Opinion: Odor complaint sends city hall into a tizzy


Daily Post Editor

It’s been a strange few months at Los Altos City Hall, and I’m sure residents are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is going on.

They can’t even watch the council meetings live on TV any more.

This series of bizarre events began in January when Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins began complaining that her asthma was being agitated by the presence of cigarette-smoker Roberta Phillips at council meetings.

Though Phillips is a smoker, she’s never ever lit up at a council meeting. Phillips is also a critic of the council faction that includes Bruins.

In January, City Attorney Chris Diaz approached Phillips and asked her to leave the meeting.

Phillips refused, pointing out that it was her right under the law to attend a council meeting. Phillips said Diaz immediately agreed and dropped the matter.

It was strange that Bruins didn’t have a problem with former councilman Jean Mordo, a regular cigar smoker who sat on the same council dais with her for four years.

But Bruins’ asthma became so bad that she wore a mask at one meeting.

Then the council meetings were moved to the Los Altos Youth Center.

The problem with that location is that the room gets hot, the acoustics are poor and it’s not equipped for live broadcasts like the council chambers.

To a sneaky government official — and I’m not accusing anybody of that — moving council meetings to a place where they can’t be broadcast allows for a lot of trickery. Things can be slipped by the public.

Bad elected officials hate scrutiny. The good ones welcome it.
The meetings are captured on video and available on the city’s Facebook page. But they’re not set up in a user-friendly manner. You have to know what you’re looking for.

Bruins threatens legal action

At some point between January and July, Bruins threatened the city with a lawsuit or some other type of legal action, Mayor Lynette Lee Eng has said. Apparently, the threat was made verbally since the city denies there is a written claim.

Also, a second cause of Bruin’s malady emerged — the new carpet in the council chambers. That new assertion allowed the city to back away from the absurd claim that it’s Roberta Phillips fault.

On June 25, council held a study session on the location of its meetings. At the end (at 58:18 on the Facebook video the city posted) Mayor Lee Eng says, “We have a majority saying let’s go forward with the PEG (a government acronym for funding of council meeting live broadcasts) fund project we have already approved a year ago at the current council chambers.”

At that point, she looks over to Deputy City Manager Jon Maginot and City Manager Jordan and says, “Did you need a motion? Or was clear direction good enough?”

They didn’t ask for any more direction.

But then somebody yelled “study session,” which could be interpreted as a city employee saying the decision wasn’t binding since it wasn’t at a regular meeting.

However, the city’s official minutes of the meeting show that council directed Jordan to return the meeting to the council chambers. (Here’s the link to the minutes.)

Despite the direction Jordan was given, council continued to hold its meetings in the Los Altos Youth Center as if nothing had happened.

What can council do?

If Lee Eng is unhappy about this, she has the authority as mayor to put the meeting location on the agenda of an upcoming regular meeting and have a roll call vote on whether to bring the meetings back to the council chambers.

If Jordan defies that decision, then it’s appropriate to replace him as manager. The city manager is supposed to follow the instructions of council, not the other way around.

Jordan’s defenders, many of whom are on the pro-development side of Los Altos politics, insist that the city manager has every right to defy the council’s wishes because the Americans with Disabilities Act trumps the actions of local elected officials. In other words, the city manager can ignore his bosses. Only in Los Altos!

Of course, anyone who has experience with the ADA knows there’s a lot of room for interpretation over how the law applies to particular situations. Across the country, court cases are battled every day over what the law means. Lawyers make a fortune litigating ADA claims. There’s also an industry of consultants who make good money advising businesses on ADA. You can find a consultant who will support just about any interpretation you have of the ADA.

Not surprisingly, Jordan hired an ADA consultant for $50,000.

A simple solution

One simple idea would be to have Bruins participate in council meetings from home via Skype or phone. Council members in other cities who are out of town have participated in meetings this way for years. It’s not new.

That would allow the rest of council to return to its chambers and let the public once again view the meetings live on TV. That’s an easy solution to this problem. But my guess is that Los Altos will find a clumsy and expensive fix that will be more divisive than the original problem.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].


  1. Not the first or last time City Attorney Diaz acted at Bruins’ behest, even when such actions or demands violate the Constitutional rights of another.

    Not the first or last time City Manager Jordan would ignore Council’s decisions and act unilaterally, arbitrarily as if Los Altos was his private fiefdom and everybody in the City his serfs.

    Not the first or last time Council wrings its hands and shrugs its shoulders and backs away from what they need to do: assert their authority to deliver on the promises of transparency and open governance promised us much and seldom seen.

    >…Lee Eng is unhappy about this, she has the authority as mayor…
    >If Jordan defies that decision, then it’s appropriate to replace him
    >as manager. The city manager is supposed to follow the instructions
    >of council, not the other way around.

    He was part of the cabal that included Diaz, Bruins, former Mayor Mordo, other City agents and agencies.
    Jordan knows where the bodies are buried.
    It gives him leverage and the confidence to use it. He threatened to sue his former employer (the City of West Linn in OR) and walked away with a small packet.

    Let’s not be any surprised if Los Altos has to pay him a bundle if they were to terminate him, even if there is cause. After all Jordan’s buddy City Attorney Diaz would recommend Council pay him off, right?

  2. >How about providing individual bubbles for odor-triggered council members?

    Give them a guitar to hold in hand and we have The Spinal Tap Redux.

    The only difference being, the Spinal Tap had more honor and at least entertained us whereas the likes of Bruins are conveniently citing their selective purported allergies to target taxpayers against whom they harbor animus.

  3. Mr. Price dances around the key issue here. Bruins, Jordan, Pepper, Murdo, Samek and the Jurassic Park Old Guard politicians who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting are pro-development. They want high-rises in every conceivable location. Getting the meetings off TV will let them do their dirty work while the public is kept in the dark. This is a thinly veiled battle between protecting our community and letting the developers run wild.

  4. >Bruins, Jordan, Pepper, Murdo, Samek…are pro-development.

    Mr Price and the PA Daily Post might want to look into the Code amendments regulating accessory structures and accessory dwelling units that were passed by Los Altos Council June 2018. The Mayor then was Jean Mordo, who has been very vocal in his support for Chris Jordan.

    What they would find is an elaborate charade, under the pretext “State Law changes require us…we have no choice…”, to amend the Code to retrospectively justify City agents’ unlawful actions. If indeed State Laws required such changes how come no other city in the State, neither the ones next to Los Altos nor those farther away, amended their Code as Los Altos did?

    Cities are required to notify the public, via Notice, of upcoming proposals to amend the Code. Guess what? the Public Notice sent out for the June 28 2018 meeting was deliberately, intentionally vague and misleading. It only informs the Council is considering reducing the existing “minimum 15000 sq ft” requirement for an ADU. What was actually passed was the ELIMINATION of any min lot size for an ADU; further they eliminated side setbacks for accessory structures and ADUs now allowing them to be located ON the side property line.
    Mordo, Bruins, Pepper voted for it…it was endorsed previously by Samek and his cohorts on the PTC…it was produced by Jordan and his crew (at Mordo’s behest).

    Cui bono? Do we need to guess?

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