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Editorial: When local government leaders refuse to answer questions, they become their own worst enemies

Original post made on Sep 20, 2019

Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada won't talk with us. At his direction, neither will police Chief Bob Jonsen, fire Chief Geo Blackshire or any other city employee. Which means, by extension, they won't talk to you, the citizens of Palo Alto, either.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, September 20, 2019, 12:00 AM

Comments (19)

Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 20, 2019 at 5:43 am

The City Council has oversight over the city manager. Where is the City Council on this?

Posted by A Moral Compass
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 20, 2019 at 7:08 am

A Moral Compass is a registered user.

The City Manager & the respective public safety agency officials have an ethical & professional responsibility to keep the citizens of Palo Alto adequately informed of all municipal measures/incidents directly related to their paid duties as city administrators.

It is my understanding that the CPA recently hired a city spokesperson to provide public information on behalf of these administrators. If they are unable (or unwilling) to disseminate pertinent city-related information to the residents of the community, it should be her responsibility/role to fulfill this obligation.

Perhaps there is a legal issue/concern behind this incident & the subsequent 'silent treatment' by Shikada & upper municipal management. Failure to provide adequate & comprehensive response to a phone-in public safety concern/matter could
provide grounds for a civil lawsuit & bad PR.

Covering-up certain matters only makes them & the City of Palo Alto look bad in the public eye & media requests should always be acknowledged unless the City Attorney is advising them not to which case, something is very wrong with the overall picture.

Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2019 at 8:00 am

Yes, "the truth will set you free" isn't quite the motto of any of our public agencies.

They are afraid of lawsuits, of course. Admitting wrongdoing isn't easy. Yet the "keep quiet" approach is disastrous not only because it undermines the essential roles of our public offices and institutions, but also because it just doesn't work. It evokes strong distrust and moral outrage. By behaving as adversaries, we create adversaries. This op-ed is so needed right now for us in Palo Alto, because our school and government officials are, unintentionally, creating tempest after tempest. They are afraid to work openly, collaboratively, and diligently with their citizens to solve problems. We never deescalate, we bunker. Let's start rebuilding this trust.

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of University South
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm

As much as I dislike Shikada and his continued wishy-washiness, I think it's important to note that both he and the City Attorney are charged with protecting the interests of the City, with a capital "C." The City consists of all of it's taxpayers, who will be on the hook for any misconduct by police officers and other City officials. They are wise to keep tight lips until they need to answer questions in court. Anyone who is threatened with a lawsuit should know that it's best to keep quiet.

Posted by Local
a resident of another community
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:19 pm

Has it occurred to the Editorial Board that perhaps a lawsuit is pending over this episode, and perhaps Mr. Shikada doesn't want to comment (or have all of his employees comment) on the subject of pending litigation?

And do you really think no one from the City has apologized to this woman yet??

Let's dial the indignation back a bit, shall we? Just because you couldn't get everyone involved to sit down for an interview with you immediately does not make this the scandal of the century.

Posted by Cover up culture
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 20, 2019 at 12:47 pm

I think what needs to be said is that Ed Shikada and all of the City Council and apparatus, including the City Attorney, seem to see it as their duty to spend our taxpayer dollars looking out for city public employees, including themselves, who are supposed to be providing services, rather than looking out for residents and taxpayers who are paying for the services. Oh no..... If the police, dispatcher or whomever in city employ makes an error, or breaks the law, well obviously it is the city's duty to just obfuscate, deny, and cover up for them, the police, the dispatcher, the fire fighter, the public employee, or whomever, and to make sure that no one will get disciplined or possibly lose some pay or have a letter put in their personnel file, or god forbid anyone lose their well compensated city job with great benefits over their own wrongdoing and be held accountable. Heck no!!! After all, it is the provider of these services that comes first in the hierarchy, not the consumer of such services, the residents, who happen to pay for them. We have to look out for the providers of services, of course, of course, of course, in this upside down, corrupt, unionized public employee world at the City. It's the same at the school district, which violates the public records law routinely and just recently engaged in a big coverup designed to save administrator's jobs who broke the law --- while using a taxpayer financed student publication to do it to boot! Well done!

Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2019 at 1:28 pm

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of University South

>> They are wise to keep tight lips until they need to answer questions in court. Anyone who is threatened with a lawsuit should know that it's best to keep quiet.

