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Revisiting their roots: Former Los Altos mayors give two cents on city manager controversy

Five former Los Altos mayors stood before the city council last week to share their thoughts on how council members were treating one another and city staff – specifically City Manager Chris Jordan – after a local newspaper reported there was a voting dispute at a previous council meeting.

Jane Reed (mayor in 1982-1983, 1987), Penny Lave (1987-1988, 1992-1993), David Reeder (1989-1990), King Lear (2000-2001) and Curtis Cole (2006-2007) voiced their concerns after reading that some council members accused Jordan of ignoring a June 25 vote on where to hold their meetings. Another newspaper published that a motion passed 4-1 to move the meetings back to the council chambers from the Los Altos Youth Center, where they temporarily were being held during civic center renovations aimed at expanding the bathrooms and the lobby to accommodate Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

The Town Crier found no evidence of a vote in a video recording of the meeting. During the referenced study session, Deputy City Clerk Jon Maginot gave a presentation about the option to turn the youth center into the council’s permanent chambers if they wanted to use some of the city’s Public, Education and Government (PEG) funds.

While Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins encouraged using the funds, especially prior to spending more of the PEG money on the existing chambers in the civic center, the majority of the council was not in favor of relocating its meeting space long term. The preference was noted, and Jordan said the council could be back in its chambers again as soon as the next week, until changes to the dais, audio/visual equipment updates and other cosmetic fixes are set to begin in December. Last week, Jordan told the Town Crier there is no longer a finite timeline for when chamber renovations will begin.

Jordan said the first formal ADA accommodation request was filed due to a council member’s medical condition following the June meeting. One request became multiple, and at the time, Jordan advised the council it should continue to meet at the youth center until the chambers became a more accessible environment. The city hired ADA consultant Rachel Shaw, who gave a presentation to the council at its Aug. 27 meeting detailing her role in identifying measures that could be taken. She backed up Jordan’s recommendation, adding that council meetings should remain at the youth center until an investigation into the requests concludes.

Confirming the norm

Distressed by a rumored campaign to get Jordan fired, the five former mayors agreed that the discrepancy over whether a vote took place should not have been taken to the media.

Prospective city employees can view meeting footage and read press coverage, and they either will be impressed or dismayed by the way council members conduct themselves, Lear said.

“This is just a practical comment. … If you were to post this job (for city manager), I think most would pass on the opportunity,” he said. “In my opinion, you’re lucky to still have a city manager – and under these conditions, it’s unlikely you can do better.”

Appearances aside, the council norms require cooperation, stressed Lave.

“The council should reflect the values and norms of the city of Los Altos,” she said. “That has been generally true for 67 years. … I encourage you to work together to solve your differences while recognizing that following the rule of law is a primary norm.”

Reed echoed Lave, stating that all of the newspaper articles she has read about past councils mention working for the good of all. Talking to reporters instead of talking with each other one-on-one or in a group is “not professional,” she said.

“It doesn’t speak well for any of us who have served in the past or those in the future,” Reed added.

Reeder outlined the roles of the city manager and the council, noting that the council was elected “to govern, not manage.”

Reeder specifically complimented city staff for aiding the council’s efforts to fast-track the new Los Altos Community Center and for developing a plan for the deferred maintenance the city must address. However, minimizing the length of council meetings should be prioritized.

“I was here a month or so ago, and we started at 6 o’clock with an agenda that had two items on it,” he said. “I wanted to talk about the community center, and I sat here for six hours and 15 minutes before I had the opportunity to speak to the council. If you want to have open government and you want community input, find a way to manage your meetings.”

Cole added that creating a climate that prioritizes respect is more important than the decision-making process and what it yields.

“People are more important than policy,” he said. “Any policy is only as good as the people who implement it.”

After the former mayors concluded, Mayor Lynette Lee Eng thanked them and moved on, without comment, to the evening’s business. Following the meeting, no members of the council replied to a request for comment prior to the Town Crier’s deadline.

Closed session

In a closed session prior to the Sept. 25 meeting, the council directed councilwomen Jeannie Bruins and Neysa Fligor to initiate the exploration process for hiring a new city attorney.

City Attorney Chris Diaz’s third term expires in April, enabling the council to re-evaluate its options for legal representation.

“(The search) is in order to ensure that the interests of the city and residents continue to be well represented,” Lee Eng said.

A timeline for making the decision to retain or relieve Diaz and his team at Best Best & Krieger LLP was not provided.

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