Steven Lee, a member of the Human Relations Commission and an outspoken critic of City Council's recent record on human rights, is joining the increasingly crowded race for a council seat.
Lee, a tech attorney who lives in Midtown, is entering the council race as his term on the commission approaches its conclusion. While the term expired on May 31, Lee has remained on the commission while the city recruits a new member for a seat that is currently vacant.
In his three years on the commission, Lee distinguished himself as a passionate and, at times, outspoken advocate for social services, police reforms and programs that encourage inclusiveness. He proudly wears the mantle of "progressive Democrat" and says he wants to see Palo Alto become a more bold, progressive and responsive community. He also wants to see a council that is more accountable to residents and is quicker to act on priorities such as building housing and launching programs to assist those in most need within the community.
He believes that Palo Alto's housing shortage is inextricably linked to other issues that the city is grappling with, including public safety, sustainability and transportation. After years of failing to meet its own housing goals, the city has a lot of catching up to do, Lee told this news organization.
"If we want to maintain local control, we must also exercise local responsibility by making it easier to build new housing that meets community needs," Lee said.
This, he said, means encouraging all types of housing except luxury condos and prioritizing residential development over offices.
"It's hard to say you're serious about housing if you keep digging yourself into a deeper hole," Lee said, pointing to the city's high jobs-housing imbalance.
As a commissioner, Lee has not shied away from controversy. He was dismayed when the council did not adopt in 2018 the gender-equality initiative known as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, for which he had advocated. Earlier this month, he penned an opinion piece in the Weekly in which he criticized the council for referring the proposed ordinance to a committee and for failing to act on it for nearly two years.
He also took issue with the Palo Alto Unified School District decision in 2018 to not rename a local middle school after Fred Yamamoto, a decorated war veteran and Paly graduate who shares a last name with an Imperial Japanese Navy general. After that decision, Lee joined a group of district parents in drafting a resolution to combat racism in local schools.
In April 2019, Lee publicly weighed in on a viral video showing resident Rebecca Parker-Mankey berating an elderly man in a "Make America Great Again" hat at a Starbucks on California Avenue. Lee said at the time that the MAGA hat "at its best represents a distorted and inaccurate view of America" and suggested that more outreach is needed to those with different views. "We must resist sinking down to their level," he wrote, sparking blowback on social media from critics of Parker-Mankey's conduct.
Earlier this year, he vied with his commission colleague, the Rev. Koloma Smith, over who would chair the commission after a vote resulted in a deadlock. In February, Lee ended the stalemate by throwing support to Smith, a move that won praise from other commissioners.
Lee also ran into some opposition from the council in May, when had urged the city to address the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a hard-drinking culture against the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team, which receives grant funding from the city to provide support services for homeless individuals. As a member of a Human Relations Commissions subcommittee that reviewed the grants, Lee had urged the city to request documented proof from Downtown Streets Team that it had addressed these issues, including a report that the nonprofit had commissioned in response to the allegations.
The council in June declined to do that and approved the full grant allotment to Downtown Streets Team based on verbal assurances from the nonprofit group's board chair that the issues have been resolved.
In his June opinion piece, Lee blasted the council for declining to follow what he called the "very standard practice of providing records and reports regarding the alleged harassment prior to signing a new contract with the alleged harasser."
"The council, however, viewed my demands for transparency — the same transparency a private organization would seek as a matter of course — as overstepping and intrusive," Lee wrote.
On this issue, and others, he believes the council has been too timid and too deferential to city staff. He wrote that his interactions with the council over the past three years reflect "a City Hall culture that is unaccountable, resistant to change and dissenting views, overly deferential to a staff that is unresponsive and out of touch with the community's needs."
Lee said in an interview that if elected, he would not shy away from difficult discussions that may stray from staff recommendations. He pointed to last month's budget adoption, which resulted in about $40 million in cuts. Rather than cutting community services, the city should have delayed some of its big-ticketed capital projects, such as a new fire station at Mitchell Park and the proposed police headquarters on Sherman Avenue. Some council members have argued for that approach, he noted, but were not allowed to advance these proposals.
"When we are having vigorous discussions and debates, that's really when meaningful work is done," Lee, 31, told this news organization. "We have a culture where there is a reluctance to speak your mind, a culture that silences individuals who are pushing for change and for doing things differently. I want us to be a council that isn't afraid to do that."
Lee also serves on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's Citizens Advisory Committee, the Midtown Residents Association and WizChinese, a nonprofit that supports the city's Chinese community.
Lee is vying for one of four seats that will be up for grabs in November. Three incumbent council members — Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Councilman Greg Tanaka — are all eligible for fresh terms. Kou has declared her intention to seek a fresh term. Councilwoman Liz Kniss is terming out at the end of the year.
Other candidates in the race are former Mayor Pat Burt, attorney Rebecca Eisenberg, teacher Greer Stone; and Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Cari Templeton and planning Commissioner Ed Lauing.