The town of Portola Valley removed the Wildfire Preparedness Committee's vice chair on April 5, the latest in a spate of members to leave the committee in recent months. It's making it difficult for the committee to operate. The committee's April 5 meeting was canceled when there weren't enough members present to reach a quorum.
Recruitment for the committee won't come easily, with "all the vitriol, conspiracy theories and legal threats directed at the town and committee volunteers about housing and fire safety issues," in recent months, said Mayor Craig Hughes in an email. The committee, which is designated to have nine members, shrank to five on April 6 when another committee member resigned, citing pressing personal commitments pulling her away from the volunteer position.
Two members of the Town Council and a wildfire committee member agreed to oust Dale Pfau from the committee, which advises the Town Council on ways to reduce wildfire danger and increase resident resiliency in an emergency.
Town officials declined to state why they removed Pfau, who is the chair of the town's Emergency Preparedness Committee, from the wildfire committee. Pfau, who was one of the founding members of the wildfire committee, could not be reached for comment.
Hughes, who is also a member of the committee, noted it's not common to remove a committee member from their position.
Portola Valley Neighbors United, which was founded in January 2020 to "respond to several difficult town issues and preserve the town's rural nature," said Pfau "has been a candid and thoughtful" vice chair of the committee.
"He is a strong proponent of wildfire prevention and safety for our community," they said in a statement. "He has spoken up clearly for prioritization of wildfire safety as a necessary precondition for future development of fire-prone hazardous areas of town. For that reason, he has also pressed forcefully for the need to revise and update our safety element as an essential precursor to compliance with RHNA (regional housing needs allocation — the town is tasked with designating 253 of units of housing for development in the 2023-31 cycle) mandates or amendment of our housing element. Our town has benefited greatly from his outspoken candor and his sound guidance will be sorely missed."
Tensions between residents and town officials have intensified, with some hiring attorneys in recent weeks to investigate actions by town committees and council members, including one "massive" Public Records Act request filed by attorney and former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed related to the Ad Hoc Housing Element Committee and its consideration of changing the zoning of the Nathhorst Triangle neighborhood for denser housing development.
Vice Mayor Sarah Wernikoff (on March 21), Megan Koch, Jennifer Youstra, Karen Vahtra and Marianne Plunder have all resigned from the committee in the last half year. Those who have resigned have cited the large time commitment of the committee. The town designates an hour and a half for committee meetings, but the last two meetings have each run three hours long.
On April 5, the wildfire committee was set to discuss alleged Brown Act violations by a committee member on March 1. Two law firms representing residents Rusty and Kristen Day, Ron Eastman, Bruce and Shirley Roberts, James Rooney and Jim and Ellen Vernazza, brought forward the allegations.
They accused Wernikoff of violating the Brown Act by sending text messages to the town manager and other committee members about committee business during the March 1 meeting. Someone took screenshots of Wernikoff's text messages, which appeared during the meeting when she shared her screen with audience members.
Town Attorney Cara Silver said texting during a meeting is permitted, provided a member does not send text messages to a quorum, which Wernikoff didn't do.
Wernikoff resigned from the committee before the Brown Act accusations came about, citing the time-consuming nature of the committee and the fact she's also on another time-intensive committee, the Ad Hoc Housing Element Committee.
Also on the April 5 meeting's agenda was a presentation by committee member Robert Younge on the National Institute of Standards and Technology's guidance on fire hazard mitigation strategies.
Process to remove a committee member
To remove a member of a town committee, the mayor, the committee’s council liaison and commission or committee chairperson -- for the wildfire committee, it's Michael Tomars -- all concur that a member is not fulfilling his or her duties. Examples given include repeated failure to attend meetings, violation of ethical standards, disruptive behavior and repeated failure to abide by commission/committee handbook rules. In those circumstances, the mayor may revoke the appointment of a commission/committee member, according to the town's committee handbook. If the mayor is the council liaison, as Mayor Craig Hughes is for the wildfire committee, then the vice mayor, Wernikoff, acts in place of the mayor.
Fire prevention has been a lightning rod issue in town, with some members of the community calling for the town government to do more. This winter, residents started an online petition urging council members and staff to cede some of their control over development to the Woodside Fire Protection District, in light of new state housing laws that encourage building. The residents, who have voiced an ongoing lack of trust in town officials, said the district is the most equipped to make the best decisions to protect them against wildfires.
The petition also asked the town to require that all future buildings in Portola Valley be spaced at least 30 feet apart until the Woodside Fire Protection District fire marshal comes out with the new fire code later this year. The committee did not make a recommendation to the council to institute a building setback in November.
The committee, which originally formed in 2019 under the name Ad Hoc Wildfire Preparation Committee, needs five members to reach a quorum; only four were at the April 5 meeting. The four present were: Jennifer Hammer, MJ Lee, Robert Younge and Nona Chiariello. Absent were Tomars and Youstra.
Committee members could not be reached for comment.
Five committee resignations
Six members have left the committee since last November.
Youstra resigned in an email on April 6, saying she'd planned to announce it at the April 5 meeting. She said she had to step away to care for a family member and because she's taken a new job.
Vahtra resigned on Nov. 2, 2021, according to meeting minutes.
Koch's name last appears on the board agenda for the Dec. 7, 2021 meeting. Koch said she was resigning from the wildfire committee because "she does not have the extra time she had when she took this on," according to Dec. 13, 2021, meeting minutes from the Architectural and Site Control Commission, which she sits on.
Koch said that she's been yelled at in public about the committee not adopting more strict rules for building in town to prevent fire, but also has received hugs from residents for her work.
"The meetings are longer and more frequent than she was prepared for with her other commitments and conflicts to deal with," according to the meeting minutes.
Marianne Plunder resigned from the committee sometime before the Conservation Committee's Jan. 25 meeting where she announced it. Chiariello replaced her, according to meeting minutes.
Complaints about misinformation, lack of civility
Tensions have been rising between some residents and town officials over housing development and wildfire prevention efforts.
Rebecca Flynn, who runs the town's online social network PVForum, posted on the site that a few people in town are on a moderated status "because they have shown themselves to be unable to post respectful messages."
"They have been rude or vicious to others on the PVForum, to people in town, or to me personally," she wrote. "This means that I have to waste my time (frequently) approving all their new postings before they are allowed to reach the PVForum. Unfortunately, several of them CONTINUE to attempt to post offensive messages that either spuriously attack people in town or in government without providing facts or legitimate sources or they send messages full of misinformation, conspiracy theories, gross inaccurate generalizations, or disrespect. I do not allow those types of messages through."
She goes on to write, "frankly, if you are going to dish out crazy mud, you can't expect not to get a little dirty. … I'm glad that most people in Portola Valley are respectful and prefer a lively debate about the issues based on facts and legitimate information."
Wernikoff said that over the last four months, town staff and council members have "spent an inordinate amount of time debunking misinformation."
"It's super frustrating," she said. "It takes an enormous amount of time but it doesn't help the community."
For example, a flyer circulating in the Nathhorst Triangle neighborhood last month stated that the "actual density" of new units in the neighborhood would be three- to four-stories high, even though the town has not yet specified how tall the buildings would be if the area were to be rezoned.
Next wildfire committee meeting
The canceled April 5 meeting hasn't been rescheduled yet. The committee is scheduled to meet on the first Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m.
Hughes said that the town will see if there are any time-sensitive issues which can't be handled outside a meeting, and may just wait for the next regularly scheduled meeting if there's nothing pressing -- "which is how we normally do it when a committee can't gather a quorum," he said.
For example, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee had a meeting on April 6, but had missed its previous two due to lack of quorum, he noted.