wolosin's campaign, Grove said in an interview.
Fennell said he wasn't clear on what the scheduled call would be about – he thought they wanted to talk about the situation with the police chief, since one of the early topics he started speaking about publicly was police reform.
"The next thing you know, it turned into an interrogation of if I was qualified to run," Fennell said of the phone call, which took place in the morning of June 22, according to Grove. Fennell said Grove said he shouldn't run and should support Jen Wolosin's campaign instead.
Grove said she did not tell him not to run, but said Fennell could consider moving to District 5 and running against unopposed council incumbent Ray Mueller. That way, she could support them both, Grove said.
Grove told The Almanac that she has since apologized to Fennell. "I clearly had an impact I did not want to have," she said.
She said she was excited to learn that "a diverse voice was considering a run," but it wasn't until they got on the phone that she learned he was a District 3 resident, which disappointed her, she said.
"I had already endorsed Jen," she said. "I couldn't support both if he were to run in District 3."
She said the conversation from there "shifted to different ways to effect change in the ways he wanted to," and called it a "collaborative conversation about change in Menlo Park."
Michele Tate was also on the call. As a former housing commissioner, she said she asked Fennell whether he had considered applying for the Housing Commission, because his platform was primarily focused on housing issues. At the time, the council had only weeks previously made appointments to city commissions, and there had been only one applicant to fill a vacancy on the Housing Commission.
The phone call with Fennell "was purely an effort to get to know who the candidate was," Tate said.
"I did not hang up the phone thinking Karen was trying to push him any direction or trying to discourage him at all," she said.
"By no means was this a call from Jen (Wolosin)'s camp," Tate said, noting that she has not endorsed any City Council candidate in the race and does not plan to do so.
Fennell said that at the time of the phone call, he was under the impression that Grove was acting on behalf of Wolosin's campaign.
"Somebody's running for office trying to silence a voice they say they are trying to represent," he told The Almanac Oct. 1.
Fennell said he feels that the conversation has affected his campaign. "For quite a few weeks, I didn't say anything to anyone (about the call)," he said. "I was holding it in."
In an email, Wolosin told The Almanac that Grove has never been part of her campaign team.
Grove said that she checked in with Wolosin before making the call, but Wolosin distanced herself from the matter and did not provide any direction. Grove noted that she has endorsed and contributed to Wolosin's campaign. According to campaign finance documents, she contributed $500 to Wolosin's campaign last year.
While the phone call between Fennell, Grove and Tate took place on June 22, it wasn't until several days later, on June 25, that Wolosin announced her formal plans to step back from Menlo Together, according to email records she provided. She was removed from the group's mailing list the following day.
She said she is grateful for Grove's support, but added, "I was not happy to learn about her outreach to Max and I can see why he found it offensive. ...I think it’s good for our community to have multiple candidates in an election, sharing a variety of viewpoints and ideas."
Fennell declined to participate in the candidate forum hosted by Menlo Together on Oct. 3 and said he had asked that it be canceled. In a statement he sent to Menlo Together in advance of the forum, he said that he would not attend due to a conflict of interest between the Wolosin campaign and Menlo Together, and alleged that her campaign had engaged in intimidation against him.
Candidate Chelsea Nguyen also declined to participate, leaving only Wolosin to answer the questions posed by the advocacy organization of which she is a former member.
"I'm still going to give it 110%," Fennell said about his run for the District 3 seat. "We're so focused on bringing about real change."