In a surprise upset on what's considered one of Menlo Park's most influential commissions, Housing Commissioner Camille Kennedy unseated the Planning Commission's vice chair, Larry Kahle, by a vote of the City Council on Tuesday night (April 24).
Generally, incumbents seeking second terms are favored; however, the council made a marked departure from that trend, choosing Kennedy over Kahle.
Incumbent Drew Combs was reappointed, despite appearing to be a more controversial pick: He works for Facebook and is one of two commissioners, along with Susan Goodhue, who must recuse themselves from Facebook-related planning discussions and decisions – of which there are a growing number in Menlo Park.
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith had expressed reservations about reappointing Combs. "My concern is that in the next few years, with the Facebook Village proposal going forward ... I'm interested in making sure we get as much input as we can. (This) conflict concerns me."
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller noted that the city already has one council member and two planning commissioners recused from Facebook matters. "Conflicts will happen with Facebook in our city. That is for certain. It is growing larger every day. I don't think that should preclude people from public service," he said.
He also pointed out that Combs is only one of two African American commissioners in the entire city. "If we decided not to appoint him, the commission would be all Caucasian," he said.
In an interview, Combs said he looks forward to being a part of the Planning Commission's future debates and playing a role in the topics of planning and development in the city. He said it was bittersweet and surprising for him that Kahle wasn't reappointed.
"I've valued his attention to detail and his ability to really scrutinize projects," Combs said. "I think we probably disagreed more than we agreed, but I definitely think that his very detailed review of projects had a real value to the commission."
Kahle said in an email after the vote that he was mildly shocked by the outcome. "I don't know why the vote went that way tonight because I did take it seriously and thought I would be reappointed. I've served one 3-year term (no controversial decisions) and was looking forward to a 4-year term."
Council member Rich Cline said he knows Kennedy and wanted to show support, but also had assumed Kahle would get the majority vote. He said he would reconsider the vote if it had been 3-2.
The vote to appoint Kennedy was 4-1, with Mueller casting his vote for Kahle.
Mueller later explained his vote: "He worked hard, and his colleagues thought enough of his service to make him Vice Chair of the Commission. He would have more than likely become Chair upon his reappointment."
Mayor Peter Ohtaki said his vote was less about Kahle's performance on the Planning Commission and more a vote for Kennedy because, he said, she has applied several times for the commission and lives closer to downtown and El Camino Real than Kahle. Also, he said, he had been "impressed with her during our interview."
"I think Camille will bring new energy and views to the Planning Commission," he said.
Kennedy, in an email, said she believed it would be a long shot, but pointed to her credentials -- a master's degree in urban planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design -- and time spent serving on the Housing Commission. Kennedy is also a major gifts officer at Palo Alto-based Avenidas, and is on the steering committee of Imagine Menlo, a group of Menlo Park residents that supports vibrancy in the downtown and across the city.
"I am looking forward to helping (the) City Council solve some pretty tenacious and complex issues facing our community and helping create a Menlo Park that has diversity (in population and purpose), uniqueness and is a fun place to live," she wrote.
Below are the other council appointments:
● Complete Streets Commission: Lydia Lee, Adina Levin, Philip Mazarra and Betsy Nash.
● Environmental Quality Commission: Tom Kabat, James Payne and Ryann Price. The commission has one two-year term vacant and two four-year terms vacant. They will draw straws to determine whose term will end in 2020 and whose will end in 2022.
● Library Commission: Alan Cohen, Ashley Chambers, Noopur Pandey and Katie Hadrovic.
● Housing Commission: Rachel Horst to the four-year term and Wendy McPherson to the two-year term.
● Finance and Audit Committee: Soody Tronson and Roger Royse
● Parks and Recreation Commission: Dana Payne