After Planning Commissioner Kylie Clark—who works on housing issues for the Silicon Valley nonprofit West Valley Community Services—watched density rules suggested by the Town body she sits on get refined by Council, only to be swept aside entirely by a late-breaking referendum drive funded by wealthy residents, she was dismayed.
So, she took to her keyboard to fire off an email to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
The words that were sent to the Sacramento agency Nov. 18 set off such a firestorm in the community that a special Council meeting was called on Feb. 15 to deal with the situation.
“I hope this email finds you well!” she began in the email. “As someone who does housing work in a lot of anti-housing cities, I really appreciate the work you are doing to resolve our state’s housing crisis.”
Clark identified herself as a planning commissioner, but clarified she was writing as a “concerned citizen.” Then, she launched into a critique of the referendum that had rapidly gathered more than 3,000 signatures, last summer, organized by the residents behind the Los Gatos Community Alliance, who vehemently oppose plans to increase density in town.
While the facts she cites in this appeal for help from Sacramento are largely accurate—for example, that the initiative employed paid campaigners, and that the General Plan proposed going slightly above the required number of residential units for the next eight-year Regional Housing Needs Allocation cycle (as it covers just eight years, while the General Plan must last for 20)—the tone definitely set people off.
And at the special meeting, residents made it clear they were none too happy she’d referred to the referendum organizers as “a few rich, white anti-housing men,” that she’d questioned the legality of this instance of California’s direct-democracy and suggested it would mean fewer residential units would be generated because of the worries of “a few upset rich residents.”
At issue was not just that she’d fanned the flames of identity politics surrounding the push to diversify Los Gatos, a South Bay enclave where poor and non-white Bay Area residents to this day still sometimes express feeling unwelcome.
The concern was that it appeared, to more than a few, she’d put her thumb on the scale of what many consider the most important issue facing the Town—one she’d already had a crack at in her official capacity—and in so-doing, revealed a bias against others.
Clark’s partner, Councilmember Rob Moore—who was elected on a pro-densification, pro-transit platform—recused himself.
Mayor Maria Ristow kicked the meeting off by remarking on the “unusual” nature of the evening’s agenda.
Town Attorney Gabrielle Whelan reported that complaints against Clark fell into three buckets: allegations she had a conflict of interest; that she’d violated due-process rules; and that she’d used language so divisive it breached the behavior policy she’s supposed to follow.
Whelan said she relied on the Council Code of Conduct to guide her approach.
She ruled out the first two claims, because it didn’t appear there was a financial motive behind the letter and because the email was about a legislative matter—housing policy—not a dispute needing to be decided by Town officials.
An evaluation committee—which would normally feature the mayor as the Council’s representative—was expanded to include Vice Mayor Mary Badame (a staunch opponent of the policies espoused by Clark and her partner), since Ristow appointed Clark, in January 2022.
Badame asked Whelan if the Town had violated its own Code of Conduct in how it responded to the complaints, as Clark suggested in a letter defending herself.
Whelan said she didn’t recommend hiring outside counsel, because the letter to HCD spoke for itself.
Ristow acknowledged that it had been challenging to figure out how to handle the issue.
“This process unfolded in starts and steps,” she said. “It’s a matter of just being fair. We did work our way through this process.”
The first member of the public to speak on the item, Perice Sibley, introduced herself as
a long-time resident of Los Gatos, descended from Daughters of the American Revolution, on one side, with Mexican heritage on the other. She said she was appalled to read Clark’s letter to HCD and called for her removal from the Planning Commission.
She said she read the email as making accusations of racism against people in town, though the letter doesn’t use the r-word specifically.
“White racist?” she stated. “Most of the town is multicultural. And when you call them racist, the person making that comment is racist. And I am so horrifically offended.”
She said she knows of people—including individuals who aren’t white or men—who’ve already decided to put Town business on hold, for fear they won’t get a fair shake due to bias at the Planning Commission.
“They feel like they’re going to get backlash,” she said. “We’re not racist. And it’s horrific for you to allow her to continue and not set an example by removing her.”
Several public commenters took the “few rich white anti-housing men” descriptor as a slur to the wide range of people who quickly jumped on board the referendum train.
In fact, Clark was specifically targeting the members of the Los Gatos Community Alliance, including Jak Van Nada, the moving-company founder who sparred with her partner during the recent election campaign, after Moore boycotted an Alliance-organized candidate forum.
“Prejudice is prejudice and should never be dismissed,” Van Nada said, asserting that the letter to HCD contravened Town values. “What Ms. Clark did was calculated and written with a goal in mind.”
From his perspective, it’s Clark who bent the truth.
“It was not a, quote, ‘few rich white anti-housing men’ that passed the referendum,” he said, noting people of a variety of backgrounds signed because they don’t support the growth agenda she voted to recommend. “The referendum, at its core, is about who gets to decide the future of this town.”
He argued that if Clark doesn’t resign, the Town should remove her.
The mayor had to quiet the audience when a round of applause began in response.
Jason Farwell, whose ancestor, John Lyndon, served as Los Gatos’ mayor from 1888-1892, chastised Clark for fueling divisions in town.
“She did it intentionally,” he said. “I’m not anti-housing. No one in Los Gatos is anti-housing. I’m anti-density—that’s for sure. I don’t want 3,000 new units. Apparently, she wants 12,000. It’s ridiculous.”
The comment highlighted the distinction homeowners in Los Gatos tend to make between standing against Sacramento’s push to fix the state’s dearth of housing—which they say they aren’t trying to do—and the extent to which the Town should have to update its zoning rules to help deliver new units towards that goal.