I disagree. This shouldn't be about what the City can get away with. The City should seek to make anyone injured by action or inaction "whole", as, indeed, should you or I if we are at fault in a private matter. Yes, I understand that while an investigation is going on, too much talking can muddy the waters, but, the City should have apologized at once, and, investigated, and, promised to conduct a real inquiry. Then, lessons learned, and, new protocols to be followed. Instead, we have silence, which is a message in itself. As a citizen, I want the city to accept its responsibility. Yes, it will cost me as a taxpayer.

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2019 at 1:33 am

"Their treatment of the woman, documented in the body cam footage, is excruciating to watch as the officer attempted for five minutes to lead the woman to say she needed psychiatric help."

""Do you want to go to the hospital or do you want to see a psychiatrist?" Clausen asked.
"No no no no no no no. Oh my god," the woman said.

"What do you need? Tell me what you need," Clausen said as the woman became more panicked and struggled for words.

"Here is what I need. I need — I need — I need helple."

"Have you had anything to drink today?" Clausen replied.”

Can you pinpoint the precise moment in which the woman, who was seizing and afraid she was going to die, experiences the humiliating and terrifying realization that she is being treated as an object not an equal human being who needs urgent help? This is the experience of bias against millions of women in all kinds of medical and emergency response situations.

In Dr. Jody Heymann’s book “Equal Partners”, the Harvard Medical School and Kennedy School of Government graduate describes an experience very much like this when she, too, had a seizure because of an undiagnosed brain tumor. Only in her case, the paramedics accused her of being on drugs.

Yes, there needs to be a frank, open, and honest examination of what went wrong. We the public need to witness a spirit of drive to improve constantly by fixing mistakes, and where there has been a drive to CYA, we must eliminate those influences from our departments for everyone’s safety.

But make no mistake, the snap judgments about women played a role here. For many women who have suffered serious medical conditions, this kind of dehumanizing, dangerous treatment is all too familiar. It causes such humiliation, trauma, and powerlessness, I have heard women describe these situations like assaults. Of course it’s excruciating to watch, we know the outcome. But what if the woman had a silent heart attack and the paramedics didn’t see what was wrong on the way to the hospital? The woman would have been “treated” to more humiliation similar to the above.

This article is spot on in its call for the City to care about correcting mistakes. But as a progressive City, we should also care about our vulnerability to future incidents because of the serious bias against women, especially older women.

Posted by Shikada is cautious
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 21, 2019 at 10:20 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by Me Too As Well
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 21, 2019 at 1:17 pm

"....the snap judgments about women played a role here. For many women who have suffered serious medical conditions, this kind of dehumanizing, dangerous treatment is all too familiar."

And the irony/tragedy is that Officer Claussen is a WOMAN as well & should have been more 'dialed-in' to the situation (unless she is simply acquiescing to standard PAPD male officer weighted questioning procedures).

Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 21, 2019 at 4:41 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

The tone of this coverage and the opinion piece rub me the wrong way.

The individuals that work in our city government are tremendous. The are not above reproach, but as I read this piling on in the coverage, I wonder if we have lost our perspective and grace. My engagement with the city is through community service, and I work with the folks at City Hall on a weekly basis. They are awesome. Our new fire chief has climbed to his position through the city ranks, and also I have watched our city manager evolve a municipal strategy that is more practical and tactical. The staff are busy. They make mistakes also.

The article builds a different view, and one that is false. My hunch is that the events the coverage reviews have obvious corrective actions, and they will be taken. However, the coverage takes no hostages, and is too aggressive. The Weekly backs staff into a corner, and I am at a loss as to why.

I empathize for the person whose care was bungled. But I don't find the coverage proportional to the shortcomings in service.

I hope the Weekly and community shift their energy to more important topics, and allow the emergency response system to make the obvious corrective actions. I frankly doubt this will happen again, but of course we can always do better.

Posted by Helen Johnson
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 21, 2019 at 5:03 pm

Re Bob Wenzlau's comment. I understand but disagree. I think what's important is the poor performance of both the police and fire departments in ways that indicate bigger issues. The violation of policy was evidently accepted, and probably expected, by both junior and senior staff members. I doubt that many of them even knew of the policies they were violating. That indicates a lax management practice across the organization.

