30. What kind of City Council do we want?

Atherton residents will soon be submitting their ballots with their choices for two candidates to fill seats on their council—which, for the first time since the new millenium, won’t include Kathy McKeithen.  It is the town’s first opportunity to make a break from the polarizing style she brought to the council and seat new members committed to representing residents’ preferences, rather than their own ambitions.

Even residents who don’t pay much attention to town events are aware that the council, throughout Ms. McKeithen’s long tenure, has been characterized by incivility, personal attacks, expensive settlements, inappropriate and excessive investigations, revolving door of senior staff and simply ridiculous amounts of controversy.  Expensive litigation over Lindenwood urns, the Performing Arts Center and Menlo-Atherton field lights all come to mind, as do attacks on all town officials and improper charges and rebates of building and construction fees, as major drains on town funds and good will. McKeithen was perennially front and center of all of these problems.  Luckily, we have a chance to break with this past, except for one disturbing notion:  that apparently McKeithen has put forth a candidate to serve as her “heir apparent.”  That candidate is Denise Kupperman, the long-serving chair of the ALBSC, McKeithen’s Library Committee.

The Atherton Library Building Steering Committee is the group that’s been pushing McKeithen’s biggest and most polarizing of projects which is being voted on as Measure F.  So, the question must be asked: could Kupperman possibly have the town’s best interests at heart in her run for City Council, or is she, as some contend, simply McKeithen’s proxy?  Given how important the new council will be in making post-election decisions about the Library, the ballpark, the Town Center and building good relations with the new Town Manager, it is critical that Atherton residents take a very close look at Ms. Kupperman and her ethics.

Unfortunately, both Kupperman’s website and her glossy mailer that arrived at homes this past week raise serious questions about Kupperman’s honesty and integrity.  Rather than proudly assert her “accomplishments” as Chair of the Library Committee, Ms. Kupperman totally downplays her involvement. As shown here, Kupperman calls herself a “Committee Member” and buries Library Committee at number 3 in a list.  No mention of being the chair of this notorious committee!  Which strikes me as rather two-faced.  If everything the Library Committee did was perfectly legit, as Ms. Kupperman and her “Yes on F” friends so stridently assert, why does Kupperman completely fail to mention her leadership role as the Chair of that committee?  We think this omission is clear acknowledgment that, as ALBSC chair, Kupperman did not exactly demonstrate “caring civic leadership,” as claimed on her flier.  She’s white-washing her credentials, stepping away from the responsibility she’s had for the fiasco created by her Library Committee. It’s rather alarming how dishonest this presentation seems (she has no children of her own, either, as far as we know).

Clearly, McKeithen and her ALBSC supporters like Kupperman. Many members of the ALBSC and their spouses signed her Candidate Filing papers as endorsers for council candidacy—including Councilmember McKeithen and her husband, Smith McKeithen. Yet, Kupperman chooses to leave both McKeithens off her list of endorsers on her flier and her website.  In so choosing, Kupperman is clearly attempting to distance herself from McKeithen and hide the full truth about who supports her. While we can understand her reluctance to acknowledge this relationship, nevertheless, the impulse to control and limit information to prevent residents from getting the true picture is alarmingly reminiscent of the way McKeithen herself operates.

Covering up her role in the town’s great library controversy and her relationship with McKeithen are truly bad signs. We would prefer if she came clean and distanced herself by promising process reform and even to “recuse” herself from library votes for which she is conflicted.  But Ms. Kupperman is not moved by honesty and goes in the other direction.  She astonishes some in town in her effort to bolster her credentials as “Working for Atherton.”  Her flier lists her membership on the “Environmental Programs Committee” right below “Atherton Library Committee.”  Seems like this would be another one of her big, proud accomplishments — but the committee hasn’t even met once since being reconstituted with several brand new members, including Kupperman, a few months ago.  Would Kupperman be trying to burnish her own credentials with the past notable accomplishments of what had once been a very vibrant committee?  Mind you, this is the same committee that, at the end of 2011, McKeithen attacked, suspended, investigated and had pilloried in the press because of a blog post discussing the environmental impacts of moving a county library to the town’s park that she didn’t like.  McKeithen, on behalf of the Kupperman and the ALBSC, forced the committee to unplug its own website and halt work mid-stream on a $100,000 home energy efficiency program, funded with tens of thousands of both town and federal grant dollars.  Kupperman claims to have 16 years as an active and caring civic leader—and likes to depict herself working in gardens—yet she didn’t oppose McKeithen’s ongoing suspension of the EPC and the resulting waste of the committee’s efforts and funds.  Was she working for Atherton then?  Was this “caring civic leadership” that we can find credible?

