LIVERMORE — A Livermore Planning Commissioner is facing backlash and potential removal from his position over what city officials are calling offensive comments during a meeting.
Commissioner John Stein, a former City Council member, said he didn’t want downtown Livermore to turn into a “ghetto” when referring to an affordable housing project the commission considered last week. The City Council received so many emails and phone calls from residents, it decided to discuss Stein’s remarks at its meeting Monday; council members now are considering his removal.
Stein said in an interview Tuesday that he is considering asking the council if they would like his resignation.
“If I’m a liability to the city, I should be replaced,” he said.
He said it was not his intent to hurt anyone with his comments. “What I said was hurtful; I’m deeply saddened by that,” he said.
“I definitely made a mistake. Perhaps I lack empathy. … The problem was I should have known better,” Stein said.
During the April 20 Planning Commission meeting, Stein said:
“I’m also concerned about if we get a mix of high-density housing, it’s not a problem. But I really don’t want to see the downtown become a ghetto of affordable housing. And I support inclusionary housing, both on a macro and micro scale.”
He later repeated, “I’m concerned that we not create a ghetto basically of affordable housing.”
People who spoke at the meeting said the term “ghetto” refers to the disparity of African Americans relegated to poor areas, or marginalized Jewish communities. Speakers called his comments offensive and disturbing.
The council unanimously agreed to put discussion of Stein’s potential removal from the commission, or other disciplinary action, on the agenda of the next council meeting on May 3. Commissioners are appointed by the City Council and serve at the pleasure of the council — meaning they can be removed without cause, city attorney Jason Alcala explained to the council during Monday’s meeting.
Stein’s other comments also were of concern to the council. Stein commented that he did not want Livermore to become known as the “center of homelessness” in the Livermore-Pleasanton-Dublin area and didn’t want Livermore to become the “go-to place” for the unhoused.
He also compared the Eden Housing 130-apartment project on Railroad Avenue and South L Street in question to well-known examples of failed public housing in New York or Chicago, such as the now-demolished Cabrini-Green project complex.
The Planning Commission voted to recommend the Eden Housing project to the council, in a 4-1 vote, with Stein dissenting. City Council will decide whether or not to approve the project at its May 24 meeting.
During Monday’s City Council meeting, Stein publicly apologized for his comments being “intemperate,” and said it was not his intent to make disrespectful remarks to service workers or “low-income people.” He said his “sole reason” for his dissenting vote was because he felt the parking was inadequate for the project.
But Stein also said his comments were misinterpreted — a sentiment that did not sit well with some members of the council.
“Overall I think to some extent, I was misinterpreted. I do support inclusionary housing,” Stein said.
All City Council members said they took offense to his comments, and some called out his apology, saying he did not truly understand why his comments were offensive.
Mayor Bob Woerner called Stein’s comments “highly inappropriate, uninformed and deeply hurtful.”
“A sincere apology is certainly in order. An attempt was made. Frankly, I find it lacking,” Woerner said.
Vice Mayor Trish Munro talked about how the word “ghetto” or “slums” are no longer neutral terms. She said she was concerned about the attitude associated with using those words and stigmatizing people.
“The shame of the ghetto, and the shame of the slums, are not on the ones who live there, but the ones who create them,” she said.
Councilman Bob Carling made his opinion clear that he wanted to remove Stein from his position. “Frankly, he has failed to follow our norms and values,” he said.
Councilmember Brittni Kiick became emotional during her comments, wiping away tears as she said Stein’s comments were “classism at its worst.” She shared that as a council member her position has been questioned because she is not a homeowner, or does not have a doctorate like some of her fellow council members.
Kiick, however, indicated she would support an alternative discipline, calling it progressive discipline, instead of removing Stein from his position.
“The fact that it’s something that affects you personally, speaks to a larger problem,” Munro said in response to Kiick’s comments. “I want us to think about that a little bit. What we’re talking about right now are Commissioner Stein’s problems with his comments. … I think this is part of what implicit bias looks like.”
Councilmember Gina Bonanno said she was “saddened” and “very troubled” by Stein’s comments. She too seemed to stray away from wanting to remove Stein, and instead indicated taking “positive impact going forward.”
She and Kiick discussed forming a policy for commissioners’ behavior to be reflective of the city’s values; the city attorney said although the council could do that, such a policy would not be retroactive for Stein.
Stein served on the City Council for over a decade, from 1982 to 1985 and again in 1989 to 2000. He unsuccessfully ran for the council again in 2016.