Is the City of Palo Alto transparent enough -- or is information being kept from the public? | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

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By Diana Diamond

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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Is the City of Palo Alto transparent enough -- or is information being kept from the public?

Uploaded: Sep 2, 2020
Eighteen-plus months -- that's how long it's taken so far for Palo Alto to choose a new auditor, a position required in the city charter. Residents still haven't been told officially whether there has been a selection, or when it will be announced, and that bothers me.

I do know one firm was chosen more than three weeks ago in a closed session of the city council -- at least that's what I was told by two of my sources.

Why should we care at all if it takes a long time? Why is an auditor so important?

I'll answer my own question: We should care because the auditor's job is to try to keep the city honest. And if there is no auditor around to check on what city staff, including city managers, are doing, then they don't have to worry much. And if one is hired?
Then they have to worry more.

I think the council made the wrong decision to hire a firm from outside rather than an individual to serve as a full-time auditor inside city hall, as has occurred in the past. Council members talked about saving money by using an outside firm -- and yes, they do compared to a full-time employee, but a good auditor can save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, if the right person is aboard.

An inside auditor, as former auditor Sharon Erickson described, can get into interesting conversations with employees in the coffee room or at a lunch table. And her door was always open for an employee to drop in, oftentimes, she said, because the employee felt something was amiss in his or her department. An inside auditor can build up trust and confidence with city employees.

But if an outside firm is around doing the auditing, the representative is not poking around all day. And few employees will dare venture to make an appointment with some auditor they don't even know.

••••••.

Keeping the hiring process secret for months is not the only example of lack of transparency in this city. There's a whole series recently of keeping things under wraps so the public doesn't know what's happening, especially in investigating police problems, and keeping many findings quiet. And this whole "keep the public unaware" practice is getting worse.

The council has hired lobbyists in Sacramento and when some members question progress, they are told, "We are working on it," said Councilmember Lydia Kou. "So we don't know what's happening and residents are kept in the dark," she added.

The council, she said, was also promised a report in October or January as to whether companies are staying in town or moving elsewhere because of the coronavirus. And there has been no update since May on the economic effects of businesses downtown and on California Avenue on the city budget. Some $40 million has already been cut from the $238 million general fund budget, and as I see businesses close downtown, I know things are getting worse in terms of future city revenues. Why not monthly reports? Why are we not being told what's happening?

Kou also said she does not know why a regularly scheduled Monday council meeting did not occur this week -- and she's a council member.

Then there were the police department problems that were kept quiet. In 2014, Capt. Zach Perron allegedly used a racial slur" in discussing an incident in which another officer, Marcus Barbour (who has since left the department) jumped into a creek and rescued a suspect. In 2017, public interest in this case arose. The city had hired the OIR Group, a prominent police auditing firm in southern California, who regularly issued semi-annual reports to the council and public that were detailed, specific and well received.

OIR investigated the Perron case because of a concern raised by an "outside source," not the city, and it was included in mid-year report. But OIR was asked by the city manager not to release the completed report so that city officials had time to devise a policy that shields the public cases that involve policeman-to-policeman incidents.

They devised a policy, sending all internal police department matters to the city's HR department, not to OIR. Why is that bad? Because once something goes into HR, it never comes out. It is declared a "personnel matter" and any info cannot be released to the public, the HR declares.

When OIR's contract was reapproved in late 2019, it disallowed the auditing firm from conducting investigations on internal police matters -- allowing only those involving the public. Michael Gennaco of OIR, described this as a major change. The council finally learned about this when in late 2019, Shikada told the council he wanted to send internal police matters to the HR department, instead of Gennaco. The council was told this was a minor change and everything would be the same, and the council went along with it.

It wasn't a minor change. It was major.

The public loses again.

There's always a delicate control line between the city manager, who is responsible for the day-too-day operations of the city, and the city council, who is elected by residents to oversee the city and oversee what is going on.

In my view, City Manager Ed Shikada tends to assume too much authority for making city decisions -- in all sorts of matters. He is overstepping his bounds, because when I've talked to several council members about a variety of issues, and many say, "I'm not sure what is going on." Or, "I haven't been updated on that matter. The city manager doesn't act like it's important to let council know what is going on.

It's time for the city council members to exert their rightful authority. Public knowledge of knowing about what is happening in their city is at stake.









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Comments

 +   22 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Sep 3, 2020 at 9:51 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Excellent column. Keep asking these important questions.


 +   16 people like this
Posted by Novelera, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 3, 2020 at 12:40 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

I agree with Online Name, Diana, keep putting their feet to the fire.


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 11:27 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

Is it possible that the City of Palo Alto is keeping certain issues on a 'need to know basis'?

Whether it's Mayberry or any other community, civic leaders have been known for keeping various 'behind the scenes' negotiations & discussions away from the general public.

The Brown Act is largely unenforced and this in turn, allows for rampant discrepancies regarding full disclosure(s).


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Sheri, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 11:33 am

Sheri is a registered user.

Spot on!


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Diana Diamond, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 11:40 am

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Lee --

You asked:
Is it possible that the City of Palo Alto is keeping certain issues on a 'need to know basis'?

I doubt it's on a need to know basis. What's there needed to know about hiring an auditor, that we taxpayers are paying for? Not even the name of the firm has been released yet. Why keep that quiet? Just sound like a delaying tactic to me.

