Atherton City Council members should stop playing private eye and leave personnel investigations in the hands of the city manager, says the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.
The report, issued this month, says there is evidence that "at least one council member undertook independent investigative activities" into the conduct of the town's finance director, John Johns. Mr. Johns was fired in October following a private attorney's investigation into complaints against him by members of town staff.
"Allowing a member of the council to initiate an investigation and to publicize those actions undermines the public's perception of the integrity or, perhaps, competence of the office of the town manager," the report says, adding that such behavior is contrary to the intent of the town's municipal code. "The council as a whole should discourage members from acting as independent investigators, and encourage all members to work through the city manager."
The grand jury report does not name anyone, although council members Charles Marsala and Kathy McKeithen both have been active in the turmoil surrounding Mr. Johns.
Mr. Marsala, who has a large dossier of e-mails and other documents on the former town finance director that he acquired through California Public Records Act requests, said he couldn't be certain whether the grand jury report was referring to him. He told The Almanac that he always worked through the city manager when seeking information about Mr. Johns.
Ms. McKeithen is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Marsala said that when he asked for information about suspected overcharges made by the town's building department, Mr. Johns stonewalled for two months.
"Finally, I had to do Freedom of Information requests to get the report," he said.
This month's grand jury report is the latest in a series of reports critical of Atherton's town government over the past two years. Last July, a report criticized then-city manager Jim Robinson for a lack of supervision; not keeping council members informed of significant matters; and failing to intervene in serious employee misconduct.
The latest interim report, released in April, took council members to task for making "strident public statements" that exacerbated the town's problems stemming from a controversial series of audit reports and personnel investigations.
"When the grand jury attacked the city manager in its previous report, I made public comments supporting (Mr. Robinson), and I also made public comments supporting (interim city manager) Wende Protzman," Mr. Marsala said. "Ms. Protzman made the right decision to fire Mr. Johns and I publicly supported that decision with facts while she was being criticized by members of the Audit Committee."
The current city manager, Jerry Gruber, said he feels he has the council's support in how he's running the town's affairs.
The civil grand jury is a watchdog group that investigates city and county governments, issues reports and makes recommendations.
Civil grand juries work in secret — anyone who has been interviewed by a grand jury is not allowed to discuss it, and the reports are the only publicly available information that results from their investigations.