An attempt to gather Atherton City Council members together for a refresher course on the council's Code of Conduct appears heading for a debate -- civil, it is hoped -- on free-speech rights and spending priorities.
In a July 29 memo to council colleagues and town management, Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis called for a workshop in the near future to review the town's Code of Conduct, asserting that the code had been violated in spirit and intent on several recent occasions.
"My hope is to raise the level of civility in our council meetings," Ms. Lewis said in an interview. Demeaning comments and accusations made during recent meetings -- by both council members to each other and by members of the public who are not asked to remain civil -- "really undermines our ability to work together," she said.
On more than one occasion at council meetings, members of the public have criticized council members for bickering and incivility toward each other. Planning Commissioner William Grindley, speaking on the issue of hiring a city attorney at the Aug. 2 special council meeting, prefaced his public comments by saying that he has "come to these meetings and watched the pissing match that goes on and am befuddled."
Mr. Grindley ultimately walked out of the meeting, shaking his head, during a subsequent heated exchange between Ms. Lewis and Mayor Kathy McKeithen.
The recent discussions of the city attorney's contract, during which Mayor McKeithen was particularly critical of current contract attorney Wynne Furth, were a major impetus for Ms. Lewis' push to review the code, she said. Code of Conduct policy statement 100.11 states that council members "should not publicly criticize the city manager or staff, but shall discuss any concerns about (them) in a closed session..."
Mayor McKeithen said in an interview that her remarks about Ms. Furth were appropriate considering the context in which they were made: a discussion in which some council members questioned her push to consider hiring an attorney other than Ms. Furth, whose law firm is closing and who is seeking to retain her position through her new law firm.
Noting that other council members were praising Ms. Furth's work and stating why they wanted to retain her, Ms. McKeithen said, "When they raised that question, I had an obligation to explain why, but within the confines of not crossing a line" set by the Code of Conduct or rules of general civility. She asserted that she did not cross that line.
Ms. Lewis acknowledged that the council must distinguish between free speech and inappropriate, malicious comments in trying to maintain decorum, but Mayor McKeithen said the distinction is often murky. "Am I to be the judge of what is free speech and what is not?" she asked. "I think that is a very fine line to walk, and ... at some point you start (limiting) other people's rights."
City Manager Jerry Gruber said he will place Ms. Lewis' request to discuss the workshop question on the Aug. 18 agenda if she submits the required letter, and noted that the council might also consider including town commissioners and committee members in a Code of Conduct training workshop.
Ms. McKeithen said she will participate in such a workshop if a majority of her colleagues want it. But, she noted in an e-mail to Mr. Gruber that she copied to The Almanac, the town's meager budget for council and commission member training might be needed for other matters such as reviewing the Brown Act -- the state's open meeting law -- and that the council should review other needs to determine its priorities in spending the funds.
But Councilwoman Lewis said the pervasive divisiveness and rancor at council meetings "is really damaging to the town." In her July 29 memo, she expressed hope "that we can agree to have differences of opinions on issues and focus on compromise to move our town forward in a positive way, rather than continue the backbiting, malicious innuendo and personal attacks that have been occurring" at recent meetings.