The recent 3-2 defeat of the measure proposed by council members Kathy McKeithen and Bill Widmer would certainly not have been a guarantee that there would be no more lawsuits or other grievances filed against the town, which has recently paid out nearly $1 million in settlements and legal expenses for lawsuits filed by former employees. But if such a measure had been in place a few years ago it might have defused major upsets like the pair of pending lawsuits, one by Jon Buckheit and the other by Kimberly Sweidy, which each are seeking $10 million. If one of these actions reaches only half its goal it could punch a major hole in the town's meager reserves.
Under-performing town employees are said to be the culprits in both suits — a police officer in the Buckheit case and a building inspector in the Sweidy case. The legal actions might have been unnecessary if the residents involved had had a way to inform a complaint-review panel about their grievance before it got to the multi-million dollar level.
As described by Ms. McKeithen and Mr. Widmer, an ethics board would be composed of a council member, a resident who is a retired judge or attorney, and the town's manager or human resources director. The board would confidentially review citizen complaints of actions by town employees, and then bring a recommendation of how to proceed back to the council. Cost of the committee would be minimal staff time, depending on the number of grievances filed, but certainly it would not compare to the thousands of dollars spent on litigation in prior cases against the town.
After the defeat of the measure, Ms. McKeithen said she was "horribly disappointed" with this council. "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 May 18 meeting. "Are we afraid we have too much dirty laundry and to air it would be a mistake?" she asked.
Mayor Jim Dobbie said he thought an ethics oversight board would be "putting in another layer" and complicate a process best handled by the city manager. If the manager does not perform to the council's satisfaction, the manager should be fired, Mr. Dobbie said. But Ms. McKeithen called such an approach naive. "We don't just fire people. We let people stay on and on and on. It's not easy to fire people."
And Ms. McKeithen didn't buy the majority's contention that starting up such a board would not be wise during a tough budget year. She said, "It's costing us a lot more in litigation because such a review process doesn't exist now."
We agree. It may take years for Atherton to recover from the current budget crunch and rash of lawsuits. And it will not be easy for the council to explain why some staff positions must be cut and why there is not a clear procedure in place for citizens to bring complaints against town staff members.
In our view, establishing an ethics oversight board would send a message to Atherton residents that the council is seriously pursuing a more open and transparent strategy. If handled properly, such a panel could go a long way toward defusing many Atherton complaints before they fester into nasty lawsuits.