Since Palo Alto Forward came into existence in 2014, its members have been among the city's staunchest advocates for more housing options and transportation improvements.
Last week, however, members were distressed to learn that the name of their group was taken by Tim Gray, who until recently served as treasurer of their ideological rival, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ), and registered as a political action committee (PAC).
According to emails exchanged between Gray and city officials, the city stopped using the name in 2014. That's when the newly formed citizens group picked it up and registered the domain name.
Elaine Uang, one of the cofounders of Palo Alto Forward, told the Weekly that the group approached the city in August 2014, at which point the city confirmed that "they had finished using the name and that the city did not object to our use of it when the domain expired."
The city, she noted, has never taken issue with the group's name. The same, however, cannot be said for Gray, a former council candidate who was one of the leaders of the 2013 referendum that struck down the zone change that would have enabled a housing development on Maybell Avenue.
Many leaders of the referendum campaign, including Cheryl Lilienstein and Joe Hirsch, went on to found Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a citizens group that favors slow-growth policies and has endorsed Arthur Keller and Kou in the current council election. Its former members include council members Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth and its website states that the group encourages "development projects that do not adversely impact quality of life and seek proper application of the Comprehensive Plan by City government."
While Gray is a member of the group's leadership team, the PASZ website notes that he is currently "on sabbatical for the 2016 election."
According to Gray's filing with the state Fair Political Practice Commission, he registered Palo Alto Forward as a political action committee in June of this year, the same month that he took over as treasurer of the Kou campaign (he had recently resigned as treasurer of the PASZ political action committee).
The description of the new committee reads, "Unified neighborhood leadership that seeks (to) protect neighborhood quality of life from excess density. Solutions must come first."
Gray told the Weekly that in registering the name, he wanted to protect the city's brand. He said he does not intend to solicit any contributions or do anything apart from ensuring that no other group uses the brand to further its agenda. He said he wanted to "prevent this deception that I had experienced from being foisted on other community members."
"It belongs to the city and most of the citizens think of it as an extension of something that the city has provided," Gray told the Weekly last week. "It doesn't belong to them."
But members of Palo Alto Forward found this explanation laughable.
"It's completely disingenuous to knowingly file an entity under a name of another group that exists in the community," Uang told the Weekly. "That's pretty much impersonation."
She also noted that the group never had any intention of starting a political action committee and that it has not such ambitions today. No one, to her knowledge, has ever been confused about what the group stands for or who serves on the steering committee (the information is on the group's "About" page).
While members of the group's steering committee, which include economist Steve Levy, planning commissioner Eric Rosemblum and former planning commissioner Kate Downing, have made financial contributions to council candidates (including Greg Tanaka and Adrian Fine), the group has not formally endorsed anyone in either 2014 or in the current election.
And while its members advocate for more housing and transportation options, Uang said the group doesn't see itself as a political organization, but as one that hosts community education events and encourages civic engagement through those events. It is currently in the process of becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit, she said.
"We have never taken money from anyone, and we certainly have not spent money on electioneering or politics," Uang said.
Sandra Slater, who is also a co-founder of Palo Alto Forward, called Gray's registration of her group as a political action committee "playing dirty." The move, she said, represents the trickling down of dirty politics from the national level to the local level.
"To have Lydia Kou's treasurer call us evil and say he has to protect the community from deception is ludicrous," Slater said, "If they win the election by playing dirty, it's a really sad commentary on the future of our democracy."
Uang also called Gray's registration of her group's name as a political entity a "demonstration of how low and how corrupt" the campaign has become. But while she said she takes Gray's action seriously, Palo Alto Forward also had some fun with the item. Over the weekend, the group posted on its Facebook page that "Halloween came early" this year.
"Tim Gray, Lydia Kou's treasurer, is 'dressing up' as Palo Alto Forward and filing legal documents using our name. The real Palo Alto Forward is not a PAC -- we've never been one, and we don't want to be one. We are a group of volunteer residents who care about creating housing and transportation options for our community."