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San Carlos city council divided after news leak

By Paul Jones | 8 Oct 2010

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At a Sept. 27 meeting, Matt Grocott of the San Carlos City Council (right) defended his decision to reveal closed session information about the city's negotiations to hire an interim city manager to a local newspaper.

San Carlos City Councilman Matt Grocott says he was promoting accountability to the public when he disclosed confidential information to a newspaper about the council’s efforts to hire an interim city manager. But he’s been accused of violating the city’s trust by other council members.

Grocott spoke to a Palo Alto Daily Post reporter after a Sept. 13 closed-session meeting, prematurely revealing the council’s choice for the interim position – Administrative Services Director Jeff Maltbie – and the $5,000 pay bonus the city’s attorney had been authorized to offer him.

At a Sept. 27 meeting, the other four council members said Grocott’s disclosure risked undermining their efforts to hire Maltbie and may have harmed the city’s reputation by leaking the terms of the deal before negotiations were finished. The council then voted – with Grocott dissenting – to approve Maltbie as the interim city manager.

Maltbie replaces the city’s retiring city manager, Mark Weiss, until a permanent successor is hired.

Mayor Randy Royce (right) said speaking about closed session items before the city was ready to reveal them to the public would not be tolerated.

“My feeling is it appears that confidential information was released early,” Mayor Randy Royce said. “I would just point out that our entire council — including myself — needs to be very careful.”

Royce added, “Any discussion or release of confidential information during closed sessions … if it does go out, it will not be tolerated by this city council.”

Vice Mayor Omar Ahmad said desirable prospective employees could decide to shun San Carlos if their trust in the city’s leaders is shaken.

Grocott defended his actions, and said the council should have informed the public that it had authorized the city attorney to offer Maltbie the $5,000 bonus in closed session.

“We’re spending the public’s money, and the public has a right to know,” Grocott said.

Grocott also said the council’s hiring of Maltbie violated the city’s code. He said that because Weiss remains on the payroll until mid-December (Weiss is on paid vacation until then), he is still city manager and has exclusive authority to appoint an “acting city manager” in his absence.

“When his vacation is — during the middle of his employment or the end — it doesn’t specify,” Grocott said.

The city’s code states that the city manager must appoint an acting city manager upon his absence. But the city attorney, Greg Rubens, said because Weiss’s departure was permanent, the council was within its rights to appoint an interim.

“Mark Weiss has retired,” Rubens said. “He may be receiving residual benefits, but he’s no longer serving in capacity as the city manager.”

Rubens said the council’s closed-session direction that Rubens offer Maltbie the position and bonus was allowed by the Brown Act, a state law that specifies what public officials can do in private meetings. In an interview, Rubens said it was Grocott’s decision to reveal confidential information that could constitute breaking the law.

“It can be a violation of the Brown Act,” he said.

Royce said in an interview that he would not likely order an investigation into Grocott’s actions.

Cities in California regularly negotiate employee contracts, discuss litigation and attend to a range of other matters in closed session, although many final actions — such as the council’s vote to confirm Maltbie as interim city manager and approve his $5,000 bonus — must be done in open session.

Royce acknowledged that closed sessions cut the public out of important government decision-making at certain stages. However, he said there were times keeping information private served the interests of cities and their citizens.

“Topics like labor negotiations with unions, lawsuits, property acquisitions and sales; that is highly confidential information,” Royce said. “If someone releases that information, it could erode our labor negotiations. In the case of lawsuits, it could be damaging.”

Royce also said members of the public do have the ability to influence matters initially addressed in closed session.

“There is public comment at every meeting for items not on the agenda, so people can get up and talk about anything,” he said. “And if someone wants to pull an item from the consent calendar for discussion, we’ll pull it.”

Ultimately, Royce said, members of the council are held responsible for all of their decisions when they run for reelection.

Maltbie, who has worked since 2001 variously as the city’s senior management analyst, deputy city manager and administrative services director, was considered for city manager by the city of Milpitas in 2006. While Maltbie fills in as interim, San Carlos will conduct an outside search for a new city manager. Maltbie said he is a contender for that position.

“The city council has asked me, and I’ve let them know I do have an interest in pursuing the permanent position,” Maltbie said.

Appointing an interim manager from its own ranks also is a cost-saving move by the city, which has had to outsource its park and police services, and is looking at dissolving the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department to save money.

“We’re not only keeping someone who’s been intimately involved with issues that have been in the city for some time,” said former San Carlos finance officer Rebecca Mendenhall, who has taken over Maltbie’s old position. “If we hired an outside city manager or outsourced to a consulting firm, we’d have to pay much more.”

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