On Deadline: Citizen watchdogs dig out another 'confidentiality' secret — but such things go w-a-a-y back | May 18, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 18, 2012

On Deadline: Citizen watchdogs dig out another 'confidentiality' secret — but such things go w-a-a-y back

by Jay Thorwaldson

The practice of public administrators sharing "confidential" information with their elected bosses while keeping it from the public has surfaced, with the discovery of numerous incidents involving Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the Board of Education.

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Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.


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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2012 at 10:39 am

Nice job of tooting your own horn and patting yourself on the back, Jay.
Now if you would only write an On Deadline expose about the censorship on the Town Square Forum.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2012 at 10:44 am

One other point. You say:

"The bigger question in this case, and historically, is why the elected officials allowed these privy communications to happen."

Did you ask the city council members, during the Benest memo issue, why they allowed these privy communications to happen?
Oh, wait, never mind. I forgot those were city council members that were involved (i.e. sacred ground that i snot be questioned or disturbed)

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2012 at 6:54 pm

The lack of transparency of the various local government agencies is difficult to ascertain—because there doesn’t seem to be anything like a permanent watchdog/auditor in place at the PAUSD, or the City-- tasked with actually insuring that all each agency’s activities are legal, and in compliance with all open-access laws.

There are no really good sources of City/PAUSD history to which the public has access. The City does have a document retention schedule which seems to suggest that some documents are kept on file for up to eight years, with other less than that. There does not seem to have been any attempt on the part of the City to digitize its records, allowing them to be kept for much longer periods of time. Neither has there been any attempt to index them in any meaningful way.

The City Library does happen to have the microfilm of the old Palo Alto Times, which was, a pretty good little paper, in its time. Unfortunately, there is no index, and anyone wanting to learn about Palo Alto history must sit in front of a microfilm reader, and read the films, one frame at a time.

Using those microfilms as a source, all sorts of interesting information about the trials and tribulations of Palo Alto government can be gleaned. For instance, way back in the late 1950s, Stanford and the City were involved in running a hospital together. Oversight of the hospital involved the City Council, and people from Stanford. Over time, the finances became murky, and the meetings between the City and Stanford started being held behind closed doors. Eventually, the Grand Jury got involved. At some point, Stanford decided that it would run the hospital alone—terminating its arrangement with the City and its building the current hospital. The public was never afforded access to the problem that confronted this hospital at the time.

Since the City is over a hundred years old, it’s anyone’s guess how many scandals, or near scandals, have swirled around the PAUSD and the City during that time. Sadly, no one is keeping count. The Weekly’s archive is a good place to start, but it is not well indexed, and only goes back to the mid-1990s. The City seems to whitewash its web-site, so there is no evidence on it that anything has ever gone wrong, other than any mention to scandals that have occurred that resulted in Council’s reporting closed door action to the public. There are microfilmed City Council meeting in the library, but they require a lot of “face time” with the microfilm reader to retrieve any information.

Both the City and the PAUSD hide behind attorney/client privilege—keeping most disturbing information out of the public’s view. The City has for quite some time now used “work product” from consultants as another reason to hide information from the public. Anything that might be unflattering, or possible illegal behavior on the part of employees, is very likely to disappear into the hands of a consultant—whose reports are going to be considered “secret”. The sand-bagging of the City Manager’s home during the Flood of ’98 (June Fleming), although investigated, was not reported to the public. Over time, this has become just one more City scandal that has mostly been forgotten.

Same with Utility contracts. Non-disclosures agreements between the City, and vendors, even potential vendors, has resulted in what can only be characterized as losses—to be paid for by higher utility rates. The Enron lawsuit settlement falls into that category.

The City Auditors always seem to tip-to around issues that would seem to call for deeper investigations. The last Auditor came up with the fact that the City was paying for a telephone that was not installed on City property. The Auditor did not reveal the number, or the name of the person that was enjoying this taxpayer benefit. A Request For Information for this information received a response that the Auditor didn’t know who the person was. There has never been a follow up on this case—which no doubt cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars.

There was the matter of the secret donors for the Mandarin Immersion program feasibility study. Numerous attempts to obtain this information resulted in claims that the School District could accept money from anyone/groups, for various purposes, and not have to reveal the source of the money. None of the local papers, including the Weekly, seemed very concerned at the time.

