A Palo Alto Human Relations Commission deliberation to select a new chair and vice chair turned acrid on Jan. 9, with two members of the commission saying they felt they were being targeted.
The six-member commission, which works to improve community relations and advises the City Council on topics such as LGBTQ rights, homelessness and cultural differences, held three rounds of voting but could not come to a decision on who would be the new chair. A candidate must garner four votes for approval, and with Commissioner Valerie Stinger absent, the vote was split 3-2.
Commissioners Steven Lee and Rev. Kaloma Smith both had been nominated to lead the board, and neither wanted to accept the vice-chair position.
But the tension at the meeting was not between the two candidates. Rather, Commissioner Patricia Regehr, who nominated Lee, accused Chairman Gabriel Kralik of patronizing her and singling her out to change her vote. Smith, who had been nominated by Commissioner Daryl Savage, also said members of the commission, including Kralik, were "throwing barbs" at him.
Regehr said she supported Lee because of his tireless dedication. He showed up at all 13 meetings last year and worked on many ad hoc projects. She has found Lee thoughtful, she said.
"Contrary to what I've heard, he really is a team player," she said of the often outspoken Lee, who asks many questions at meetings.
Stating his own qualifications, Lee said he is the senior-most member of the commission who hasn't been chair and has dedicated much additional time to commission business. He attends two to three other meetings each week with colleagues and nonprofit organizations and has served on 10 to 15 ad hoc committees.
"Not only did I show up and be prepared and ask good questions and participate, but I led or co-led the initiative on most of the things that we would consider accomplishments. I think I've mobilized a lot of people in the community to support us on some of those issues. I think I've raised the visibility of the commission. A lot more people know about the work that we are doing," Lee said.
Savage called Smith, who is pastor of University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, "a true leader." Smith's church, which is a historically African American denomination, was recently struck by vandals. On Jan. 5, he held a worship service and invited the broader community. Savage and some other commissioners attended the service.
"I saw him leading his congregation last weekend and I was blown away. He is a visionary with a passion for people in Palo Alto," she said.
"Pastor Smith has the maturity, wisdom — and most importantly — the composure to be chair, and the time is right," she said, adding that the recent events at the church necessitate a strong leader.
The City Council appointed Lee and Smith to the commission in May 2017 and 2018 respectively.
Track record is questioned
In introductory remarks before the discussion and vote, Kralik noted that chairing the commission comes with extra duties and time commitments. He estimated he spent six to eight hours a week and noted that being vice chair also required extra time outside of monthly meetings.
Smith's input at meetings has been "wonderful," but Kralik said he sensed that Smith has not fully committed to the commission.
Regehr also questioned Smith's dedication to the commission, given that he's missed about half of the meetings.
Smith argued that for five years before he was appointed, he had attended commission meetings. His dedicated time and effort "has been transformative for the community," he said.
The recent church vandalism has made him realize how integral his work on the commission is, he said.
"This is not a hobby or part time; this is a passion," he said.
Regehr wasn't convinced, however.
"I'm not doubting you. (But) I haven't seen you here very often. I want someone on the Human Relations Commission who is going to show up and follow up," she said.
Smith said he thought that Regehr took an "unfair sample of my work," since she has only been on the commission for six months. Regehr said she has been involved in the community for 25 years and that she can only judge Smith on his record since she joined the commission.
Kralik defended Smith, pointing out that Smith has run the Community Conversations group, which has been among the most productive commission activities.
Ultimately it was not the contest between Lee and Smith that produced the most tension but the dynamic between Regehr and Kralik.
After Regehr said it would be a win-win no matter which candidate became chair, Kralik asked: "Patti, are you ready to change your vote?"
That question upset Regehr, who noted that the votes are private.
"I think it is unfair of you to say that only to me and not to Daryl," she said.
Referencing what appeared to be a deeper rift between Regehr and himself, Kralik said he would attempt to rectify with Regehr outside of the meeting.
Smith pleaded for a different tenor among the commissioners.
"We have been throwing barbs at me for the last 25 minutes for me to step down," Smith said.
"How does it look that a Human Relations Commission has three commissioners make personal, veiled or unveiled comments against another commissioner? Criticism is critical, but we've repeated it six or seven times. At what point does that criticism become an attack?" he said.
Thursday's meeting isn't the first time commissioners have become heated. In October 2018, Lee and Smith voiced concerns over minority group under-representation and demanded an accounting during an approval process for new mediators. The discussion with then-commissioner Jill O'Nan at one point became acrimonious.
In 2004, then-commission Chair Lakiba Pittman upset City Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell, liaison to the commission, after Pittman abstained from voting to support a gay marriage resolution. Pittman said at the time she had trouble reconciling her secular and Christian beliefs.