Kou won’t give her opinion on Castilleja project after receiving donations from school’s supporters

BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who is seen as a slow-growth candidate, sent an email to her supporters Thursday defending her refusal to share her opinion about one of the biggest development projects that will face the city in the coming year, the expansion of Castilleja School.

Four families with Castilleja ties donated $35,650 to Kou during the 2016 race.

She has received almost $4,000 from people with Castilleja ties this year. She got $950 each from former trustee Asher Waldfogel and his wife Helen McLean. She received $900 from former trustee Gabrielle Layton. She also got $1,000 from Jordan Jackson, one of the school’s class of 2017 representatives.

The 112-year-old girls middle and high school wants to expand its enrollment from 430 to 570 students and build new academic buildings and a parking garage beneath the playing field that fronts Embarcadero Road.

“There are rumors that my unwillingness to take a strong position on the Castilleja expansion project indicates that I am either supporting or opposed to one side or the other,” she said. “The truth is that I am legally and ethically obligated to not take a position and maintain an open mind on such matters until there has been a full hearing before City Council.”

She said she is concerned that if she shares her opinion now she will be forced to recuse herself if she is on the council when the project comes up. Kou said she has a record of not voting for exceptions for projects that will worsen traffic.

The other council candidates didn’t say how they would rule but most were willing to share thoughts on the project with the Post.

Planning Commissioners Cari Templeton and Ed Lauing declined to comment since the project is currently before the Planning Commission.

Councilman Greg Tanaka, who is up for re-election this year, said he hasn’t fully formed an opinion. He said he wants to make sure the neighborhood is protected but said Castilleja is an “amazing” school for women. Tanaka said Castilleja is the project that everyone talks about but that never comes before council.

Code violation concerns

Former Mayor Pat Burt, who is running for council, pointed out that the school was caught in violation of its Conditional Use Permit because it had more students than its allowed 415. He said he thinks there is a compromise to be had if the school introduces an “aggressive” program to decrease car trips and parking.

Burt said he is concerned that after 4½ years of waiting, the project is “racing forward” now. He suggested that businesses like Castilleja be required to self-report if they are in compliance with their CUPs under the penalty of perjury to make sure they aren’t getting away with being out of compliance.

Another council candidate, Human Relations Commissioner Steven Lee, said he wanted to be careful to not say anything that would preclude himself from voting on the project.

He said that when Stanford brought its proposal to expand to the county he was in favor of more mitigation. He said he thinks the city can support the education of young women while holding people to code.

Candidate Ajit Varma said it isn’t clear what the benefits of the project are to the city. He said the school is a good resource but it isn’t paying taxes and has violated its CUP. He suggested the school offer benefits to Palo Alto like resident-only spots or scholarships. He said he thinks it is fine for the school to remain the size it is now.

Raven Malone said she knows there are concerns in the community about things like traffic if the school expands. She said she can’t say where she stands on the issue. She said she plans to take all views and opinions into account.

Traffic issues

Greer Stone said he has concerns with the project including increased traffic and that the school misled the community on its CUP. He said anything that adds single-occupancy vehicle trips is bad for the city’s climate goals. But he said Castilleja has a critical mission of providing women with good educations.

Rebecca Eisenberg said she thinks the school should have been fined $500 a day for every day they were out of compliance. She said she thinks private interests call too many shots in the city. She said Castilleja is a great school but she is upset that the CUP wasn’t enforced more rigorously.

26 Comments

  1. If Kou is so worried about appearances that she favors one side or the other, why doesn’t she return the campaign contributions? That would clear the air.

  2. One also should be aware that historically the PAC “Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning” (PASZ) has received tens of thousands of dollars from Castilleja families. This year the PASZ PAC is funding the following candidates: Lydia Kou, Greer Stone, and Ed Lauing. But it’s not like they advertise that fact.

    Notably, Castilleja already has come before the Planning Commission and the City Council. Every time it has come up, the City Council and Planning Commission have green lit whatever Castilleja asked for, as well as failed to enforce Castilleja’s CUP, which Castilleja has been violating for almost 20 years.

    One wonders why, in such a small election, PACs like PASZ need to exist, and why they would funnel so much money to a few candidates. Candidates who receive PAC money should come clean with that, and PACs should make their largest donors more transparent.

    Finally, why is Castilleja in a “quasi-judicial” setting? Given how many years they have been in violation of their CUP, how does it make sense that they would be appearing for anything other than permit revocation? After all, over the two decades, they have promised numerous times that if they did not clean up their act, they would agree to leave. Yet …. ?

