Although Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre released a letter to the community saying he had reviewed to his satisfaction the circumstances of a popular gymnastics instructor's termination, questions remain about the extent of his review.
"I regret that I am unable to share more specific information due to the confidential nature of personnel matters, but I am satisfied that I understand the situation and that proper procedures were followed and informed decisions were made regarding staffing decisions in the gymnastics program," the Feb. 28 letter said. "... I can say that if and when a long term employee is terminated, that is generally done for good cause and not based on one incident or complaint."
The Almanac received no response to multiple inquiries about whether his review had extended beyond talking to management. Several gymnastics instructors said they had not been contacted.
Michelle Sutton said she was told that a parent's letter of complaint led to her termination on Feb. 12. The complaint, sent to program management and to the City Council's public email log, described her as unprofessional in how she had asked a mother to step away during a child-only class.
Although the city manager's letter stated that, in general, employees aren't fired for a single complaint, the Almanac's review of Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues -- only a note about a pay raise she received in 2009.
Menlo Park does not legally have to document disciplinary actions for "at-will" employees such as Ms. Sutton, however, although many employers do as a safeguard.
Another wrinkle: Six days prior to being fired, Ms. Sutton asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a complaint of harassment against her supervisor, Karen Mihalek.
Ms. Mihalek directed questions from the Almanac to the human resources director, who said she was unable to comment on personnel matters.
According to four current and former employees of the Menlo Park gymnastics program, tension suffused the work environment. One, instructor Chris Ortez, quit in protest of Ms. Sutton's termination. He also submitted a letter to the City Council that, after noting his "great love and respect for both of the parties," depicted strained interpersonal relationships:
"... There have been a number of interactions between Karen & myself regarding Michelle, as well as direct interactions between Karen & Michelle which I have witnessed firsthand, that have been filed away in my memory. I haven't mentioned them until now, due largely in part to the aforementioned love and respect for Karen, not to mention Karen's role as my supervisor, making it difficult for me to speak out. ... In general, and almost as a rule, I witnessed Karen speak to Michelle condescendingly, with impatience, and/or a clear undertone of disapproval."
Mr. Ortez noted that Ms. Sutton serves as godmother to his youngest child, whose middle name was given in memory of her 19-year-old daughter, Cate Fisher, who was shot and killed in 2011.
Backed by parents and children in the audience at the City Council's March 5 meeting, Ms. Sutton appealed for, if not reinstatement, a transparent investigation.
"Until August of last year, under the direct management of Pearce Wagner, I loved my job and found working with children especially rewarding," she said. "Through our wonderful program, each day was filled with fun, joy, and discovery, for both the children and me. I felt fortunate to be included in a talented and dedicated team of teachers, and surrounded by those children who were clearly thriving through our program."
That started to change after Ms. Mihalek took charge of the preschool gymnastics program, according to Ms. Sutton, who said she first waited to see whether time would resolve her concerns before deciding to contact union liaisons.
She told the council that unanswered questions remained, including, "To the extent that an investigation was conducted after the fact, what were the findings and how was it conducted without input from others within the program -- particularly in light of the lack of documentation?"
After the council meeting, Ms. Sutton said she is weighing her options. Meanwhile, parents have continued to call for further disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the firing.
The Almanac asked council members if they were satisfied with the city manager's review.
"It is my expectation that the City's human resources department would be involved in the review of a personnel matter. I have no reason to believe that is not the case in this instance," Vice Mayor Ray Mueller said in an email. He encouraged anyone with relevant information to contact the city.
"That being said, I continue to be concerned, and am taking care to evaluate all the information I receive, thoughtful of limitations set forth by law on council members' actions. I have requested a full and complete investigation of the matter."