Setting aside their concerns about numerous allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against top executives at the Downtown Streets Team, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to sign a new deal with the nonprofit to maintain downtown parking lots, alleyways and sidewalks.
By a 6-0 vote, with Council member Alison Cormack absent, the council voted to continue its relationship with Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that provides outreach services and support to homeless individuals. But rather than sign the three-year, $323,244 contract that City Manager Ed Shikada was recommending, council members opted for a one-year deal for $107,748.
In approving the deal, council members chose to trust the nonprofit without verifying the assertion of Owen Byrd, chair of the organization's board of directors. As at past meetings, Byrd assured them that the Downtown Streets Team has already investigated the allegations that were brought forward against CEO Eileen Richardson by five former female employees and claimed that most of these complaints were deemed unfounded over the course of the investigation.
When questioned by the council, Byrd asserted that the nonprofit has found "absolutely no evidence" of harassment or pay disparities based on gender. At the same time, he told the council that since these allegations were made, the nonprofit had instituted new governance measures, including a strengthened Human Resources Department with a director who reports directly to the board and increased management and employee training.
The Downtown Streets Team board had also commissioned in 2018 an independent investigation of allegations from five former employees by The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer. While Byrd claimed that the investigation had found no evidence that supported most of the complaints, he has consistently rebuffed the city's attempts to obtain the document and to verify its conclusions. As in the past, he cited on Monday privacy concerns as a reason not to release even a redacted version of the report to the city.
Byrd also emphasized that none of the former employees had filed lawsuits against the Downtown Streets Team. He characterized their complaints as "entirely allegations brought in the press," alluding to investigations that were published by San Jose Inside and, later, the Weekly.
"In response, our board did the right thing," Byrd said. "We've spent almost $100,000 on a third-party investigator to fully investigate all the allegations. Those investigations revealed that we could improve the governance mechanisms that we have improved. But, beyond that, it did not substantiate almost all of the claims."
His assurance notwithstanding, the nonprofit did in fact face a legal challenge from a former employee, Zia MacWilliams, relating to unemployment benefits that she was set to receive after she quit her job. In 2018, the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board sided with MacWilliams and granted her the unemployment benefits after it concluded that she had good cause to quit.
Byrd falsely maintained Monday that the legal challenges that the nonprofit has faced — including an ongoing dispute over wages — have nothing to do with the numerous claims of misconduct, including allegations that Richardson facilitated a hard-drinking culture and that she made advances toward an employee who was intoxicated and unconscious at a 2014 holiday party. In fact, the Appeals Board's ruling explicitly stated: "Based upon the claimant's sworn testimony, which was provided in a manner which caused the administrative law judge to conclude her testimony credible, it is found that the claimant was subjected to sexual harassment and a hostile work environment."
When asked by Vice Mayor Tom DuBois about the Appeals Board rulings, which the Weekly had previously reported on, Byrd said that the news organization "got it wrong" when it linked the pay dispute with the sexual harassment allegations — notwithstanding the actual language in the ruling. In considering MacWilliams' testimony, the two judges also concurred that it should be accorded "greater evidentiary weight" and "probative value" than the sworn testimony from the employer witness, which according to the judges was "lacking in conviction and frequently non-responsive to questions posed to her regarding the issue of sexual harassment."
The only public investigation that Byrd said remains ongoing was a dispute over whether the agency did its "record-keeping correctly" when it came to hourly employees.
"That's a wage and hour dispute that is separate from the allegations of harassment," Byrd said.
The council's approval of the Downtown Streets Team contract came a week after some members expressed reservations about providing funding to a nonprofit that is facing numerous allegations of sexual harassment and that continues to withhold the documentation that the city has been seeking. At its Nov. 30 meeting, the council declined to approve the three-year contract on its "consent calendar" — where multiple items get approved without any discussion — and instead agreed to hold a public hearing on the new agreement.
Several council members indicated Monday that they remain uncomfortable approving additional funding for the nonprofit, notwithstanding the valuable services that its team members provide. Council member Liz Kniss said that the group's failure to release the Oppenheimer report — even with redactions — makes her "uneasy." She noted that numerous people had complained about the Downtown Street Team executive culture and that they had "apparently had some justification for their complaints."
"I'm not worried about what the Downtown Streets Team does in our city — it does a good job," Kniss said. "What I'm concerned about is the overall reputation that was altered at Downtown Streets Team as a result of the allegations."
Council member Lydia Kou said that after recent discussions with Byrd, she came away "pretty disappointed" by the city's inability to perform due diligence and to fulfill its fiduciary duty as the agency providing the contract. Given the nonprofit's decision not to release the Oppenheimer report, Kou requested that the City Attorney's Office obtain and provide to the council any publicly available documents pertaining to the complaints from former employees.
Kou cited reports that at least 11 former employees had come forward with allegations against Downtown Streets Team executives, a number that she called "substantial." While Kou suggested last week that she might vote against the contract, on Monday all six council members supported the deal after agreeing to cut it from three years to one.
"Seems like we've reached somewhat of a compromise that the city can continue working on in the next year," Kniss said.