The Secret Culture of our Atherton Town government
Original post made by peter carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood, on Sep 20, 2010
20 September 2010
Atherton Town Council and Town Manager,
Ladies and gentlemen - you were elected and appointed to serve the citizens of Atherton. Unfortunately, you have created and are fostering a culture of secrecy that essentially denies those citizens the opportunity to fully participate in THEIR government. You have slipped into this culture of secrecy not by a single deliberate act but rather by a series of minor omissions and the choice of small conveniences. And part of the problem is that even now some or all of you find my assertion to be baseless how could you possibly have a culture of secrecy?
Let me give you some examples of your culture of secrecy. You are discussing issues of importance behind closed doors and without even telling the citizens what you are discussing. The agenda for your closed session of 15 September included an item: "CONFERENCE WITH LEGAL COUNSEL INITIATION OF LITIGATION (Subsection (c) of Government Code Section 54956.9)" - who in the world would know that under cover of this description and acting in secret and without any public input the Council would forever waive the Town's right to challenge the Sequoia Union High School District's self-serving declaration that the school district was exempt from Atherton's ordinances? And under the guise of closed sessions on the Buckheit lawsuit you are discussing in those closed sessions malfeasance in the police department - an issue of vital importance to the community. You are issuing meeting agendas which hide the topics which you will be discussing by using so called safe harbor descriptions that may fulfill the minimum requirements of the law but which fall far short of your duty to encourage citizen participation. The initial agenda for today's meeting gave the following description "CONSIDERATION OF LITIGATION OPTIONS REGARDING RECERTIFICATION OF PROGRAM EIR" how in the world would a citizen know that the subject of today's meeting was the Town's litigation on High Speed Rail? You are not disclosing the potential exposure of the Town regarding litigation that you are discussing in closed sessions. You are resisting requests for copies of public records. None of you as our elected representative can, acting alone, put an item on the council agenda. The only way that citizens can get an item on "your" agenda is for 100 citizens to file a petition for a special meeting a standard so high that it has never been met. Citizens who come to the Town office for information or services are video taped without their knowledge or consent. You use "your" lawyer, who serves at your pleasure, to rule on conflict of interest issues rather than seeking the free and arms length advice of the Fair Political Practices Commission.
This culture of secrecy did not fall from the sky - it is one which each of you have either encouraged or tolerated. And I believe that you are also allowing yourselves to be directed by "your" lawyer and not by your own conscience or your oath of office or by the trust of the citizens whom you serve.
You need to replace this culture of secrecy with a culture of openness.
What do I mean by a culture of openness? Put no items on a closed session agenda unless it is not only legally permissible but also absolutely essential to discuss that specific item in secret. Take no action on items in a closed session without first giving the citizens whom you serve the opportunity to comment on that specific issue. Ensure that every agenda topic is described in sufficient detail to permit the citizens whom you serve to decide if they wish to participate in your deliberations. The law clearly states: "California Code section 54953.7. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, legislative bodies of local agencies may impose requirements upon themselves which allow greater access to their meetings than prescribed by the minimal standards set forth in this chapter." Respond promptly to public records requests. Remove the video taping equipment in the Town offices. Establish a simple mechanism for citizens to petition their Town government. Don't use "your" lawyer to make judgments on your conflict of interest questions but rather seek a publically issued, arms length opinion from the Fair Political Practices Commission. Under Government Code Section 83114(b) and Commission regulations, any individual may request formal written advice from the Commission staff concerning their duties under the Political Reform Act. Remind "your" lawyer that she should be representing all of the citizens, not just the narrow interests of the Council. Involve citizens in the selection of THEIR new Town Attorney. Reread the Brown Act until you fully understand why it was enacted and what it means.
But most important, you need to create a culture that presumes the citizens of Atherton have a right to know rather than a culture that presumes that you know what is best for the citizens of Atherton to be told.
Unless each of you is prepared to replace this culture of secrecy with a culture of openness which puts the rights of citizens FIRST then you should resign from the position of trust which you hold - because you will no longer deserve our trust.