    • Do you have any evidence whatsoever that PASZ gets “tens of thousands of dollars from Castilleja families” (let alone anyone else)? If so, please show us as it simply hasn’t happened. Don’t make allegations that you can’t substantiate and can’t be substantiated. It’s unbecoming in an enlightened community.

      On a separate note, have you taken a position about Council Member Greg Tanaka taking tens of thousands of dollars (yes, tens of thousands of dollars) from donors in the real estate industry. This can be substantiated by checking his Form 460 and Form 497 filings of public record.

      • Why doesn’t PASZ disclose its donations like other political action groups? Why didn’t PASZ form an Independent Expenditure committee to support its endorsed candidates like the law requires?

        • I will repeat what I have said before, namely that PASZ as a PAC has not donated to any candidate. PASZ has publicly endorsed three City Council candidates and has worked on their behalf, but PASZ has not donated any money to those campaigns. For verification, check all of the candidates Form 460 filings.

    • Dear Curmogeon2,

      Do you have any evidence whatsoever to substantiate your assertion that PASZ “has received tens of thousands of dollars from Castilleja families”. If so, please show everyone, as it simply isn’t true, and you won’t be able to find anything that supports that unwarranted assertion.

      Further, PASZ as a PAC is not “funding” the three candidates you mention. Individual PASZ members are donating to those three candidates campaigns, as is our right, and PASZ is paying for newspaper ads in support of those three candidates, as is its right, but we are not funding them (see the candidates respective Form 460 and Form 497 filings to see who their donors are). PASZ itself has not donated any money to any of their campaigns.

      It’s sad to see the assertions you have made. Do you just make them up as you type a comment? Hopefully you can better, when you have actual evidence to support whatever you may be saying in future comments.

  3. This headline is unfortunate in that it only mentions candidate Kou, but then goes on to report that several other candidates also have cautiously and reasonably decided to say nothing on this matter for similar reasons as Kou.

    Given how many in town there on on both sides of the Casti issue (most not notable names), surely nearly all candidates have contributions large or small, not just Kou from donors with strong opinions on this issue. You just can’t tell from names most people are wisely not single issue voters.

    This is a tempest in a teapot, or thimble, or something even smaller, signifying nothing.

      • There’s a big difference between taking Casti money and taking it from Casti parents, many of who have stated publicly they oppose Casti’s expansion and are horrified by Casti’s arrogance. One of those people is very active in Lydia’s campaign so please stop the hypocrisy.

  4. As several candidates have explained when I asked about Casti expansion, it’s ILLEGAL for any and all of them to opine on pending actions. Why do you keep singling out Kuo?

    Shame on Casti to expect to be rewarded after si many years of violating their cap? How about reporting on how much it’s cost Palo Alto to keep indulging them and their violations? Isn’t Embarcadero crowded enough?

    • Who told you it was “illegal” for her to comment? What’s the Government Code section that makes it illegal, JAM?

      Truth is, it’s not illegal for her to comment. That’s merely the advice of the city attorney. Clients aren’t required to follow the advice of their attorney. JAM, I know this will shock you, but sometimes clients get second options from other lawyers.

      Interestingly, Pat Burt, who has much more experience in quasi-judicial matters than Kou, had no trouble opining on Castilleja.

      • Burt is in a different position than Kou as he is not currently on Council, although he may win a seat in the upcoming election. Whether he will be asked to recuse himself for the comments he has made if he does win a seat remains to be seen.

      • Who told me? Lydia in one of her mailings when she saw these canards. Her position is the sane as Steveb Lee who says he’s refraining from commenting so he can vote on the issue.

  5. I am puzzled why this headline only focuses on Lydia Kou when several of the candidates are – correctly – not disclosing how they would vote to avoid needing to recluse themselves. This is biased and inconsistent coverage. The article does not mention that Greg Tanaka’s wife went to Castilleja, if it is trying to dig up Castilleja affiliations that would seem to be a significant fact. There are many important areas that Lydia is focused on, from airplane noise, to housing, to traffic and more. People are donating to her given her engagement with and representation of the community on issues other than Castilleja. If you want to be objective, look up every affiliated Castilleja donor for all candidates and disclose the information – you will see that she is not the only one who received contributions from current/former Castilleja students or staff.

  6. I think the headline focuses on Kou because she’s the only candidate to take Castilleja money. The way I read the story (and correct me if I’m wrong) only three of the 10 candidates declined to give their views on this huge project—Kou, Templeton and Lauing.

