The Portola Valley Town Council on June 24 followed up on its work to engage the community about police reform and racial inequality, a discussion that turned tense over a resolution condemning the murder of George Floyd. The council also approved its interim fiscal year 2020-21 budget.
At its June 10 meeting, the council created a subcommittee, made up of Vice Mayor Maryann Derwin and Councilman John Richards, to start a dialogue with residents and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office about police reform in Portola Valley and other cities that contract with the Sheriff's Office for police services. The council members indicated they would request Sheriff's Office data on interactions between its deputies and people they pull over, including information on race.
Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody in May has spurred protests worldwide and calls for police reform and reallocation of law enforcement funding. It has also led local cities and police departments to reexamine use-of-force policies. The Atherton Police Department has modified its policy surrounding chokeholds and carotid restraints, only permitting them when an officer's life is endangered. The Palo Alto City Council earlier this month moved toward adopting the "8 Can't Wait" platform, a set of eight policies regarding use of force, launched an educational series with online briefings and may consider combining its police and fire agencies into a single Department of Public Safety.
Portola Valley's subcommittee said in a report that it wants to pursue the creation of a Sheriff's Office citizens oversight board, and that Town Manager Jeremy Dennis has begun engaging with other cities that contract with the Sheriff's Office. It's exploring options for readings and events "that allow residents to engage fully with experts and those impacted by these issues," and the town has created an online portal for residents to share their thoughts on race, policing and equity. All comments and ideas are available for viewing, and the town will not moderate or participate in it. The subcommittee will review all submitted thoughts to use as part of its ongoing work, according to the town.
The portal, which went live July 8, can be accessed at tinyurl.com/pvconversation. It is also available in Spanish at tinyurl.com/pvconversationspanish.
The resolution was ultimately adopted by the Town Council, but not before it was revised following public comment. The document condemned Floyd's killing and was written to serve as an "affirmation of our commitment to the respectful treatment of all human beings," but residents took issue with a portion at the end that stated the town would "take a long, hard look at our own policies and ordinances that perpetuate and maintain the racial and economic divide in Portola Valley with the hope that we may truly welcome people of different economic and racial backgrounds into our community."
Rita Comes, an African American resident, said that portion of the resolution made it sound as if "there is no diversity in this town."
"There are a lot of people that have lived in this town their whole lives. Maybe they're property rich, but they don't have a million dollars in the bank," she said. "I don't feel Portola Valley is just a racist place with no diversity ... I think there should be more voices before something like this is put out to the world saying, 'This is who we are and we have to make changes because this is how we are.'"
Comes also called on town staff to change a line in the staff report that referred to "deadly force incidents resulting in the tragic death of mentally challenged people of color."
"As a person of color, I'm offended that that's there that way," she said.
Resident Rusty Day took issue with the resolution's assertion that the town has existing policies that "perpetuate and maintain the racial and economic divide in Portola Valley."
"When we have two council members say that they've already concluded that the effect of our general plan and ordinances is to perpetuate and maintain economic exclusion and racial exclusion in town, we see we've already got a bias in the Town Council," he said. "The resolution is not saying whether our ordinances and general plan maintain and perpetuate, it's saying that they do, you've reached your mind."
"Maybe you don't see what's going on in the world," Day added, speaking to Richards and Derwin. "Maybe you need to reach out and make an effort to go beyond your attitudes, your bias, your judgment, and elicit the opinion of others in town, especially others of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds who haven't been on the Town Council for 10 years."
Richards said the language in the resolution "was not to say we have ordinances perpetuating anything, from my standpoint; it was more looking into our ordinances and what we have on our books and seeing if we have any that we might want to look at."
The final, edited resolution now states that the town will look at its own policies that "may perpetuate and maintain the racial and economic divide in Portola Valley with the hope that we may truly welcome more people of different economic and racial backgrounds into our community."
Interim budget approved
At the same meeting, the council adopted an interim budget for the first three months of the 2020-21 fiscal year, which began July 1.
The temporary budget uses the adopted revenues and expenditures from the 2019-20 budget, as the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will not be fully understood until later this summer, according to town staff. The budget will be revised for review and adoption by the council in September.
The interim budget, using the 2019-20 figures, projects identical revenues and expenditures in the amount of $7.89 million.
Staff noted the town's capital improvement plan has been significantly reduced "to only those items recommended for inclusion for work this summer."
Town staff had previously said that the pandemic has caused sales tax revenue to drop significantly due to business closures, and revenue associated with rentals, instructors and field use has ceased. There has also been less revenue from land use permits and affiliated fees, the town's second-largest general fund revenue source based on 2019-20 projections.
Two council seats up for reelection
The council also declared an election in November for two seats up for reelection. Mayor Jeff Aalfs has confirmed he will run for reelection, while Councilwoman Ann Wengert told The Almanac she plans to announce her decision in mid-July.
Aalfs was appointed to the council in 2011 after running unopposed. He previously served as mayor in 2015.
Wengert was also appointed to the council after running unopposed in 2007. She served as mayor in 2009, 2014 and 2019.