In a review of other issues, Ms. Kupperman has indicated on her campaign website that she is opposed to High Speed Rail.  Yet a brief web search finds that Kupperman was recently cited by the Palo Alto Daily News as being in favor of High Speed Rail.  They wrote:

Another resident, Denise Kupperman said she likes the notion of high-speed rail combing the state with the population predictions.  “It’s difficult to implement in a suburban corridor”, Kupperman said. “But ultimately it will happen”.

So which is it? We get the all-too-familiar sense that this candidate has decided to say or do, or omit saying, whatever it takes to sound acceptable to residents. This double-speak is reminiscent of Ms. Kupperman’s obvious mentor, McKeithen.

In another disturbing incident, the recent endorsement of Elizabeth Lewis and Cary Wiest by the Atherton Police Officers’ Association resulted in the standard McKeithen-style backlash.  The APOA was accused of improper actions by the council majority, pilloried by the Alamanac and Kupperman was seen and heard screaming at both senior and junior members of the police force and town staff.  Although the issue of outsourcing the police has not formally been raised at the council level, McKeithen’s well-known hostility towards the police and calls for outsourcing all police services to the county Sheriff, has made Kupperman’s position on outsourcing naturally suspect.  Many people suspect, in fact, that McKeithen’s preference to move the library away from the town center has everything to do with depriving the town center of the library (and its tax funding) as an anchor for town center redevelopment.  Thus, the decision on Measure F is actually tied into future decisions about police, and they have a right to endorse candidates on that basis.  However, Kupperman’s response makes frightfully clear that we could be seeing a new McKeithen-like creature rising from the ashes.

Kupperman’s glossy fliers, appearing simultaneously with “Yes on F” fliers have led many people to suspect that both have been produced using library funds (or using “donated” library graphic design support that need not be reported). At the recent Candidate’s Debate forum, people noticed that Ms. Kupperman was the only candidate of four who apparently knew all the questions in advance. She came so well prepared, she had deftly written answers for each question that she read aloud! (See the link for the video of the session.)  She sounded a lot like McKeithen, who routinely read her own scripted statements. Kupperman may not have done that much to impress the crowd with her prepared speeches, but in combination, Kupperman has indeed made a great case for being Ms. McKeithen’s successor on the council.  The question is: do we want another “McKeithen?”

What kind of City Council do Atherton residents really want?  Do we want to replace McKeithen with a canddidate with the same agenda, who is both closely tied to and beholden to McKeithen?  Do we want someone who has demonstrated how well they have learned McKeithen’s unsavory tactics for manipulating facts and information to suit her goals — nowhere done better than with the Library Project?  Do we really want to place power in the hands of someone who will verbally attack those who oppose her, including town police and staff?  Or do we want to finally shake loose of McKeithen’s toxic, agenda-driven influence altogether?

My preference would be to see us select council members with a proven track record and integrity.  Elizabeth Lewis, the incumbent, has a highly respected track record and there are two other viable candidates, each with credible commitments to serving on behalf of Atherton residents and not their pre-existing agenda.  Let’s focus on these!

26. Will there be a candidate McKeithen in 2012?

Twelve years is enough time for the residents to weigh whether or not Kathy McKeithen has lived up to her representations.  These are McKeithen’s own stated qualifications and goals from 2000.

Given the recent controversies surrounding McKeithen and her Library project, these are worth a closer review.

In response to why she thought she was qualified to serve on the Town Council, McKeithen writes:

  • A broad and deep knowledge of the Council and the Town document — contracts, budgets, accounts receivable and payable, municipal ordinance, applicable law.
  • Proven track record for initiating positive change
  • Dedication to improving the Town and healing fundamental divisions.
  • Ability to communicate well and work with people.
  • Open-minded.
  • Have the time to do the job well.

I will agree with her first and last bullet points.  In fact, McKeithen’s notorious scrutiny into town documents and minute micro-managing of every aspect of town activity and town staff has been legendary . . . but I have not heard that it’s been positive. Rather, such detailed knowledge seems to have come at tremendous costs—usually in extraordinary legal fees, as the town has launched investigation after investigation, at her insistence.  Most investigations done by Atherton or outside agencies don’t seem to have uncovered any wrong-doing (other than those involving John Johns, who was seen by many as working with McKeithen to attack others).  Rather, a very large number of them resulted only in departures of town talent—not so surprising, given how demoralizing it is to have one’s reputation besmirched first, and only cleared after the fact.  Not what I would call successfully “working well with people.”

