Atherton mayor: City manager's departure is opportunity for 'fresh start'

City Manager Jerry Gruber to take post in Cambria

The resignation of Atherton City Manager Jerry Gruber, effective Oct. 22, was not a result of City Council pressure, but will allow the town to bring in someone with fresh eyes to focus on the town's troubles, Mayor Kathy McKeithen said last week.

"I'm sad to see Jerry go," Ms. McKeithen told The Almanac after Mr. Gruber announced on Sept. 23 that he would be taking a job with the Cambria Community Services District. "But at the same time, it may be a good opportunity to bring someone in for a short period to evaluate" how the town is being run and what improvements might be made, she said.

Mr. Gruber, who came on board as city manager in early 2008, said his new title will be utilities manager and that he was hired in the expectation that he will replace the district's current general manager in June 2012.

A written announcement from Town Hall said Mr. Gruber has owned a home in the Cambria area, just south of San Simeon, since 2005.

"It's been fun here," he said. "It really has. I'm a better person for all that I've experienced here in Atherton. I feel like I'm leaving on a really positive note. ... I think we're in better shape fiscally and organizationally than when I came here in 2008."

In the two days after the announcement was made, Mayor McKeithen received offers from two well-known figures in town to serve as interim manager: former finance director John Johns and resident Jon Buckheit. Both men have sued the town -- Mr. Johns, successfully, for wrongful termination.

Mr. Buckheit's lawsuit in federal court is still pending; the suit was filed in the wake of his arrest after he called the police to report a domestic violence incident in his home. Charges were never filed, and he won a judgment of factual innocence in court during a hearing at which an Atherton police officer involved in the arrest testified that the police report had been altered without his permission.

Mr. Buckheit said he offered his services for one year only, for a salary of $1. But, he acknowledged, the council was likely to cite his lawsuit against the town in not considering him.

Mr. Johns said he offered to work for $1 a month "for a reasonable amount of time pending the selection of a new city manager."


Mr. Gruber will be leaving behind several headaches for whoever takes his place.

■ The town has been making deep cuts to its expenses to get them in line with income.

■ The town is dealing with one lawsuit after another, recently settling two, with former employees, for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

■ Employee morale is extremely low, according to a number of people close to Town Hall.

■ Internecine feuding nettles the City Council.

■ The building official recently retired after coming under intense criticism by some residents, including a couple likely to sue the town for "gross negligence" on the part of the building department.

■ The city attorney is under fire for what the mayor says are issues with the attorney's transparency and attitude.

What's next?

The City Council will discuss how to proceed with filling Mr. Gruber's office at a special meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, in the Town Council Chambers at 94 Ashfield Road.

Mayor McKeithen said the council will also address the question of naming an interim manager. As for Mr. Johns' and Mr. Buckheit's proposals, she wasn't enthused.

"People have even said that I should be city manager," she said, "and I say absolutely not."

The town, she said, needs a manager "who has no baggage. ... All of us have too much baggage. And the propensity is always to bring even a little piece of that baggage forward.

"We need a fresh start," she said. Someone with no history with the town "will make all the difference in the world to the people of Atherton, and to the staff."

Regarding Mr. Gruber, the mayor said: "When we hired Jerry, I was delighted ... and he's been a delightful person. He helped us through a tough period, and it was tough on him, too. I wish him well."

Dave Boyce contributed to this report.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 28, 2010 at 9:21 am

I disagree with Ms. McKeithen's comments about "baggage". Moreover, I think she'd actually make a great city manager. If her "baggage" doesn't prevent her from being on the council, or from being mayor, it shouldn't prevent her from being city manager either.

I started attending council meetings one year ago to attempt to understand how my own troubling situation was allowed to start and fester. I think I have figured it out.

Unlike other well-run communities on the Peninsula such as Hillsborough, Foster City, and others, the town manager job here has been a revolving door. The town managers at Hillsborough and Foster City have been on the job more than ten years each, I believe. In the past ten years, Atherton has had more town managers than I can count.

By the time someone with "no baggage" figures out what the problems here are, they'll be gone too, if they haven't, like Mr. Gruber, already become part of the problem.

I don't expect the Town of Atherton to take me up on my offer for the reasons Mr. Boyce has already stated, and I can certainly make more money elsewhere. I also don't expect to be attacked for making this offer. I've done more public service for this community than just about anyone, including my conservatorship of a resident who needed help, but couldn't get that help from Atherton.

Bringing in Mr. Johns for the job is decidedly not outlandish. All of his "baggage" is good. He understands the problems. The characters involved with his termination (Brennan, Protzman, and some of the council members) are either gone or soon will be.

