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The Secret Culture of our Atherton Town government

Original post made by peter carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood, on Sep 20, 2010

The following was presented to the Atherton Town Council and Town Manager at their meeting this morning:

20 September 2010
Atherton Town Council and Town Manager,
Ladies and gentlemen - you were elected and appointed to serve the citizens of Atherton. Unfortunately, you have created and are fostering a culture of secrecy that essentially denies those citizens the opportunity to fully participate in THEIR government. You have slipped into this culture of secrecy not by a single deliberate act but rather by a series of minor omissions and the choice of small conveniences. And part of the problem is that even now some or all of you find my assertion to be baseless – how could you possibly have a culture of secrecy?

Let me give you some examples of your culture of secrecy. You are discussing issues of importance behind closed doors and without even telling the citizens what you are discussing. The agenda for your closed session of 15 September included an item: “CONFERENCE WITH LEGAL COUNSEL – INITIATION OF LITIGATION (Subsection (c) of Government Code Section 54956.9)” - who in the world would know that under cover of this description and acting in secret and without any public input the Council would forever waive the Town’s right to challenge the Sequoia Union High School District’s self-serving declaration that the school district was exempt from Atherton’s ordinances? And under the guise of closed sessions on the Buckheit lawsuit you are discussing in those closed sessions malfeasance in the police department - an issue of vital importance to the community. You are issuing meeting agendas which hide the topics which you will be discussing by using so called safe harbor descriptions that may fulfill the minimum requirements of the law but which fall far short of your duty to encourage citizen participation. The initial agenda for today’s meeting gave the following description “CONSIDERATION OF LITIGATION OPTIONS REGARDING RECERTIFICATION OF PROGRAM EIR” – how in the world would a citizen know that the subject of today’s meeting was the Town’s litigation on High Speed Rail? You are not disclosing the potential exposure of the Town regarding litigation that you are discussing in closed sessions. You are resisting requests for copies of public records. None of you as our elected representative can, acting alone, put an item on the council agenda. The only way that citizens can get an item on “your” agenda is for 100 citizens to file a petition for a special meeting – a standard so high that it has never been met. Citizens who come to the Town office for information or services are video taped without their knowledge or consent. You use “your” lawyer, who serves at your pleasure, to rule on conflict of interest issues rather than seeking the free and arms length advice of the Fair Political Practices Commission.

This culture of secrecy did not fall from the sky - it is one which each of you have either encouraged or tolerated. And I believe that you are also allowing yourselves to be directed by “your” lawyer and not by your own conscience or your oath of office or by the trust of the citizens whom you serve.

You need to replace this culture of secrecy with a culture of openness.

What do I mean by a culture of openness? Put no items on a closed session agenda unless it is not only legally permissible but also absolutely essential to discuss that specific item in secret. Take no action on items in a closed session without first giving the citizens whom you serve the opportunity to comment on that specific issue. Ensure that every agenda topic is described in sufficient detail to permit the citizens whom you serve to decide if they wish to participate in your deliberations. The law clearly states: “California Code section 54953.7. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, legislative bodies of local agencies may impose requirements upon themselves which allow greater access to their meetings than prescribed by the minimal standards set forth in this chapter.” Respond promptly to public records requests. Remove the video taping equipment in the Town offices. Establish a simple mechanism for citizens to petition their Town government. Don’t use ”your” lawyer to make judgments on your conflict of interest questions but rather seek a publically issued, arms length opinion from the Fair Political Practices Commission. Under Government Code Section 83114(b) and Commission regulations, any individual may request formal written advice from the Commission staff concerning their duties under the Political Reform Act. Remind “your” lawyer that she should be representing all of the citizens, not just the narrow interests of the Council. Involve citizens in the selection of THEIR new Town Attorney. Reread the Brown Act until you fully understand why it was enacted and what it means.

But most important, you need to create a culture that presumes the citizens of Atherton have a right to know rather than a culture that presumes that you know what is best for the citizens of Atherton to be told.

Unless each of you is prepared to replace this culture of secrecy with a culture of openness which puts the rights of citizens FIRST then you should resign from the position of trust which you hold - because you will no longer deserve our trust.

Peter Carpenter

Comments (11)

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Posted by Tired of this $*&!$
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Sep 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

Peter Carpenter, we're tired of your constant complaining and self indulgent hero making. You're supposed to be head of the ACIL, not in league with Buckheit and Johns. You're a huge disappointment to every Atherton resident since you're working to undermine this government along with these two highly disgruntled individuals who have filed lawsuits against this town. Shame on you.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 20, 2010 at 10:28 am

Tired of this $*&!$, - thanks for your input and your courageous anonymity.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2010 at 10:35 am


Keep up the Good and Honest work.......I know you will

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 20, 2010 at 11:26 am

Good job Peter.

Tired of this $*&!$ - Sounds like something Elizabeth Lewis might say. You need to wake up to the reality of what your town has become.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Jerry Gruber City Manager of Atherton YouTube video is just one recent example of what Mr. Peter Carpenter is talking about.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by John P Johns
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm

The City Council violated the Brown act when it met in closed session to conceal its illegal involvement in my personnel investigation and termination.

The City Council settled with me because it did not want to risk criminal prosecution as a result of further discovery in my civil case.

In other words, violating the Brown Act is business as usual in Atherton.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Copy of e-mail between myself and DDA Steve Wagstaffe. I asked how many Brown Act Violations were prosecuted in San Mateo County during last 10 years.

The answer is NONE.

Flag this message
Re: Brown Act prosecutions in San Mateo CountyTuesday, July 13, 2010 2:01 PM
From: "Steve Wagstaffe" <>View contact details
To: "Stogner, Michael" <>
Good afternoon Michael,

It is my belief that we have investigated and reviewed dozens of such cases over the years but no filing of criminal charges has occurred. There have been numerous instances in which we have requested remediation of the public agency action as permitted under the law (start over and proceed appropriately through a public hearing), but I do not believe any actual criminal action has been filed. I will check with our Brown Act expert deputy DA and James Fox to verify it, but I believe this to be the case.


>>> "Michael Stogner" <> 7/12/2010 11:53 AM >>>
Hi Steve,

This is a post by Peter Carpenter of Atherton from the Atherton Almanac today.

Web Link

I am requesting the number of Brown Act violation cases the DA's Office has prosecuted in the last 10 years.

Thank You

Michael Stogner

Like this comment
Posted by Curiosity
a resident of another community
on Sep 21, 2010 at 8:13 pm

How many prosecutions have there been in California for Brown Act violations?

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Posted by Curiosity
a resident of another community
on Sep 21, 2010 at 8:17 pm

The answer ...

History shows the Brown Act is a Paper Tiger

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 21, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Chris Prevatt wrote

"In the more than 53 years since the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, was enacted there has never been a successful criminal prosecution for violation of the law. In fact, criminal charges have been alleged five times with only one of those going to trial resulting in a hung jury."

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Sep 22, 2010 at 9:08 am

Peter Carpenter's intent is not to be courageous.
He is the most reliable source of information without any motives other than to live by the law; even if the Brown Act was written at a time when it inspired people how to get around it, and are still treating it as something meant to be violated.
Carpenter still remains the most honest person and is unflappable, which annoys those who thrive on trying to shake him up.
Even if the 'laws are meant to be broken' thinkers multiply faster than any religion,it is necessary to have a Peter Carpenter to remind those who rally in groups as a means of protest...ethics be damned.
Thanks, P.C.

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