When Portola Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, a key theme was the town's success at maintaining its pastoral character, a hard-won achievement by volunteers working with a Town Hall staff noted for an interior harmony that complemented its relations with the community.
If that harmony was as real as it's said to have been, that fabric has been frayed by recent events and the Town Council has hired help as it tries to restitch it, maybe with more modern threads.
Kick-starting this effort was the Aug. 12 "involuntary resignation" of then town manager Nick Pegueros, who was hired in May 2012. The council had seen him as doing a "great job" until around mid-summer, Councilman Craig Hughes told the Almanac.
Council members gave Mr. Pegueros a new contract in October 2014 and a pay raise in April. In July, they began a series of closed-door sessions to evaluate his job performance.
The public may never know why Mr. Pegueros left. A full discussion is hampered by his contract, which forbids the council or staff from talking about details of his departure beyond what was agreed to in the press release that announced it -- a clause that may have been added in December, Mr. Hughes said.
Town Hall staff, already small at 13 but notable for its long-term employees, had gotten smaller. At the time the closed sessions began, Deputy Town Planner Karen Kristiansson and Recreational Facilities Coordinator Tony Macias were gone, and Administrative Services Manager Stacie Nerdahl had given notice.
At the council's Sept. 23 meeting, Councilwoman Ann Wengert said staff had "(in)adequate processes ... to be able to move forward when they felt like they didn't have direction from us, or any internal support systems they needed to address any conflicts they were having internally."
Shocks and clashes
The events surrounding Mr. Pegueros' departure were a "shock," Mr. Hughes told the Almanac. To "help smooth things out and prevent something similar from happening again," Mr. Hughes said, "and also to take care of the situation as it exists today," the council hired Leadership Balance, an executive-coaching consultant based in Eagle, Idaho.
According to Leadership Balance's contract, the town government is "taking action to address the situation and stabilize the staff situation to maintain a high level of support and services to the community. They have requested assistance to provide specific and targeted coaching and support to the interim town manager and staff, as well as working with the Town Council members to become more actively involved in oversight and accountability for the team."
The council heard from company principals Cathy Light and Bobbie LaPorte, who had interviewed council members. In a report, they outlined council members' views, but without attaching names to comments.
The interviews revealed clashes, they said. "Council seems to be not aligned in terms of how they see the vision for the town moving forward," Ms. LaPorte said. "There's definitely a difference of opinion between the five of you about how ... we maintain the 1964 consensus and keep to those values."
A balancing act
The "1964 consensus," as former mayor Steve Toben called it at a September 2014 community meeting, is taken from the general plan and creates "an overall impression of open space, natural terrain and vegetation, interrupted minimally by the works of people" while "the presence of development at night is difficult to determine." Residents should be able to see the stars and hear the sounds of nature, Mr. Toben said.
That consensus is based on the "building blocks" of quality town leadership and staff; zoning and building regulations; and "high-octane" citizen engagement, he said.
Is that template sufficient? Leadership Balance's report on council interviews included this comment: Staff like Town Hall's informal culture, but efficiency and progress are important. Maybe it's a balancing act. Maybe the town should be run "more like a business than as a family."
Councilman John Richards said he saw that comment as being contradictory to the town's past and future evolution.
The comment was "a throwback," Ms. Wengert said, to Mr. Pegueros' tenure and tension among staff over his view that Town Hall needed to be "more professional, however that's defined."
Mayor Jeff Aalfs said he saw the business-versus-family comment as "the heart" of the issue. "We've sort of run (Town Hall in a way) that feels like family," he said, "but the work load here has gotten more complicated."
Staff does face new demands, Mr. Hughes said. "We are going to have to modernize" to give residents easier access to town records, but without significant effects on staff routines, he said.
Councilwoman Maryann Moise Derwin said she didn't sense much of a problem between staff and the community, and that a familial tone and professionalism are not mutually exclusive.
Leadership Balance will be coaching Interim Town Manager Debbie Pedro while the council searches for a new manager, a process expected to take three months. The company will assist the council on matters such as developing a "format" by which council members can communicate with staff, according to the contract.