Of course, the Utility Scandal was the big one. That scandal has never been properly reported to the public—even though the Weekly’s lawsuit did open the door a bit. What’s a little odd about this OpEd is that the Weekly has written many editorials about the investigative reporting of some of the other local papers—expressing attitudes between disdain, and condemnation.

This particular matter, of some “confidential” memos—seems to be creating a bit of a firestorm, where one really doesn’t exist, or at least not yet. There are no allegations of fiscal impropriety, moral turpitude, or other illegal behavior/acts on the part of anyone involved with the memos. So, why would the Weekly be so outraged? Is this the sort of build up before the inevitable editorial claiming that there is another “elephant in the room”? Would it be all that unexpected to see the Weekly claiming that “changes need to be made” at the school district—pointing to a string of articles that have yet to produce anything close to a “smoking gun”--as the basis for their claims demanding “change”?

So far, there just doesn’t seem to be anything worth getting outraged over—even if the Brown Act has been “bent” somewhat.

Moving on--there are flaws in the Brown Act. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in identifying these flaws, and getting them corrected with the appropriate legislation. Given how complicated government programs have become, how difficult expenditure reporting can be, and how complicated the political process has become--it’s difficult to father how one or two “tweaks” can remedy any simple flaws in this law.

Lastly, it would help us all if government at every level would commit to e-government, and begin placing all public records on-line, fully indexed, and searchable. While this could take some time, it would not be that difficult to begin today digitizing, indexing and storing the current business documents on-line so that we can all see what is going on at 250 Hamilton, and 25 Churchill.

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Posted by really?
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2012 at 7:40 pm

There seems to be a conspiracy going on here. Let's take them all down. That'll solve all the problems in our city and schools. You go Palo Alto Weekly. Hope you're here to put everything back together the way you want it. At this point, I can't imagine why anyone would run for public office or want to teach in our school district since we all know better than the professionals. According to all the recent articles and postings, it seems that everyone who works in a public school really hates kids and are trying to do the worst by them. Imagine.

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Posted by Random parent
a resident of Ventura
on May 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm

@ really

It seems to me that the goal of a certain group of people in Palo Alto is to hand out, to all students graduating from Palo Alto schools, a diploma that automatically qualifies its recipients for UC admission, while ensuring that the students go through completely stress free schooling, with no homework (who knows, maybe no tests either) while giving only As to everyone. Never mind that this diploma won't be worth anything any more, which won't be lost on universities.

The destruction of our schools is underway...

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Posted by another random parent
a resident of Professorville
on May 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

So I'm assuming after scaring off all the other candidates for school board, I assume the WCDBPA/Weekly will run their own slate of candidates unopposed...is this the end game here?

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Posted by Wynn Hausser
a resident of Barron Park
on May 18, 2012 at 10:56 am

Great column, Jay. As always, your historical perspective is invaluable.

I find it fascinating that, in response to serious issues with a lack of transparency that threaten our democratic processes, @really, @random and @another random choose to shoot the messenger and by implication indicate that they are fine with secret government decision-making that undermines the credibility and reputation of the school district.

The endgame here is accountability.

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Posted by Another Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Thank you, Mr. Hauser. I have noticed a lot of pretty hysterical "shoot the messenger" on these boards. I don't get the idea that if we hold public officials to the idea that they should do the public's business in public, nobody will want to run. All of the school board members are adults who wanted this job.
They screwed this up. Based on what I have seen, they do think of themselves as part of a team, and Skelly is the coach. They don't really understand what they should be doing, which is representing the public, not just rubber-stamping Skelly's private decisions. We can remind them of that, or we can pretend that it's not true so that we don't hurt their feelings. I think everyone here is a grownup enough so that we can have an honest talk about what is going wrong and how it can work better in the future. I bet we'll even get people to want to be on the school board after we do it.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm

The article that Jay referes to states:

"Stating that Palo Alto school board members may have violated California's open-meeting law, the Palo Alto Weekly has asked the board to cease the practice of receiving weekly confidential memos from Superintendent Kevin Skelly."

However Jay's self-congatulatory on-deadline rant makes it sound like that (a violation California's open-meeting law) has proven to be the case. Perhaps Jay should wait until all the facts are in before he starts to sing his own praises on the pages of his advertising circular.

That is what a real journalist would do.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.