LIVERMORE — The city council voted unanimously this week to consider the removal of Commissioner John Stein from the planning commission at a meeting set for May 3.
The April 26 decision followed a discussion of Stein’s comments at last week’s April 20 planning commission meeting.
Councilmembers said they had received emails and calls, complaining that the commissioner had used inappropriate language when discussing the Eden Housing project proposed for the old Lucky site in the downtown core. Among other statements at the commission meeting, Stein had said, “I really don’t want to see the downtown become a ghetto of affordable housing, and I support inclusionary housing both on a macro and micro scale … (but) it should be distributed throughout the city.” The commissioner was then the lone dissenting vote during that meeting, when the planning commission passed a recommendation 4 to 1 for the city council to approve Eden’s current plan.
At this week’s council meeting, Stein issued an apology for his remarks.
“I’d like to say that I do feel my comments were intemperate … I also believe that as a planning commissioner, it’s my role to treat the public with respect, compassion and be willing to meet their expectations. Again, I apologize if I have not done that,” Stein said. “I was accused of making remarks that were disrespectful to service workers and low-income people. That was not my intent.”
He then provided his background on growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with immigrant parents, along with his work history in the service industry.
“Overall, I think to some extent, I was misinterpreted,” he continued. “I do support inclusionary housing. I think it’s best if affordable housing at all levels could be incorporated into the community, rather than concentrated at a single location. I have worked with Eden Housing for over 30 years and respect their ability to provide affordable housing. The sole reason for my negative vote was that I felt parking was inadequate.”
Vice Mayor Trish Munro thanked Stein for his apology before addressing three points from the planning commission meeting.
“(Stein) talked about Livermore as, quote, ‘The center of homelessness in the Valley.’ He went on to say that he did not want Livermore to become the, quote, ‘Go-to place in the Valley for affordable housing.’ And finally, he used the word ‘ghetto’ to refer to the proposed Eden development,” Munro said.
Munro went on to say that caring for people who have little, or nothing, is both a pragmatic and moral imperative. She said that words like “slum” or “ghetto” stigmatize people who live in poor neighborhoods that exist due to “redlining practices, predatory real estate practices, discriminatory bank loans, and poorly maintained rental properties.”
“During World War II, the Nazis confined Jews to ‘ghettos’ prior to removing them to the death camps … And in the U.S., we at local, state and federal levels carved out areas of our large cities where poor people lived. And by the mid-20th century, the ghetto was the place where we warehoused Black people,” she continued. “The shame of the ghetto, the shame of the slum, is not on those who live in them, but on those who create them.”
Councilmember Gina Bonanno acknowledged that everyone is capable of saying hurtful things. However, she said she was troubled by Stein’s comparison of the Eden Housing plan to notorious public housing projects like Cabrini-Green, which aimed to segregate, not lift people up.
During public comment on the item, three of the four speakers further expressed dismay over Stein’s language. John Minot of East Bay for Everyone, based in Oakland, pointed out the long history of racially disparate urban planning.
“Part of being in city planning today is being aware of this history — of how exclusion was baked into our built environment — and being prepared to combat it,” Minot said. “It’s not just enough to be racially neutral. We have to combat this legacy. We know the word that was used is a racially loaded word. It conjures up centuries of injustice that continue to be highly relevant today.”
Resident speaker Ally Felker voiced the opinion that Stein’s comments were inappropriate and agreed that the use of the word “ghetto” stigmatized low-income individuals. Another speaker, Ian Carlin, said that while he understood Stein was sorry, the commissioner did not appear to understand the “fullness” of how he spoke at the planning commission meeting.
“If he does not have the time or effort to think about how these words that he’s using could offend people, how can we trust him to represent us on the planning commission?” Carlin said.
Speaker Veronica Stewart-Long, however, weighed in with a different perspective.
“The first thing (Stein) said was that he supports inclusionary housing. That was his first statement,” she said, adding that Stein had wanted to see the affordable housing distributed throughout the city. “He stepped back from the city planning and took a regional view and mentioned something that I’ve heard since I was young, growing up here in Livermore. And that’s that Livermore does more than other towns around us … he wanted to make sure that this housing that we’re seeing is for our workforce — that there’s some way for Livermore residents to get preference for this housing.”
Jim Hutchin’s written comment, which was included in the agenda materials with the item, also suggested Stein’s words were taken out of context. He believed that Stein saw the issue as segregating the low-income units, instead of dispersing them throughout town.
“In fact, he was promoting the integration of low‐income units into the market‐rate projects to explicitly prevent the negative aspects,” Hutchins wrote.
He also called the attempt to remove Stein a component of “cancel culture.”
“Silencing an opposing viewpoint merely demonstrates a fear of debating it,” he concluded.
Later referencing Stein’s apology, Councilmember Brittni Kiick spoke to the difference between intent and impact.
“Intent matters, we know, but impact matters more,” she said. “What I heard in the apology was ‘I’m sorry that you misunderstood my comments.’ And I don’t think that was really taking account for the action that was said. The impact of those words was very strong … the impact we make with our words is far stronger than the intent that’s behind them. The apology needs to come for the impact, and the apology should not ever blame the listener for misunderstanding their intent.”
Mayor Bob Woerner agreed that the apology was lacking, saying that Stein’s language was way past “intemperate.”
Councilmember Robert Carling then directly called for Stein’s removal during the meeting, saying that he wasn’t one to “kick the can down the road.”
City Attorney Jason Alcala addressed the legality of removing Stein at the time. He noted that while the council can dismiss commissioners without cause, the decision would need to be an agendized item for a future meeting.
The council then voted 5-0 to hold a May 3 special meeting to discuss next steps for Stein.
In a continued conversation after the vote, Kiick said she didn’t want to go down the path of getting rid of people because they’ve made a mistake. She wanted to discuss what accountability means to the council, along with other city norms and values at a future time. She called for the council to consider establishing a policy for letting people go.
“I don’t want to start a situation where somebody on a commission does something that we don’t agree with, or think is inappropriate, and then start removing people without cause,” she said. “I know that we can remove people without cause. I just don’t know that we should constantly just remove people without cause, which is why I want the cause to be part of the conversation. And I think policy is important, so if having policy be a part of that conversation is something that we can do, great. I get that it’s very, very short notice for staff to give us a policy.”
She said that Stein’s comments went against the city values, but she wanted to protect the council in the future from accusations that “we just remove people that we disagree with.”
Munro agreed that she would be more comfortable if there were a policy in place to apply to Stein’s actions.
Woerner said the council needed to ask staff if the request was even feasible. Alcala interjected to say it’s very challenging to create a policy, and then apply it retroactively.
“Right now, the baseline is, the planning commissioners serve at the will of the city council,” Alcala said. “If you create a new policy, you can’t apply it retroactively, because that planning commissioner did not know what the expectations were.”
Woerner “implored everyone to understand how things work.”
“Let’s get a grip,” he said.
Bonanno added that a policy was not needed, though she understood the reasons the matter was raised. Kiick and Munro agreed to move forward. Kiick stated that she would like to talk about the concept of a policy in the future.