Atherton council says no to ethics oversight board


Atherton City Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said she is "horribly disappointed with this council" after a request she and Councilman Bill Widmer put before their colleagues to consider forming an ethics oversight board for the town was rejected by the council majority.

"Why on Earth the council is afraid to air the issue (before the public) is of concern to me," she told the Almanac after the 3-2 vote at the council's May 18 meeting.

"Are we afraid we have too much dirty laundry and to air it would be a mistake?"

The request, in the form of a "colleagues' memorandum," was for the council to authorize the town manager and attorney to investigate options for establishing an ethics oversight board to confidentially review citizen complaints of actions by town employees, and return to the council with a recommendation. The memorandum suggested the board's membership consist of a council member, a resident who is a judge or an attorney, and the town's manager or human resources director.

Mayor Jim Dobbie and council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson opposed the request. While some council members noted during the brief council discussion that the town shouldn't be incurring such a cost as it faces severe budgetary cuts, Ms. McKeithen argued that "it's costing a lot more in litigation" because such a review process doesn't exist now.

The town has recently settled litigation with two former employees, and is currently fighting several high-stakes lawsuits. "Our litigation fees ... have been astronomical," Ms. McKeithen said. Some of the lawsuits might have been prevented had there been another viable avenue available to people who felt wronged by the town, she said.

In opposing the request, Mayor Dobbie argued that creating such a board would be "putting in another layer" to complicate a process best handled by the city manager. If the manager doesn't perform that job to the council's satisfaction, he said, he should be fired and replaced.

"That's naive," Ms. McKeithen shot back. "We don't just fire people. We let people stay on and on and on. It's not easy to fire people."

After the meeting, Ms. McKeithen said that if the council were to fire a city manager every time it disagreed with his or her decision, "we would be incurring phenomenal expenses and quite an unfortunate reputation throughout the community, if not the state and the country.

"It's ridiculous to even consider that that would be something we could do."

Mayor Dobbie acknowledged after the meeting that the town's process for reviewing citizen complaints in the past has "not been working." But, he added, the current interim city manager has been putting measures in place to correct past problems, and that's the direction he wants to go in.

"At the moment, we're trying to run a very lean, mean town administration," he said. "I believe we can do that (by) putting the right people in the right place."

In addition to the cost of staff time required for an oversight board, Mr. Dobbie said he opposes the idea because, "in my mind, it's just another political football," with council members choosing the board's members.

Ms. McKeithen told the Almanac that rejection of the request undermined council members' stated support of transparency in government. "Every single one of us talked about transparency when we ran for council," she said. "What kind of transparency is there when we're not willing to ... at least air an idea about ethics in public."

But according to Mayor Dobbie, "it's not a question of airing it in public. We are elected by the people to represent them. We don't need a plebiscite for every issue.

"I'm certainly not afraid to bring things to the public. ... But if we bring everything to the public (for a decision), what's the point of having elected officials?"

Before the vote, resident Jon Buckheit said that an ethics oversight committee "is essential" to address concerns of people who have grievances with town actions. Town officials and staff "need to be accountable, and not (just) to themselves."

Mr. Buckheit is suing the town for $10 million in federal court over the handling of his 2008 arrest during a domestic dispute in his home. He was never charged with a crime, and obtained a declaration of factual innocence in court.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Stu Slessinger
a resident of another community
on May 25, 2011 at 10:59 am

McKeithen is right. The City Council made a very bad decision. What is going to happen is that citizens and former employees are going to become a defacto citizens' oversight committee.

Mark my word, the Town of Atherton will spend more on responding to public records requests submitted by concerned citizens than it will on an ethics panel supervised by the City Attorney.

Like this comment
Posted by peter carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

peter carpenter is a registered user.

The Town might want to consider the new program just instituted in San Jose:

"Our favorite innovation by Cordell is offering mediation as an option for less serious complaints, such as discourteous behavior, if both the officer and the complainant agree. It's a terrific idea that's working in other cities, including New York. The alternative is pursuing an official complaint that triggers a full investigation by the police internal affairs unit. This can cost a fortune and drag on forever, ultimately unsatisfying to everyone.

