A lawsuit over alleged Brown Act violations. A newly formed Political Action Committee (PAC) — with the explicit purpose of unseating council members up for reelection this fall. These are the most recent ways some Portola Valley residents, concerned that town officials are not representing their interests, are expressing their frustration over the forthcoming state-mandated housing element, which requires towns to plan for more development.
The PAC, called "Our Future Together PAC Opposing Hughes, Derwin and Richards for Town Council 2022," is aimed at unseating Mayor Craig Hughes and council members Maryann Derwin and John Richards. All three are up for reelection in November, but none have definitively committed to running again. Town residents reported receiving mailers from the PAC last week.
Derwin said that while watching the Jan. 6 Congressional insurrection hearings, she was startled by the parallels between what is happening nationally and what is happening in Portola Valley.
"With a heap of disinformation, a prickly subject and a Machiavellian nature, a group can prey on the public's fears by constructing a false reality and essentially undercut democracy," she said in a statement. "The PAC's website and mailer are chilling examples of just that."
Inaccurate information on the website includes the statement that the Town Council is not meeting in person. In fact, it is holding in-person meetings.
The website includes the following quote from Derwin: "We (Portola Valley) are one of the most economically privileged communities in the county. I would like to see that broken up a little bit, and how you gonna do that?"
"While it isn't my most articulate, it does get to the elephant in the room: our town's history of racial covenants, exclusionary housing policies and zoning ordinances that have created and maintained the most segregated white community in San Mateo County, according to the 2020 census and the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley," she said of the quote. "Why would breaking that down be a bad thing? ... My colleagues and I all welcome lively political debate; it's part of a healthy dialectic. But when the council's decisions do not precisely adhere to the public's demands this does not mean we aren't listening. It means we do not agree with all the demands."
There are no names listed on the website but Bruce Roberts and Ellen Vernazza, Nathhorst Triangle neighborhood residents, are listed as members of the PAC on forms filed to create the PAC on March 30. They are also part of a lawsuit against the town for alleged violations of the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law.
The PAC's website states that the most important action existing residents can take to better represent their interests is by voting "for a slate of Town Council members who are committed to our shared goals: fulfilling our housing needs while conserving Portola Valley's fragile ecosystems, preserving its unique character, and promoting public safety."
Roberts, one of the five members of the PAC's steering committee, said in an email that once candidates announce they are running, the PAC will vet them and decide who to support. The group's budget is $50,000, mostly for advertising, he said.
Roberts said the group was motivated to create the PAC because they don't think the town is taking fire safety seriously. As evidence, he listed the town's decisions not to adopt fire hazard maps, which he said would have eliminated state housing designations; not acting on a fire safety petition signed by hundreds of residents; and refusing to adopt the minimum 30 feet of building separation standard recommended by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology).
"The state assumes that we have no fire hazards because we have not adopted a map," Roberts said in an email. "The council has had years to do this work and is only now starting the process. The council has formally prioritized housing over safety and that is unacceptable to many town residents. There will be many more issues presented by the PAC over the next several months."
Hughes, who joined the council in 2013, rebutted Roberts' comments, saying that almost all of them were false. For example, he noted that the town never refused to adopt the minimum separation standard -- the Woodside Fire Protection District has asked the town not to adopt it separately from the rest of its fire code update that's coming up this year.
"It is false to say that the state assumes that we have no fire hazards because we have not adopted a map," he said. "That's just ludicrous. Who at the state has said this? Reminds me of Donald Trump saying, 'I've heard that...' when nobody is saying it but the person who claims it. Every state official or agency that I've talked to takes fire danger in Portola Valley very seriously."
Hughes said he's unsure what the goal of the PAC is after reviewing the website and mailer.
"The committee opposes the reelection of three folks, but they don't seem to have a candidate they're supporting," he said. "I don't know what positive result they're trying to receive here other than bullying a bunch of town volunteers. The impact they're having on the wildfire committee is horrifying; they're driving people away."
In the last half year, a slew of members have resigned from the Wildfire Preparedness Committee, which is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the town on June 1 in San Mateo County Superior Court. The town removed the committee's vice chair in April and didn't meet again until it could form a quorum, after new members were recently appointed.
The suit was filed on behalf of nine Portola Valley residents by Lawrence A. Jacobson of Cohen and Jacobson LLP, and alleges that the wildfire committee violated the Brown Act during a March 1 meeting.
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 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 responded to the group's Brown Act complaints in an April 18 letter, stating that she must "respectfully disagree with your novel interpretation that the Brown Act contains a blanket prohibition against receiving and sending texts or email messages during a meeting, even when the texts do not involve a quorum."
"Are you suggesting that committee members may not perform independent research during the meeting?" she said. "Are they permitted to read the staff report or a letter from a member of the public during the meeting? If a member of the public texts a single member of the committee about an agenda item, is that committee member precluded from reading the text during the meeting? If that text was read before the meeting would it be acceptable? While it is true that the era of Zoom meetings has raised new questions about the application of the Brown Act, there is simply nothing in the Brown Act to prevent email communication during a public meeting provided that communication does not involve a quorum."
Back in March, the mayor alleged that a Nathhorst Triangle neighborhood homeowner Robert Allen threatened to "bankrupt" the town with lawsuits if its housing element wasn't to his liking.
Residents also filed a "massive" Public Records Act request through attorney and former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed related to the Ad Hoc Housing Element Committee and its consideration of changing the zoning of Nathhorst for denser housing development.
Councilwoman Maryann Derwin characterized the PRA request and lawsuit as a "wild goose chase" during last week's Town Council meeting. Town Manager Jeremy Dennis said the PRA request is taking a considerable amount of staff time.