Take the scene itself. What were the fire and EMT responders doing while they were waiting, and while the police officer was bungling through an encounter with a woman in obvious distress? Why did they not have a sense of professional responsibility to resist waiting and failing to deliver aid?

I'm sure Jonsen and Blackshire are pleasant men. What seems likely from this story is that they are poor leaders and managers.

Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 1:46 am

I don't understand how Chief Jonsen is responsible for two employees who made poor decisions, he is not a puppeteer. He is probably re-evaluating the rules about making the EMTs wait. The rule was obviously made for a reason, perhaps a psych case charged a fireman and hurt him in the past. It makes sense that law enforcement should clear the scene for safety first. It is a sad story but the woman survived and it was a lesson for all.
Stop signs and traffic signals are installed after deaths and accidents, rules are made or changed based upon experience. People, life is not perfect, quit throwing daggers and move on with your lives.

Posted by Medical emergencies - ALL
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 22, 2019 at 8:59 am

Copied from another thread:

Let's be clear. This was OBVIOUSLY a MEDICAL emergency.
The police are NOT qualified to diagnose medical conditions. They can assess public safety concerns. Very quickly it would have be clear that there was NO public safety issue.

This woman had serious medical symptoms: panic, difficulty speaking, confusion, collapse on the ground, and she requested 911 and to be taken to a hospital.

It DOES NOT MATTER if the cause of these symptoms is a stroke, a seizure, a drug or alcohol overdose, or an underlying psychological condition. At that moment, it was a MEDICAL emergency and a MEDICAL professional was desperately needed to diagnose and treat this woman.

The BRAIN is a part of your BODY. If your brain is mis-functioning for WHATEVER reason, that is a medical emergency and requires medical assistance.
The police needed to do a very fast assessment for public safety and then get out of the way so trained medical professionals (EMTs) could do their job.

Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 9:54 am

The officers should have been able to evaluate the scene faster if indeed, the article is correct, but we are all Monday Morning Quarterbacks. Chief Jonsen is not a puppeteer, he cannot control everything his employees do. The staging makes sense and was probably created because there was an incidence where non-law enforcement was endangered. He is probably re-evaluating the staging or at least re-training or advising officers. Just as laws are written because of an incident, this is a learning experience for PAPD. Fortunately, the woman survived but surely, it was psychologically traumatic and could lead to PTSD, very unfortunate. Life is not fair.

Posted by Truth
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2019 at 10:00 am

I see my double posting. It didn't appear online last night.

Posted by Helen Johnson
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 22, 2019 at 10:23 am

Reading the article, no one from dispatchers to police officers to fire personnel knew, or at least cared to follow, the current policy about when and how to stage the emergency responders and wait for police. So the learning to do is not how to change the policy. It's about how these functions became so badly managed that the policy was universally ignored. That's why it's an issue about the quality of management.

Good management isn't about being a "puppeteer." It's about leading, training and setting expectations so that people know how they are supposed to behave. On that measure, Jonsen and Blackshire seem to be performing poorly.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 22, 2019 at 11:31 am

Resident is a registered user.

As the articles and others have pointed out, there appear to have been multiple failures to follow current systems and procedures by front line personnel, rather than a lack of appropriate policies and procedures. The city manager stated that additional training has been put in place. I hope and assume these will be adequate to prevent a repeat of the cluster of serious errors.
The editorial draws attention to equally disturbing actions by the city attorney and city manager. That is that they appear to have deliberately and repeatedly defied their legal obligations to provide the public records to the Weekly They claimed an exemption for “investigations” but have not asserted nor shared of any actual investigation. These are our two highest city officers who have a duty to serve the public in addition to narrowly serving the city government. They report to our representatives, the city council who owe us accountability on why records are not being provided.
Interestingly, the mid year reviews for these officers were just dropped from a recent council agenda. Why?

Posted by Bureaucratic BS
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 22, 2019 at 1:17 pm

NO EXCUSES. The City Administrators & their respective departments are to be held to a higher authority, responsibility & scrutiny.

That is the only way for them to justify their exorbitant tax-payer supported salaries & generous CALPers retirement packages.

If they cannot perform their jobs at the highest levels OR are unwilling to acknowledge their oversights...REPLACE THEM.

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