In an unconventional and controversial move, the Palo Alto City Council broke its silence on the Children's Theatre investigation Monday, asking dozens of questions and agreeing to hold a more complete discussion — and potentially call for an outside audit — at a later meeting.
At the recommendations of council members Pat Burt and Yoriko Kishimoto, the council voted 8-0 (with John Barton declining to participate and leaving the meeting) to consider requesting reviews by the contracted police auditor and the in-house auditor of the city's handling of the investigations.
"I think we need to have a long discussion," Councilman Jack Morton said.
"It's been a long, sad 11 months. … I think the healing is not going to be easy."
Morton, who is also the accountant for the non-profit Friends of the Children's Theatre, has been fairly outspoken about the case, but the other council members have kept their views largely private, heeding advice they were not allowed to interfere with a criminal investigation.
But Monday, four days after the conclusion of the criminal investigation was announced, Mayor Larry Klein orchestrated an agenda switch that moved the "Council Comments" section of the meeting from its customary spot at the end, usually well past 11 p.m., to the beginning.
"The council has sat quietly by for the past four months. We were told we could not interfere in any way," Klein said.
"But the investigation is over and I know that many members of the council wish to speak and I think that members of the community wish they could hear from us," he said. Klein served as the attorney for the administration of the late theater Assistant Director Michael Litfin's estate.
The move broached sensitive legal and ethical ground. State law forbids the council from discussing issues not included on a published agenda 72 hours in advance. And the investigation focused on three city employees, whose privacy is protected.
Council members usually relate information about conferences they attended or other boards they serve on during the "Council Comments" section.
City Attorney Gary Baum reluctantly approved the discussion, emphasizing council members should not violate the Brown Act, which forbids discussion on non-agendized items, or trespass beyond their roles as policymakers, not managers.
The council approved the switch on a 7-2 vote, with council members Sid Espinosa and John Barton voting no.
Barton was so inflamed by the decision he announced he would leave the room during Council Comments.
"I'm just so ethically concerned about what this body is going to do," Barton said, noting it is the first time he has not participated in an issue when he could have in his decade of elected service.
"This is a very sensitive topic and I don't think this is the way to go about it," Espinosa said. "We need to agendize it."
An interlude of public comment was dominated by 14 theater supporters who called for the city to drop its plans to fire theater Director Pat Briggs and Program Assistant Richard Curtis. They reiterated support for the theater staff as they have repeatedly since the theater's Jan. 24 closure, when four staff members were placed on paid administrative leave. Litfin, one of the four, died a week later.
Each council member took a different approach to the restricted discussion.
Morton and Klein asked questions.
"If we can answer some of these questions, then maybe we can begin to heal," Morton said.
He asked about costume sales, the link between the June burglary and the personnel investigation, the duration of the criminal investigation, the decision to restrict who the three staff members could talk with and other decisions of the Police Department.
"Then, finally, there's a question all of us want to know the answer to: 'How do we undo the damage that has been done by this investigation and the pain it has caused?'"
Klein lauded Deputy District Attorney Steve Lowney for clarifying the case and criticized the city for failing to keep the criminal and administrative investigations separate.
"I have yet to see an explanation as to why the Children's Theatre was closed in January. I think this really has to come from the city manager's office," Klein said.
City Manager Frank Benest was not present Monday because he is in Australia on a three-week vacation.
He decided to place four of the theater's six employees on paid administrative leave on Jan. 24, the day the police obtained search warrants for the homes of Litfin, Briggs and Williams.
Klein also asked questions related to costume sales, the city's failure to ask for financial documentation from theater employees and other decisions made by investigators and police Chief Lynne Johnson.
Burt also asked several questions, provoking a sharp response from Baum when he pressed city staff about the reasons for Curtis' termination.
"I think that is so outside the realm of things this council should be talking about," Baum said. "This individual has privacy rights. Please don't go down that road."
Burt also called for the city to release as much information as possible.
"I think given the degradation of trust and concern in the community … it's going to be very important that we have as much transparency as possible," Burt said.
Kishimoto asked for an update on the status of the administrative investigation.
"In my mind, it's not clear how to separate the criminal investigation from the administrative review. I think one thing that would really help the public is having a clear explanation of what has taken place and what will take place," Kishimoto said.
Kelly Morariu, who is acting as city manager for part of Benest's absence, said it was difficult for her to answer because of the employees' privacy.
"There is a process," she said.
Councilman Greg Schmid said he thought there were many issues raised by the investigations the council should address, including how to "help rebuilt the trust in the community."
The council expects to decide whether to commission a probe of the city's handling of the issue at an upcoming meeting. The council does not meet next week.