At a daylong Jan. 11 strategic planning workshop held in the town council chambers, council members debated policies and philosophies on open government.
"I think the council as a whole does a very poor job of engaging the community," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "Council members as individuals do a very good job."
While the council ultimately decided to create an ad hoc council subcommittee made up of Jerry Carlson and Ms. Lewis to come up with a town policy on public information and council communications, it was clear that there are disparate visions as to what constitutes transparent government.
The subcommittee was to have included members of the public, but the council changed direction when informed that including residents would force the meetings to be open to the public.
"The image we want to create with our residents is that the council's working as a team. That we appear to be divided publicly is not good," said Councilman Jim Dobbie.
Mr. Dobbie complained about an online survey about several town issues created by Councilman Charles Marsala. Mr. Marsala e-mailed links to the survey to residents prior to Monday's meeting, and had gotten about 60 responses.
Mr. Marsala should not have sent out the survey without informing the other council members first, Mr. Dobbie said.
"I do think I have the right to ask my constituents what they think about the issues I'm going to be voting on," said Mr. Marsala in response.
Mayor Kathy McKeithen suggested adopting a philosophy that council members will try not to blindside each other with things like resident surveys, but City Attorney Wynne Furth warned that the law clearly prohibits anything that smacks of behind-the-scenes deliberation. Weighing in on another council member's communication before it's made public is against the law. According to the Brown Act, the council can't find something out before the public does, she said.
The Brown Act, the California law that guarantees public access to meetings of legislative bodies, was much discussed at Atherton's meeting. Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League and recently retired member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board, read the preamble to the Brown Act aloud to the council members and urged them to follow its spirit.
"What you are talking about to some degree is how to control information. The Brown Act is clear that everything you are doing is the public's business, with exceptions for pending litigation and personnel issues," Mr. Carpenter said. "Any attempt to control information is not going to work, it will lead to more distrust."
It may be a painful transition for Atherton officials to go from trying to tightly control information to being completely open, but they should do it, he said. "Once you get past that barrier, life gets a lot easier," Mr. Carpenter said.
The council members also discussed ways to increase online communications with residents, and expand the town's e-mail list that currently has only about 300 or so residents. Mr. Marsala said that while the online survey isn't scientific, it's a good way to solicit resident input on town affairs and that he was encouraged by the number of write-in comments from respondents.
Mr. Dobbie appeared unconvinced.
"Let's say everyone on the council sends out a survey. It gives the impression we're not working as a team," he said.
"I'm not concerned about your image, I'm concerned about you making informed decisions," countered Mr. Carpenter. "The five of you cannot decide 'this is what we're going to do' amongst yourselves, and 'this is what we're going to tell the public.'"
However, lack of action caused by endless discussion clearly frustrated Mr. Dobbie.
"One of the things we are being measured on is how efficiently we are getting things done," said Mr. Dobbie.
Mr. Carpenter countered by saying, "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."
"The more we accomplish, the better it is for the residents," said Mr. Dobbie in response. "Things that should take a month take a year because we're debating amongst ourselves."