Unless real, sweeping, fundamental change is made to the way business is done at Atherton, the next city manager will simply play out the same script as Mr. Gruber did, and will be gone pretty soon.

The problem is, unless one actually attends the meetings, and keeps up with the news in a rigorous way, there will be no true appreciation for just how dysfunctional Atherton really is. Simply paying money to people who have been wronged in various ways does not end this dysfunction.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2010 at 10:18 am

I agree with Jon Buckheit on all of his points above.

The "good baggage" is knowledge and Historical background of the Town of Atherton.

All three people mentioned above have demonstrated their interest in doing what is right for the residents of Atherton.

Neither Buckheit or Johns ever wanted to sue the Town of Atherton. They had no other option.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 10:59 am

Like any disfunctional organization, Atherton needs a first-rate manager to straighten things out. As an executive who has parachuted into several problematic organizations during my career, I know firsthand that you don't need to have an intimate knowledge of each and every problem (or have lived through it) to be able to identify problems, organize your staff, manage appropriately and set a new direction.

The key factor for any new manager will be enjoying the confidence of the Town Council and being afforded the independence to execute their plan. By now, one would hope this Council would understand that THEY are a major part of Atherton's problems. It's about time that they stepped back and let a full-time professional handle these tasks.

There are several excellent city and town managers on the peninsula. I suggest the Town Council begin a search as soon as possible.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 28, 2010 at 11:41 am

POGO, sorry, in this case, I truly disagree. Groups in Atherton have been quite successful in making unfair and inaccurate portrayals of what the real problems are, and this has stymied one city manager after another. Unless a city manager who has some unique experience in these types of situations is brought in (e.g., someone like you, who has experienced this before himself - and this is very, very rare, in my experience), the next manager will have the same fate as all the others. By the time s/he figures it out (if ever), it will be too late.

Like this comment
Posted by John P. Johns, CPA
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Dear Ms. McKeithen and members of the City Council.

I am writing this letter to reiterate my desire to serve as the Interim City Manager until such time as a permanent replacement can be found.

I understand that the town is in difficult financial straits. I am therefore willing to serve as interim City Manager for $1 per month for a reasonable period of time.

I am travelling this week. Hence I will be unavailable to be present during the September 30th, 2010 special meeting. Accordingly, I respectfully request that my letter be included within the record of this meeting under public comments.

With respect to the selection process for an interim City Manager, I would respectfully object to statements that Ms. McKeithen has made in her capacity as Mayor which appeared in the Almanac News article below:

Web Link

As indicated in the article referenced above, Ms. McKeithen "wasn't enthused" about the prospect of my returning to the Town as City Manager.

In describing the reason for her lack of enthusiasm for my candidacy, Ms. McKeithen stated that the Town needed someone who "has no baggage".

I respectfully assert that Ms. McKeithen's refusal to consider my application for the position of interim City Manager for the reason stated above would be unconstitutional. I have reason to believe that the position that Ms. McKeithen has staked out on behalf of the Town is contrary to my due process rights as guaranteed by the 14th amendment of the constitution as well as my 1st amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of association.

By making the public statements that she has, Ms. McKeithen has turned my six years of exemplary service to the Town (what should be an asset and a source of competitive advantage) as a disqualifying factor. Ms. McKeithen also seems to have forgotten about the certificate of commendation she signed and that the Council gave to me last April.

I am also deeply disturbed by the chilling effect Ms. McKeithen's statement has hand on my prospects for re-employment with the Town for lesser positions in the unlikely event that the City finds a candidate who is more qualified than I am to take the helm at Town hall. I am precluded from consideration for the position of interim City Manager. Under the guise of a need for a "fresh perspective" such discriminatory tactics could just as easily be applied when the assistant city manager and the finance director slots become available.

I would also respectfully submit that Ms. McKeithen appears to have ruled out the candidacy of another very fine individual, Mr. Jon Buckheit. As such Ms. McKeithen would seem to have placed the Town in even further jeopardy. Ms. McKeithen's statement appears to rule out the prospect of Mr. Buckheit being considered under any circumstances, even if by chance his case were settled before an interim or permanent City Manager was selected. In fact Ms. McKeithen seems to have disqualified each and every individual who resides in Atherton, because each and every one of Atherton's residents has at least some history with the Town.

I note that, prior to becoming hired as a retail clerk for Tuesday Morning and prior to being elected to the City Council, Ms. McKeithen graduated from law school. I also note that Ms. McKeithen is married to a man who for many years served as general counsel of a major Silicon Valley software company. Surely Ms. McKeithen as well as any member of the City Council should be versed in the constitutional rights afforded to me and to every other citizen of this country.

