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Issue date: April 12, 2000

EDITOR: Atherton trips on notification EDITOR: Atherton trips on notification (April 12, 2000)

If the Atherton City Council learned nothing else during the recent turmoil over the town's former police chief and city manager, it should know by now that even the slightest deviation from "by the book" behavior will bring critics out in droves.

That is why the council's decision several weeks ago to change its meeting schedule at the last minute, in effect shutting off public testimony prior to its closely watched decision to hire a new city manager, strikes us as profoundly foolish.

Interim City Manager Ralph Freedman was the council's fall-back selection to manage the town after no agreement could be reached at the March 15 closed-session meeting on three outside applicants.

The choice of Mr. Freedman raised some eyebrows, since his firm handled the city manager search and he himself was not an active candidate. Despite the apparent conflict, the council voted 5-0 to offer a one-year contract to Mr. Freedman, and he accepted during the closed meeting.

According to Mr. Freedman, the council decided to reschedule the closed session to 6 p.m., before the regular 7 p.m. meeting, to discuss the city manager selection. The previous plan had been to discuss the manager choices in closed session as the last item on the 7 p.m. meeting agenda. Rescheduling the session, he said, would allow the council to get an early start on the potentially long discussion, which could have been continued after the regular meeting if necessary.

Unfortunately, although Mr. Freedman claims public notice of the change in schedule was posted at several city locations within the 24-hour advance notice required by state law, the media notice, also required to go out 24 hours in advance, was not made until the following morning. As a result, no notice of the meeting change was published or seen unless residents happened to stroll by the two or three public places where notices are posted.

Town critic Kathy McKeithen, who had planned to testify on the manager selection, was furious when she and others arrived for the 7 p.m. meeting and found that the manager selection was a "fait accompli" and that any testimony she would give would be a moot point. She was so furious, in fact, that she has taken the issue to the district attorney, who launched an investigation into whether Atherton violated the Brown Act, the state law which governs public meetings.

In the case of the Almanac, which goes to press once a week on Monday afternoon, notification on Wednesday did not make a difference to our readers. But Tuesday notification could have been published Wednesday morning by daily papers, thus informing readers of the change.

It is troubling that no one on the council gave any thought to taking public testimony before Mr. Freedman's selection was announced. Even worse is the black eye the whole affair has caused.

Today, more than ever, council actions must be above reproach. The days of Atherton officials making quick decisions in a vacuum are over. We presume Mr. Freedman and town attorney Robin Faisant are familiar with the rules laid out in the Brown Act. They should make sure the council follows them, to the letter.



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