The town's attorney, Wynne Furth, said there was no obligation to publicize the settlement with Pilar Ortiz-Buckley, a now-retired Atherton police officer who filed a sexual harassment and disability discrimination lawsuit against the town and public works supervisor Troy Henderson. The lack of candor may be legal, but under no stretch of the imagination was it the right thing to do.
This lack of transparency harks back to when a tight circle of council members and town administrators ran the town without much interference from the other council members or constituents. As long as the bills were paid, crime was kept in check and taxes were low, few complaints were raised.
But in today's world, with 24-7 news coverage, there is much more interest in Atherton's affairs, especially its often inept efforts to impose new fees, exposing the town to litigation and mounting legal expenses. There cannot have been one council member or high public official who did not know that there would be high interest in the town's settling the case, even before depositions were taken, for $230,000.
Attorney and media law expert Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association told The Almanac that after the council's October executive session on the matter, directions to have the city manager or city attorney enter into a settlement of the case should have been made public. They weren't.
"The pending litigation exemption in the Brown Act (the state's media law) is to permit agencies to discuss the merits and weaknesses of pending or existing litigation without having to reveal the town's strategy to the other litigants. Since the (Atherton) litigants were already involved in the settlement, everyone knows what's going on except for the public," Mr. Ewert said, adding, "There really is no public benefit to sitting on it, other than not looking bad."
To avoid looking bad in the future, the Atherton council should pass a resolution making transparency a priority in all the town's business, unless there is truly a good, legal reason to do otherwise. It is the least they can do to make up for their terrible behavior in the Pilar Ortiz-Buckley case.