It is for the above reason that I respectfully request that the City Council adopt by way of resolution a statement condemning Ms. McKeithen for the statements she has made which are contrary to the constitutional rights of current and prospective competitors for the position of City Manager.

By adopting a resolution or some other statement to set the record straight I can have some confidence that my application for interim City Manager or for other management positions in Atherton will be given proper consideration in the future.

Thank you very much

John P. Johns, CPA

Like this comment
Posted by Atherton Taxpayer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I will double your requested monthly salary for three years if you will go away and stay away for three years. No application process needed. Leave our Town alone for three years, and I will send you $72.00 at the conclusion. I don't care if you do other work simultaneously.
You are threatening lawsuits against the Town you seek to "serve". You may or may not have done a great job as Finance Director, you may or may not have viewed porn on the Town's computer, you may or may not have done work for other clients while on the Town's clock, but you definitely are baggage.

Like this comment
Posted by ace detective
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Atherton Taxpayer is probably an assumed name being used by one of those corrupt atherton police officers who is frightened about the prospect of Buckheit or Johns going to work for the Town.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Mr. Buckheit -

It's perfectly okay to disagree.

While a lot of managerial skills are transferrable, job specific experience is always important. While I think I can manage a small, private company pretty well, I wouldn't nominate myself to manage a construction site or airport. I just don't know enough about those operations.

Managing a small town requires a specific skill set, too. Finances are dictated by LAFCO and Calpers, almost everything you say and do (including responding to the public) is governed by law, you are limited by union contracts and work rules, and you are governed by a Town Council with zero experience in managing a municipality. That's very different than how we do things in private industry.

Mr. Johns clearly has some relevant experience but it is a fantasy to think this Town Council is going to put him in charge, even temporarily. FANTASY. Fortunately, here are many highly qualified, experienced city managers in our area. I have seen them in action and they can be identified and recruited.

The most important success factors for the new hire will be to enjoy the support of the Town Council and have the independence to execute their plan. A candidate's awareness of these factors, which should become evident in the interviewing process, will be a very positive sign.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

One question to ask the potential City Manager,

How much experience do you have in firing the Police Chief and any corrupt Police Officer? I don't think you will find very many with that experience.

The Town of Atherton needs this now.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill Reevy
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:25 pm

There's nothing Quixotic about Johns' quest to become City Manager.

The Town has a constitutional obligation to take his bid seriously. During a cell phone conversation with Johns on the afternoon of September 23rd, McKeithen undercut the Town's only legitimate defense. During that telephone conversation McKeithen confided in Johns that the previous channels (profesional recruiters) used by the Town and the talent pool drawn upon (local government managers) had not been satisfactory.

All McKeithen had to say was that the Town wanted to go outside of the traditional channels to find a City Manager, to recruit an accomplished business person rather than from local government. This approach would have taken out Johns from the running. However this tact would have also required McKeithen to admit as she did to Johns that the town was deeply dissapointed in the performance of the last two city managers, both of whom were screened by executive recruiters and both of whom came from similar positions in local government.

McKeithen also blew it in her interview with the Almanac. She said that anyone with a history with the town need not apply. This is discrimination, plain and simple. Unless the City Council formally repudiates McKeithen's statement the Johns can argue in federal court that the selection process has been tainted. Johns will be in good company because McKeithen, by her statements to the Almanac has disqualified just about every other resident.

Nice going Kathy, one wonders how those shoelaces taste. After Johns wins his federal lawsuit for discrimination (if his "fantasy" doesn't come true) McKeithen should be recalled.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO stick
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

The one with the FANTASY is POGO.

He should look at the last batch of greenhorns that made the short list for the Atherton City manager. Not one of these candadites had served in another City in a comparable position.

If anything things have gotten worse. It is entirely possible that Atherton could find a hired gun at for $200 per hour as an interim. However that will only delay the day of reckoning.

Johns had made a very generous offer. He has experience and he has inside knowledge. The Town should just accept the inevitble. He's determined to return to the Town's employment and he will return even if it takes a judge to make that happen.

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm

If Atherton takes Johns up on his offer, it deserves the consequences. His last post is replete with legalese to set up yet another suit. He hates the town and only wants to do it harm: and you people seem to think he is sincerely trying to help? Buy a bridge!

