Lesson #1: The Need For Greater Transparency From City Officials
For many, if not most, of the busy families involved in protesting Michelle Sutton's firing, this was their first foray into local politics. What many found was a frustrating, disappointing process that lacked transparency and responsive communication. While the subject of the firing herself, Ms. Sutton, welcomed public scrutiny and transparency (she actually gave her personnel file to The Almanac to review), the City cited the need for personnel issues to be private as a reason to limit public engagement. Citing "personnel issues" should not be a get-out-of-jail-free-card to keep major issues under wraps. In fact, according to California's Third District Court of Appeal in BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court (Dunsmuir Joint Union High School District), 06 S.O.S. 5284, an investigator's report can be public record because Californians "have a strong interest in knowing how government officials conduct public business, particularly when allegations of malfeasance by public officers are raised." (10/3/06)
Lesson #2: Using Social Media To Level The Playing Field And The Need For More Pro-Active Engagement From City Government
Social media has certainly tipped the scales in a more even direction in dealing with the David vs. Goliath situation that is "the people vs. City Hall". SaveMenlo is currently upping the ante and becoming something of a social media poster child in its use of those tools to organize, communicate, sign petitions and even fundraise at a grassroots level in opposition to the current Arrillaga/Stanford plan for El Camino. In the Michelle Sutton case, a simple Facebook group helped to keep people informed and organized. What is needed, however, is better engagement between City Staff and concerned residents so that there is a discussion?a give and take?before frustration reaches a boiling point.
Before City Staff goes before the City Council to request budget for a new "Social Media Strategist", lets be clear that they don't need a new resource. What they need is the will to communicate and engage with the community. Menlo Park already has a position that can and should be working with the public on important issues: the Community Engagement Manager. In this case, the Community Engagement Manager could have sat down with representatives of "Bring Back Teacher Michelle" or with concerned residents to answer questions and listen to concerns. Even if the outcome of Ms. Sutton's dismissal had been the same, residents would have felt their concerns were heard and could have worked with the City to make sure changes preventing a similar future situation were made.
Lesson #3: It Was About More Than Michelle Sutton
While the Michelle Sutton "fiasco" started out as an attempt to right a perceived wrong, it quickly grew into critique of local government. A big misstep from City Hall was the deletion of public emails questioning Ms. Sutton's termination. Once the emails were reinstated, residents grew frustrated with what many perceived as a dismissive response from the City Manager's office. The message received: if you don't like losing two beloved teachers and the way the City Staff is going to handle it, you can find another program because Menlo Park has a waiting list anyway. That was a lot to take for parents who had patiently taken their children to the uncomfortable temporary gymnastics "portable" month after month while waiting for construction to be completed on the new building. What the Michelle Sutton case became about was not just how a beloved employee was treated, but how regular community members were treated. And the answer was not very complimentary.
Lesson #4: Demonstrating Courage
Throughout the controversy which swirled around them, teachers Michelle Sutton and Chris Ortez handled themselves elegantly. Ms. Sutton stood up for herself, spoke openly and transparently with the public and the press, and never betrayed her professionalism. Not enough has been said, however, about Chris Ortez. He resigned from a position he loved in protest over Ms. Sutton's firing which, even in the best economic times, is a brave and principled move. Even more difficult and courageous was his decision to speak out about Ms. Sutton's poor treatment by the gymnastics preschool director (someone he had a close friendship with) and about the "utter ugliness and hostility" with which Ms. Sutton was treated by the City's Community Services Director. Mr. Ortez put himself, his job, and his relationships on the line to stand up for what he felt was just. It's too bad our kids lost two teachers who were so boldly worthy of admiration.