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Editorial: City needs to release results of probe

 

Menlo Park's stance that the results of an investigation into the firing of instructor Michelle Sutton and allegations of a toxic workplace environment within the gymnastics program are not public record is yet another in a series of missteps by the city that have characterized this messy situation from the start.

The moment word of her Feb. 12 termination as a gymnastics instructor leaked out, something did not seem right about how this highly popular teacher — despite being an at-will employee — could be dismissed without warning. And the consternation only grew when the city deleted a deluge of email posts supporting her from the City Council's website.

Then we learned that six days before Ms. Sutton was fired, she asked how to file a harassment complaint against her supervisor, Karen Mihalek. A coworker who quit in protest over Ms. Sutton's termination told the council that he had witnessed the harassment. Amid this turmoil, Ms. Sutton allowed the Almanac to review her personnel file maintained by the city. The file showed no problems or disciplinary actions, although the city is not legally obligated to record those for at-will employees.

With the exception of a complaint by one parent who took offense at being asked to leave the mat during a child-only class, by all other accounts Ms. Sutton was an exemplary teacher who loved her job.

After a wave of protests about Ms. Sutton's dismissal, the city restored supportive emails on its website and City Manager Alex McIntyre said he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing and concluded that the action was proper. The Almanac confirmed that during this review, Mr. McIntyre did not interview Ms. Sutton or other instructors in the gymnastics progam. Finally, after council members started asking their own questions, the city manager hired an independent investigator — attorney Nikki Hall.

But now, instead of using the report to clear the air, the city contends that personnel regulations and attorney-client privilege will prohibit release of the investigator's findings.

Ms. Sutton's supporters and the Almanac strongly object. Why would the results of such an important investigation not be shared with the public, which is paying for the investigation as well as for the salaries of city employees, including those within the gymnastics program? Does the public not have a right to know how Menlo Park manages its community programs?

Erin Glanville, a Menlo Park resident who expressed concern over the instructor's firing, believes there's legal precedent to make the report public. She cited a 2006 District Court of Appeal ruling in a similar case that ruled an investigator's report about allegations of verbal abuse and sexual harassment of a former school superintendent were public record.

Writing for the Court of Appeal, Justice George Nicholson noted that disclosure of public records in prohibited only when it "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and that exceptions to the California Public Records Act must be narrowly interpreted. Although the investigator in the Court of Appeal case was not an attorney, enough similarities exist that the city should fully disclose the investigator's report of Michelle Sutton's firing if it has any interest in truly serving the public.

Dozens of parents whose children enjoy the city's gymnastics classes want to know the truth about the program's management and Ms. Sutton's termination, whatever the outcome. The city manager and the council should release these findings instead of burying the report. That is the only way to meet the standards of public accountability and transparency.

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by DadOf3
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Hear hear! Good editorial. The public has a right to know.


Like this comment
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

yes, make the report public and the City leaders need to make sure these constant mis-steps come to an end. Time for a better city lawyer??


Like this comment
Posted by Virgil
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Cities and other governmental agencies often try to hide behind the cloak of "confidential personnel actions." There's little reason for this. Many of them tried to hide governmental employee salaries and so on. The editorial is right -- we pay these people to work for us, and they owe us transparency, not secrecy.


Like this comment
Posted by Active Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 11, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Wow! For sure, the wrong person got fired.

Alex McIntyre seems to be the one that needs to be handed a pink slip. And perhaps Mr. McClure as well.

McIntyre wants to HIRE 9 additional employees for the planning department. He seems completely unaware that 71% of the voters in Menlo Park voted for Measure "L" because of their concern over ballooning employee costs. Completely out of touch with the residents / tax payers!

Now he shows complete incompetence in a highly charged employee dismissal. It's hard to believe he never took the time to interview the principle parties in the case. Any person who's ever been in a management position would know that's HR 101.

It's time for the City Council to act on this continuing pattern and send him back to Oregon. And the next thing they should do is hang out a job position sign for a new city manager and city council that are from the private sector. Getting up to speed is normal for any new job. But hiring hacks who have their feet in cement that support the "system" and lack the will or knowledge to challenge it is clearly not working.


Like this comment
Posted by linfieldoaks
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Apr 11, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Kudos for the great investigative journalism and shame on our elected officials. Put it all out in the open.


Like this comment
Posted by Mickey
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

If the City doesn't release the information then it would be prudent for all those who talked to the investigator to contact the Almanac and repeat their stories. Completely absurd that the City continues to hide behind "it's a personnel" matter.


Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Alex McIntyre has been sitting on the completed investigation for over a week now. So much for tranparancy. Just another example of our City Mananger wasting valuable resources and hiding the truth from the public. Shame on you, City of Menlo Park. We deserve better.


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