Depending on one’s political allegiances, the Cupertino City Council’s May 9 meeting was either a necessary rebuke of unprofessional behavior or a dramatic last stand for representative democracy.
But even to an outsider, one thing became quite clear as the second of five councilmembers left the hall prior to the meeting’s end: this council does not get along.
“At this moment, I feel there is no respect,” Cupertino Mayor Hung Wei said on the swift departure of Councilmembers Liang Chao and Kitty Moore. “Respect is the base of mutual understanding.”
The special meeting was convened following the release of a “fact-finding” report commissioned by the city to investigate a civil grand jury report released in December, titled “A House Divided,” which alleged that a number of Cupertino councilmembers were engaging with city staff in a manner described as “councilmanic interference.”
“Councilmanic interference refers to a councilmember’s attempts to thwart the principles of the council-manager form of government management,” the report’s glossary notes, calling out former mayor Darcy Paul and Councilmember Moore for inappropriately involving themselves in the day-to-day operations of staff.
Moore, Paul and former councilmember Jon Willey were a voting bloc on the council with Chao, a founder of the “balanced growth” group known as Better Cupertino. Chao was reelected in 2022, along with new councilmembers J. R. Fruen and Sheila Mohan, who are not aligned with Better Cupertino.
The fact-finding report, commissioned by the city, was written by Sonoma County labor lawyer Linda Daube. The attorney interviewed 16 current and former staff members, as well as Mayor Wei and Councilmembers Chao and Moore.
Daube’s report revealed that city employees perceive Chao and Moore as failing to trust their professional capabilities, demonstrated by the councilmembers’ “voluminous email requests for additional and duplicative information.”
This distrust, accompanied by a “gradual decline in civility,” increased rapidly following a Feb. 3 workshop that was held to improve the working relationships between staff and council, Daube’s report alleges.
Distrust was on full display May 9 as the council discussion began after more than an hour and a half of public comment. Moore had already left Cupertino’s community hall at that point, first issuing a statement and recusing herself from the night’s vote.
Moore defended her communications with staff, saying that she was merely asking questions to clarify matters of great importance to her constituents.
“Asking questions is literally our job in a free and democratic society,” Moore said prior to recusing herself. She noted that she had recently pointed out a discrepancy in the city’s budget, which was since corrected. Moore said she also helped uncover the presence of hazardous chemicals at the site of the former Vallco mall, despite officials’ claim that the site posed no danger to workers.
During public comment, some speakers said Chao and Moore raised vital questions that echo the concerns of residents and challenged the city to improve, whereas others said the councilmembers’ poor communication styles had clearly put city staff on edge. Many simply urged the council to act professionally so that the city wouldn’t become the target of mockery.
Longtime resident Muni Madhdhipatla called the city’s efforts to rebuke Chao and Moore an “organized witch hunt,” saying that the councilmembers were merely trying to uncover information in order to better serve their constituents.
Using an overhead projector, Madhdhipatla pointed to the city’s organizational chart, showing that Cupertino residents are ranked higher than the council in the city’s hierarchy.
“The council has authority to ask for information from the city staff. … That’s what Liang Chao and Kitty Moore do: they ask for details. There is nothing wrong with that,” Madhdhipatla said. “We don’t need to prosecute members that are serving the city.”
Ava Chiao, a high school teacher and a trustee on the Cupertino Union School District board, said the problem is not just about Chao and Moore requesting information, but the manner in which they do so and how they treat their support staff.
“We need to be good examples of good governance. We need to be able to be adults and self-regulate [and] learn from our mistakes,” she said. “And if we don’t, we need to take responsibility.”
Following public comment, Chao issued her statement, noting that numerous parts of Cupertino’s municipal code say that it is appropriate for council to communicate with staff and request information.
A tense moment emerged when Chao asked City Attorney Chris Jensen why these sections of the code weren’t included in Daube’s report. Jensen began to answer by correcting Chao, saying that it’s the city manager’s job to direct staff on whether to respond to an information request from any single councilmember.
As Jensen explained further, Chao interrupted him, questioning why her interpretation of the municipal code wasn’t included in Daube’s report alongside his legal interpretation.
“I’m just correcting your attempt to distort the municipal code, on the record,” Jensen said to Chao. Murmurs and eyebrows rose together in the previously quiet hall.
After finishing her statement, Chao packed up her things and left, with a few members of the public joining her in protest.
Councilmember Fruen made a motion to adopt seven recommendations from staff, one of which called for the council to end its era of “governance by email.” Fruen added his own seven actions, including the removal of Chao and Moore from their respective committee assignments. This last point gave Mayor Wei and Vice Mayor Mohan pause.
Wei expressed concern that Chao’s and Moore’s vacancies from these posts would leave all five of their committee duties up to the three remaining councilmembers to fulfill. Fruen said he is open to having Chao and Moore resume their committee roles once they’ve demonstrated improved behavior.
“We’ve witnessed absolutely no commitment to doing any better, and I fear that if there is no consequence that anyone wants to give any heat to, that it won’t be taken seriously,” Fruen said, later adding, “This gives them a chance, before we proceed with anything more punitive.”
Fruen, Mohan and Wei voted unanimously to remove Chao and Moore from their committee assignments, along with the 13 other actions proposed by Fruen and staff. The council will revisit Chao’s and Moore’s interactions with staff in about four to five months and see if there’s been any improvement.