Tenant group calls for EPA city manager's ouster

Demand alleges interference with Rent Stabilization Program after public-records review

A tenants' rights group is calling for the replacement of East Palo Alto City Manager Magda Gonzalez after the group reviewed more than 3,000 public documents related to her communications regarding the city's Rent Stabilization Program.

Tenants Together said the documents show a pattern of biased interactions that favored landlords who have allegedly been some of the biggest violators of the city's rent ordinance.

The tenants group obtained the documents through a California Public Records Act request.

Gonzalez's contract expires in October. The City Council is expected to vote July 15 to renew it or allow it to expire. The tenants' organization is asking the City Council to replace her or not renew her contract, the group said in a lengthy announcement on July 9.

Rent Stabilization Board members touched briefly on Tenants Together's accusations on Wednesday night at its board meeting. Board member Maureen Larsson, part of an investigative ad hoc committee, said she hoped the Tenants Together documents would spur the City Council to move forward on a deeper investigation.

"One way to interpret (these findings) is unequal protection under the law. As a tenant, I'm not happy. It's pretty disturbing," Larsson said.

Other board members said they had not yet read the accusations and documents. City Attorney John Nagel could not be reached for comment on the matter.

Gonzalez came under scrutiny after she commissioned an audit of the city's rent-stabilization program, which protects tenants from unfair rent increases and abusive treatment by landlords. The program also provides landlords and tenants with a process for resolving conflict disputes and evictions if they are warranted.

Consultant Nadine Levin's report took aim at the program's administrator, Carol Lamont, and accused her of unequal treatment that favored tenants over landlords.

The Rent Stabilization Board and tenants' attorney groups repudiated the audit as being a "hit piece" with a built-in bias against Lamont's responsibilities to help tenants file paperwork in their disputes. Lamont, a housing specialist who has shepherded the city's rent program, resigned after the report came out.

City documents released by the group show that Levin was in negotiation with Gonzalez to work directly under her as interim assistant city manager days prior to being given the consulting job. Levin discussed the potential assistant manager position in two May 8, 2013, emails to Gonzalez.

"I enjoyed our visit on Tuesday. Just wanted to let you know I would like to help in any way I can and am interested in the interim ACM position," Levin wrote in part. The second email discussed splitting the job with another applicant and how their time might be divided. Gonzalez responded that she wanted to work with Levin and suggested a possible way to split the job.

Ten days after the exchange, on March 18, 2013, Gonzalez entered into a contract with Levin to perform the rent-program review.

A July 10, 2013, email from Levin to Gonzalez shows a limited scope of the audit interviews. Levin listed six people she interviewed, including Lamont, rent program staff member Stephen Ford, Interim City Attorney Valerie Armento, rent board member Sheryee Randolph and three representatives for landlords.

Two landlord representatives were from Equity Residential, which owns nearly half of all rental properties in the city: John Hyjer is first vice president of investments, and Christopher Peter is managing director at Woodland Park, the 1,800-unit apartment complex owned by Equity Residential. Peter is also a member of the rent stabilization board, which is comprised of tenants, landlords and property owners. The third landlord representative was Auria Malenasaleki of Housing Network, which owns 82 units in the city.

Levin did not interview any tenants other than Randolph, who is on the rent board. Randolph said at a rent board meeting that her interview with Levin lasted five minutes. She was never asked any questions related to being a tenant, she said.

"I don't have plans to meet with any other landlords or tenants. Do you feel for the sake of perceived validity to my review that I should meet with any additional tenants?" Levin asked Gonzalez in a July 10, 2013, email.

Gonzalez replied, "Regarding the tenant. I am struggling, as I do not know who we would contact or how to locate i.e. someone who we already know was happy with the outcome or not. Maybe we get one of each. I am wondering about potentially interview (sic) one of the tenant advocacy organizations in town like community legal (sic). I am copying Kathleen Kane on this email to get her thoughts, as she had a lot of experience with the Rent Stabilization Program as well as the advocacy groups."

On Wednesday, Lamont told the Weekly that the chosen landlords were among the biggest violators of the rent ordinance that she dealt with as administrator.

"There are many, many good landlords in East Palo Alto. But there was no effort to contact any of them," she said.

