News

Theater supporters push for summer plans

'Friends' leaders call for better treatment of three suspended theatre staff members

A handful of Children's Theatre supporters addressed the council, calling for improved treatment of the three staff members now on administrative leave and the continuation of theater programs through the summer.

"I am heartsick at this turn of events. This is tearing our community apart," theater supporter Barbara Slone said. After acting in the theater as a child, her son even chose to be married on the stage, she said.

The City Council can't interfere in an investigation, but why does the city manager have to approve the police department's formal statements, asked Bryna Rifkind. She grew teary when she mentioned Assistant Director Michael Litfin, who died a week after being placed on administrative leave Jan. 24.

"The staff must be allowed to go back to work for the sake of the kids," Rifkind said. "Please do not let this continue."

Chairwoman Paula Collins of the nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre said the Friends are concerned about the future of the theater's programs.

"We also want you to know the Friends are here to help the staff in any way we can," she said.

Councilman Pat Burt requested city staff to provide a report on the theater's summer planning.

City Manager Frank Benest said he would provide a report to the council March 17.

Comments

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2008 at 3:19 pm

The big picture here is letting the police get on with their inquiries. There are many other summer programs that the kids can do, one summer without their theatre won't hurt them in the big picture. Let them do something else, perhaps find an interest that they have never pursued, rather than always doing the same old same old. Variety is the spice of life. Don't say no to new opportunities.

I would rather the investigation be completed and then we all know who is at fault, before any plans are made for this summer or the future.


Posted by Shelly, a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 12, 2008 at 3:45 am

Parent,

I share your opinion that this investigation be completed. However, the investigation been going on since June, 2007. This is a fishing expedition.

The Children's Theatre is not some random kids program. It's a nationally recognized treasure with a unique history. Pat and Michael have built a community and raised our children. I don't believe in throwing out community.


Posted by mad as hell, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 12, 2008 at 8:10 am

Perhaps the Police chef and city attorney and city Manager should be the ones investigated. If they pulled the theatre stsaf for a political goal it is time for them to be removed and investigated.


Posted by Perp walk, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 8:30 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Shelly, a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 12, 2008 at 10:50 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 11:16 am

The zeal (a perfectly good word, look it up in the dictionary) and enthusiasm of the theatre people is truly inspirational.

However, as a parent I again ask Shelly and others why she cannot be patient and allow the investigation to run its course. If she is so anxious to allow a couple of city employees raise her children (her seeming concern) and not find other worthwhile pursuits for her kids during the summer, I wonder at her parenting abilities. It is good for kids to have variety and this just may be a good opportunity for them (if not for you) to widen their horizons and see some of the other wondrous activities being lead by other dedicated and inspiring individuals. Some of these people actually do this voluntarily without being paid and are as dedicated as any you could find being paid $100k for the privilege.


Posted by Shelly, a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 12, 2008 at 11:31 am

Parent,

Children's Theatre is a nationally recognized treasure with a 75 year history. I suggest you "widen your horizons" and research the records of the Palo Alto Historical Association before you attack others.

While you're reading, check the "terms of use". Your reliance on personal attack reveals the weakness of your argument.




Posted by Take It Private, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 12:19 pm

> the destruction of what is a national treasure.

You have to be joking!

If this entity were private, then all of this public scrutiny would have been avoided for any number of reasons.

There simply is no place for a children's theater expense line on city government's list of expenditures.


Posted by UtilitiesScandal, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 12, 2008 at 12:50 pm

Supporters of the Children's Theater employees should recall what Benest did during the Utilities Department scandal investigation.

Benest forced John Ulrich and Scott Bradshaw to resign their positions as the Director and Assistant Director of Palo Alto's Utilities Department by conducting two linked investigations -- a personnel investigation and a criminal investigation.

Ulrich and Bradshaw are threatened with disciplinary action, including loss of retirement benefits, if they didn't resign.

The investigation originally was about lax supervision of employees working in Menlo Park, but expanded to charges of employee intimidation, and a fishing expedition into Ulrich's annual Statement of Economic Interests where he had neglected to divest and disclose some of his P.G.&E. stock.

While the Children's Theater employees are attempting to defend themselves from unknown criminal charges, Benest may be preparing to threaten them with disciplinary charges if they don't resign, which would allow him to cut stafffing for the theater in his final annual budget proposal.


Posted by perp walk=take it private, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 12, 2008 at 12:58 pm

[Comment removed by Palo Alto Online staff].


