Despite plenty of misgivings, the Mountain View City Council signaled that the city would rally to defend the voter-approved Measure V rent-control package from a lawsuit filed by the California Apartment Association.
In a unanimous 6-0 vote, the council directed the city attorney at its Jan. 24 meeting to work with outside legal help to oppose the landlord group's lawsuit, including an injunction request expected to be filed next week that would further delay implementing the law. The decision was made in closed-session, with Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga absent.
At the meeting, the City Council also interviewed 18 candidates for a rental-housing committee that would be in charge of implementing rent control in Mountain View. Ten candidates were selected for further interviews at an future date.
The council meeting came amid uncertainty about whether Mountain View's elected officials would overcome political differences to champion Measure V, a charter amendment to curb rent increases and allow a roll-back to October 2015 rates. Among elected leaders, the rent-control law had only one firm supporter, Councilman Lenny Siegel. The rest of the council said they disapproved of the law, finding it too inflexible and potentially costly.
In the days leading up to the election, the majority of the council had tried to offer voters a milder rent control program that could be tweaked or dropped by city leaders in future years. But on Election Day, voters rejected the alternative proposal, Measure W, opting instead for Measure V's program that would operate largely outside of the City Council's control.
Coming as no surprise, the CAA last month filed a sweeping lawsuit against the rent-control program, arguing that it violates the constitutional rights of property owners. After a closed-session council meeting in December, Mountain View's legal team took no action to oppose a request by the landlord group for a temporary restraining order against Measure V. As a result, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge granted the restraining order, which barred the rent-control program from taking effect in late December.
However, the city attorney did take action to protect a slate of eviction protections passed by the City Council following the election. Those actions aim to protect tenants from being displaced before the rent-control law takes effect.
Those mixed signals from the city left many wondering whether the City Council had the political will to defend Measure V. In the days following the election, at least one council member took an active role to oppose the measure. Then-Councilman Mike Kasperzak, who left office earlier this month, forwarded emails suggesting potential legal arguments to CAA officials to get the court to sign off on the restraining order. The emails were revealed in a Public Records Act request made by local attorney Gary Wesley that were shared with the Voice.
Asked about this by the Voice, Kasperzak said he always opposed Measure V, and he believed delaying the measure was the right course of action. He said city staff would have struggled to immediately enact the rent-control law and its provision to rollback apartment rents to Oct. 2015 rates. Those problems would be compounded if the law were later halted through an injunction, he said.
"It would create chaos if (rent control) kept going back and forth," he said. "I'm a proponent of the restraining order, so that (we wait) until the judge can rule on this."
In the days leading up to Tuesday's council meeting, the Mountain View Tenants Coalition pressured city leaders to defend Measure V in court. At an event outside City Hall on Tuesday, Tenants Coalition organizers emphasized the importance of the city joining the legal battle. For years now, the city has been losing families due to the rising costs of housing and the city needed to take action to prevent this from continuing, said Marilu Delgado, a Tenants Coalition supporter.
"We may be small, but we're like the flea on the lion -- when we bite, he feels it," she said.
Also in attendance at the meeting was Curtis Conroy, the owner of a seven-unit apartment building in Mountain View, who expressed fear that his "life savings" was on the line in the rent-control battle. He urged the council not to dabble in the housing market.
"We put in a lot of money, and in my case, a lot of sweat into our apartments, and they didn't just get handed to us," he said. "It's not as if rents only go up -- sometimes they go up; sometimes they go down."
The council decision to defend Measure V was made in closed session, meaning almost nothing was disclosed besides the vote tally.
Later in the meeting, City Attorney Jannie Quinn gave the council a rough schedule for how the litigation would likely go forward. The CAA attorneys are expected to file a preliminary injunction seeking to halt the rent-control measure by Feb. 3. A hearing on that request could be scheduled by the court for March, and the judge's ruling would likely come by April, she said.
Council to release applications
While the litigation leaves Measure V in a holding pattern, the council took initial steps on Tuesday to create a new committee that would oversee the rent control program. The City Council spent the bulk of the night interviewing 18 candidates interested in serving on the new five-member rental housing committee.
The applicants included some residents who are relatively unknown to the wider public. Ahead of the interviews, city leaders discussed whether more information from the candidates' applications should be released to the public.
The issue came up due to a public-records request from the Voice requesting these applications. The city attorney's office directed staff to release only a portion of the candidates' five-page application. This partial release was criticized by an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association as a violation of the state's public records law, but Quinn said some documents were being kept confidential in order to avoid prejudicing the City Council's decision-making.
Quinn said Mountain View had following this policy for at least as long as she had been working for the city. The council unanimously voted to refer the issue to the city's procedures committee to decide if this policy should be revised. The council also directed staff to release all of the applications of all the remaining candidates still in the running for a committee seat.
"I think the information in these applications is in the public interest to get out, and I support releasing it," Siegel said. "That said, I read them all, and there ain't any surprises."
A long line of candidates
In a format agreed to ahead of time by the council, candidates for the rental-housing committee sat down for interviews, two at a time. To save on time, council members culled a five-question list down to just a couple.
That left most interviews focused on two main points: candidates' qualifications and what they saw as the big challenges in enacting the rent control. In turn, candidates touted their skills at being good listeners, fair-minded arbiters and studious at sifting through data.
"One of the keys here is perception," said candidate Joan MacDonald. "We need to be fair and to be perceived as fair. To do that, we have to be as open and transparent as possible."
MacDonald and other candidates who had actively campaigned to pass Measure V were all asked one pointed follow-up question. Could they set aside their passion to be in a neutral role settling countless disputes between landlords and tenants?
"It's not about passion; it's the law," answered candidate Angel Satuarino, who had frequently spoken in support of Measure V. "The law is the law, and I want to make sure it's being followed."
If there were any hardened opponents of rent control among the candidate field, they did their best to blend in. Across the board, nearly all candidates echoed similar sentiments of wanting to see the committee succeed.
Unique among the crowd, candidate Gene Lee didn't hesitate to express his doubts about the rent control plan. The measure would essentially take property from landlords to benefit the community at large, he said. The pursuit of fairness was ultimately a mirage, he said.
"Landlords are justifiably angry because this denies them fair-market value." he said. "There's no such thing as fairness here ... the only way to justify this is to meet a higher purpose for the benefit of the community."
Through about three hours of interviews, council member kept a score of the candidates they liked the most. At the tail end, the council tallied their picked for six committee positions, including five seated members and one more to serve as an alternate. The top six candidates were attorney Julian Pardo de Zela, former council member Tom Means, Tenants Coalition organizer Evan Ortiz, Steven Hochstadt, Emily Ramos and Matthew Grunewald.
Councilman John McAlister recommended expanding the list to include more names. The council is prohibited from appointing members to the rental housing committee until the restraining order is lifted, so most council members agreed they had time to do a second round of interviews to further cull the list of candidates.
They agreed to expand the list to 10 candidates by adding Vera Szepesi, James Leonard, Joan MacDonald and Gene Lee.
"This is a job that's going to require a lot of hours. Our apologies if you get it," said Mayor Ken Rosenberg.