The moment word of her Feb. 12 termination as a gymnastics instructor leaked out, something did not seem right about how this highly popular teacher — despite being an at-will employee — could be dismissed without warning. And the consternation only grew when the city deleted a deluge of email posts supporting her from the City Council's website.
Then we learned that six days before Ms. Sutton was fired, she asked how to file a harassment complaint against her supervisor, Karen Mihalek. A coworker who quit in protest over Ms. Sutton's termination told the council that he had witnessed the harassment. Amid this turmoil, Ms. Sutton allowed the Almanac to review her personnel file maintained by the city. The file showed no problems or disciplinary actions, although the city is not legally obligated to record those for at-will employees.
With the exception of a complaint by one parent who took offense at being asked to leave the mat during a child-only class, by all other accounts Ms. Sutton was an exemplary teacher who loved her job.
After a wave of protests about Ms. Sutton's dismissal, the city restored supportive emails on its website and City Manager Alex McIntyre said he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing and concluded that the action was proper. The Almanac confirmed that during this review, Mr. McIntyre did not interview Ms. Sutton or other instructors in the gymnastics progam. Finally, after council members started asking their own questions, the city manager hired an independent investigator — attorney Nikki Hall.
But now, instead of using the report to clear the air, the city contends that personnel regulations and attorney-client privilege will prohibit release of the investigator's findings.
Ms. Sutton's supporters and the Almanac strongly object. Why would the results of such an important investigation not be shared with the public, which is paying for the investigation as well as for the salaries of city employees, including those within the gymnastics program? Does the public not have a right to know how Menlo Park manages its community programs?
Erin Glanville, a Menlo Park resident who expressed concern over the instructor's firing, believes there's legal precedent to make the report public. She cited a 2006 District Court of Appeal ruling in a similar case that ruled an investigator's report about allegations of verbal abuse and sexual harassment of a former school superintendent were public record.
Writing for the Court of Appeal, Justice George Nicholson noted that disclosure of public records in prohibited only when it "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and that exceptions to the California Public Records Act must be narrowly interpreted. Although the investigator in the Court of Appeal case was not an attorney, enough similarities exist that the city should fully disclose the investigator's report of Michelle Sutton's firing if it has any interest in truly serving the public.
Dozens of parents whose children enjoy the city's gymnastics classes want to know the truth about the program's management and Ms. Sutton's termination, whatever the outcome. The city manager and the council should release these findings instead of burying the report. That is the only way to meet the standards of public accountability and transparency.