Posted by Re: perp walk and Re: take it private, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:02 pm

Perp walk - you place the burden of proving innocence on the "CT zealots", as you describe them. However, the legal system in the United States places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the defendant. Perhaps this is the approach we should employ here. Do you have any proof that there was any malfeasance on the part of CT staff? Moreover, you demand for proof is an impossible feat, you cannot prove the existence of a negative. It is sheer lunacy to ask for something to irrefutable prove the existence of absence, all that can be proven in this case would be fault, which, so far as I can tell, neither you nor the PAPD have been able to do.
I believe that the investigation should run its course, that in the end, no wrongdoing will be found, and there will be no ultimate convictions, even if charges are filed. However, asking for three people who dedicate huge amounts of time to benefitting young people's lives to be allowed to continue that work in a manner that keeps them removed from any and all financial aspects of the theatre is, in my opinion, not an unreasonable request if their work can be structured in a manner that allows it and does not impede the investigation.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

take it private - I've responded to your posts before, but I am curious that you find no place for a program that has developed and continues to develop the minds of young people throughout the Bay Area. This public theatre serves PA schools through their outreach program, which produces plays at schools throughout the city, in addition to providing a strong community and welcoming setting for children to grow and interact. Perhaps we should also strip funding for the arts and music in schools, because heaven forbid this generation have well-rounded developed minds.
Should you counter that you only specified that a "Children's" theatre has no place on a city's budget, I would ask why a theatre serving adults would be any more deserving of public funding than a theatre serving children? In addition, the vast majority of local arts organizations are non-profits, you pay for them with tax money regardless of whether they are run by the city or a private corporation receiving heavy support from the government. Thus, one could likely deduce that should the theatre ever be taken private, and its core mission remain unchanged, it would receive a large amount of public funding, but you, the taxpayer (I assume), would have essentially no say in how the business was run. Keeping the theatre public means that you actually have greater control and accountability for your tax dollars.


Posted by Perp walk, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:15 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Re: perp walk, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:35 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
I am free to deny something occurred until someone can prove that it did, the reverse however is not a tenable argument. You cannot simply say "This happened, prove it didn't". It's an impossible feat in human logic.

As far as knowing the staff, and knowing what items were taken, in my opinion, the staff in question simply don't have the physical strength or dexterity to have lifted many of the objects that were taken. I doubt their connection to the robbery both on a personal level, knowing the staff, and knowing their physical limitations. Big, heavy and awkwardly bulky items were taken, I simply can't picture the staff pulling off a heist of this proportions.
Finally, I wanted to address the notion the the staff are glory seeking people being overpaid to do easy work and ripping off the taxpayers (I know you didn't say this, but it's popped up in other threads). During the summer, the busiest time for the theatre, the staff arrives at 8:45am and often doesn't leave until past midnight M-F, Saturdays and Sundays they often work as well in the morning and are definitely there at night for many hours to oversee the Young Adult Wingspread Company rehearsals. The staff is hugely dedicated and puts in vast amounts of time, much of which they don't get paid for (people simply don't get paid for 6-7 overtime hours everyday for 10 weeks even if they work that). I would hope that all people refrain from attack the character of any people involved, CT staff, police, city managers and attorneys until all the facts are known and in the public domain.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Well, the police have enough evidence to necessitate a major investigation.


Posted by re: anonymous, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:50 pm

An investigation is no more proof of wrongdoing than a single pimple is proof of acne. It's a sign that there may be a large problem, but it proves nothing. The investigation is an attempt to gain evidence of something that, as of yet, cannot be proven. If it were, charges would have been filed, and perp walk would have gotten the arrests he so badly wants. Until that point, it's merely unsubstantiated, unproven allegations made against four people who have been pillars of the community.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Being overworked during the summer months is not an excuse for bad money management. Someone must/should have had the responsibility of being accountable for money in and money out. If travellers cheques (money) were not used for the purpose designated, then leaving them to get lost on a desk is not good money management. Books must balance. That money should have been returned to the City, returned to the Bank, or whatever. It did not belong to the person whose name was on the cheque and if they thought it was their's because their name was on it, then they are in the wrong. These were theatre funds and leaving them to get lost on a desk is misappropriation of city assets.

Now I am not saying that this is the sum of any crime, but bad money management deserves a reprimand of some kind. If the theatre staff could manage to put in 6 - 7 hours per day overtime looking after kids and helping them put on their shows, then they should have also been able to find time to put their books in order. If at the end of the month, any month, books didn't balance then questions should have been asked.

So whose money was the travellers cheques? It sounds as if this was yours and mine as Palo Alto taxpayers. The accounts for this theatre should be published annually and any discrepancies explained satisfactorily.

I am not surprised auditors were called in - any business would expect the same.


Posted by re: Parent, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 3:02 pm

The travelers cheques were from money given by parents of children in theatre programs to cover the cost of theatre trips to Oregon, Georgia and other places. This money were given by individuals specifically to the theatre to cover the cost of those trips, and did not come out of the general revenue fund. Moreover, that they were still there shows that, while perhaps Ms. Briggs was not the best accountant, she had not attempted to use them for her own personal gain. Misplacement and mistakes are a whole world away from embezzlement, fraud and other intentional, malevolent forms of financial malfeasance. Though, I would agree that if there was large scale disregard for standards, there should be some form of reprimand, a letter, a good-talking to, perhaps a time-out, and then some lessons on better handling practices and records keeping. However, there is no evidence that the books in the front office did not balance. So far, investigators have focused on surplus costume sales, the burglary and, no joke... hot dogs. Please forgive me if I wait to pass judgement until the all the facts have come to light. Though at this moment, I haven't seen anything that looks particularly bad about what happened at the theatre, and I'm pretty well informed.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2008 at 3:22 pm

And that explanation is meant to make things sound better. Far from that, it sounds worse. It sounds like money that should have been returned to parents.

