Almanac

News - August 25, 2010

Atherton: Records requests lead to confrontation

by Renee Batti

Two aggrieved residents and one former employee who successfully sued the town for wrongful termination converged on Atherton Town Hall on Aug. 20 to demand access to public records they say have been illegally withheld by the town. They left without inspecting the documents, but left behind the suggestion that the town will face yet another lawsuit.

The confrontation, which was videotaped and later posted on YouTube, involved former finance director John Johns, and residents Kimberly Sweidy and Jon Buckheit. All three have sued or are on the verge of suing Atherton for a range of complaints.

(Go to is.gd/ezzCD to view the video. The URL is case-sensitive.)

The trio originally went to the building department to inspect documents that had been requested previously through written public records act requests. The California Public Records Act requires public agencies to make non-confidential records available for inspection during the agency's business hours.

When building department staff instructed them to go to Town Hall with their requests, the trio met with City Manager Jerry Gruber, at which time Mr. Buckheit began videotaping. The exchange, which began cordially, ended with Mr. Gruber walking away while being questioned.

Mr. Gruber could not be reached for comment before The Almanac's press time.

Mr. Johns, who successfully sued the town for wrongful termination, was seeking the building department's database for all permits issued from 2000 to 2007. He had been informed by Deputy City Clerk Theresa DellaSanta that the requested records couldn't be accessed by town staff because they were stored on outdated software, and an outside professional would have to be brought in to retrieve them — at considerable cost to Mr. Johns.

"This is sheer nonsense," and "a ruse to make the extraction of records I desire ... prohibitively expensive," Mr. Johns wrote to Ms. DellaSanta in an Aug. 18 e-mail.

In that e-mail, Mr. Johns informed Ms. DellaSanta that he planned to come to Town Hall on Aug. 20 to inspect the records he had previously requested, and noted that a building department staff member, Kelli Robertson, had the skills to retrieve the information he sought.

Mr. Johns told The Almanac later that he knew Ms. Robertson could use the outdated software "because I trained her on it several years ago."

Ms. DellaSanta said on Aug. 23 that she couldn't comment on employee matters; she said she would try to reach the town attorney to respond to The Almanac's questions about staff's ability to access public documents stored on the old software. The attorney did not respond before press time.

During the videotaped meeting with Mr. Gruber on Aug. 20, the trio repeatedly asked Mr. Gruber if Ms. Robertson was able to access the records, but received no answer.

In responding to the trio's questions, Mr. Gruber several times began reading from a prepared statement, apparently attempting to explain why Mr. Johns couldn't inspect the requested documents. But he was interrupted repeatedly and told that his comments did not address the issues at hand.

Sweidy's complaint

Ms. Sweidy was seeking to inspect all information on building permits and inspections for the home she and her husband, Raymie Stata, built and moved into in 2007.

The couple has now begun the process of suing the town because of what Ms. Sweidy has called the "gross negligence, fraud and breach of duty" of the building department in its inspections of the construction. Although department staff routinely inspected ongoing work, the couple is now pouring millions of dollars into fixing the many problems discovered in the main house and other features on the grounds; the repairs include massive construction to make the house structurally sound.

Ms. DellaSanta, the deputy city clerk, said on Aug. 23 that she is "going to do whatever I can" to comply with Ms. Sweidy's request for records "in a very timely manner." She was in the process of arranging a meeting between Ms. Sweidy and the town's interim building official to discuss the needed documents, Ms. DellaSanta said.

Documenting the event

Mr. Buckheit said he decided to videotape the Town Hall visit "to avoid any possible misunderstanding about what actually took place."

Mr. Buckheit is suing the town in federal court for violation of his civil rights after being arrested several years ago during a domestic violence incident at his home. The district attorney never filed charges, and Mr. Buckheit later won a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court.

He took legal action against the town after it refused to give him the police report of his arrest, and the town ultimately turned over the report and paid him $8,000 in attorney's fees.

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