Similarly, is firing nearly all staff people with bitterness “initiating positive change?”  Is ignoring petitions signed by hundreds of residents and locking in a controversial EIR process (that cost the town nearly $100,000 more because of the controversy) “healing fundamental divisions?”  Is staunchly defending one’s own committee despite its refusal to conduct adequate public process or cooperate with other groups to do reasonable town-wide planning being “open-minded?”

2.  Responding to why people should vote for her, McKeithen wrote:

  • As someone who actively participated in the two-time defeat of the parcel tax (because like so many others I did not approve of the way the funds were being spent), I believe that I am in a unique position to understand how to begin to heal our Town and move it forward.

Is defeating the town’s parcel tax a form of healing?  It seems more like a form of punishment? It actually punishes residents and staff.  Wasn’t McKeithen, a member of the council, actually working directly against the efforts of other council members?  Is defeating the parcel tax a sensible approach to solving the problem—or is it combative and reactive, because the town really needs the funds?  Clearly, we needed the parcel tax (which passed later), so it may have been a more positive approach to support the parcel tax but cooperate with fellow council members to make sure that budgeting and proper financial oversight are established.  That could at least have been seen as an attempt to work well with others—but that wasn’t what she chose to do.  If you don’t like how your dog behaves, do you refuse to give it food?  No. You train it to behavior better.  If you choose to refuse it food, maybe you don’t like your dog.  At any rate, her statement itself exemplifies just how poorly McKeithen understands working together for solutions. She has not shown any capacity that I have seen for healing.  The stick is the only tool she uses and she uses it whenever she’s not happy (which seems to be all the time)!

  • Desire to restore credibility and trust by responding quickly and respectfully to residents’ needs, being accountable for the results, making the Town more transparent and improving communications – e.g. broadcast meetings on TV, streamline the agenda.

Far from restoring credibility and trust or responding quickly and respectfully to residents’ needs, McKeithen’s steadfast refusal to address resident concerns about her Library project has put the town through a year of really terrible convulsions. Transparency? Improve communications?  McKeithen attacked the resident email group, the Athertonians, because she didn’t like that it communicated about council agendas to residents—especially relating to the Library and EIR.  Even the City Attorney had to explain to McKeithen that she could not censor resident communications.  As the sitting council member on the Library Steering Committee, maybe McKeithen should be held “accountable” for what seems like the biggest heist of good will, trust, confidence and credibility this town has seen.

  • A belief that consensus, credibility and trust can only be built on the availability of knowledge – the opportunity to know what is happening in [our] Town and why.

The Library Steering Committee’s recommendation to the council did not sit well with lots of folks—because it did not reflect any input from any of the community workshops.  Where is the evidence that shows that residents want a library in the park?  We’d like that “knowledge” as that is what McKeithen’s steering committee was chartered to do—engage residents in making this decision.  Nevertheless, with no evidence and with McKeithen herself defending against requests for the committee to produce evidence, McKeithen’s majority approved that recommendation.  No facts, no credibility, just protests and petitions to change course.  That’s not what I call a consensus.

  • The changes that McKeithen wanted to see on the council includes:  A full and complete discussion of all the issues and the alternatives rather than a piecemeal or closed-minded approach.

Sounds good.  So why did McKeithen herself slam a resident-hosted survey showing more than 80% of resident’s wanted town-wide master planning to allow the library to be considered in the town center development.  The library wants its own piecemeal solution, and seems pretty darn closed to the idea of being located in the town center.  McKeithen accused the town center organizers of trying to steal library funds. On what basis?  Talking about alternative ideas?  On top of that, she refused to approve having a survey of the town done.  Refused even when the Park & Rec committee demanded that and when her fellow council members requested that.  Refused to allow discussion of the Master Plan on the council agenda.  In fact, McKeithen spent months suppressing discussion of the full issues that residents raised.  This seems incredibly defensive, piecemeal and closed-minded.

McKeithen convinced many to vote for her in 2000, 20004 and 2008.  She wrote then that she wanted to see the Town Council enjoy:

  • A more respectful consideration of what the citizen and other Council members have to say.

Twelve years on the council is a very long time.  Long enough for Ms. McKeithen to appear to have completely forgotten what she found so offensive when she first ran and to have become that and worse herself. Long enough that to achieve her own goal of getting more respectful consideration of what citizens and other Council members have to say (not to mention her aspiration to see term limits put in place), Ms. McKeithen should wisely choose just not to run.

