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Website launch signals ‘civil war’ in Los Altos Hills, some call for city manager’s removal

A group of Los Altos Hills residents – including the husband of a current council member – has launched a campaign to upend the town’s management and oust City Manager Carl Cahill.

Carl Cahill
Cahill

John Swan, husband of Councilmember Linda Swan, formed the group TTAGS (“Townspeople for Transparency, Accountability, no more Garbage contract fiascos, Safety and service improvements”). He sent an email to an undisclosed number of recipients March 10 titled “Problems with Our Los Altos Hills City Manager – It Is Time to Move On!” It directs readers to a newly published website, ttags.org, that urges the city council to change the town’s governance and to consider a petition requesting council members “review mistakes of the past and develop an action plan to assure those mistakes are not repeated.”

The website outlines several complaints some residents have recently voiced about Cahill, most notably the Swans, Finance and Investment Committee member Allan Epstein, former council candidate Jay Sutaria and his wife, Nina Sutaria, Robert Sandor and current Councilmember Stanley Q. Mok – at least when Mok was running for office last year. Only John Swan and Sandor, however, have publicly announced their affiliation with the site, and it is unknown if the others are involved.

The site blames town management for a 15-year, $50 million contract signed with GreenWaste Recovery, asserting Cahill and others responsible for the deal waited too long to negotiate an agreement favorable to residents. It expresses opposition to the planned town hall expansion, estimated to cost approximately $3.5 million, and instead calls for the construction of a community center. It also alleges staff salaries are too high.

Curly the Pig
Courtesy of ttags.org
The mascot of the TTAGS group is Curly, a pink cartoon pig.

“City manager’s favorite staff are among the highest paid in the same position next to Los Angeles and the State of California,” according to the website.

It singles out community services supervisor Sarah Robustelli and maintenance supervisor Jacob Asfour, who earned $168,405.30 and $196,660.08, respectively, in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available on transparentcalifornia.com, a database of government employee salaries.

Cahill earned $283,818.79 in total pay and benefits, the site points out.

The mascot of the TTAGS group is Curly, a pink cartoon pig.

“Curly represents our town’s piggy bank,” the site states. “TTAGS’ mission is to help educate our city council, residents and city management so that we spend our residents’ dollars and our tax dollars more wisely.”

A 'civil war'

In an interview Thursday, John Swan said he had hoped to avoid a “civil war” similar to the epic and ongoing Los Altos School District-Bullis Charter School debate, but that has become unavoidable due to Cahill’s alleged “bullying and intimidation tactics” toward staff and residents.

Even former staff members are reticent to publicly air their grievances, Swan said.

“It is amazing how many people who have been in town for a long time fear retaliation and retribution (from) our city manager, which, to me, speaks volumes of the environment that needs to be changed,” he said.

As of last week, five people had signed the ttags.org petition. John Swan chalked up the low number to the fact that when he first promoted the site, the petition was not anonymous.

When the Town Crier inquired whether Cahill would like to comment on TTAGS, he sent an email explaining the organizational structure of the town and how staff members, including himself, act only with the direction of the city council. He justified staff compensation by citing a consultant’s 2018 employee compensation study.

Town staff members’ “total compensation, overall, in comparison to the market median, is 5% below the market,” the report states.

“I recognize that I can always do better and I’m always open to suggestions and advice from residents,” Cahill wrote to the Town Crier. “I reached out to John Swan prior to his website launch and offered to meet with him but he was not willing. I’m still willing to meet with John to discuss his issues should he change his mind.”

Swell of support

Current and former town leaders, residents and town staff members have rallied to defend Cahill since TTAGS formed. Bridget Morgan, a longtime town volunteer, is among them. She objects to claims the town workforce is bloated and Cahill is responsible.

“The city council – not Carl – has the power of the purse,” she said. “They approve the budget every year, they approve whether a new staff person is added during a budget cycle. That’s thoroughly discussed and vetted and the council approves it.”

TTAGS
Courtesy of ttags.org
TTAGS stands for “Townspeople for Transparency, Accountability, no more Garbage contract fiascos, Safety and service improvements”

“This website attack on Carl is very, very much a disruptive and destructive effort,” Morgan added. “It’s nonpositive in my view.”

Others spoke up during the March council meeting and submitted letters prior to Cahill’s closed-door performance evaluation, both of which took place Thursday.

“Every resident should take offense at this group lobbing cheap, slanderous insults, specifically targeted at two staff members, Sarah Robustelli and Jacob Asfour,” former Mayor Roger Spreen said during the council meeting. “This is a shameful act, maybe even more sickening by its anonymous nature. I want to apologize to Sarah and Jacob, two of our most loyal, hardest-working, longest-term employees that they should have to put up with such cowardly slurs on their performance and value.”

The majority of the letters, including one signed by 18 current staff members, expressed support for the city manager. A letter submitted by Epstein, however, questions whether staff turnover reflects poorly on Cahill’s management style. By Epstein’s count, 28 employees have left the town in the past five years.

“Keeping the best employees is an essential part of managing a successful organization,” Epstein wrote. “High turnover is an indication of low employee satisfaction. Government agencies typically experience the lowest level of employee turnover; however, the Town’s turnover rate is extremely high.”

Since the publication of ttags.org, the text featured on its pages has changed several times. An early version did not include the names of the people behind it, but three residents’ names were later added: John Swan’s, former Mayor Michelle Wu’s and Sandor’s. When the Town Crier asked Wu and Sandor if they knew their names were on the site, Wu said she did not and declined to comment further. Sandor said he “absolutely” agreed to include his name. Soon afterward, all names were removed.

“One of the criticisms of TTAGS is that we do not show all of our team members’ names,” the site states. “It is a shame that at this time, our other members do not want to be identified out of fear of reprisal from our city management. This fear speaks volumes of the negative environment many residents feel at this time towards our city management.”

When the Town Crier questioned Mayor Kavita Tankha about TTAGS, she said she objects to the group’s “mischaracterization of how town government works.”

“We have a city manager form of government where it’s us, the elected representatives, that are responsible to the residents, and the city manager works for us and follows our direction,” Tankha said. “We as council set the tone and tenor of the type of government we want to see. When we spread information, misinformation, about how we think the council works, it erodes confidence in government.”

Linda Swan declined to comment when approached by the Town Crier. Her husband, however, mentioned his wife’s fellow council members “hammered” her during Cahill’s performance evaluation. He said she could not elaborate further due to confidentiality protocols.

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