The Los Gatos Community Alliance came up with the 12,000-unit figure by rejecting the assumptions a Town consultant employed about what housing was likely to spring up, instead completing a rough calculation of the number of homes that could be created if every single parcel were developed to the fullest extent.
Experts have continually poured cold water on the theory this could happen—although, at one point, Town staff did confirm the number accurately represents what they were trying to calculate, however unlikely.
So, when Clark said to the Housing Elements branch of the California housing ministry, “The anti-housing group is claiming that the town will build 12,000 new units in the next 8 years (haha I wish),” it set off alarm bells among the “slow the growth” crowd.
Jim Zanardi, a 73-year resident, told Council the letter was proof of a double standard among people like Clark, where you can say things against white people you can’t say about Black or Brown people.
“I guess I’m one of those rich white men that she’s speaking about,” he said, adding he’d be publicly crucified if he wrote a letter calling out someone by their background. “I’d be run outta town, because I’d be a racist. What makes her any different? She’s a racist. And I don’t think she needs to be censured. She needs to be gone.”
He suggested local residents could organize a new political campaign of sorts if Los Gatos doesn’t come down on Clark strongly enough.
“Maybe the rich men in this town—the rich white men—need to look at the Council who appointed her,” he said. “And maybe next time, when it’s time for reelection, maybe the rich white men oughta get together and maybe get some people in here that would pick somebody that has a little bit of experience.”
Jim Dunlay, who called himself a “newbie” resident after living in Los Gatos for 27 years, said he’s concerned, since he may have items come before the Planning Commission, in the future.
“I’m not sure, today, that I would get a fair hearing, because I’m a rich white guy and I don’t support high-density housing in neighborhoods as they’re proposed,” he said, reminding Council just how many locals fit into that particular category. “I look in this room; I look around in our town; and I gotta tell you—you’re all rich.”
He compared the local composition to an impoverished community he recently visited in Georgia.
“Most of us are white or partly-white,” he said. “And many of us—maybe most—do not wish the State to impose high-density housing requirements on our community. But yet, we rely on you to carry that message forward.”
Supporters of Clark have characterized the strong response to her communication as a witch hunt and say the underlying issues she was getting at are legitimate topics for discussion.
Cory Wolbach, a former Palo Alto councilmember who now works for affordable housing-advocacy group Silicon Valley @ Home, raised questions about whether Los Gatos followed its own discipline policy.
“It does look to me like that process may not have been followed here,” he said, adding he believes Clark offered her input to Sacramento in good faith. “HCD has an obligation to review the context and the dynamics in Los Gatos…It’s not racist to point out structural racism.”
Cyndi Sheehan, a Donald Trump supporter whose activism against the diversity policies of the previous Council—including verbal attacks of a personal nature—led to new State laws governing Council decorum, was asked to leave after being repeatedly warned about disruptive comments she was making.
“Everyone knows you’re all racist,” she shouted on her way out.
Appearing as the final public commenter, Clark said she wrote her email with the best of intentions.
“I never once asked HCD to stop the referendum,” she said. “From what I heard they weren’t aware of the referendum.”
She repeated her contention that Los Gatos failed to live up to its own Code of Conduct in responding to the complaints against her.
“I’m a real person, not somebody to make an example of,” she said. “I promise you I have learned my lesson.”
Badame questioned whether Clark truly was remorseful, as she’d never said sorry to Van Nada.
Though Clark didn’t apologize to any of the Los Gatos Community Alliance members, she did say she regretted how her choice of words offended other residents.
“I should not have mentioned the demographic information like that,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I really didn’t want to personally attack anyone or come across as racist. I do just have opinions about the power structures that exist.”
Several locals had suggested the extra affirmative action work HCD is forcing Los Gatos to do—per an official January directive—on its Housing Element, was Clark’s fault.
Both the Town Attorney and the Town Manager said they don’t believe this to be the case.
In fact, the improvement areas called out by the State—such as outlining how it will monitor affordable housing efforts—are in line with the comments other communities received, Whelan said.
And while HCD has asked Los Gatos to give more details in the Housing Element about the referendum, the Town had already given the agency the heads-up it was happening—prior to Clark pressing send on her missive, according to Prevetti.
Over two hours after the meeting began, Councilmember Rob Rennie, appearing via Zoom, finally weighed in. Rennie said he felt like disciplining a commissioner shouldn’t be about scoring points in the housing debate.
“There are some people who are fighting a housing battle—pro or con—who are trying to take advantage of this situation,” he said. “The real issue here was the use of language…I think that the committee got it correct in what they decided.”
Councilmember Matthew Hudes seconded a motion from the mayor to censure Clark and require her to attend coaching about proper commissioner behavior. But he did so reluctantly, he said.
If outside counsel were brought in, a conflict of interest may have been discovered, he suggested, as Clark told him, earlier during the public hearing, she gets paid for housing-related work in the region.
But it would be hard to vote to remove her, since it’s not clear Los Gatos followed its own procedures carefully enough, Hudes said, noting some internal correspondence never made its way to Council.
Badame had been hoping for a motion to oust Clark. But seeing the others moving away from that option, she decided to lend her vote to reprimanding the young planning commissioner unanimously.
She predicted people will start to appeal Planning Commission decisions by claiming bias on Clark’s part.
After the meeting, Clark told the Los Gatan she didn’t feel the censure was necessary. But says she is looking forward to receiving mentorship from the mayor.
“I am really grateful that they are letting me continue on the commission,” she said, promising to be impartial in all future decision-making. “If people are assuming that I have this bias, it’s not like it would have just started existing. So, if you go back and look at my votes on the Planning Commission, it’s evident I don’t have any bias that’s influencing my decisions. I treat everyone with respect.”