Mediation is free, thanks to Cordell's call for retired judges to volunteer their time as mediators. Participants come away feeling they've been heard, and sometimes that's all it takes to dissipate anger. "

Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Just another example of Mr. Dobbie getting seduced by his own inner Maverick. By my watch it will be at least two years before the slimmest hope of a recant. Here are a few thoughts on why it may not be necessary to continue to wait for the Council to figure anything out.
First off-there remains at least the smallest chance that the new management team of Conner and Danialson will actually function both effectively, and completely independently from the Council's endless standoffs.
Next-- There has been a precedent set for residents forming spontaneous political action groups on their own. or occasionally with some Council member on board. Mr. Marsala's Group called "Athertonians for Honest Government", or some such leaps to mind. Ironically, the binding interest of this group was to recall McKiethen in an effort to stop her from exploring any of Atherton's more "closely held" secrets, and consisted mostly of those hoping to avoid scrutiny.
Another example was Mr. Carpenter's valiant call to form "The Group of 100" forth from a mind numbed populous.
So any new group might be formed and could actually coalesce.
But perhaps the resurrection of an existing group-like THE A.C.I.L. would be the best venue for resolving citizen complaints since they are ostensibly focused already, on the issue of protecting the Civil Liberties of Athertonians. The ACIL has a long established infrastructure and a long history of recognition by the Council. They might need to dust off their misson statement to see what could apply here.
If the ACIL would ever use its sanctioned voice to better effect-- maybe both the Council and the residents would hear something other than static.

Like this comment
Posted by Thomas (Sharon Heights)
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 25, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Thomas (Sharon Heights) is a registered user.

Mayor Dobbie's acknowledgement that the town's process for reviewing citizen complaints in the past "has not been working" has more to do with poor recommendations made by previous city staff...specifically city attorneys that advised settlements rather than trial.

In my opinion an oversight board at this point would be unproductive and agree with Mayor Dobbie that it would just be adding another layer as well as unnecessary expenditure to a process currently being handled very openly by Mr. Danielson.

Residents of small affluent communities have the means to pursue all types of litigation when they feel their egos have been damaged. I am reminded of Stanley Hilton, an attorney and resident of Hillsborough
that filed a $15M lawsuit in 2009 suing his town claiming that noise from SFO airport was responsible for his divorce. Should the town of Hillsborough indulge Mr. Hilton in an oversight committee?

While I would not characterize Ms. McKeithen's request a witch hunt, it is already dismissing Mr. Danielson's efforts to objectively look at issues by starting another independent investigation. Such wisdom only validates the claims of current lawsuits as well as provides an incentive for others (whether a resident or a city employee)to sue the town when they feel they have been treated unfairly.

Like this comment
Posted by Right
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 26, 2011 at 9:11 am

Thomas is right. If someone has had any problem with Atherton, it is because of their large ego. Nothing needs to change. Although several staff members have been criminally convicted in the past few years, the true problem is the egos of the residents.

Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 26, 2011 at 11:33 am

I think there are two very separate questions surrounding the ethics panel concept:
1) Does Atherton need all the serious guidance it can get? ----Oh Yeah
2) Would the Council ever avail themselves of it even if it was offered? ---Less Likely
For example: I can remember Councilmen Allen Carlson's and Janz's newspaper quotes in abject defiance to the many Grand Jury Investigation recommendations.
I can remember the "kill the messenger" response that the Council had to it own unanimous mandate for the finance directors audit.
And I can remember at least two occasions where the Council rejected the recommendation of it's own Planning Commission for THREE full cycles of bouncing the appeal process back and forth before just flat out over ruling the people they had put in charge of studying these issues (94 Tallwood and Parker rezoning for starters) but there are plenty of other examples.
So I don't know what's left that might work or that hasn't been tried.... maybe Carpenter's retired judges mediation panel suggestion?, or back to the study of cryogenics for the ACIL

Like this comment
Posted by bob
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 26, 2011 at 1:46 pm

All the whining about the the town council amazes me. Isn't this an elected position? Vote the scoundrels out, but it seems the majority of the voters are satisfied with their actions. People who don't like what they are doing wait for an election.

Like this comment
Posted by TOOTH COMB
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2011 at 9:58 am

Do NOT let anyone get away with anything in these times.
Fear of discovery is the undelining response for good reasons.
Citizens are beginning to ask questions.
CONTINUE doing so.
There is some strong encouraging news which will make going over past records a wise choice.
There is a lot of success in discovery.
Remember those who ran this area into the ground are not swift thinkers and have not changed with the times.
The poster STU speaks for most all of the COUNTY!

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

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 7,630 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 15 comments | 2,516 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,468 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,643 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,050 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More