Bad money management is bad money management, regardless of whether it belonged to the City or the parents. The parents paid in good faith expecting that money to be used for the field trip and any balance returned or reported back to ask for what to do with it. Just letting it lie on a desk is dishonest at the very least.


Posted by re: Parent, a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2008 at 3:50 pm

I just re-read my post and it was more vague than I had thought. The word specifically mean that it was given directly to the theatre, emphasizing that tax dollars were not involved. Secondly, while the money was given to the theatre in order to cover expenses for the trip, there was never an expectation that any would be returned to parents, if you haven't noticed, no parent from these trips is outraged by the fact that they didn't get a partial refund. The only crime is that it wasn't put to use supporting other programs, it was never used for personal gain by any theatre staff. "Just letting it lie on a desk is dishonest at the very least", please... Careless? Maybe. An untapped resource? Yes. Dishonest? I think not.


Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus
on Mar 12, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Regarding the reference to the Utilities Department scandal, having been deeply involved in the reporting of that situation I would like to correct the comment relating to Director John Ulrich and Assistant Director Scott Bradshaw.
While there is no debate that Ulrich was forced into retirement, there has been no evidence except circumstantial that Bradshaw was similarly forced out. The circumstantial evidence is simply that he resigned at an inopportune moment that made it appear he was one of those being terminated or forced to resign on threat of termination, a kind of guilt by poor timing and association.
We ultimately tracked Bradshaw down and in a lengthy discussion confirmed information we had from other, independent sources that he left for his own reasons -- in part relating to the stresses of the job durng a difficult time and procedures within the city that prevented timely disciplining of employees for violations of city rules or their on-the-job behavior.
As it was the Weekly's lawsuit that resulted in information about the utilities situation becoming public, we would certainly have no hesitation about reporting that Bradshaw was among those forced out. But that just doesn't seem to be the case from all we have been able to determine.


Posted by UtilitiesScandal, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 14, 2008 at 11:40 am

Editor Jay Thorwaldson,

Thank you for updating and clarifying the record about Scott Bradshaw's resignation that was discussed in a Palo Alto Weekly news story of July 5, 2006, and a Diana Diamond column of July 12, 2006, following a court order to release documents the city wanted to keep secret.

News Story: Documents point to forced utility resignations, July 5, 2006, Web Link

"Newly released court documents reveal that Palo Alto City Manager Frank Benest warned former Utility Director John Ulrich shortly before his resignation last year that disciplinary actions were possible due to his "managerial failure to adequately anticipate and avoid the employee misconduct and managerial deficiencies" in the department.

Benest described his actions in a sworn statement filed under seal with the court in a lawsuit brought by the Palo Alto Weekly. The suit seeks to release reports prepared by investigators who looked into a utility department scandal that resulted in at least 19 employees being terminated or disciplined.

Benest's declaration, along with similar sealed sworn statements of Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and City Attorney Gary Baum, were released last week by Superior Court Judge Kevin McKenney at the request of Judy Alexander, the Weekly's attorney.

Harrison's declaration revealed she had similarly warned former Assistant Director of Utilities Scott Bradshaw of possible disciplinary actions prior to his resignation in August, 2005.

The declarations also state that no formal "notice of intended discipline" nor "final disciplinary document" were prepared or placed in Ulrich's or Bradshaw's personnel files.

City officials never publicly acknowledged that the two top utility managers resigned while facing possible discipline."

Diana Diamond column, July 12, 2006: Web Link

"Last week we learned from some of the court documents that Utilities Director John Ulrich, one of the highest paid officials in the city, and his assistant, Scott Bradshaw, faced possible disciplinary action "for managerial and supervisory deficiencies" in their handling of the Utilities Department. They were not disciplined. Bradshaw resigned instead, and Ulrich was allowed to retire, with benefits."

When there is secrecy about alleged improper activity in city government, whether it's in the Utilities Department or the Children's Theater, there is sometimes a tendency to assume what is published in the press is the truth, because of the silence of government officials.

The actions of the City Manager's office in the Utilities Department scandal that could have led to criminal charges may indicate a preferred method of action for the Children's Theater investigation where Benest and Harrision could use the threat of disciplinary action to force resignations without there being criminal charges and without any formal "notice of intended discipline" or "final disciplinary document" prepared or placed in anyone's personnel files, and then three years later reading in the Weekly that anyone who resigned did so for their own reasons.


Posted by Still Confused Bystander, a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 15, 2008 at 6:45 pm

I confess that I did not start reading this square until the Theater shut down occurred. Could someone please explain for us neophytes what really goes on in Palo Alto politics? For such a small sized community there appears to be more intrigue than the court of Louis the fifteenth. Why are people bringing up the utility scandal? Do you vets think that is what happening here? From an outstander's viewpoint, it is still difficult to understand why a burglary that occured in June should cause the the theater to be SHUT DOWN in January, unless someone above does not care for the existence of the theater. Also, once the city manager discovered that travelers checks were floating around after the burglary in June or August why wait months to look into it? Seems like he could have instituted some travel plans policies or reimbursement procedures for per diem expenditures years ago.


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