Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 21, 2006

Council should demand utilities-scandal report

Veil of secrecy and protectiveness extends to withholding costly investigative reports from City Council members, who seem generally unconcerned

Palo Alto has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating a scandal in the city's huge Utilities Department, but the public has seen only generalities about the investigation and actions to correct the serious problems found.

It now turns out that most City Council members have not seen the investigative reports — a sweeping indictment of an operation as large as the rest of the city combined, in terms of budget. Those reports are being withheld even from council members because they contain personnel-related materials, which are the purview of the city manager.

The fact is they contain far more than personnel references. They describe an entire culture of intimidation and sexual harassment that existed in portions of the Utilities Department, which includes electric, water, gas and sewer services. The council has received only the carefully worded generalities about the investigation that were released to the press and public, and reportedly not much more in verbal briefings.

One council member even seemed to believe that most of the personnel matters related to lower-level staff, apparently forgetting that 19 employees and managers were disciplined and six of those were either fired or forced to resign. In addition, both Utilities Director John Ulrich and Assistant Director Scott Bradshaw left under clouds: Ulrich retired soon after the investigation and Bradshaw announced his resignation on the day the investigator's report was submitted to the city.

This lack of interest on the part of council members is as appalling as the longstanding conditions that existed within the Utilities Department that led to the investigation.

The scandal began to surface in the fall of 2004 when a curious Menlo Park police officer wondered why a City of Palo Alto utilities truck was parked in front of a house in Menlo Park. He found "moonlighting" utilities employees.

Palo Alto hired an outside investigator. But a "whistleblower" letter alleging numerous violations and a hostile work environment exploded the investigation into new areas, ultimately costing the city more than $300,000, not including high-level management time. The six-month investigation revealed inadequate managerial oversight, sexual harassment, threats and intimidation in addition to the moonlighting.

The Weekly, after first requesting and being denied the investigator's report and other records, sued the city in September 2005. Superior Court Judge Kevin E. McKenney ruled June 7 that the city must produce two out of three sets of records sought by the Weekly, with names and identifiers of individual employees deleted — not sought by the Weekly.

A third set, relating to Ulrich and Bradshaw, is protected under attorney-client privilege, Judge McKenney ruled — because the outside investigator was hired by the city attorney.

So some of the secrecy will be lifted and we, the council and the public may be better able to understand how such a situation occurred and what it will take to assure it will not recur.

Judge McKenney also upheld a vitally important point: "This court acknowledges and understands the (privacy) concerns expressed by those employees whom this order affects, but the controlling law dictates that the public interest must prevail."

The dilemma "must be resolved in favor of public access to information about how the public's government operates, including misconduct by its employees and what was done about it," he ruled.

But attorney-client privilege is not a proper screen for the top-level people, who carry a vastly greater degree of responsibility than do the lower-level employees. Judge McKenney agreed Monday to accept full legal briefs on that point, as he indicated earlier he would do.

It makes no sense to disclose details of lower-level workers and middle managers but conceal the shortcomings of the top managers.

The hard work of Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison and Budget Director Carl Yeats, who have been rebuilding the department for much of the past year, seems to have changed much there. But it is the council's responsibility to know the full details of what happened and to exercise its authority to find that out, not blandly accept the blanket "personnel" or "attorney-client" screen. Who is the ultimate client here if not the council, representing the public?

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