Almanac

Cover Story - January 27, 2010

You can't hide

Officials like to dodge public scrutiny. Peter Carpenter won't let them.

by Renee Batti

For nearly nine years, Peter Carpenter immersed himself in local fire prevention issues as a member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board. Now that he's retired from that position, his mission, it appears, is to set a few fires.

Set fires — as in lighting a fire in the bellies of younger residents who, he believes, are urgently needed on public boards and city councils. As in setting a fire under the sometimes sluggish posteriors of public officials to get them to act on urgent needs such as disaster preparedness. And, as in sparking public debates on important local issues, prompting people to become more engaged in their government.

Mr. Carpenter, 69, stepped down from the fire board last month with no intention of ending his work as a disaster preparedness advocate or, as Atherton residents may have noticed during the last few months, a crusader for open government.

An Atherton resident since 1982, he was highly critical of town officials for failing to inform the public of a recent $230,000 settlement of a sexual harassment and disability discrimination lawsuit filed by former police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley.

He also publicly criticized City Manager Jerry Gruber for the behind-closed-doors appointment of a new police chief, without advertising the position or holding a competitive selection process.

Councilman Jerry Carlson, who was mayor at the time the police chief was appointed, said he discussed the matter with Mr. Carpenter and explained that doing another extensive public outreach and competitive search for a police chief when one was done just a year earlier was deemed expensive and unnecessary.

He said that Mr. Carpenter agreed with him that the city manager's action — to hire the department's second-in-command, Mike Guerra — was the right decision. But, Mr. Carlson added, he agreed with Mr. Carpenter that the process wasn't communicated well to the residents.

Councilman Charles Marsala said he's struggled to bring certain issues to light for years, and he sees Mr. Carpenter as an ally in his efforts to get the council to discuss controversial topics in open session.

"I think he's pushed us to be more public in some of our debates," Mr. Marsala said. "I think he's going to help us let those differing views out there and push for freedom of speech. I see that as a good thing."

Mr. Carpenter spoke out for the public's right to know during a Jan. 11 council workshop, during which the council, smarting from criticism over the town's lack of transparency, debated the question.

The council decided to create an ad hoc subcommittee to come up with a policy on public information and council communications. It appointed Mr. Carlson and Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis, and next month will officially vote on forming what it is calling the Town Communications Committee. The council appears to be leaning toward allowing public members, which would make the meetings open to the public and subject to the state's open meeting law, the Brown Act — a law close to Mr. Carpenter's heart.

In his blood

As a public official, Mr. Carpenter has held an uncommon position in the traditional tug-of-war between government and the public over access to information pertaining to the public's business. He's been on the side of the public, a position with deep roots.

"While other kids were talking baseball at the dinner table, in my family, the discussions were about democracy and politics and leadership," he says. And, he adds, "I learned a lot from my uncle, Bud Carpenter."

The elder Carpenter was legal counsel for the League of California Cities in the early 1950s, when a San Francisco Chronicle reporter wrote a multiple-part series titled "Your Secret Government." The series sparked a push for a state law that would require elected officials to do the public's business in public, with a few exceptions.

"Uncle Bud" was a key player in drafting the bill and persuading state Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown to carry it, Mr. Carpenter says. Today it is known as the Brown Act.

As a member of the fire board, Mr. Carpenter kept a watchful eye on Brown Act compliance, and pushed for improving the fire district's transparency by posting documents — from employee salaries and contracts to budgets and staff reports — on the district's Web site.

"I'm very proud of ... the tremendous increase in transparency," he responds when asked what he regards as his biggest accomplishments as a board member.

Fire district service

Mr. Carpenter says he's also proud of his role in pushing the district's cities to adopt residential fire sprinkler ordinances, noting that Atherton and East Palo Alto have "really good ordinances" in place now. He places Menlo Park's failure to endorse an ordinance on his list of disappointments.

Other accomplishments, he says, include helping to keep the fire district on a stable financial footing, sounding the alarm on the projected decline in the district's revenue projections over the last two years, and highlighting "the long-term adverse implications of current firefighter salary and retirement benefits."

His biggest disappointment, he says, "is the fact that (the board has) such a poor relationship with the union leadership.

"Every individual firefighter — I have tremendous respect for. They are superb. ... But labor relations are my biggest disappointment."

The district and firefighters, who have worked without a contract since June 2008, remain at impasse in contract talks, and there has been much finger-pointing and charges of bad faith on both sides.

He lists as a "failure" during his tenure his 2003 vote for an increase in firefighters' retirement benefits.

Current efforts

Since leaving the fire board, Mr. Carpenter has assumed the presidency of the Atherton Civic Interest League (ACIL). He also continues key involvement in a citizens' disaster preparedness committee, which has its roots in a successful citizen effort, aided by Board Member Carpenter, to make the Walsh Road neighborhood safer in the event of a fire or other disaster.

"With my ACIL hat on and my disaster preparedness hat on, I will try to get more people involved in community service," he says. The ACIL is currently trying "to identify more young people who will become involved."

As a fire board member, Mr. Carpenter prodded residents to be more involved with and informed about the fire district, which serves Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas.

During election season, he worked to stir up interest among community members to run for a board seat, even when incumbents were running for re-election.

"You can't sit and complain if you're not willing to take action," he says.

Mr. Marsala, the Atherton councilman, says Mr. Carpenter's position as ACIL president will lend credibility to his efforts to make the town more transparent.

"Peter is going to be good. We clearly need to listen to the different views of residents. The concept that we can be benevolent dictators, and the council knows what's best for the town, that doesn't work anymore."

When Mr. Carpenter is asked if he will apply for membership on Atherton's Town Communications Committee, his response is short — and no surprise. "Yes."

Staff writer Andrea Gemmet contributed to this story.

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