The Los Altos City Council’s decision to adopt an accountability policy demonstrates the council’s commitment to transparency and determination to self-regulate. Let me explain.
• Censure is not censorship. Both the Brown Act and judicial precedent protect First Amendment rights. This policy explicitly agrees: disagreement, personal opinion and criticism are all protected. Censure does not neuter debate.
• It’s legal to hold elected officials accountable. Courts have held that even if an elected or appointed official is not an employee, he or she must adhere to the standards of workplace conduct expected of wage-earning employees. Our State Legislature has codified this into local governance policy guidance.
Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, elected public officials are considered “Supervisors” because they hire and fire, and “Agents” because they do the business on the city’s behalf. Both classifications confirm that workplace conduct rules are legal and enforceable.
• Accountability policy is not unusual; it’s the norm. Cities that agree span the large and small, the progressive and conservative, all along the socioeconomic spectrum of our state: East Palo Alto, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Los Gatos, Oakland, Palos Verdes, San Jose, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Stockton, etc.
The California Institute for Local Government published a list of “Six Key Attributes of Exceptional City Councils”; the fifth attribute is that councils “hold themselves and the city accountable.”
In Santa Cruz, things got bad on the city council, resulting in recalls (Grand Jury Report, June 25, 2020). The Grand Jury “examined the City Leadership and aspects of the City’s government” to discern how things had devolved. It found it was the lack of governing and accountability policies that enabled disagreement, irritation, disrespect and bad interactions among city council members, and between them and city staff, on social media, in council meetings, in debates and in writing. Of the Grand Jury’s findings, this one stands out: “The City Council’s conduct policy is insufficient to guide behavior and lacks enforcement provisions.”
• The lack of accountability policy puts the city at risk. Bad conduct by a council member toward a city employee, a member of the public, another council member or in violation of law or policy exposes the city, as co-defendant, to liability. It gets worse when it can be shown that council members knew about misconduct and did nothing about it. These are facts supported by extensive legal precedent.
• Accountability is not discipline. An elected city council member cannot be disciplined in the official sense of being fined, suspended or fired by fellow officials. But this is precisely why the California League of Cities recommends that when an official breaks council rules, “the safest approach” is to “conduct an investigation,” and then take “the option to censure the offending councilmember.”
• People want accountability in governance. Some say that this policy silences the public, particularly minorities or “othered” voices, and is an affront to social/racial equity. On the contrary, accountability policies validate our voices. The Rule of Law is embodied not only in the standards to which the public must adhere, but in the rules of conduct for law enforcement, city employees and public officials. These standards must be fair and visible. These standards mean nothing if they lack accountability and enforcement. We indeed have elections, impeachments and recalls to hold elected officials accountable. But I maintain that these are expensive, lengthy, massively divisive instruments. Instead, I support the local self-regulation benefits that accountability policies afford; let the council work among themselves to correct rule breakers and regain the public trust. We will all learn something about the true meaning of civics as a result.
Jeanine Valadez is a retired tech executive and 32-year resident of Los Altos.