Santa Clara City Council candidate Harbir Kaur Bhatia about a week ago discovered posts on Nextdoor that propagated false information about her.
“The people that are pushing this message are people in collusion with each other to ensure my credibility is destroyed,” Bhatia told San José Spotlight.
While Bhatia, a candidate challenging Santa Clara Councilmember Kathy Watanabe in the November election, responded to the posts to dispel such misinformation, she was removed from the “Rivermark” Nextdoor community in Santa Clara on Oct. 9.
She said the posts falsely stated that she was under investigation for flouting election law and failing to disclose she was a lobbyist, when in fact, she isn’t a lobbyist. She believes the posts are politically motivated.
“All this was a complete lie,” Bhatia said. “It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with bullies. As an immigrant, and as a Sikh, we deal with bullies all the time.”
Watanabe leads the Nextdoor community that Bhatia was banned from, though she vows she had nothing to do with it.
“I have purposely refrained from political postings, responding to political postings, reporting content, voting on reported content, etc. because I knew it wasn’t appropriate,” Watanabe posted on Nextdoor in response to a question about Bhatia’s account, adding that “I cannot shed light on why the account was disabled.”
Watanabe did not respond to requests for comment.
On Nextdoor, people accused Bhatia of taking money from the San Francisco 49ers, she said. While the 49ers have funded a committee called Citizens for Efficient Government and Full Voting Rights — sponsored by the NFL team and its CEO Jed York — in support of Bhatia and other candidates, the entity is an independent expenditure political action committee. By law, an independent expenditure campaign must spend money on political communications without coordinating with candidates. And Bhatia assures that she does not receive funding from the committee as it’s against the law.
“Suppressing voices is a terrible thing,” she continued. “Suppressing truth is a terrible thing. It’s really important that voters go beyond the superficial layer of information.”
According to Rob Jerdonek, a member of the Rivermark Nextdoor Community, Bhatia’s responses to the posts are now removed while the false allegations remain.
“Regardless of who is responsible for banning her,” Jerdonek said, “silencing a candidate on Nextdoor at this point in the election is harmful to our democracy.”
Jerdonek said the Rivermark Nextdoor community has become a toxic environment as Watanabe has taken a hands-off approach as its lead. “We need to have a discussion about fairness in our community forums during the elections,” he said. “You can’t be the lead referee and also play in the game. If you call fouls, you will be accused of bias. However, if you refuse to call any fouls, that can be equally damaging, and people can get hurt by those fouls.”
The city already faces scrutiny over its election system. A judge ruled in 2018 that the city violated the California Voting Rights Act, determining that the city’s at-large system made it more difficult for minority candidates to be elected.
“Now, such systemic problems are showing up in our community forums and the same government officials are involved,” Jerdonek said.
The debacle over Bhatia’s ban on Nextdoor comes as she and a slate of Santa Clara council candidates hold a news conference today at noon to highlight election issues, including spending by PACs in the election and misinformation.
The candidates scheduled to appear at the conference include Kevin Park, who is challenging Councilmember Teresa O’Neill, and Suds Jain, who is running for an open seats in districts 5.