Woodside: Where have all the women gone? | February 27, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - February 27, 2019

Woodside: Where have all the women gone?

Woodside's citizen government heavily weighted with men

by Dave Boyce

Women living in Woodside outnumber men living in Woodside by more than 7 percentage points, according to 2017 census figures, but you'd never know it by looking at the current composition of local town government, where there are 17 men in positions of authority and two women.

The two women are on the seven-member Planning Commission. As of the morning of Feb. 12, there was another on the Architectural and Site Review Board (ASRB), but she's now gone although she tried to retain her position. There are none on the Town Council. (A preponderance of men on the council has been common in recent decades, but women held the majority between November 1983 and November 1993.)

Female majorities were common on the Planning Commission from 2006 to 2015, and on the architectural review board from 2009 to 2014, according to the town's online archives. Over 12 years — between 2006 and 2018 — neither panel had fewer than three women members.

Women have been slowly disappearing from the Planning Commission and the ASRB in recent years. Have they also given up?

Then there were none

In 2018, the number of women on the architectural review board dropped to one: Thalia Lubin, a member since 2010 and the only licensed architect on the board. Then, on Feb. 12, the council voted 4-3 to appoint Christopher Matthew Green, who is a nonlicensed architect, and not reappoint Lubin.

Voting for Green were councilmen Brian Dombkowski, Ned Fluet, Tom Livermore and Sean Scott. Mayor Daniel Yost and councilmen Chris Shaw and Dick Brown voted for Lubin.

Lubin chose not to comment for this article.

The council interviewed the candidates in public. The town code requires appointment of a licensed architect to the board "if one is available." Green, the director of retail design at Apple, is a practicing architect, according to his application, but does not have a license, he told the council.

The councilmen explained their rationales to The Almanac. "I was actually quite conflicted about this decision," Livermore said. "I highly respect Thalia. She's been a wonderful contributor to the town for many, many years.

"In Thalia's case, I'm a proponent of people not serving too long. Frankly, I'm a proponent of term limits. It's better to have fresh blood. Let's put it that way."

Fluet said he had "nothing but the utmost respect" for Lubin, adding: "I got to know her over the last year. I think she's an amazing professional and an amazing human being."

Scott, via email, said his decision was based on a combination of candidates for the review board that, he believed, "best aligned with the (town's) needs, direction and interests." Green, he said, "sufficiently met the intent/criteria for architecture experience."

Dombkowski said in an email that he voted for Green in light of his breadth of experience, including his work with historical buildings, his negotiation skills and his "outsider's viewpoint," which combined to give him "the relevant experience, and that his experience fulfilled the intent of the Town's code" regarding the requirement to appoint a licensed architect if one is available.

'Convoluted' excuses?

A Woodside resident and former longtime volunteer in town government who requested anonymity isn't buying it. Referring to Green's association with Apple, the former volunteer said that "it appears that (Dombkowski) and others on the council were dazzled by the shiny new 'Apple' before them."

The former volunteer wondered how Dombkowski formed his opinion of Green's negotiating skills, and why an outsider's viewpoint is relevant to matters intended to preserve Woodside's rural character.

"To say that the applicant's 'experience fulfills the intent of the code,' is convoluted and doesn't hold up, but it certainly sounds dazzling," the former volunteer said.

"They were both qualified candidates," Dombkowski countered in an email. "We received a lot of feedback that folks wanted fresh eyes on old problems. And that's what you saw broadly in the outcomes of the process."

Councilmen professing admiration and respect for women seeking appointment and then not voting to appoint them is "just cheap lip service to make themselves look better," the former volunteer said. "It has no place here or anywhere. Nor does making reference to 'term limits' when there are none."

As for council members sidestepping the mandate to appoint a licensed architect if one is available, "In my view, it's just plain wrong," the former volunteer said. "And flouting the municipal code doesn't bode well for the future of the town. Maybe the 'new blood' on the council has been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid."

The Town Council is "systematically eliminating well-qualified women who want to serve and have a right to do so," the former volunteer said. "One would think, with record numbers of women elected to office in the recent midterm (national) elections (and) in a state with two female senators, (a state) that also requires boards of publicly traded companies to have female members, that (council members) might at least be a little concerned about how it appears when the all-male council votes for all male applicants."

A purge?

Lubin was the last of three women on the ASRB who were under fire for years by a contingent of residents alleging pickiness, overly subjective opinions and the absence of a welcoming attitude. The board's mission is to review site development plans so as to preserve the town's rural character as outlined in the town's general plan and residential design guidelines, then make recommendations to the planning director.

One of Lubin's two female board colleagues until recently, Nancy Reyering, did not seek reappointment in February 2017 after being the subject of a lengthy investigation over accusations by former mayor — and impassioned ASRB critic — Dave Burow that she violated the town's ethics code. (Reyering sued over her treatment by the town and the town settled, paying her legal fees and agreeing to make recommendations for a revised ethics code.)

"What would you think about members and former members of the council who gang up ... and allow a deliberate and systematic purge of capable and dedicated women rather than working in a positive way to reach consensus?" the former volunteer asked. "I'd say that's a hostile environment."

Board member Maggie Mah sought reappointment in September 2017, but was replaced by John Carvell on a 4-1 vote, with council members Livermore, Deborah Gordon, Shaw and Yost voting for Carvell and Anne Kasten voting for Mah.

Shaw discounts the idea of a purge. "The public criticism of ... Reyering, Mah, and Lubin had nothing to do with gender (and) to suggest otherwise would be revisionist for current political climate expediency," he said in an email. "Public criticism can and does discourage people from volunteering, independent of gender."

As for the absence of gender diversity on the ASRB, he said the appointments "reflect what the Town Council is being told: the community wants 'new eyes' or fresh perspectives to focus on the process (of) building or remodeling in Woodside."

Yost and Brown did not respond to a request for comment by The Almanac's press time.

'A big issue'

Of the seven people who applied in February for three seats on the ASRB, six were men. Of the five people who ran for four Woodside council seats in November 2018, all were men.

The gender of review-board applicants "corresponds to the hostile culture described above and the advent of allowing certain individuals to conduct public shaming of women applicants in order to sway the council to appoint their male cohorts," the former volunteer said. "They are always the loudest voices in the room, and no male applicant has ever been treated in this fashion. Both old and new councils have allowed this practice. People become aware of this and become reluctant to expose themselves to this kind of treatment."

Shaw said he's been seeking out candidates for public positions in Woodside for more than three years, and that gender is not a factor. "Getting a person to volunteer is difficult because they have concerns about the time commitment and the risk of criticism that comes from standing up and offering your opinion in a public forum," he said.

"I actually think it's a big issue in that there should be more women," Livermore told The Almanac. While he said he's not sure why women applicants are scarce, he added that "in a small town like Woodside, we always have a problem getting people to step forward. Clearly, the town needs to do more outreach to try to get more women to apply for the jobs. It looks bad, no matter what."

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