Viewpoint - September 1, 2010

Time for a truce in Atherton

Atherton could take a step back from the challenges over public records that recently have stymied the town staff — if money can be found to complete a software upgrade in the building department.

During the Aug. 20 confrontation at the Town Hall counter between two unhappy members of the public — former employee John Johns and resident Kimberly Sweidy — and Atherton City Manager Jerry Gruber, Mr. Gruber would say only that he could not respond to the public record requests each of them had made. Both are seeking records from the town's building department.

The encounter was filmed by resident Jon Buckheit, who is suing the town on another matter, and was later posted on YouTube and The Almanac's Town Square forum. The video shows Mr. Gruber reading from a script saying the requested records are not available. Mr. Johns, the town's former finance director, is seeking the records of the town's building permits issued between 2000 and 2007. Ms. Sweidy is seeking all building department records of her own building project, which began in 2003. She claims that "gross negligence" on the part of the building department will force her to spend millions of dollars to repair her multi-million dollar home, and has threatened to sue to the town to cover her costs to correct the construction errors.

In the Aug. 20 confrontation, Mr. Johns told City Manager Gruber that he expected to be given the records he had requested about 10 working days earlier — the grace period given to public agencies to fulfill such requests. The video of the angry exchanges between Mr. Johns and Ms. Sweidy with Mr. Gruber remains on YouTube despite a request from an employee, who briefly appeared in it, to take it down.

Mr. Gruber told The Almanac last week that once the migration of data from the old to new software is complete, he fully intends to hand over whatever information is requested. If he sticks to his word, it would be the first positive step we have seen in some time between the town and some of its adversaries. Nevertheless, in the meantime there is little doubt that Ms. Sweidy is likely to file suit against the town to recover damages she says were caused by an unqualified building inspector who approved substandard work on her home. Her public records request seeks all building department correspondence that concerns construction of her home, where she, her husband Raymie Stata and their two daughters have lived in since September 2007.

We believe Atherton is fully prepared to give up the records requested by Ms. Sweidy and Mr. Johns, when the software upgrade has been completed. (Mr. Johns, who said he is familiar with the old software, disagrees with the town's contention that the information cannot be handed over in its present form.) Nevertheless, the town is out of compliance with the state's Public Records Act and may have to pay the price if a court decides the issue.

In our view, the best course for now is for all parties to take a time-out, then discuss how the record requests can be settled amicably, perhaps with help from a third party. It does neither side any good to continue the angry confrontations like we saw broadcast on YouTube and The Almanac website. When all parties have the information they requested, the disputes can move on to a courtroom, where a judge and possibly a jury will decide whether to assess any damages.


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