Mayor Kathy McKeithen was the only champion of the idea, as the rest of the council said that new police Chief Mike Guerra should have a chance to put his stamp on the department.
"We have a new sheriff in town," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "I hope our residents understand that we've got to give this new administration a chance to do the right thing."
The town and two of its police officers are currently being sued by Atherton resident Jon Buckheit over the handling of a domestic dispute at his house in 2008. Mr. Buckheit was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence but never charged. His arrest record was later expunged by a San Mateo County Superior Court judge who granted a declaration of factual innocence. In October, Mr. Buckheit filed a civil rights lawsuit against the town of Atherton in federal court in San Francisco.
Mr. Buckheit's high-profile case, along with other residents' complaints about the police department, has led some to call for the creation of a police oversight committee.
"A crisis is not a prerequisite for a citizen review board," Mr. Buckheit told the council. "Oversight is good."
The creation of an oversight body should not be seen as a rebuke, but as a healthy process, he said.
Mayor McKeithen said that nearly every significant piece of litigation that Atherton has been involved in recently was tied to the police department. "I don't think these issues can wait," she said.
Ms. McKeithen also said that, in the past, she knew of complaints about the police chief himself that were ignored by the city manager at the time.
"What happens when our chief of police is responsible?" she asked.
Councilman Jerry Carlson said that there is already another level of accountability for the police department. "The buck stops with the council," he said.
The creation of a police oversight body was scheduled for discussion at the meeting, not action, so the council's decision to table the idea caught some by surprise.
Mr. Buckheit said he was promised a chance to give the council a PowerPoint presentation on police oversight issues, and was told by City Manager Jerry Gruber that the council wouldn't vote on the issue at the meeting. "I've been robbed of my opportunity," Mr. Buckheit protested.
Of the nine citizen complaints lodged against the Atherton police since 2005, none were sustained, which was used as an argument both for and against the oversight commission.
Mr. Buckheit said that Atherton had an illegal warning on citizen complaint forms that said anyone making a false complaint against an officer could be criminally prosecuted. That warning wasn't removed until the very day of the council meeting, Mr. Buckheit said.
After the meeting, Chief Guerra said that the law regarding the admonishment against false claims changed following a 2006 court decision, but that the California Penal Code still hasn't been updated to reflect it. Even the latest edition of the penal code says that law enforcement agencies "shall have" that admonishment on their complaint forms, even though the courts say that no one can be asked to sign it.
"Mr. Buckheit is right, it's cleaner not to have it on there," Chief Guerra said. "We talked about it four weeks ago when he questioned it, so we changed it in our printed forms, but we didn't realize our online complaint screen still had it."
It's now been removed, on the advice of the city attorney, he said.