Four of five Menlo council members skipped ethics training | January 5, 2011 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - January 5, 2011

Four of five Menlo council members skipped ethics training

by Sandy Brundage

Of the five Menlo Park City Council members who served from 2006 to 2010, only one obeyed state law by attending an ethics training session every two years, according to the city's records.

California passed the relevant law, AB 1234, in 2005. It orders all elected officials who are paid by the public agency they represent to take at least two hours of certified ethics training every two years, and provide proof of participation.

Other local newspapers have correctly reported that Kelly Fergusson has taken only one certified ethics course, in 2006, since first taking office. However, city records show that former council members John Boyle and Heyward Robinson, who took their courses in 2007, also failed to take it again when required, in 2009. And Councilman Andy Cohen was more than a year late in taking his.

"It's my fault for not making sure I was up to date on the training," Mr. Robinson said.

He attributed the lapse to a last-minute schedule conflict with a training session held by the League of California Cities. "I asked (the city clerk) if I could take it online. She said that I could, and would send me the links, but I don't think I ever received it. After that, I forgot about it until now."

Neither Ms. Fergusson nor Mr. Boyle could be reached for comment before The Almanac's press time.

Councilman Andy Cohen, who was serving as mayor in 2008 when his second ethics session came due, finally attended another class in September 2009 — nearly three-and-a-half years after taking his first course.

"Upon being reminded by the clerk that I was past deadline I took the next opportunity to fulfill the requirement," Mr. Cohen told The Almanac.

That leaves Rich Cline as the only council member who followed the law. He attended sessions in November 2007 and September 2009, according to the city's records.

"I really don't think this is a reflection of the importance of AB1234 more than it is a reflection of how fast certain training can get away from you," Mr. Cline said.

The newest council members, Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki, have one year to complete a session. Mr. Ohtaki told the city he'd already finished a course in June as part of his service on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board.

City Attorney Bill McClure said the city clerk reminds each council member of the requirements, and also provides a list of upcoming training sessions. Now that the courses are available online, he said, the city will be more diligent in following up and encouraging compliance, but it's ultimately up to the individual council member.

Council members apparently don't need to worry about legal punishment for skipping the sessions. Mr. McClure said there are no stated sanctions for failing to follow the law in a timely manner.

"I don't see the need for a punitive approach to this — more, we just need to do a better job reminding council members," Mayor Cline said, adding that part of the solution may be to better integrate the training into the council process. "Perhaps putting it down on the biography on the web, ethics training requirement: up to date."

The initial source of turmoil, Ms. Fergusson, admitted that she violated the Brown Act by holding one-on-one discussions with at least two other council members about her desire to be elected mayor in early December. The admission came after the public and press raised questions, and the city attorney conducted his own investigation of the matter.

The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office is reviewing the Brown Act violation to determine whether criminal charges are needed. "But there's nothing in the penal code for ethics training requirements," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

That raises the question: Why have a state law without teeth?

"It's a fundamental principle of the criminal justice system," Mr. Wagstaffe agreed. "For every act, there must be a consequence. If there's no consequence, why would anyone fear committing the act?"


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