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm

The city will NEVER bring Mr. Johns in as an interim City Manager. There is a way to accomplish what his experience with the town would bring and that is to bring in an Interim City Manager and hire Mr. Johns to consult with the new manager. Mr. Johns knows where the bodies are buried and who in the city needs to go and who needs to stay.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm

POGO stick stated that I "should look at the last batch of greenhorns that made the short list for the Atherton City manager. Not one of these candadites had served in another City in a comparable position."

And isn't that exactly what I warned against? What I said was "fortunately, there are many highly qualified, experienced city managers in our area."

Perhaps POGO stick should read my comment before commenting.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 28, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I hardily agree with "Atherton taxpayer". Those of us who for so many years have sat by silently and allowed McKeithen, Johns, and the like to destroy our city and the reputations of it's employees are finally getting off of our complacent rear ends and saying enough is enough. There are about five individuals who use the politics of personal destruction to move their agendas forward in Atherton and they need to be stopped. Johns is not competent to run the city of Atherton for an hour, let alone several months. Johns needs to get a life somewhere else and leave our city alone. The arrogance he has in suggesting he take over the City Managers position after doing everything in his power to destroy anyone and everyone who works for the city is out of a horror movie.
And to those of you who may disagree with my comments (such as the way "ace detective" did to "Atherton Taxpayer")---how about a reasonable, and thoughtful response instead of the usual false accusations that we must be "corrupt police officers" or stealth members of the city council? I will assure you, I am neither.

P.S. I will even offer a better deal to Johns--I'll triple his salary if he will stay away!

Like this comment
Posted by Wordsmithing
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 2:28 pm

common sense -

are you a police officer or the family of an Atherton police officer?

[Portion removed due to personal attack on the poster]

Like this comment
Posted by dejavu
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 3:23 pm

The Police Department has long enjoyed and perpetuated the town's management and council dysfunction, and in fact they are are sustained by these controversies- just like the one discussed in this thread.
Eventually, through sheer exhaustion all the participants turn on each other in frustration and everyone becomes far too distracted to remember to identify the sole beneficiary. No matter how many times this same scenario plays out.

I am curious to know Mr. John's response to the consultant's contract concept--seems like a possible way to achieve the resolution he still seeks and we have all failed so far to deserve.

Like this comment
Posted by taxi driver
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Sep 28, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Let the bidding war begin.

"Atherton Taxpayer" and "Common Sense" play the politics of personal destruction game all the while of accusing Mr. Johns of doing the same.

Atherton Taxpayer brings up the tired old accusation of porn being found on Atherton's laptop computer even though there was evidence of tampering (for which a detective on Atherton's payroll is under investigation).

Common Sense blythely ignores the resolution of commendation Johns got from McKeithen and the ACIL citizen of the year award Jerry Carlson gave hin.

Johns' record speaks for itself. As far as the postings of Atherton Taxpayer and Common Sense, it enough hot air to go sailing in a balloon over Napa Valley on an autumn morning.

Like this comment
Posted by Atherton Taxpayer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Ace detective-
No, I am not a police officer, married to, or sleeping with one either.
For the record, if Mr. Buckheit was wronged and illegal activities occurred, he should be made whole and the people who perpetrated any offense against him should be disciplined appropriate to the the infraction.
taxi driver-
I did not accuse anyone of playing the politics of personal destruction- Mr Johns may in fact be a fabulous Finance Director or even a City Manager, but Atherton is not the right place for him- he has many champions here- his accolades attest to that. But he also has many detractors, myself included, who do not trust him. Mr Gruber may not have come off well in the video confrontation, but Mr. Johns, seethed anger and contempt, and I can believe it that some who have worked with him in Atherton felt he perpetuated a hostile work environment. Call it style, bone structure, or a mean stare, I don't particularly care. The Town Council needs to represent the interests of the entire community, and the notion that they could select such a divisive person is just unthinkable to me.

Like this comment
Posted by whyisit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 28, 2010 at 4:36 pm

And to think it was only a couple of years ago that John Johns and Kathy McKeithen were as thick as thieves. Johns spent half his time outside talking on his cell phone with Kathy. She is the problem, as is Johns, Buckheit and a couple of other trouble makers.

Like this comment
Posted by Atherton resident
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm

I have lived in the town for a few years and don't know any of the players here so I have no biases and simply want my very high taxes to fund a competent, efficient city government. I'm sorry Mr. John's, but anyone who reads your statement can see where you are coming from and you aren't going to help bring anyone to work together to solve anything. Your legalese diatribe based on extrapolation of a few small, incomplete quotes in a local newspaper shows you to be someone trying to characterize things as narrowly and negatively as possible. Hard to build any consensus that way.