Nothing but questions!!

Kathy McKeithen got elected to the Atherton City Council in 2000 on a platform that had the following priorities:

  • Bring accountability, transparency, and responsive stewardship to town government
  • Create an environment that fosters respect and openness to citizens and town employees; seek input from Atherton citizens
  • Establish term limits so that new people with new ideas can keep the Council from becoming complacent

Councilmember McKeithen is soon to be completing her THIRD TERM.  She has now been on the City Council for twelve years.  Much like her commitment to TERM LIMITS—she seems to say one thing and do the opposite.  If she actually were doing what she says her priorities are, it is very likely things in Atherton would be okay.

Unfortunately, residents don’t feel respected at all.  Resident input on important matters, such as McKeithen’s pet library project, has been utterly ignored while her committee mushes ahead doing what they want.  And there is a lot that is going badly in Atherton.  Residents recognize that the town is having many, many problems.  The town has now gone nearly two years without having been able to hire a permanent town manager.  The last Interim Town Manager the town had quit abruptly six months ago.  There is yet to be any appointment.  The council is completely divided: the majority appears to be going “rogue” and, with no professional management to provide guidance, the council majority is taking actions with virtually no accountability to what is in the best interests of residents.

While the town has had continuous controversy and acrimony over the last twelve years, things are much worse than they ever have been and Kathy McKeithen is in the center of it all.  It seems like a good time to take a good hard look at what she is doing and whether or not McKeithen has lived up to ANY of her stated priorities.

The problem is, not only isn’t there any transparency, there isn’t any coherency either. Her notion of “responsive stewardship” feels more like covert deconstruction and conspiratorial agendas to strip rights (and now the park tennis courts) away from residents.  When one looks merely at the facts of what Kathy does, it makes little sense.  I find that I have many more questions about Kathy McKeithen—and especially why she does what she does—than I have answers. I wish I had the answers.  I am therefore going to do what I can, and write down my questions.  I am hoping that those of you who read this, can fill in some answers.  I’ll attempt to provide some answers or simply theories about why she does what she does, but please add your own insights where you can.  Use the open comment links but it is best that everyone respond anonymously.  These are perilous times in Atherton and, given what we know, anyone who ventures to critique Ms. McKeithen will get accused of something!

3. How many lawsuits has McKeithen supported on behalf of her Lindenwood neighbors?

Lawsuits that the whole town had to pay for but which were not in the best interests of the whole town, but just those who reside near Kathy in Lindenwood, include:

  • 1.  Lawsuit to prevent Lindenwood Urns from moving to the other side of Atherton.  Total cost to Atherton was: $_____________?
  • 2.  Lawsuit over Menlo-Atherton High School installing stadium lights.  Total cost to Atherton was:  $_______________?
  • 3.  Lawsuit to prevent Menlo-Atherton High School from building the Performing Arts Center.  Total cost to Atherton residents was:  $_______________?

Atherton lost all of these lawsuits, as far as I know.  Does anyone know what the total damage to the town was from McKeithen’s eagerness to help her biggest supporters?

Were there others?

7. What or who is driving the City Council?

The City Council has taken some very controversial actions in the last year or so, with no permanent Town Manager.  It is noteworthy that, as long as a year ago (last June), the council knew that they needed to find a permanent town manager.  Yet, they did not approve the then interim manager, John Danielson, to initiate a search, even though that was his specific purpose when he was hired.  They had him spend his time firing most all of the town staff.  They unwisely planned to have Danielson’s term extended by getting an exemption for him from his Calpers restriction on working mor than a year.  When that didn’t work after more than a year, he quit suddenly (rather than risk losing his pension) and the town council was left looking like idiots. In response, they pretended to assign the young city clerk to the job of Interim Town Manager.

In effect, there is no Town Manager, as Theresa has no capacity to stand up to the over-reaching council.  What have they gone ahead to do, while there is no professional in place?  Have they focused on finding a Town Manager to manage the town?  No.  Six months later, they do not appear to have not found the right candidate.  Yet, let’s look at the things this council has spent their time doing or at least threatening to do:

1.  Ramming the Library EIR through on an expedited basis, at an extra cost of almost $100,000 for the EIR due entirely to the controversy which development plan conflicts entirely with the Town’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinances.

2.  Abruptly halt accepting rentals of the facilities in Holbrook-Palmer Park without first submitting that question to an agenda item for the full council to review, prior to any council approval of the library, in conflict with the provisions of the General Plan.

