Almanac

News - May 25, 2011

Atherton council says no to ethics oversight board

by Renee Batti

Atherton City Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said she is "horribly disappointed with this council" after a request she and Councilman Bill Widmer put before their colleagues to consider forming an ethics oversight board for the town was rejected by the council majority.

"Why on Earth the council is afraid to air the issue (before the public) is of concern to me," she told the Almanac after the 3-2 vote at the council's May 18 meeting.

"Are we afraid we have too much dirty laundry and to air it would be a mistake?"

The request, in the form of a "colleagues' memorandum," was for the council to authorize the town manager and attorney to investigate options for establishing an ethics oversight board to confidentially review citizen complaints of actions by town employees, and return to the council with a recommendation. The memorandum suggested the board's membership consist of a council member, a resident who is a judge or an attorney, and the town's manager or human resources director.

Mayor Jim Dobbie and council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson opposed the request. While some council members noted during the brief council discussion that the town shouldn't be incurring such a cost as it faces severe budgetary cuts, Ms. McKeithen argued that "it's costing a lot more in litigation" because such a review process doesn't exist now.

The town has recently settled litigation with two former employees, and is currently fighting several high-stakes lawsuits. "Our litigation fees ... have been astronomical," Ms. McKeithen said. Some of the lawsuits might have been prevented had there been another viable avenue available to people who felt wronged by the town, she said.

In opposing the request, Mayor Dobbie argued that creating such a board would be "putting in another layer" to complicate a process best handled by the city manager. If the manager doesn't perform that job to the council's satisfaction, he said, he should be fired and replaced.

"That's naive," Ms. McKeithen shot back. "We don't just fire people. We let people stay on and on and on. It's not easy to fire people."

After the meeting, Ms. McKeithen said that if the council were to fire a city manager every time it disagreed with his or her decision, "we would be incurring phenomenal expenses and quite an unfortunate reputation throughout the community, if not the state and the country.

"It's ridiculous to even consider that that would be something we could do."

Mayor Dobbie acknowledged after the meeting that the town's process for reviewing citizen complaints in the past has "not been working." But, he added, the current interim city manager has been putting measures in place to correct past problems, and that's the direction he wants to go in.

"At the moment, we're trying to run a very lean, mean town administration," he said. "I believe we can do that (by) putting the right people in the right place."

In addition to the cost of staff time required for an oversight board, Mr. Dobbie said he opposes the idea because, "in my mind, it's just another political football," with council members choosing the board's members.

Ms. McKeithen told the Almanac that rejection of the request undermined council members' stated support of transparency in government. "Every single one of us talked about transparency when we ran for council," she said. "What kind of transparency is there when we're not willing to ... at least air an idea about ethics in public."

But according to Mayor Dobbie, "it's not a question of airing it in public. We are elected by the people to represent them. We don't need a plebiscite for every issue.

"I'm certainly not afraid to bring things to the public. ... But if we bring everything to the public (for a decision), what's the point of having elected officials?"

Before the vote, resident Jon Buckheit said that an ethics oversight committee "is essential" to address concerns of people who have grievances with town actions. Town officials and staff "need to be accountable, and not (just) to themselves."

Mr. Buckheit is suing the town for $10 million in federal court over the handling of his 2008 arrest during a domestic dispute in his home. He was never charged with a crime, and obtained a declaration of factual innocence in court.

Comments

Posted by Torquemada had nothing on these guys, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm

"Are you now, or have you ever been..."

It looks like Kathy and John want to bring their own brand of inquisition to Atherton, and will never stop trying. I cannot think of two more destructive individuals in my years of living here except maybe John Johns.

I don't know whether John is following Kathy's lead or vice versa, but even Jim Dobbie has now washed his hands of her witch hunts.

I wish they would just both go away.


Posted by Ed, a resident of Atherton: other
on May 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Once a month ONLY, A resident of Atherton has three minutes of public comment time at the scheduled Council Meeting in which to voice a concern. The council is not obligated, and regularly does Not respond to the concern expressed. There are even rules that restrict subsequent discussion of such a grievance amongst an always divided Council.
After this venue has been exhausted, the resident has only two options that remain--to die of frustration while threatening to sue, or to actually initiate litigation. I expect to see more residents efficiently skip to step three unless step one suddenly improves.
Mayor Dobbie's notion that the serial selection of discardable managers that the Council can blame for unresolved problems is shocking and does nothing to serve the need for the Council's actualized accountability to the residents. I might be more hopeful about the future if the Mayor had apologized at all for the recent past.
For the Council to deny both the residents and any City Manager "du jour", the benefits of a conduit body for conflict resolution precisely explains Atherton's extant dysfunction and exhausted resources today.
I extend my condolences in advance to both Mr Conner and Mr Danialson for the inevitable murky waters that they will be expected to navigate, entirely alone, with only whatever compass they brought with them and the law, against all of Atherton's and San Mateo County's substantial gravitational pull. I hope they will ask for the support of a citizen's committee if or when they have realized that they need it.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 24, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Not surprised at Elizabeth Louis and Carlson's vote on this. [Portion removed. Disagree with positions but avoid accusations of illegal behavior.] Why only one of the new council members didn't vote for it is beyond me since they both ran promising no more business as usual.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Excuse me editor, but I accused Elizabeth Lewis of doing what an auditor said was true. Her house is too big for the lot. She claimed it wasn't. It happened under questionable circumstances. She also assaulted a citizen in front of witnesses and then tried to claim she didn't. I'm sorry, but if that doesn't make her "ethically challenged" I don't know what yoUr definition is. I HAve to ask, why do you keep trying to protect her?


Posted by Ethics, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm

I don't think this issue is about personalities of the individual council members, and while I normally respect Menlo Voter's comments greatly, attention is best focused on the concepts involved here. I like citizen oversight of government. Others like government oversight of citizens. By my preferences, the wins of this citizen oversight far outweigh any of the problems at least as explained by Dobbie. You folks are paying for this stuff through your taxes, and you deserve to have a direct voice. No surprise that the staff members don't want to be subject to a review board. Who would, if they had a choice?


Posted by Stu Slessinger, a resident of another community
on May 25, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Whomever "Torquemada" from West Atherton is knows that his or her post plays fast and loose with the facts.

The strongest indication that something is wrong with Atherton was when the Town was forced to reinstate a whistleblower with back pay after spending over $400,000 to defend itself.

The audits the former Finance Director conducted weren't witch hunts. The proof is in the recent plea the former building department employee entered into on charges of embezzlement.



Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on May 26, 2011 at 8:01 am

I don't know why Atherton's Town Council would want to institute changes.

Everything seems to be working pretty well for them.


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