The Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a hard-partying culture, will receive its full allotment of grant funding from Palo Alto without having to offer documentation that it has addressed these problems, the City Council Finance Committee decided on Tuesday.
In voting to give the nonprofit the full funding allotment with no strings attached, the committee overruled the recommendations of the Human Relations Commission's Selection Committee, which had conditioned the release of the $336,000 from the federal Community Development Block Grant program on the release of documents. Those documents included a report from the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, whom the nonprofit's board hired in August 2018 to investigate accusations from multiple women who had worked at Downtown Streets Team and were allegedly pressured to engage in the nonprofit's alcohol culture to qualify for promotions and pay raises.
The Selection Committee also asked the nonprofit for a report on pay equity and for a survey of the current climate at the organization, which provides services to homeless individuals and operates a food closet. The committee specified that the nonprofit and the city can redact portions of the reports with personally identifiable details.
But the Finance Committee was swayed by City Manager Ed Shikada, who made the case for not requiring the nonprofit to provide any of the documents that were requested by the Selection Committee. The reports pertain to allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination that were initially reported by San Jose Inside and that were corroborated by the Weekly.
Shikada told the committee Tuesday that Mayor Adrian Fine had conversations with the nonprofit's board of directors after the allegations came out. Based on those discussions and the follow-up information that the city received from the board and the nonprofit's management, Shikada recommended moving ahead with the funding allocations.
Shikada also argued that requesting the information would be "out of proportion from the kind of information we request from other organizations."
"On the basis of consistency in how we treat our nonprofit partners, I'd recommend proceeding," Shikada told the committee.
Owen Byrd, board chairman of the Downtown Streets Team, thanked staff on Tuesday for its recommendation to approve the funding and characterized the allegations against the nonprofit as "the kerfuffle that emerged in the press." He assured the committee that the nonprofit's board, which he called "the most earnest board I ever served on in my life," took the allegations seriously.
"We immediately commissioned a report and did a full investigation and spent a lot of money and a lot of time, and we did it by the book with no assumptions about the outcomes," Byrd said.
Byrd said the investigation revealed that there were no pay disparities and addressed other concerns that were raised. He also said that the board adopted numerous procedural governmental improvements to make sure that if concerns are raised in the future, the board would be able to address them.
Byrd told the committee that because the report deals with personnel issues, it cannot be made public, notwithstanding the direction by the Selection Committee to redact identifiable details. He said that as the fiduciary agency responsible for the Downtown Streets Team, the board bears liability for its actions.
"It's the credibility of those of us on the board that is at stake here," Byrd said.
Unlike prior years, the grant allocations were not reviewed by the entire Human Relations Commission, which typically vets the recommendations from its selection criteria before sending them on to the City Council's Finance Committee and, ultimately, the full council. Because of the pandemic, which required the cancellation of various meetings, the full commission did not review the Selection Committee's recommendation.
Byrd also told the committee on Tuesday that the request for additional information was prompted by one commissioner who went on a "fishing expedition" and predicted, without any supporting evidence, that the full Human Relations Commission would not have supported that recommendation. In fact, the commission's Selection Committee voted 2-0-1, with Steven Lee and Patricia Regehr supporting and Valerie Stinger abstaining, to request the documents from the nonprofit.
During its review of the funding request, Lee said he hopes the agency will disclose the types of information that "the community might need to feel comfortable with any decision the council makes."
"I remain uncomfortable with making a funding recommendation in spite of all the good work that Downtown Streets Team does," Lee said at the Selection Committee meeting.
The Finance Committee, which consists of council members Greg Tanaka and Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, didn't share the Selection Committee's concern. It did not discuss the allegations against the Downtown Streets Team or the request from the Selection Committee to request additional documentation from the nonprofit.