News

Palo Alto looks past harassment allegations, inks new deal with Downtown Streets Team

Despite some unease, City Council agrees to enter a one-year agreement with nonprofit

A Downtown Streets Team team member cleans up fallen leaves in Lytton Plaza. Embarcadero Media file photo by Dana Ullman.

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.

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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."

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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.

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Palo Alto looks past harassment allegations, inks new deal with Downtown Streets Team

Despite some unease, City Council agrees to enter a one-year agreement with nonprofit

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 8, 2020, 12:20 am

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.

Comments

Untrustworthy
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2020 at 6:16 am
Untrustworthy, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 6:16 am
52 people like this

This article says Owen Byrd falsely maintained to council that a Weekly reporter got it wrong about employee legal cases involving DST. She did not. Her article linked to cases with findings of sex harassement and hostile work environment in 2017 and 2018 and he knew this since he knew the case. Byrd is Chairman of the Board of DST. This is not how a responsible Chariman of conducts himself.

Byrd said last night that when DST hired a lawyer to look into the employees 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."

Council should have asked about the claims that Byrd admits were substantiated in the investigation report. Are these claims the reason DST refuses to provide the report to the council?

During this next year, council should see that Byrd is off the Board if DST is to be a credible organization to continue its good work, and rcouncil must be allowed to review the investigation report with its substantiated claims. Have any of those resulted in lawsuits?


Michele Landis Dauber
Registered user
Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2020 at 8:03 am
Michele Landis Dauber, Barron Park
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 8:03 am
33 people like this

Given the untrue statements made by Byrd. the City Council should have told Owen Byrd that it would not approve the contract unless and until it received the redacted report. How could they take his word for it when he was literally making statements right there and then that were contradicted by facts in their possession, such as the state judge's finding that sexual harassment occurred and that the DST was not credible.

Renewing this contract now defies all notion of good governance by Council. This City Council is not especially competent. That's obvious.

One very significant problem is that this Council, perhaps due to its own ineptness, has deferred too much power and control to City Manager Ed Shikada. And Shikada apparently could not care less about the serious, substantiated allegations issues of sexual harassment and misconduct at DST. Ed Shikada put DST on the consent calendar for a three year renewal. There wouldn't have even been any discussion of all of this unless several members of the community (including myself and incoming councilmember Pat Burt) had not raised objections last week. It would have just sailed through on consent.

Shikada's indifference to sexual misconduct at DST and his poor decision making are the reason DST has gone from a problem to a scandal. If this is what Shikada thinks is due diligence what else is he ignoring and mishandling?

We need new leadership.


Lee Forrest
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2020 at 10:47 am
Lee Forrest, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 10:47 am
17 people like this

From the PA Weekly...
> "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."

^ Absolutely incredible...a rubber stamp committee posing as PACC members.

> "We need new leadership."

^ And it doesn't take Kojak or Dick Tracy to establish that premise.


AlexDeLarge
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:24 am
AlexDeLarge, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:24 am
Like this comment

Hahahahahahaha. This is a joke, right?


Claude Ezran
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:53 am
Claude Ezran, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:53 am
22 people like this

The City Council should not have approved the contract with Downtown Streets Team. All they did is kick the problem down the road for one year. And then what? It is clear that Owen Byrd is not telling the truth and there is no valid reason for not showing the Council a redacted version of the report unless you have something very embarrassing to hide. DST is a great organization, but Owen Byrd and the leadership have to go; unfortunately, they greatly undermine its worthwhile mission.


Sue Dremann
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:55 am
Sue Dremann, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 11:55 am
36 people like this

Regarding Mr. Byrd's statements that this reporter "got it wrong," I'll stand by my story and the facts therein. Mr. Byrd was asked before the story published about the allegations and had an opportunity to "set it right."
The Oppenheimer report purportedly exonerates Downtown Streets Team leadership. Is there a reason why the public, the city and the media cannot see this report -- not even a redacted copy -- to clarify this claim?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 8, 2020 at 12:05 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 12:05 pm
21 people like this

"Byrd also emphasized that none of the former employees had filed lawsuits against the Downtown Streets Team. "

News flash, Mr. Byrd: Not everyone can afford lawyers.

And shame on you for refusing to turn over evidence.


Disappointed
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2020 at 4:27 pm
Disappointed, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Dec 8, 2020 at 4:27 pm
11 people like this

This was a difficult decision for the council since the workers who provide services to the city of Palo Alto appear to do a good job; they need the work. Since the council decided to go ahead with its approval, better, a one year contract than 3. But, the council must still pursue full disclosure of the findings of the investigation. Why would our city want to support an organization which may not exhibit respect for its employees and integrity.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2020 at 12:16 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Dec 9, 2020 at 12:16 pm
13 people like this

Well,. I hope Bill Johnson, Editor of the Weekly, takes on Owen Byrd for his apparent lie regarding a Weekly reporter's article on the upper management of Downtown Streets Team. Calling the PA Weekly dishonest is serious!

Sounds like Mr Byrd should step down; resign. The last thing a non-profit needs is a Chair who has problems being honest. But none with being arrogant.

I would ask the new City Council to rescind the just awarded 1 year grant until all requested documents are received and all questions answered. Tough love and a good housecleaning are needed are needed. Thank you


No Cover-Up
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 11, 2020 at 7:08 am
No Cover-Up, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2020 at 7:08 am
7 people like this

Here is what should happen going forward:
1. The city must confirm that Owen Byrd is no longer with DST given he lied to the council and the public for financial gain on behalf of the organization.

2. The DTS report must be provided by the Board for city review, redacted or not, as DTS wants. What of the substantiated complaints Byrd admits it contains yet withholds?

3. Council must ask if the city can responsibly keep DTS as a contractor based on the report and now knowing of its dysfunction and record of discrimination against female employees counter to city policy and law.

4. If DTS is kept, what changes in board and staff are needed?

5. In light of the sexual harassment and hostile workplace findings in the two cases, the Richardsons must leave DTS.

6. No matter what happens with DTS, the services with the homeless workers must continue - through another provider if needed. Workers provide needed services to the city and are blameless in this.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 11, 2020 at 11:47 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 11, 2020 at 11:47 am
4 people like this

6) The city must have procedures that ensure full disclosure by entities seeking city funds and contracts and not be allowed get away with withholding reports like Byrd has done. (I cynically wonder if they really did pay $100,000 for an independent study since we've never seen it.)


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