Menlo Park City Council member Kelly Fergusson's lame decision-making in the last few weeks has made her the laughingstock of her opponents and someone even some of her friends are finding hard to live with in the wake of the Brown Act scandal that began in early December.
Ms. Fergusson has admitted that she lobbied two council colleagues while running for mayor in direct violation of the Brown Act, which forbids such "serial" meetings. And while she won the mayoral post on a 3-2 vote, she resigned three days later after word of her conduct leaked out.
But that was not all. Thanks to the effort of Atherton resident Peter Carpenter, a Brown Act watchdog, Ms. Fergusson's wrongdoing is now being investigated by the district attorney, who could decide to bring criminal charges against her. And, just last week, it became known that Ms. Fergusson, who vowed to take a refresher course in the Brown Act when she resigned as mayor, had not attended an ethics course for elected officials — which would likely have covered Brown Act matters — since 2006, even though council members are required to attend one every two years. However, city records show that only Mayor Rich Cline met this obligation. Council members John Boyle and Heyward Robinson, who both left office last month, attended their last class on Nov. 29, 2007, so were out of compliance during all of 2010. And after taking a class in April 2006, member Andy Cohen did not take another until more than three years later, in September, 2009.
Taken together, Ms. Fergusson's actions exhibit a disturbing lack of judgment and unfamiliarity with the Brown Act, legislation that is designed to protect the public from secret, insider deals by and among members of every public board, commission or city council in the state.
It is difficult to assess whether Ms. Fergusson can recover from this debacle and go on to be an effective member of the City Council. Certainly she has lost her luster, and although she has won plaudits for her work on the Green Ribbon Task Force and on issues touching her Willows neighborhood, we expect she will find it difficult to perform effectively in the months ahead.
Despite the serious nature of her violation, we doubt if the district attorney will charge Ms. Fergusson with a criminal act. When confronted with the wrongdoing, and on advice of the city attorney, she publicly admitted violating the Brown Act, and the council went on to elect Rich Cline mayor a few days later. There was little, if any, real "damage" done by the affair, other than the poor publicity received by the city and the council.
A more appropriate punishment might be for the district attorney to recommend a civil penalty that the council could impose, perhaps a vote to censure Ms. Fergusson, similar to the way members of Congress are treated when found guilty of violating House rules. In our view, such an action would more properly fit her crime of violating the Brown Act.