Viewpoint - June 1, 2011

Editorial: Ethics board could help Atherton

It is extremely short-sighted for a thin majority of the Atherton Town Council to push aside a proposal that would have at least opened the door to consideration of an ethics oversight board that would review citizen complaints about actions of town employees.

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.


Posted by dumbBELL CA.94027, a resident of Atherton: other
on May 31, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I don't care whether the Council OUTsources an Ethics Panel or INsources an Ethics Panel but it is clearly time for the town leadership to acknowledge that this is an area that it needs all the support and direction it can get.
Mayor Dobbie is in complete denial on this one and unfortunately for all, it will surely backfire on him.
The emperor has misplaced his clothes yet again

Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 31, 2011 at 7:21 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Frankly I think having a Council member involved is a bad idea. The Council needs to be the final arbiter on these issues and if a Council member was involved in a preliminary stage that Council member would have to recuse themselves from any Council discussion or decision.

The Town might instead want to consider the new program just instituted in San Jose:

"Our favorite innovation by Cordell is offering mediation as an option for less serious complaints, such as discourteous behavior, if both the officer and the complainant agree. It's a terrific idea that's working in other cities, including New York. The alternative is pursuing an official complaint that triggers a full investigation by the police internal affairs unit. This can cost a fortune and drag on forever, ultimately unsatisfying to everyone.

Mediation is free, thanks to Cordell's call for retired judges to volunteer their time as mediators. Participants come away feeling they've been heard, and sometimes that's all it takes to dissipate anger. "

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on May 31, 2011 at 7:32 pm

The proposed composition of this ethics board is too heavily influenced by entrenched forces and not nearly independent enough.

Personally, I think it's important to have at least one "plain citizen" on an ethics board.

To be able to hear from the perspective of a lay person who is not steeped in politics, government or the law could be a healthy influence on others.

Posted by A thought to consider, a resident of Atherton: other
on May 31, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Agree with the editorial and disagree with Mayor Dobbie's comment in the other article mentioning the right people are all that's needed. Organizations need to rely on process and policy, not people who come and go. Every organization will have flare ups. Atherton has done a very bad job in dealing with them in a manner that defuses them instead of throwing gasoline onto the fire. It's not surprising to me that a resident would show persistence in a standoff. Those are the qualities that may have led to them affording that home in Atherton.

Posted by bob, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 11:40 am

Interesting that you would have an ethics panel that has oversight over an elected body. Why not elect an ethics committee also?

Posted by dumbBell Ca.94027, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Bob: As long as money motivated special interest groups conspire to load up all town committees with people who will serve their own agendas first and foremost, this plan will continue to fail.
For example: A perfectly nice resident like Jeff Wiess sees nothing wrong at all with his civic participation on two committees currently--both the General Plan and Finance. As both a resident and local businessman I'm sure that he genuinely feels that he has something to offer his community. The problem is that he makes his money from construction within Atherton, a Town with only one business-- Construction. As a recipient of the "refunds" that caused the budget short fall, I believe his participation on the finance committee is a clearly conflicted interest. This should been have obvious to the Councilmen who voted to select him. But who were they? Marsala Lewis and Carlson all of them placed on the council to hold sway for the same highly motivated development interests as well. And so it goes. I'm thinking about Peters suggestion for retired judges, but we already know the Civil Grand Jury couldn't help fix us.

Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

The problem is how to address the real or perceived grievances of citizens in such a way that we reduce the number of very expensive lawsuits. The Cordell solution in San Jose is to use an experienced third party as a mediator. That won't solve all the problems but it would solve many of them. In my experience the opportunity to present one's grievance to a third party and to feel that you have been heard is very important. And sometimes the other party actually uses such a hearing to extend their understanding and even their apology. Inexpensive and frequently successful.

This will not work if you have either elected officials or lawyers involved.

Posted by bob, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm

dumdBell I think you have pointed out the problem in putting together something like an ethics committe who defines what is ethical. Just about anyone you put in this position will have some kind of conflict no one is a pure as driven snow. Selecting the right members of this committee will be very difficult.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 2:16 pm

bob from Woodside says, "Interesting that you would have an ethics panel that has oversight over an elected body."

Actually, bob, this happens all the time. Our Senate and House both have ethics panels. The state bar and medical board also have ethics panels. It's not unusual at all.

The elected body always has the final word, but an independent read about grievances is a very compelling data point that is difficult to ignore.

Posted by bob, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

POGO What you say is true but the definetion of "independent read" is the difficult part. How do you define who is truly independent and finding someome that fits the definetion is very difficult.

Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Cordell in San Jose uses retired judges to achieve the best possible independence.

Posted by dumbBell Ca.94027, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I wish we could just set up a circuit panel... Peter Carpenter, Pogo and Menlo Voter with a few judges, as one group that could just rotate around these three towns as ombudsmen. It is probably essential to get somebody super rich and powerful on board because there is way too much money around here that only plays by it's own rules.

Posted by Tim Wulff, a resident of another community
on Jun 3, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Every comment regarding structure presented here incorporates the presumption of the superiority of government or legal professionals regarding functioning in a political arena.

This presumption through the concept of complement degrades the status of citizen.

Citizens are competent and provide primal and fundamentally relevant input. Government and legal professionals are NOT inherently superior as regards the implementation of efficacious results beneficial to the common interest.

The presumption that government and legal professionals are superior as regards efficacy to produce results benefiting the common interest of the citizenry is false.

Efficacy is the consequence of competence and innate qualities of judgment, not professional training, experience or political affiliation.

Posted by Tim Wulff, a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2011 at 12:01 am

To extend my comment, the primary issue at hand, and the past century, is the opposition of the common interest to that of special interests.

The common interest is that which benefits each individual by inherent effect: freedoms as provided under the Constitution, etc.

The problem at hand is that government professionals have subverted the political process due to the passivity, ignorance and apathy of the citizenry. The citizenry has only itself to blame.

Dominance of political process by government and legal professionals can only lead to the dominance of the agendas of special interests to the detriment of the common interest and the common good.

The war of the US government vs. it's people is upon us.

Few know the truth.

Fewer, still, speak it.

Posted by PALLBEAR, a resident of another community
on Jun 4, 2011 at 9:31 am

The "citizenry" unlike the those who have the money and time to get involved with all issues because they are old, retired, rich, or all three, while they seem to forget the "citizenry" is trying to figure out how to pay mortgages, looking for jobs, do not participate even here which is a gathering place for a group of WINDBAGS who are all of the above mentioned. Old, retired, and rich.
Just because our COUNTY is in the 10% richest counties in America, that does not mean eveyone is solvent and has the time to argue with you old politicos.
And that's the truth.

Posted by POGO, a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm

The truth is that old, rich, retired people can usually afford to weather the economic storm.

When their jobs go away, their taxes skyrocket and their services deteriorate, unfortunately, it'll be that "citizenry" that works so hard just to pay the mortgage that gets decimated.

Posted by PALLBEAR, a resident of another community
on Jun 5, 2011 at 10:04 am

No shed, Tonto.
You are echoing me.

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