By its own admission, the town of Woodside has spent nearly $27,500 on an ethics-related investigation of one of its longtime volunteers, Nancy Reyering, an expenditure that Woodside residents might hope would result in something beneficial. What they got instead are troublesome unanswered questions, not the least of which is whether the investigation was warranted or merely a witch hunt.
On Feb. 14, the Town Council voted to drop the matter without making a determination as to whether the formal complaint by former council member Dave Burow had merit because Ms. Reyering had in fact violated the code of ethics. It is a decision that is disappointing and that also appears to run afoul of the very code of ethics Ms. Reyering was accused of violating.
Mr. Burow has been a critic of the town's Architectural and Site Review Board (ASRB), which Ms. Reyering served on until her term ended this month. His complaint launched an investigation by a private law firm into various charges centered on an email Ms. Reyering sent last May addressing a project coming before the ASRB -- a project whose architect was Town Councilman Peter Mason.
In the complaint, Mr. Burow accused Ms. Reyering of a series of ethics code violations, some of which the private investigator recommended that the council sustain, others of which he rejected. Among the charges were that Ms. Reyering asserted that the ASRB should apply unequal treatment to council members when they are acting in their individual capacity, that she had reached a conclusion about the project before hearing testimony, and that she suggested that Councilman Mason was using his position to gain special consideration for his client.
The attorney who investigated the complaint issued a lengthy report recommending that five of the nine charges be sustained by the council.
In launching the investigation, the town followed the protocol mandated by its code of ethics, but in dropping the matter last week, the council ignored an important final step of that mandated protocol, which states: "The report shall be presented to the Town Council at a public meeting of the Council. The Town Council will accept testimony on the matter and determine whether a violation of the Code has occurred."
Before the Feb. 14 council meeting, Mayor Tom Livermore issued a strong recommendation that the council formally close the case and take no action on the complaint. The four council members present voted to drop the matter with no determination on the merits of Mr. Burow's charges.
Conducting a hearing and determining whether the ethics code has been violated is required by the code, and the town and mayor have offered no credible explanation as to why the council should be exempt from the provision. Seeing the process to the mandated conclusion would have served the public interest in that it would have offered guidance to other town volunteers and the community at large by answering the question: Was Ms. Reyering's email a violation of the ethics code?
In not addressing that question, the council has opened itself up to charges that the goal of the complaint and investigation was to get rid of Ms. Reyering -- meaning the process was a publicly funded $27,500 charade.
It also has given town volunteers and the public a mixed message: Some will argue that because the outside attorney supported some of the charges, the email violated the code; others will assert that because the council didn't complete the required process by making a determination, no violation occurred.
Another troubling aspect of this affair is that the town is withholding legal billing documents that should be available to the public. Town Attorney Jean Saveree insists that the already disclosed sum of $27,465 is the final amount the town spent on the Reyering investigation. But when the Almanac asked for the documentation that would allow us to independently verify that claim, she rejected the request on the grounds of "attorney-client privilege."
This is a specious claim. Attorney-client privilege can be applied when disclosure of documents could reveal a litigation strategy during an active legal case, according to Nikki Moore, an attorney and public records expert with the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Not only did this case not involve litigation, but the investigation that was conducted and billed for has been concluded. There is no legal strategy to be protected by not disclosing the documents.
In withholding these public documents, the town leaves still another question about this matter unanswered -- the cost to the public. And the more unanswered questions surrounding the case, the more the public should question whose interests were being served by this costly investigation.