Atherton: Reinstate town committee, attorney recommends | April 4, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - April 4, 2012

Atherton: Reinstate town committee, attorney recommends

by Renee Batti

The town's advisory Environmental Programs Committee should be reinstated now that an investigation of some of its practices has concluded, but measures must be put in place to avoid the kinds of problems that led to its suspension in December, Atherton's city attorney has recommended.

"There is no indication that the EPC acted intentionally or with any malicious disregard for process and procedures in carrying out its specified duties and tasks," City Attorney Bill Conners wrote in his report.

But problems? Oh yes, there have been problems, according to the investigation conducted by Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Larson. And Interim City Manager Theresa DellaSanta has already been working on new policies and procedures involving how money is spent and accounted for, and how the town can best provide direction to its many volunteer committees, and oversight of their actions.

The investigation was ordered by the City Council in December after an opinion piece by EPC member Valerie Gardner questioning the environmental soundness of building a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park was posted on the committee's website — a challenge of sorts to the council's support of the park as the "preferred site" of the planned library.

Also, questions were raised about how funds were spent by the committee, including the process by which spending was being approved by the town.

In his March 19 report to the council, Mr. Conners concluded that the website posting of Ms. Gardner's opinion piece was a violation of a town resolution that spells out basic rules for committees and commissions to follow.

The resolution prohibits a member of such a body from "speaking on behalf of the Town, City Council, and/or committee or commission without prior approval of the City Council." Also prohibited is public advocacy, in the capacity of a committee member, of any particular position that runs contrary to council policy, the report says.

Mr. Conners recommends that policies governing committee actions and website postings be clarified with staff so that committee members won't be able to "post materials to these sites without clear authority and approval."

Reviewing the financial issues surrounding the EPC proved more complicated, and Ms. Larson's Feb. 8 report on her investigation cited a lack of oversight by town staff and the City Council, which during a five-year period allocated nearly $104,000 to the committee for its programs.

"(W)hile the Council received a proposed budget with a certain amount of detail from the EPC and then approved the annual EPC budget ... the Council never had any formal conversations with the EPC about their budget projections," Ms. Larson wrote in her report.

Checks were often authorized by the staff person assigned to the committee and other staff members, and committee members who spent their own money on EPC projects were reimbursed through the finance department, the report says.

Among spending irregularities that violated the town's laws: The mandated competitive bidding process for goods and services over $750 wasn't followed, and "it appears that the City Managers and Finance Directors over time signed off and allowed this inappropriate process to continue" until then-finance director Lousie Ho intervened, Mr. Conners report says.

Early last year, Ms. Gardner asked Deputy City Clerk Theresa DellaSanta (now the town's interim city manager) for a copy of the town's purchasing policy, including information about bidding for services, after speaking with Ms. Ho.

In researching the policy and speaking with Ms. Ho and Ms. DellaSanta, Ms. Gardner realized that spending practices by the EPC up to that time sometimes violated the town's policy. "(I)t appears that after that point in time there was an attempt at compliance moving forward," according to Mr. Conners' report.

"It is quite probable that the primary reason for this noncompliance with appropriate procedures stemmed from a lack of understanding on the part of the Town staff member assisting this committee, and there is no evidence that this breakdown was in any way malicious or in any way an attempt to circumvent the correct process," he wrote.

At the March council meeting, Interim City Manager DellaSanta recommended that the EPC be reinstated, that the terms of all committee and commission members be extended to June 30, and that the council review and approve new rules and procedures for the volunteer bodies, developed by Ms. DellaSanta and staff members.

The proposed rules include the mandatory assignment of a trained staff member to all volunteer committees and commissions.

The investigation report and Mr. Conners' subsequent report were labeled confidential, and the council voted that night to make them public, and allow some time after their release before reviewing and approving the proposed rule changes.

The council also directed the interim manager to set up a workshop, preferably on a Saturday, during which the council would review the proposed rule changes with committee members and the public.