The video footage is both clear and ambiguous: A woman slowly walks up to the front porch of a neighbor's house, looks around, picks up a clay pot filled with soil, turns around and walks away with it.
But the meaning behind those 27 seconds remains in dispute, with the woman saying that she thought she was salvaging a clay pot from an abandoned Palo Alto house and the homeowner accusing her of theft.
Because the woman in the surveillance video was Catherine Ballantyne, a member of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board, the ramifications were swift -- a social-media backlash, anonymous accusations, and Ballantyne's resignation on Friday from the board.
Ballantyne, a landscape architect who was appointed by the City Council to the architecture board in November, told the Weekly she was convinced that the house on Louis Road was abandoned because she had passed it thousands of times and never saw anyone there. Noticing a sign in the front yard indicating that the house would soon be demolished, she said it was "reasonable, bordering on probable, to assume the property was abandoned."
So on a Wednesday morning in early February, after dropping off her children at school, she biked by the house and took the clay pot.
The erroneous assumption, she added, did not justify her taking the clay pot from the home of Sarah Patanroi, a computer-lab teacher at Nixon Elementary School who said she has lived at the house for six years.
But what Patanroi did after discovering her pot missing unleashed the chain of events that has led to Ballantyne's resignation, and in Ballantyne's own words, her "evisceration."
Patanroi took the surveillance video and posted it on YouTube on Feb. 5, then warned neighbors via the social-media website Nextdoor with a note titled "Pot thief."
And as soon as Ballantyne learned about her mistake from Patanroi's post on Nextdoor, she returned the pot to Patanroi's house with a note of apology, she said.
Patanroi said she received the note, which was signed "overenthusiastic gardener," and did not know who the woman in the video was until several people on Nextdoor told her.
But things didn't stop there. According to Ballantyne, Patanroi went on to modify captions on the surveillance video to make them more snarky (the YouTube video is currently titled, "Stylish bandit goes for neighbor's pot" and had 2,574 views as of late Friday).
A personal visit from Ballantyne at Nixon the day after she returned the pot to explain her mistake and plead for the removal of the messages and video didn't sway Patanroi.
And last Sunday, Feb. 15, members of the City Council received at their individual email accounts a message with the subject line: "Questionable character of city's boards."
The message came from someone called "Concerned Citizen" at firstname.lastname@example.org and stated, "This person is Catherine Ballantyne and she is on your Comprehensive Plan Leadership Group and the ARB." It included the YouTube video link.
Patanroi told the Weekly that she did not send the email and does not know who did.
Ballantyne said she was surprised because the email to the council didn't tell the full story. It didn't mention the fact that she had, by that time, returned the pot with an apology note and immediately sought out Patanroi to explain her mistake and accept "full responsibility" for the incident. Ballantyne said she had also told Patanroi that she is willing to be arrested for the act, though she asked that the affair remain private to spare her four children.
Ballantyne is criticizing the public way that Patanroi handled Ballantyne's error in judgment.
"There's a lot of ways you could've managed this if you wanted to let people know that something was amiss in your neighborhood," Ballantyne said.
In a written statement to the Weekly, Ballantyne added: "There is no such thing as human courtesy anymore."
Patanroi, for her part, said she accepted Ballantyne's apology, even though she was "shocked" when Ballantyne first showed up at Nixon. Patanroi also told the Weekly that she has never identified Ballantyne by name publicly.
But as of Friday, Patanroi hadn't taken down the video or post, even after Ballantyne went to see her at Nixon a second time.
Patanroi told the Weekly that she had received encouragement from neighbors not to take down her Nextdoor post.
"I think somebody in her position ... you feel they ought to have a little more scruples. I think it was unfortunate for her that she got caught," she said.
Besides, she told Ballantyne, interest in the video "will just die on its own, like everything else on the Internet."
In addition to the embarrassment, Ballantyne said she has been preparing for the possibility of getting arrested, since Patanroi filed a police report (although she said she isn't pressing charges). Ballantyne even asked her family to leave town one day last week because she didn't want an arrest to occur in front of her children. The District Attorney's Office is considering her case and could issue a warrant for her arrest for petty theft.
There is also a possibility that Patanroi will seek a restraining order. Patanroi told the Weekly that Ballantyne "was not welcome in the first place when she stole the pot," and if Ballantyne approaches her again, she does plan to file for a restraining order.
Ballantyne said she penned a nine-page letter to Patanroi in an attempt to explain her own "poor judgment" and mentioning her desire to save the pot from bulldozers. She said she decided not to give the letter, however, when Patanroi raised the possibility of the restraining order.
Meanwhile, Ballantyne's membership on the architectural board has come to an abrupt end. On Wednesday, before the first news story broke, Ballantyne offered to resign from the board if the incident "in any way will create a perception of distrust in the ARB." On Friday, Mayor Karen Holman said the council will accept the resignation from Ballantyne, who in her short time on the board took a fiercely critical approach toward reviewing large new developments.
In November, Ballantyne suggested that a three-story building proposed by architect Ken Hayes for the Olive Garden site at El Camino Real was out of context, and this week she took a similarly skeptical stance toward another Hayes project: a four-story development at 429 University Ave., at the site of Shady Lane. She did not attend the hearing on the Ken Hayes project but submitted a letter that asked in its conclusion, "Is this the best building you can muster for that site context or might we stretch together to something better?" Her colleagues approved the project 4-0.
Holman said the council "will be moving forward to select a replacement once the resignation is received."
"This is a regretful situation, including that the ARB will be losing a member with a strong background and experience, but the best course is to accept the resignation," Holman said.