    Burt, Stone, Eisenberg, Malone, Varma and Lee all weighed in. Tanaka’s comments were irrelevant.

    In this thread, let’s stick with the facts and not make things up. Kou’s supporters here seem intent on misstating the record.

  7. John in Midtown Where exactly does the article say she is the only person to take ‘Castilleja money,’ assuming that is even a thing? You are entitled to your own views but not your own facts. And Tanaka’s comments are only ‘irrelevant’ if you assume he will lose. The candidates who ‘weighed in’ pointed to pros and cons with the school, which is hardly taking a position. Maybe you should learn something about government ethics requirements.

  8. There’s a big difference between taking Casti money and taking money from Casti parents, many of whom have stated publicly they’re horrified by Casti’s arrogance and continued violations.

    One of those parents who opposes Casti’s expansions is very active in Lydia’s campaign so enough with the silly canards.

    • I am a Castilleja parent who has spoken out for years against Castilleja’s expansion plans and their cavalier breaking of their CUP for 15+ years.

      I have also donated 1,000.00 to Lydia and am serving as her campaign chair. Why?

      Because I know from Lydia’s voting record she comes to the dais prepared, having read the Staff reports, an votes CONSISTENTLY against up zoning, spot zoning and exemptions for individual projects. She looks at a projects impacts on neighborhoods, traffic and parking. I can TRUST LYDIA to not cave to Staff recommendations which make no sense…like Castilleja’s garage being presented by Staff as “a basement which only holds cares but which is not under a building and will not count in the floor area ratio.

      I voted for Lydia as I trust her to look after the interests of Palo Alto residents not developers or special interests. READ HER RECORD! Thank you.

  9. A month or two ago, I refuted Ms. Tabin’s allegation in a previous article that I linked a 2016 donation to Ms. Kou to her support of Castilleja’s project. I will do so again. There was never any quid pro quo. As I wrote then, my daughter graduated from Castilleja six years ago. She is not an active alumna. We are not active alumnae parents. We have not supported the school as donors since at least 2014. I have never discussed Castilleja with Ms. Kou. In fact, I haven’t spoken with Ms. Kou in years. This story is a canard. I would be happy to tell that to Ms. Tabin if she ever reached out to me to check her allegations.

    • Helyn, I don’t think that article or any other article said there was a quid pro quo. You’re making that part up. What we have here is

      1. substantial contributions to a candidate,

      2. a candidate who accepted those contributions, and

      3. the candidate refusing to say how she will vote on the contributor’s cause.

      Those are all facts. Nobody is disputing these three facts. The only debate is how you should interpret those three facts.

  10. As a Castilleja parent i have spoken out for years against their expansion plans.

    I have donated $1,000.00 to Lydia’s 2020 campaign and am serving s her Campaign Chairman. Why?

    Because I know she is fair, will do her homework and vote appropriately. She has a long and established record of voting AGAINST up zoning, spot zoning and exceptions benefiting special interests at a cost to residents.Join me in voting for Lydia. Thank you

  11. Let’s say, hypothetically of course, that this is all a scam and that after the election Kou votes for Castilleja’s expansion. What recourse do the voters have at that point? Why should we take that chance when we have other no-growth candidates on the ballot?

  12. Which other no-growth or slow-g rowth candidates do we have? We’ve got Kuo, Burt, Stone and Lauing. Who else? Seriously, who else?

    We’ve got Ms Templeton who’s a YIMBY and thinks the solution to traffic to for everyone to take the bus and repeatedly skirted the issue of growth, Mr. Tanaka who’s pro-development and has done nothing to fix our various traffic messes during his entire term, Mr. Varma who’s pro-office development which will add to the congestion, Ms. Malone, Mr. Lee and Ms. Eisenberg are also in favor of more growth.

  13. @TE. Again, I am neutral on Castilleja. Castilleja was not on my list of priorities in 2016 and it isn’t now. I supported Lydia Kou because I lean toward moderate/slow growth and in particular am not a favor of office expansion. I was concerned that Real Estate and Technology interests would join together to support the pro-growth candidates. Indeed, Fine, Kniss and Tanaka all received donations from Palantir employees, other tech founders/ employees, including YIMBY founder Jeremy Stoppelman, real estate agents, developers, and their spouses and employees, almost all of whom did not live in Palo Alto. If you’re curious, I have a detailed analysis of those contributions which goes somewhat beyond what was reported in the local papers. I would be happy to share it. Although, I suspect your objection to Ms. Kou is not about whether or not she has been unduly influenced on Castilleja, but, because she doesn’t share your opinions on growth.

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