Levin said she did not solicit the assistant manager position but was asked by Gonzalez along with others. The potential position and the consultant job were through the company she works for, Municipal Resource Group. It isn't unusual for a contract to cover different aspects of a contracting agency's needs, she said.

She denied that her audit was in any way influenced by her potential position as assistant city manager.

Tenants Together also alleged that Gonzalez appeared to give landlords preferential treatment over tenants.

On Jan. 16, 2014, she sent an email to three representatives of Equity Residential (EQR): Hyjer, Peter and Corey Warren, the vice president of property management. Rent board members other than Peter were not cc'd on the email, nor were any tenants' groups.

"I hope you are both doing well. I wanted to let you know that there will be three Tenant Protection Ordinances on the next council agenda, and I wanted to make sure you were aware. The agenda is not yet finalized, but it should be posted by this evening or tomorrow," the email read.

Tenants Together claims that Gonzalez interfered with enforcement of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance.

Emails the group provided show that Gonzalez met with Equity representatives regarding their complaints about Lamont. She then forbade the program administrator from referring tenants to city inspectors when their rental units had alleged health or safety violations.

Gonzalez rejected Lamont's request to view the tenant petition and landlord's response, which, Lamont told the Weekly, would have justified why the inspection referral was made.

"The program administrator and staff are often the first point of contact tenants have with the city. As tenants can petition for a rent adjustment based on the landlord's failure to repair substandard conditions, these city employees are likely to encounter tenants who need inspection services. In order to protect tenants from living in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, staff should be encouraged to refer such tenants for inspections to make sure the problem is corrected in a timely manner. The city manager's directive was inappropriate and interfered with rent program staff carrying out their work," Tenants Together said.

Marty McKenna, Equity Residential first vice president of Investor and Public Relations, said, "Since we purchased Woodland Park Apartments, our focus has been on providing safe and affordable work force housing for the residents of East Palo Alto. We operate the property in complete compliance with all of the regulations set in place by the Ordinance.

"As the largest landlord in the program, it is our responsibility to be in communication with the administration of the City of East Palo Alto regarding the program and a whole host of topics. The program can only be successful if the rights of both tenants and landlords are upheld."

The rent program was not the only one audited. Gonzalez commissioned reviews of four city programs because she was trying to improve efficiency, she has said.

On Thursday, she refuted the Tenants Together allegations in a lengthy email to the Weekly. She accused Tenants Together of "cherry picking" information "to support their apparently predetermined conclusions."

"My record and background speak for themselves and illustrate that my life's work has been to serve low income families and individuals. As an attorney I've served as a housing advocate for La Raza Centro Legal. For over 10 years I coordinated a free monthly legal clinic in Redwood City to serve those most in need. I spent seven years as the manager of Redwood City's Fair Oaks Community Center providing direct service and bringing together other critical social service providers to help the underprivileged.

"I am appalled at the reckless allegations made by Tenants Together. They have taken statements from emails and apparently drawn predetermined conclusions, made inferences and presumptions, and offered declarations and judgments apparently designed to denigrate my character and professionalism. They neglected to contact me to gain any information that would clear up any ambiguities or uncertainties.

"Let me be clear -- I understand and fully support East Palo Alto's Rent Stabilization Ordinance. I am committed to doing all I can to preserve the ordinance and continue to protect tenants' rights and affordable housing in our community. My interest is in ensuring that tenants who are most in need have access to affordable housing, and in finding ways to create affordable housing in perpetuity -- not just housing that can be readily impacted and affected by the rising housing market, which can happen presently with the ordinance.

"In fact my purpose in carrying out a review of the Rent Stabilization Program's operations was to find ways to strengthen it, to explore additional avenues for preserving the integrity of the ordinance, and to provide the program with the tools to run more effectively and efficiently, and to thus better serve the community," she wrote.

East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica said that renewing Gonzalez's contract is a separate issue from the Tenants Together allegations. Council members are conducting an evaluation of her work overall.

Abrica said he was nonetheless disturbed by the number of emails between Equity and Gonzalez and their content.

"Nowhere in these emails do I hear the city manager saying to EQR, 'By the way, you are out of compliance,'" he said.

The audit was "very superficial. It really lacks credibility," Abrica said.

"I do feel that it is important for us to be very transparent and open with the public. Regardless of our views on the law, we have been entrusted to protect it and implement it," he said, noting the ordinance was passed by 79 percent of voters.

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