By the Daily Post staff
Palo Alto City Council, after getting hit by a lawsuit from the NAACP and ACLU, voted 5-2 tonight to drop the Palo Alto residents-only restriction on Foothills Park during a meeting where sparks flew between Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Lydia Kou.
In favor of dropping the restriction were:
Kou and Tanaka are facing re-election tomorrow. Both said they were siding with the majority of residents who wanted the resident only restrictions to remain.
Two recent informal surveys — one by Kou and the other by Friends of Palo Alto Parks founder Roger Smith — found that about 80% of residents said they wanted to keep the current residents-only policy for Foothills Park.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on Sept. 15 on behalf of the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley and 10 residents of Palo Alto and nearby communities. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s Foothills Park restrictions violate the plaintiffs’ rights of freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
The ACLU called the park’s residents-only restriction a “legacy of the city’s history of racial discrimination.”
Lawsuit called a ‘bully maneuver’
Kou called the lawsuit a “bully maneuver” and she said the NAACP would later regret being associated with a lawsuit she said was frivolous.
She also said that the law firm the city had hired to handle the suit had represented the NAACP in the past, setting up a possible conflict of interest.
Tanaka said the public hasn’t bought into the idea of opening the park to all. He also said he wanted a second opinion from another lawyer about whether the city should settle.
City Attorney Molly Stump said the council’s actions will likely result in a settlement without the city being forced to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees.
Stump also advised council members on what would happen if residents decided to repeal the decision at the ballot box. Residents would have 30 days to collect signatures for a referendum but could put an initiative on the ballot at any time in the future. Both would require the same number of signatures.
Fine accuses Kou
At the end of the meeting when Kou asked Fine to go public with his claim that she violated the Brown Act, the law regulating government meetings.
Fine said Kou communicated “purported confidential information, votes and attendance” at two closed sessions on Foothills Park. The Brown Act prohibits council members from disclosing what was said during a closed meeting.
Fine prefaced his remarks by saying his allegation against her wasn’t “personal.” She responded, “Of course it is personal.”
“Since you have proof of it, please make it public. I would like it publicized,” Kou said. “And if I need to apologize to the council, or I need to take, I don’t know, whatever it is, then I will. But I would like it publicized.”
Kou said she hadn’t divulged any information from the closed session.
Council changes direction
Last night’s decision represents a change in direction from the action the council took just three months ago, on Aug. 3. At that meeting, council voted 5-2 to launch a pilot program that would increase non-residents’ access to the park. Details of the pilot program were yet to be worked out. The council wanted to bring the Foothills Park issue back in 2022 to discuss placing a measure on the ballot, asking voters whether to open the park to non-residents.
Council’s action last night means the park could open to the public in as soon as Dec. 17. Initially, the city will limit the number of people in the park to 750 at any one time and, after 90 days, expand that cap to 1,000 people.
Council couldn’t decide on whether to rename the park the Foothills Nature Preserve. Council members voted to kick that issue back to City Manager Ed Shikada, who will likely send it to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which will consider the choices and make a recommendation to council.