LIVERMORE — At a special council meeting held on Monday this week, councilmembers voted 4-1 to keep Commissioner John Stein on the planning commission with certain conditions, following his comments at a recent public meeting.
With Councilmember Robert Carling opposed, the council decided to retain Stein, while requiring that he meet with the Human Services staff to visit the city’s affordable housing developments. The purpose of the tour, as proposed by Councilmember Gina Bonanno, is to help Stein better understand how the low-income complexes serve residents in Livermore — unlike notorious housing projects like Cabrini-Green, which Stein had referenced April 20.
Stein will also attend a two-day webinar training on equity and inclusion. The requirements went hand in hand with an official warning that offensive words will not be tolerated in the future.
The council decision followed an April 20 planning commission meeting, during which time Stein used the word “ghetto” — among other language — to express concerns about the Eden Housing project passed by the commission 4-1. 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 Eden Housing project is proposed for the old Lucky site in the downtown core; its current plans involve the development of a 130-unit, four-story affordable housing complex. Stein was the dissenting vote at that meeting. According to Stein, his reason for voting “no” was the inadequacy of the plan’s proposed parking.
At an April 26 city council meeting, Stein apologized for the way in which he worded his concerns about the Eden plan; he issued another statement May 3 before the council made its decision.
“A number of people were hurt by my offensive comments during the last planning commission (meeting). To all of them, I say I am truly sorry, and I will do my best to see that it never happens again,” Stein said. “Some individuals have tried to put words in my mouth and say what I believe and what my motives are. I would like to state my beliefs. People of all racial, ethnic, income level, sexual orientation and religion and any background are welcome in Livermore. Livermore needs a balanced mix of housing types spread throughout the city. Service workers are a valued part of the community, and people of all income levels are entitled to live in decent housing close to where they work. This issue is about my words and not my vote. This council and staff, I believe, are honestly working to do what’s best for Livermore.”
From the community, those upset with Stein said he spoke disparagingly of low-income or homeless individuals, while insensitively using a racially loaded word.
“Part of our mission is to hold our public officials accountable,” said public speaker Emily Wilson, resident and co-founder of Tri-Valley for Black Lives. “This behavior from someone from a position of power perpetuates systemic racism. Real harm was caused by Stein to low-income, unhoused and Black, Indigenous and people of color … I am here to demand that we hold John Stein and the City of Livermore accountable. There is a difference between ‘cancel culture’ and accountability.”
Others claimed his comments were taken out of context and used as a catalyst to punish the commissioner for his April 20 vote.
“The commissioner is here on trial for the discussion about the dynamics involved in the downtown housing projects,” said speaker James Hutchins. “He stated multiple times that he is for affordable, inclusive housing, but was concerned that, by putting all of the low-income housing together — namely segregated — that would cause stigma … This man, who grew up in a low economic situation himself, is now being called classist, because based on his lived experience, he wanted to avoid that.”
Mayor Bob Woerner addressed the public concerns that the consideration to remove Stein from the planning commission stemmed from retaliation for his vote.
"Our deliberations are about Commissioner Stein’s comments, not about the technical decision-making regarding the Eden project,” Woerner said.
Prior to casting his vote of dissent to retain Stein with conditions, Carling said that many people had focused on the use of the word “ghetto,” but he took issue with the whole of Stein’s comments at the April 20 meeting.
“His remarks before (saying ‘ghetto’) were equally offensive, if not more,” Carling said.
He pointed out Stein’s statements about Livermore becoming the “go-to place for homelessness” or that he didn’t want the city to provide more than its “fair share” of affordable housing in the county.
“To me, his comments taken in full — I will emphasize taken in full — are insensitive, inexcusable and inconsistent with our values,” Carling said.
Councilmember Brittni Kiick proposed the concept of providing Stein with training, paired with a formal warning.
“It’s hard to hold someone accountable, when you don’t set clear expectations,” she said. “I believe in systems of policy to prepare people for success.”
Vice Mayor Trish Munro said that since the April 26 meeting, she had spoken to various individuals, including Stein, and sought a path forward, while addressing the mistake.
“I believe that everyone does deserve a second chance, but it also means action, and I think Mr. Stein is moving in that direction,” Munro said.
Bonanno detailed the evolution of language and how what’s considered acceptable changes over time.
“I believe it’s on us, as empathic, sensitive human beings to learn when things change — to be aware — and that’s not just political correctness. It’s about caring about what people find offensive and changing the words we use, because they’re hurtful,” Bonanno said. “As I said on April 26, I strongly objected to what Mr. Stein’s words reflected about his viewpoint.”
She also believed that, based on what Stein has said since then, he’s beginning to understand the impact of his words and willing to learn from the experience.
Woerner had said at the April 26 meeting that Stein’s comments were “beyond intemperate” and his first apology was lacking. At the May 3 meeting, he stated that the council acted with compassion and the understanding that people get a second chance.
“And I’ll just say that that’s consistent with my own life experience,” he said right before the meeting adjourned. “However, there aren’t more chances after something like that.”