Atherton council says no to ethics oversight board
Atherton City Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said she is "horribly disappointed with this council" after a request she and Councilman Bill Widmer put before their colleagues to consider forming an ethics oversight board for the town was rejected by the council majority.
"Why on Earth the council is afraid to air the issue (before the public) is of concern to me," she told the Almanac after the 3-2 vote at the council's May 18 meeting.
"Are we afraid we have too much dirty laundry and to air it would be a mistake?"
The request, in the form of a "colleagues' memorandum," was for the council to authorize the town manager and attorney to investigate options for establishing an ethics oversight board to confidentially review citizen complaints of actions by town employees, and return to the council with a recommendation. The memorandum suggested the board's membership consist of a council member, a resident who is a judge or an attorney, and the town's manager or human resources director.
Mayor Jim Dobbie and council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson opposed the request. While some council members noted during the brief council discussion that the town shouldn't be incurring such a cost as it faces severe budgetary cuts, Ms. McKeithen argued that "it's costing a lot more in litigation" because such a review process doesn't exist now.
The town has recently settled litigation with two former employees, and is currently fighting several high-stakes lawsuits. "Our litigation fees ... have been astronomical," Ms. McKeithen said. Some of the lawsuits might have been prevented had there been another viable avenue available to people who felt wronged by the town, she said.
In opposing the request, Mayor Dobbie argued that creating such a board would be "putting in another layer" to complicate a process best handled by the city manager. If the manager doesn't perform that job to the council's satisfaction, he said, he should be fired and replaced.
"That's naive," Ms. McKeithen shot back. "We don't just fire people. We let people stay on and on and on. It's not easy to fire people."
After the meeting, Ms. McKeithen said that if the council were to fire a city manager every time it disagreed with his or her decision, "we would be incurring phenomenal expenses and quite an unfortunate reputation throughout the community, if not the state and the country.
"It's ridiculous to even consider that that would be something we could do."
Mayor Dobbie acknowledged after the meeting that the town's process for reviewing citizen complaints in the past has "not been working." But, he added, the current interim city manager has been putting measures in place to correct past problems, and that's the direction he wants to go in.
"At the moment, we're trying to run a very lean, mean town administration," he said. "I believe we can do that (by) putting the right people in the right place."
In addition to the cost of staff time required for an oversight board, Mr. Dobbie said he opposes the idea because, "in my mind, it's just another political football," with council members choosing the board's members.
Ms. McKeithen told the Almanac that rejection of the request undermined council members' stated support of transparency in government. "Every single one of us talked about transparency when we ran for council," she said. "What kind of transparency is there when we're not willing to ... at least air an idea about ethics in public."
But according to Mayor Dobbie, "it's not a question of airing it in public. We are elected by the people to represent them. We don't need a plebiscite for every issue.
"I'm certainly not afraid to bring things to the public. ... But if we bring everything to the public (for a decision), what's the point of having elected officials?"
Before the vote, resident Jon Buckheit said that an ethics oversight committee "is essential" to address concerns of people who have grievances with town actions. Town officials and staff "need to be accountable, and not (just) to themselves."
Mr. Buckheit is suing the town for $10 million in federal court over the handling of his 2008 arrest during a domestic dispute in his home. He was never charged with a crime, and obtained a declaration of factual innocence in court.