Atherton wrestles with questions over councilman's $500,000 loan request
• The councilman requested the loan from a resident who is suing the town over allegations of police misconduct.
About 30 Atherton residents showed up for a special City Council meeting Friday afternoon, March 26, to discuss alleged improprieties by Councilman Charles Marsala, who did not attend. The official meeting was canceled due to a lack of a quorum, but Mayor Kathy McKeithen and Councilman Jim Dobbie stayed for an informal meeting to hear a range of criticism from residents weary of the town's ongoing conflicts.
The special meeting was called, with only one day's notice, to discuss "alleged improper official conduct and allegations that council member Marsala is not a resident of the town."
Mr. Marsala was accused at a March 17 public meeting of asking resident Jon Buckheit for a $500,000 personal loan last September. Mr. Buckheit is currently suing the town in federal court over police conduct during a domestic dispute at his house in 2008, which resulted in his arrest. He was never charged with a crime, and recently won a court declaration of factual innocence in the matter.
Mr. Marsala also faces questions about his residency in town, as he has been renting his house to a Stanford Hospital patient and her family.
Mr. Marsala said he didn't attend the meeting because he had other commitments already in place. But he also said the method in which the 2 p.m. meeting was scheduled was flawed, with very little advance notice and no canvassing of council members beforehand to see if there were scheduling conflicts that prevented their attendance.
Mayor Kathy McKeithen said she had tried to have the notice for the meeting posted sooner, but that her efforts to make that happen were futile. "The agenda was finally given to the Town Clerk on Wednesday, March 24, with direction to post it on that day. That direction was not followed until Thursday after several telephone calls and e-mails from me," she wrote in The Almanac's online forum, Town Square.
She said she decided to go forward with the meeting anyway, because the issue was urgent, and many residents were insisting that the council address it immediately. "The public has a right to know what's going on, and I want to give them the opportunity to tell us what they think," she said.
In an interview with The Almanac, Mr. Marsala countered: "If there was such an outcry (from the public), why not schedule the meeting at night (rather than) in the afternoon when people have to work? ... I don't think the public demand was there."
It is unknown why council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson didn't attend the meeting.
In a prepared statement, Councilman Dobbie said: "As a result of publicity concerning Charles Marsala, there have been serious questions raised about his ethical behavior. Asking someone who has an adversarial relationship with the town for a large loan, and who is likely to pursue legal action as a plaintiff, in my mind is a serious breach of normally accepted standards for elected officials."
Lawsuit in the works?
In the interview with The Almanac, Mr. Marsala insisted he believed that Mr. Buckheit didn't intend to sue the city at the time he requested the loan, and provided print-outs of e-mails in support of his claim. Among them is an October 2009 e-mail to City Manager Jerry Gruber from Mr. Buckheit, copied to Mr. Marsala, in which Mr. Buckheit refers to police officers acting "in a harassing manner to me on two occasions now." The harassment, he said, "may be a result of actions I have taken" since his 2008 arrest.
In the e-mail, Mr. Buckheit expresses hope that his complaints could be "resolved informally" if he were allowed to talk directly with the police chief. "I believe this is something that should be resolved without having to have attorneys get involved or file legal actions," he wrote.
Mr. Marsala noted that the e-mail was written after the Sept. 30 note Mr. Buckheit wrote to him saying he couldn't help him out with a loan, and that he believed the conflict between Mr. Buckheit and the town would be worked out without litigation.
Asked about the e-mail expressing hope of an informal resolution, Mr. Buckheit said he was referring only to the harassment incidents he cited in the message, not the ongoing conflict over his 2008 arrest. In fact, Mr. Buckheit said, he had already filed a notice of claim with the town over the arrest matter, which is the legally required step before filing a lawsuit. This happened around April 2009, well before Mr. Marsala asked for the loan, he said.
Mr. Marsala said the claim didn't come before the council until mid-July, and the council voted unanimously to reject it. Because it was on the consent calendar, there was no discussion of it, and "I considered it closed," he said. Although they had established a social relationship by then, joining each others' Facebook networks and attending the same parties and events, Mr. Marsala had "no indication from him that a lawsuit was coming," he said.
Mr. Buckheit filed the lawsuit in October, a week or two after writing the e-mail about the other police matter.
At the Friday meeting in the Atherton council chambers, Mr. Buckheit said that Mr. Marsala's request for a loan had made him "uncomfortable," but after the meeting, he said the councilman "is entitled to the opportunity to explain himself" in public. He added that he hopes Mr. Marsala will do so when the council puts the issue on another agenda.
Mayor McKeithen directed city staff to ask council members when they will be able to attend another special meeting on the issue, promising that one would be scheduled soon.
The issue of Mr. Marsala's residency in town also was discussed, with several people, including Mayor McKeithen, saying that they have tried to get a specific address of residency from the town, to no avail.
Ms. McKeithen suggested that the town might hire an investigator to determine once and for all where Mr. Marsala is living — an important matter given that a person must live in town in order to legally serve on the council.
Mr. Marsala explained that he rented out his house on Emilie Avenue in early December, with the expectation that the family would be out by sometime in January. But medical complications for the Stanford Hospital patient led to his extending the lease for the family.
Since then, he said, he has been living in Atherton in the homes of out-of-town friends, with the exception of a few weeks around Christmas. He also has made a few extended trips to see his mother in New Orleans, and to help her move after the death last fall of his father, he said.
Resident Frank Merrill, who attended the special meeting, said afterward that hiring an investigator to determine where Mr. Marsala lives would be a waste of money. "I take him at his word, and cannot see spending money to (prove where) this person lives," he said.
He also criticized the mayor for holding the meeting even though it was unlikely that a council quorum would show up. "There's a cost to having these meetings," he said. Given the town's dire financial situation, paying the town staff and attorney to show up for a meeting that was likely to be canceled "just doesn't make sense."