News - July 1, 2009

New Atherton rule: Is aim to stifle dissent?

by Andrea Gemmet

Members of a city council might detest each other in private, but they usually manage to keep things civil in public, at least for the duration of a council meeting.

A brouhaha over getting things on the Atherton City Council agenda, however, appears to have fractured whatever veneer of collegiality that body possessed.

On June 17, a split council decided it will now take a majority of council members to approve even the hearing of an item, a turn of events that had the two council members in the minority leveling accusations of censorship at their colleagues.

"To me, the idea that we are trying to censor people doesn't make any sense whatsoever," said Councilman Jim Dobbie, who said he was the driving force behind changing the rule to require a three-member majority. "The council represents everybody, it should be up to the whole council how we spend time at a council meeting."

Critics said the change will prevent the council from having to discuss controversial or embarrassing topics. Mr. Dobbie claims he doesn't see it that way.

"It's very simple. Previously, two council members that may or may not have the interest of all of the residents (of) Atherton in mind, who may be representing special interests, could put on an issue that's very divisive to the town," Mr. Dobbie said.

Elected bodies such as the Menlo Park Fire Protection Board allow a single board member to request a topic be added to a meeting agenda for consideration. Some others, such as the city of Palo Alto, require a second from another council member before something can be agendized.

Mr. Dobbie said he did not know of any other cities that require a majority vote just to put something on the agenda.

"It wouldn't bother me if we were the only town to do it this way," he told The Almanac. "To me it's the right way."

The situation in Atherton prompted former Atherton councilman Alan Carlson to quote Winston Churchill's assessment of post-World War II Eastern Europe: "An iron curtain is descending."

"All the people who voted for it ran on a platform of open government and transparency, and they've pulled the shade down on transparency. It would appear, from the outside, to be the majority stifling dissent from the minority," Mr. Carlson told The Almanac. "That's never how it worked when I was on the city council."

During his nine years on the Atherton council, there was never any formal policy in place, Mr. Carlson said. To get a topic discussed by the council, all you had to do was call the city manager and request that it be placed on a meeting agenda, he said. Prior to publishing the meeting agenda, the city manager would go over it with the mayor, who could choose to pull things off the agenda.

"I don't know that anybody ever said that something should not be on an agenda, and took things off. I was mayor twice, and that's how it used to work," said Mr. Carlson, who resigned his seat in November 2007 when he moved to Carmel Valley. Mr. Dobbie was elected to finish out the remainder of Mr. Carlson's term.

Councilman Charles Marsala said he feels he is being targeted by the new rule, a situation that inspired him to quote at length from George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

"Are they chasing me off the farm? You bet," he told The Almanac.

The town's controversial decisions about basements and restrictions on youth sports organizations using public school campuses — all would have benefited if he had been allowed to put them back on the agenda, Mr. Marsala said.

"As council members we come up with ideas and brainstorm them, and if people don't like them, they don't like them," he said.

While it may appear that tightening up the agenda-setting rule was triggered by a divisive topic championed by Mr. Marsla in May — to expand the Atherton branch library by "selling" it the town council chambers, and using the proceeds from the sale toward building a new town hall — Mr. Marsala said the majority has been stifling him for longer than that.

Mr. Marsala pointed to another topic he tried to revisit — the controversial series of audits of the town's building department in 2006, which resulted in a major shake-up and the sudden retirement of building official Mike Hood.

"There is a desire to block the truth from getting out that Mike Hood did a great job for our town and we erred in not getting a second opinion on the audit, which might embarrass people who were looking for something as a way of controlling building (in town)," Mr. Marsala said.

Mr. Dobbie said that as for the library issue, it should never have gone on the council agenda because it was clear that the Joint Powers Authority that runs the library would never allow library funds to be used to purchase the town council chambers.

"What's the point of the council talking about it if the JPA assured us that we would not be allowed to use the funds," said Mr. Dobbie.


Posted by Even straighter, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm

[Post removed; off-point comments posted by same person using different names]

Posted by glenn, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 6, 2009 at 6:25 am

[Post removed; off-point comments posted by same person using different names]

Posted by On-point comment, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 6, 2009 at 10:54 am

It is plainly wrong for the Atherton Town Council to attempt to stifle dissent by restricting the open discussion of issues.

Although the Almanac has taken the correct side of this issue through its well-written editorial, I sense the irony attached to this opinion being made along with the wholesale deletion of posts by the Almanac that express dissent with certain governmental affairs in Atherton as well.

I am not John Johns.

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