Or why keep incidents involving police mistakes secret? I a member of the public is arrested, his/her name is immediately released by the police -- not after a trial.

I agree the Brown Act is there, but seldomly forced -- unless the press finds about what happened in a closed session. But most council members feel they must keep closed session discussion closed.

I come down on the side of transparency,, not opaqueness in our city.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 12:02 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Good article. I follow the real estate section of the paper and am continually amazed by the ownership of large sections of the business portion of the city - a lot of change going on. All of this change is announced as a done deal. The SSL property on Fabien, the car showrooms on Embarcadero, large transactions.

My big concern is the behind the scene dealings with the Cubberley site. The need for housing is being used as a wedge excuse for transactions despite the major concerns of the public use of properties. A trade-off of the FRY's site - still no reported action.

What kind of forward planning is going on? Not sure there is any. Just knee jerk activity which flies right on by with no public discourse.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by hkatrs, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 12:32 pm

hkatrs is a registered user.

I personally disagree with an inhouse auditor. The city should have a very knowledgeable Controller and Support Staff to keep track of all the departments. And a very knowledgeable, accurate outside CPA firm to also monitor the data. Then all the documents are turned over to an outside auditor for scrutiny which can be established as every quarter, every two quarters, etc.

If anyone's business has ever been audited by the State of CA Auditor or IRS Auditor they know that it is rather 'scary'. The auditor sits in a separate room looking at all the records on site so they can ask questions of the Controller and Support Staff as needed. The CPA firm can be called upon to verify information if the Controller is unable. Speaking from experience, all it takes is one experience for a government auditor to scrutinize business records for the business to do everything possible so they won't come back in the near future! Once a business has been audited by a government agency the business is on a list to be monitored for several years. The benefit is two fold, it keeps the business's Controller, Support Staff, and the firms's CPA accountable. Plus the business is given guidelines from the Government Auditor to improve data collection and monitoring of accounts.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by hkatrs, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 12:41 pm

hkatrs is a registered user.

I tried to edit my posting.

I forgot to add another benefit, that having an outside Auditor also prohibits in-house collaboration between and inhouse Auditor and a Council Member, Council Manager, Mayor, or staff member which is very hard to trace.

As a citizen of Palo Alto since 1990, I have been continually shocked lately that it seems the City Government is running itself for it's benenfits, instead of the citizens reaping benefits having voted in candidates who gave their word to be reliable, responsible, honest and respectful of their positions! Thankfully this is a Voting year and it seems more citizens are interested in civil rights and government practices. Huzzah!!!


 +   9 people like this
Posted by Just Askin', a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 1:52 pm

Just Askin' is a registered user.

Diana - Here are some more questions for you to ponder in your blogging about transparency:

1) Why is the former City Auditor, Harriet Richardson, suing the City?

2) How is this related to the outsourcing of the office, and is the City really doing this to "save face" as opposed to looking to the interest of its residents and City Charter and Muni Code mandates for an internally resourced Auditor's Office? As you recall, respected former City Auditor Sharon Erickson called the whole concept of outsourcing the Auditor's Office a "stunningly bad idea".

3) How much is this costing us?

4) Why has the City Council not listed this law suit on its agendas? Surely the City Council has discussed the law suit from Ms. Richardson and it should have been listed as a "potential litigation - closed session" item.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 4, 2020 at 3:35 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "I come down on the side of transparency, not opaqueness in our city."

^ Concurring but the question remains...why is this 'opaqueness' allowed to perpetuate?

Is the overall lack of full accountability & disclosure on the part of our city officials some form of 'unwritten' municipal privilege?









 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Sep 5, 2020 at 9:46 am

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

@Lee and other "Brown Act" concerned people. "The Brown Act is largely unenforced and this in turn, allows for rampant discrepancies regarding full disclosure(s)." IMO that is partially because of citizen (resident) lack of civic understanding of your Rights (under the Brown Act and PRA - Public Records Act).

You, after studying (IMO) the Brown Act, can effectively use the Act to start to force compliance with it. FIRST you absolutely must study a responsible-lawyer-committee written booklet on it. League of California Cities, "Open & Public V:"

Web Link

Then, be sure of what you are doing and asking for under The Law (statute and case law)! If you find a CLEAR CASE, backed up by an example in the Case Law, like an example from Open&Public: sent the Council a "Cease and Desist letter". No lawyer needed, just follow the time requirements (30, 90 days, or 9 months; depending), and copy the examples.

The statute/booklet tells exactly how parts of this letter Must Be Worded, and there is even a 'fill-in-the-blanks' draft letter that you want the Counsel to Vote on in an Open Agenda Item. If you are 'just ranting' they will totally ignore you - and you will have to file a lawsuit. ($,$$$ just to start). If you actually know What You Are Talking About, their lawyer will advise them to 'agree and sign the letter of commitment' (The Mayor's job after the Vote).

The District Attorney's office has the 'right to file' (standing) but almost never, ever has or will! This is a case that usually has to be made - by a very informed member of the public ("an interested party"). That's Your Option / maybe that's your civic duty?

Steven Nelson is a retired MVWSD Trustee
Currently there is Pending Litigation against MVWSD due to their 'violating' their "commitment" vote.
Item III.A. Closed Session Sept 3 Regular Meeting


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anne, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 7, 2020 at 1:15 pm

Anne is a registered user.

Clearly the latter.


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