3.  Attempted to disband but had to make do with merely suspending the town’s environmental committee when individuals step up to oppose the Library Plan.

4.  Disbanded the General Plan Committee during the comment period of the EIR.

5.  Assign the City Clerk now Interim Town Manager to re-write all the rules for committees and commissions.

6.  Raise the issue of the Tennis Courts not supporting themselves and discussion of a whole new plan (amendment to the EIR?) to use the land where the tennis courts are for a new parking lot.

7.  Propose changing the Town from being a General Law town to a Charter City.

8.  Attack the 8 year old resident-run email list after several posts from members shine a light on what the council is doing, in particular with the Libary EIR.  Claim suddenly that residents are “confused” about the group’s name.

9.  Launch a discussion of possibly moving the administrative offices to the park also, after the comment period for the EIR has ended!

10.  Challenged the Town Center task force’s plan with the possibility of asserting that the decrepid town administrative buildings having historic landmark status (yet denying that the 60 year old Main House in the park has landmark status).

This is a sampling of the things that I have heard about.  Why has the council majoritychosen to take these actions without an experienced town manager in place?  Were these part of the mayor’s stated agenda for his term?  Is Mayor Widmer driving this council (when he is actually in town and not traveling in Europe for his job)—or is his term being hijacked by Kathy McKeithen and her ALBSC’s efforts to confused and distract town residents away from her goal of ramming the Library project into the town’s only Open Space zoned park?  Things have been thrown into the mix so quickly, there is just no opportunity to evaluate all of these issues in a clear and coherent way.  Does anyone have any other theories about why all these issues have been opened at this time?

11. Why is the Library Project such a fiasco?

Here are the broad-based complaints that I’ve heard about the Library Project:

A.  The Library Committee spent town tax funds to deliberately attempt to foist its predilection on the community.

B.  The process used by the Library Committee was unclear, the purpose and meaning of meetings was not communicated, and their decision-making method was both hidden and flawed and could not have reflected the preferences of the community.

C.  The Library Committee refused to actually engage the public in decision-making, rather they put on three presentations and called that “engagement.”

D. Library Committee members (in particular McKeithen, GInny Niles and Denise Kupperman) misled the public about the purpose of the steering committee—representing that it was chartered to make the decision itself after studying the issues, whereas the actual charter was to engage the public in making the decisions. McKeithen accused the public of not being capable of understanding the “complexity” of the issues for deciding where the library should go.

E.  The Library Committee was effectively “hijacked” by Friends of the Library, who just cared about doing what they and the library professionals wanted and the committee was neither bipartisan, impartial nor did it care to elicit the best solution for Atherton, based upon a broader array of community needs and priorities (such as for open space for children’s field sports).

F.  The Library Committee worked in a clandestine manner to plan the library to move ahead, offered only 2 cursory community workshops in the dead of summer, and had already begun a parallel process for moving ahead with CEQA clearance even prior to any approvals, as if they were assured of approval (which would be a Brown Act violation).

G.  The Library Committee utilized a myriad of devices (types and timing of notices and meetings) to minimize attention to the project, and maximize uncertainty and inconvenience to residents to participate, and then turned around and blamed the community for failing to show up.

H.  The Town Council members McKeithen and Dobbie and their Library Committee supporters, rather than hear what residents’ concerns were and address them, took the hardened approach of doing whatever it took to defend their flawed process.  They voted not to allow further discussion on the council agenda, they minimized additional opportunities for people to express their concerns, including surveys, they personally attacked individuals and committees with legitimate complaints about the process, and lastly, they started to seek underhanded ways to push the EIR process to move faster, while churning up a whole host of other issues (like disbanding the General Plan, threatening the tennis courts, opening up the issue of moving to a Charter City, accusing the Athertonians group of name infringement, all of which were attempts to confuse and diffuse attention on the Library.

Other complaints about the Library process?

19. Who should decide if a library fulfills the Palmer Will?

The Deed granting Holbrook-Palmer to Atherton clearly states that the Town of Atherton shall, “keep, maintain and operate said property in proper order and condition and in a manner suitable for a high class public recreation park.”  If it does not do so, the park could revert back to Stanford University.

It seems that the council majority feels entitled to decide for itself what constitutes “high class recreation” and to this council, book reading may well be high class recreation (if only as a function of the geriatric limitations of the council majority).  Still, it seems highly selfish and rather unseemly for the council to decide to supplant the use of open fields for sports and undeveloped grounds into a county library for their personal enjoyment, without getting a really good feel for whether or not this usage is acceptable to residents in other generations.