Updated 3:45 p.m. Sept. 21: Los Altos Hills Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday (Sept. 21) announced the cancellation of a special city council meeting meant to address allegations against a town volunteer.
The volunteer resigned from all committee positions, and therefore the meeting “is no longer necessary,” Wu wrote in a statement.
Late into Thursday’s regular council meeting, Councilman Roger Spreen raised what he called a “disturbing list of code of conduct violations” by former Parks and Recreation Committee chairwoman Nina Sutaria, including that she attempted to vandalize a fence belonging to her neighbor, falsely accused a town employee of financial fraud and bullied other volunteers. Spreen is the council liaison for both that committee and the Pathways Committee, on which Sutaria served as an associate member.
“Nina has been repeatedly trespassing, including ducking right under the ‘No Trespassing’ sign, leading others onto those properties, and walking on these folks’ properties at 1 a.m., carrying branch cutters,” Spreen said.
Spreen requested the council hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the matter, but Sutaria resigned from the two committees on Friday.
The council will address code of conduct compliance at its October meeting, Wu stated.
The Pathways Committee has initiated the environmental review process for the potential extension of a town path that begins at La Paloma Road and terminates with a fence along Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s $100 million estate. Sutaria, who lives on nearby Wildcrest Drive, has advocated for removal of the fence and continuation of the path along a canyon creek to Robleda Road so it can serve as a fire evacuation route.
Atherton Court resident Vazgen Babayan said he came across two workers constructing a 2-foot-wide path in his backyard in January, and he threatened to call law enforcement, so they retreated into Sutaria’s yard. That’s the same month someone broke the fence for the first time, said Howard Lee, Babayan’s next-door neighbor. Lee erected trail cameras after subsequent fence breaks, and a night-shot still depicts a shawled Sutaria during the early hours of Sept. 1.
“I cannot write this. I cannot create this,” Lee said of the footage. “It’s 1 a.m. in the morning and she’s out there with a pair of cutters in her hand.”
In a statement to the Town Crier, Sutaria said she’s legally permitted to walk in the area because a pathway easement exists there. And she supplied a reason for her early-morning visit.
“On a recent night when wildfires were erupting throughout our region, I walked down the legal easements on the unbuilt portion, approached the fence, and attempted to see if I could cut through the wire on this illegal fence with the only tool I have available, some hedge trimmers,” Sutaria wrote. “My attempt was unsuccessful, so thank goodness we have not needed to use this pathway for an escape route – yet.”
A trail cam video clip from July shows Sutaria leading three people on the path, including Linda Swan, who is running for city council as part of an election slate with Sutaria’s husband, Jay, and Swan’s husband, John. They all duck beneath a “No Trespassing” sign affixed to a tree limb. Lee could not identify the fourth person, a woman.
Prompted by neighbors’ repeated complaints, a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office deputy investigated the area Sept. 15 but closed the case after failing to uncover any acts of vandalism.
Financial fraud accusations
Sutaria’s conflict with town community services supervisor Sarah Robustelli relates to the allocation of funds from Proposition 68, a state grant program providing at least $200,000 for local park rehabilitation to communities that contribute a 20% match. Sutaria and other Parks and Rec Committee members desire the money for a new, multipurpose community venue at Purissima Park, which primarily consists of baseball fields now. A September 2019 staff report Robustelli wrote to the council instead recommends replacing an existing snack shack there to create an indoor community meeting space.
Sutaria complained to Spreen about Robustelli in an email sent earlier this month.
“I forwarded you an email thread wherein it is evident Sarah is working against the needs of our residents,” Sutaria wrote. “If you need more, I would be happy to provide it because I have plenty, including last year when she went behind our committee’s back, lied in a staff report and stole $250,000 of grant money.”
City Manager Carl Cahill defended Robustelli at Thursday’s council meeting, stating the town has yet to receive any grant money for his employee to steal. When approached by the Town Crier, Robustelli declined to comment.
Both Spreen and Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan are part of an ad hoc subcommittee charged with investigating the structure of town committees, some of which have become difficult to manage.
The council unanimously reappointed Sutaria to the Parks and Rec Committee for a second term in January, but Corrigan said the chairwoman’s leadership style recently caused three other members to step down and assume associate member roles. Sutaria’s unauthorized actions as a Pathways rep serve as an example why the council should determine associate committee membership, Spreen added.
“Town staff and the Pathways Committee itself have tried to follow the proper process on this path proposal, and it invalidates the process when you have an associate member recklessly disregarding the rights and complaints of the landowners,” he said.
The Town Crier reached out to Sutaria and Swan for comment Friday morning.
Sutaria said via statement that she is “taken aback” by Spreen’s “personal and public attack” against her. She denied ever cutting her neighbor’s fence and that she has caused anyone to resign; she said two Parks and Rec Committee members’ terms expired and they chose to become associate members. She isn't sure who the third committee member is that Corrigan referred to.
Sutaria tendered her own resignations in a letter sent to Wu.
“Roger Spreen’s decision to bring his accusations of Code of Conduct violations against me in the formal setting of a City Council meeting was inappropriate and in my opinion intended to intimidate and humiliate me,” she wrote. “I am sorry if my grave concern for our residents’ fire safety and working to find a way for some small part of our town’s only park, Purissima Park, available for a greater variety of uses has rubbed some people the wrong way.”
Sutaria previously indicated to the Town Crier that the council’s scrutiny of her is politically motivated.
Swan described her July hike behind the Milner, Lee and Babayan homes as an attempt to understand where the improved path would go. She said she’s sorry if she accidentally stepped on private property, but insisted Spreen got it wrong Thursday night: The current route is an unimproved path and not an illegal one. She also sent an email of explanation to Pathways Committee members, which her husband forwarded to the Town Crier on Monday.
"Since the public easements are already held by the Town and the trail had been surveyed and marked with wooden stakes and ribbon by the Town, I knew I wasn’t trespassing on private property," she wrote. "There were No Trespassing Signs, but I did not know who put them up and thought they were placed there to keep people on the pathway and off the surrounding property."
Parks and Rec Committee member Scott Vanderlip called the Town Crier Saturday to defend Sutaria. Vanderlip said his colleague didn’t mean Robustelli literally “stole bags of money,” but that Robustelli attempted to direct funds toward a project other committee members didn’t support. He suggested council members’ “dressing down” of Sutaria could make other town volunteers scared to speak their minds.
“They basically forced her to resign and pushed her, threw her into the mud,” Vanderlip said.