Ethical behavior on the part of government officials in California is a matter of law. State regulations address conflicts of interest, gifts and honoraria, campaign contributions and more.
For some communities, Portola Valley and Menlo Park being two, those laws – along with periodic ethics training required for public officials – are enough. Atherton has a code of conduct that dates from 2014. Woodside has had its own ethics code since 1994.
Woodside's code, after being in an unfavorable news spotlight in 2016 and early 2017, is now in transition. An ad hoc committee of 12 volunteers, all residents, met Jan. 18 with a facilitator for the first of three workshops to consider revising or replacing the current code. The group next meets at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15, in the Wildcats Room at Woodside Elementary School at 3195 Woodside Road.
The first meeting "was very informative and a good beginning to the discussion," committee member George Offen told the Almanac.
Hana Callaghan, director of government ethics for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, facilitated the meeting. She organized the group's work around recommending to the Town Council one of three types of ethics code: rule-based with enforcement procedures, aspirational, or a hybrid of these two.
Committee members have been assigned study materials about the ethical duties of public officials. In a Feb. 5 email to committee members obtained by the Almanac, Ms. Callaghan outlines her plans for the Feb. 15 meeting: adding detail to the discussion of conflict of interest laws and the state's recusal policy, followed by more discussion, debate and a vote by committee members.
If the committee votes to repeal the code and not replace it, or votes to leave it as is, "our task is complete," Ms. Callaghan says. Otherwise, the committee will discuss changes to the code so she can prepare a draft for a third meeting, she says.
A third meeting would include more debate and recommendations. If the group reaches consensus, a completed draft code would go to the council. If not, the committee would vote on "general recommendations (to the council) for a new ethics policy," she says.
Roots of change
Woodside's current rules-based code requires an investigation when a town official is accused of an ethics violation. Former mayor Dave Burow triggered such an investigation in May 2016 by accusing Nancy Reyering, a member of the Architectural and Site Review Board, of ethics violations.
Central to Mr. Burow's complaint was Ms. Reyering's emailed comment to some fellow board members and the planning director that an applicant with a residential project up for review by the board should refrain from the common practice of asking for exceptions to regulations and design guidelines. Why? Because questions would arise from the fact that his architect was Peter Mason, a member of the council and a participant in forming those regulations and guidelines.
When Town Attorney Jean Savaree formalized Mr. Burow's complaint, a months-long investigation ensued by an outside attorney at a cost to the town of at least $33,384. That attorney recommended sustaining five of nine allegations against Ms. Reyering: unequal treatment of Mr. Mason, personally attacking him, reaching a conclusion about a project before hearing testimony and before holding a public meeting, and failing to maintain "a positive and constructive working environment," as the code requires.
The code also requires a hearing before the council to determine whether violations had occurred.
Ms. Reyering allowed her term on the board to expire in February 2017 and did not apply for reappointment. The council, in lieu of making a determination about violations, voted 4-0 to follow a recommendation by Mayor Tom Livermore to take "no further action."
Ms. Reyering's attorneys then prepared a federal lawsuit naming as defendants the town, Mayor Livermore and his predecessor, claiming violations of Ms. Reyering's constitutional rights to free speech.
The town settled with Ms. Reyering in November 2017, paying her $35,000 to cover legal fees. That sum added to the costs of the investigation brings the cost to the town to address the matter to at least $68,384. Included in the settlement was a stipulation that a committee of residents engage with the Markkula Center to analyze the ethics code and make recommendations to the council.
Asked whether the new code should address the matter of one Woodside public official openly questioning the actions of another, Mr. Offen said the code "should deal with that in some fashion or the other. I personally would not want to disallow something like that. That's a freedom of speech issue, I think."