Viewpoint - January 20, 2010

Editorial: Transparency is not always pretty

A few weeks ago we chastised the Atherton Town Council for intentionally keeping word of a $230,000 settlement against the town from the public. Some council members said that was not their intention and agreed to discuss setting a new policy to deal with such matters.

Well, if their discussion at last week's planning workshop for council members is any indication of how the council intends to address the "transparency" problem, not much will change. The theme we heard from council member Jim Dobbie was "image," and the concern that the public might possibly see the council working at cross purposes.

One flashpoint for Mr. Dobbie was an online survey on town issues sent out by council member Charles Marsala with good intentions, but without informing his colleagues.

This did not sit well with Mr. Dobbie, who said "the image that we want to create with our residents is that the council's working as a team. That we appear divided publicly is not good," he said.

The dividing line here is obviously that Mr. Dobbie either didn't want to know what residents thought about town issues, or was miffed that Mr. Marsala had the chutzpa to do something on his own that the council likely would not have approved.

Another indication that transparency is not foremost in the council's mind: At the planning session, the proposal to invite a few residents to serve on a committee to write a public information policy was scrapped when the council learned that including outsiders would force the committee to meet publicly.

Atherton resident Peter Carpenter, a former member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board and a crusader for more openness in government, did his best to explain the importance of the Brown Act, the state law that governs how all government agencies are expected to deal with public information. Mr. Carpenter even spent a few minutes reading the preamble to the Brown Act to the council.

"The Brown Act is clear that everything you are doing is the public's business, with exceptions for pending litigation and personnel issues," he said. "Any attempt to control information is not going to work. It will lead to distrust."

And that is the real issue. Until the Atherton council realizes that 99 percent of the time, citizens have a right to know everything that they know, there will be trouble and infighting in a town that should be operating harmoniously.

But that harmony should not come from managing the flow of information, and withholding news that will make the town look bad. Council members should understand that true harmony will come when the council can talk candidly in public about their differences, take a vote and move on. And Mr. Dobbie should know that the business principle of presenting a unified front does not apply to the public's business.

In response to Mr. Dobbie's contention that the council is measured by how efficiently it gets things done, Mr. Carpenter said:

"Efficiency is not necessarily the hallmark of democracy. It may not be efficient, but at least you can see how you're getting things done."


Posted by clothes line, a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 24, 2010 at 11:30 pm

A quick thank you to the Almanac for providing this forum for Atherton to air out some of our filthy old laundry. Some of it will be claimed and some left hanging on the line wet--but for now you are the closest thing to sunshine we have got. We clearly need this head start on spring cleaning

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