Post a New Topic
Enough's enough, theater supporters say
Original post made
on May 6, 2008
The Palo Alto Children's Theatre community continued to rally behind the 76-year-old institution and its staff members Monday night, despite recent revelations that police suspect Director Pat Briggs, the late Assistant Director Michael Litfin and Costume Supervisor Alison Williams of embezzlement.
'Embezzlement' theory behind police probe
Briggs' attorneys challenge police statements
ARCHIVE: Children's Theatre investigation
Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, May 6, 2008, 2:16 AM
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on May 7, 2008 at 1:59 pm
This is the letter I have sent to the City Council today, with copies to Mr. Benest and Police Chief Johanson.
Dear Council Members,
I have decided to comment on the situation involving the Children's Theater. Information I use here comes from the various articles in the San Jose Mercury News, the Palo Alto Daily and the Palo Alto Weekly, beginning when this story first appeared in public. I have also read the comments in the Palo Alto Forum Online.
The public, esp those members of the public closely aligned with the Children's Theater (CT) seems mostly concerned that the police investigation implies that the senior theater staff are guilty of some level of criminal activity, and that given their decades of dedicated work with our children, this is unfair and uncalled for. Blame is placed therefore, not on possible wrong doing by someone, but on the police whose job it is to investigate such allegations and findings.
My take is this: Mostly likely, though not positively, the senior theater directors are not guilty of criminal intent, but of stupidity in the management of substantial amounts of taxpayer funds over a long period of time. Regardless of their dedication to the theater and their love of the children and of how many "stars" they have produced and lives they have saved, none of this is relevant to their
absolute responsibility to manage the financial aspects of their jobs in a proper, generally accepted standard of accounting. That is one reason why they are paid such high salaries. If they know how to request a travel advance, they should know how to account for how it was spent.
But the real scandal here lies not with the senior theater team. Let's assume that they are basically artists managing a small town children's theater, producing local programs which are loved and well received by the community. Clearly, however, none of them are ever going to manage, lets say the Metropolitan Opera Company, nor should we expect that level of management skills. Hence, the city government which supports this enterprise must provide the level of expertise and oversight that any government operation requires, "beloved institution" or otherwise. This clearly has not been done. For example, proper accounting procedures should require that an advance of funds is never given as long as the previous advance has not be properly reconciled with full justification and proof of how the money was spent. Such an advance must be accompanied with a list of
instructions as to what is an allowable expense and what is not. Basic common sense tells one that company money is NEVER mixed with personal accounts. To do so opens one up to serious question when regular audits take place. When I had my own company, of which I was sole owner, my tax account would have blown a gasket if I mixed company funds with my personal accounts, and my many clients would have been rightly appalled if they discovered that I did, since the company was responsible for managing many tens of thousands of dollars of their money.
Mr. Benest's recent public comment that accounting procedures were lax because the CT is a "beloved institution" are grounds for immediate dismissal in my opinion. To even make such a statement indicates a level of incompetence that simply cannot be tolerated in such a high level management position where hundreds of millions of dollars are under his control and direction. Since he is leaving at the end of June, under no circumstances should he be permitted to remain until a replacement is found, not should he be given a going away bonus. The Utility Department scandal and now the CT scandal rest ultimately on his shoulders and he must be held accountable. Council Members, this is one situation where you would be justified in calling in an independent outside auditor group to audit the entire city, to discover what other kind of "scandals" lie buried in the rubble of years of very poor city management.
Nor are you Council Members off the hook. One of your most important tasks is the proper management of the taxpayers funds. In this case, I am surprised to learn that two members of the Council are engaging in serious conflicts of interest vis a vis the CT. Mayor Klein is probate officer of the Litfin estate, and CM Morton has done accounting for the theater Friends group. Since the CT is a city operation, no CM should be professionally involved with any aspect of this
organization or of its senior directors. Does anyone besides me see the irony of Morton, a professional accountant, doing accounting for the Friends group? I expect these two CMs to recuse themselves from any further Council involvement, meetings or discussion where the CT is the subject. Nor should they make further public statements about this case. They cannot serve two masters, we taxpayers and a city agency in trouble at the same time.
Finally, Chief Johnson should be commended for following through with this investigation, even though it may be a bit slow and heavy handed - this is her job after all. The senior CT team should either be charged and then sent to trial, or taken off leave and allowed to return to their jobs. A complete audit should be taken of the CT and they need to be given thorough training on how to handle city money. Hopefully the new city manager will have much more professional standards in place than has been the case under the present administration. The CT team needs to make a public apology to the residents of this town and to the children they serve for being so stupid in handling this aspect of their job.
Hopefully everyone has learned a lesson from all this.
Richard C. Placone