I don't understand your motivation to want to come back based on your recent experience with the town unless it is revenge. That doesn't sound very appealing for those of us who live here so the best reason for you to stay away is the taxpayers and residents don't want you.

Like this comment
Posted by TooMuchtime
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm

This is so typical of small town politics. The fact that all of you people think you are entitled to make such judgments of others--it's no wonder that no one wants to go into public service in Atherton. We sure do not get the best of the best!!!

Like this comment
Posted by No Baggage
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm

What about bringing in new blood to council. Someone with no history with the town "will make all the difference in the world to the people of Atherton, and to the staff.
Someone who has years of experience with the Bay Area. Someone who has worked with other cities when it comes to issues. The High Speed Rail isn't only an Atherton problem. We need to work together with up coming issues with other towns, and communities. Check Cary Wiest's references. He has years of experience working with communities in this area. Vote for who can bring the most to the table with the least amount of baggage.
Cary Wiest (650) 357-7122
We need a fresh start.!!!

Mayor McKeithen said the council will also address the question of naming an interim manager. As for Mr. Johns' and Mr. Buckheit's proposals, she wasn't enthused.

"People have even said that I should be city manager," she said, "and I say absolutely not."

The town, she said, needs a manager "who has no baggage. ... All of us have too much baggage. And the propensity is always to bring even a little piece of that baggage forward.

"We need a fresh start," she said. Someone with no history with the town "will make all the difference in the world to the people of Atherton, and to the staff."

Like this comment
Posted by John Milton
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2010 at 11:56 pm

A fresh start means a fresh start - new city manager, new finance director, new city council and new police chief. Atherton and the comment loving commentators present the city government and themselves as the most dysfunctional community in the state.
Before the town hall explodes with all the hot air and numerous nefarious odors it would be advisable to turn the city over to the state or the courts for administration and leadership.
And no one in their right mind would rehire anyone who has had a conflict or even a history with the city.
Again - fresh start means a fresh start and a clean slate. Otherwise it's the same old comedy we all love reading about - deserving of a comic strip or a sit-com.

Like this comment
Posted by Completely Wrong
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 30, 2010 at 12:21 am

whyisit, you call John Buckheit a trouble maker?

My takeaway from his whole situation is that he has successfully taken to task Atherton staff members, including police officers, for mistreating a resident. This was verified by a judge. And no matter how much one can attempt to minimize what happened in terms of report falsifications and the like, and clearly some people, perhaps police officers, have tried, it is very clear to me that the judge verified he was mistreated.

All of these staff members are paid handsomely. I believe the county treasurer also receives handsome tax payments from Atherton residents.

If you live in Atherton, you should be thankful for what he has done, since it will make it much more unlikely that residents will get mistreated by town staff in the future.

Nothing wrong with this proposition in my view.

Thank you, Mr. Buckheit.

Like this comment
Posted by Thanks Jon
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 30, 2010 at 11:42 am

Jon has really taken some hits for doing what he felt was right. He truly has helped shed light on this town. I feel bad when people bash him. Even though Jon has been like a super hero to this town please remember he has feelings. I appreciate, and am very grateful to him for what he has done for Atherton.

Like this comment
Posted by John P Johns, CPA
a resident of another community
on Sep 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm

I have something in common with Jon Buckheit. Oddly enough I find this condition to be both fortunate and unfortunate.

Like Jon I was vindicated. I received a certificate of commendation by way of a resolution from the City Council for my service with the Town. I was reinstated with back pay. I fought the good fight. I stood up to and spoke out against official misconduct and I won.

Similarly Jon Buckheit won a declaration of factual innnocence. Like me he was wrongly accused of misconduct. Like me the misconduct he was accused of was the kind that was devastating to one's reputation.

Like me Jon fought back. He cleared his name. I am proud of my association with such a fine man. I am proud of the fact that like Jon I was able to clear my name in spite of overwhelming odds.

However there is a shared experience with Jon that I find to be most unfortunate. Despite the offial record there are those on ths forum, virtually all of whom have posted under an assumed name who have launched an unceasing assault upon my reputation and upon Jon's reputation.

Rather than respect the official record, these malcontents try through a smear campaign to rewrite history.

Well this is the price on pays for integrity. As we progress to middle age, we must accept that we live in an imperfect world.

We must accept the fact that there are many who are dishonest with themselves and with others.

I am inspired by the likes of Jon Buckheit, because it is Jon Buckheit, a man 10 years my junior who has shown me the wisdom of accepting the world as it is, while exhibiting the courage to keep trying to change the world around him so that it is a better place.

Keep it up Jon, as I read this forum, you are inspiring others, you have the gratitude of many.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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