Police called to sewer board meeting

Kelly Fergusson

Daily Post Correspondent

Former Menlo Park mayor Kelly Fergusson has been appointed to the East Palo Alto Sanitary District board — despite public objections about the appointment process that were so heated that police were called to the board meeting.

The sanitary district board voted 3-0-1 on Thursday, with board member Ofelia Bello abstaining, to approve Fergusson’s appointment.

Fergusson, a registered civil engineer, was the only applicant for the seat, according to Akin Okupe, the sanitary district’s general manager. Okupe said he advertised the board vacancy “in accordance with the government code.”

The fireworks started during Thursday’s meeting when a member of the public said she knew someone who was interested in the position.

Board President Dennis Scherzer told her the application deadline had passed.

“That’s how you all do stuff,” the woman said. “You all didn’t announce it.” As the woman started to raise her voice, Scherzer called for her microphone to be shut off.

“I didn’t call on you to speak,” Scherzer said. “I’m not going to tolerate this type of interruption tonight. If you want to be this way, you’re going to have to go and be this way somewhere else.”

It’s not clear when the police arrived. It can be seen on a YouTube video of the meeting, which stays focused on the faces of board members and sanitary district staff. Some board members were participating in the meeting via Zoom. There also appears to be a gap in the video recording just after Scherzer orders the woman’s microphone to be shut off.

Call to police explained

But after a member of the public asked about meeting protocols, saying she was shocked that officers were called in, Scherzer said an employee had called police. He said the board’s protocol “calls for everyone to respect the decorum of the meeting,” and that district staff must be protected.

“The entire meeting was disrupted,” Scherzer said. “And none of us has training or authorization to deal with the type of disruption we had, so we called on the people who are professionally trained and authorized to do that.”

Another member of the public said he didn’t feel the opening for a board seat had been advertised enough. He said that in addition to notices in the newspaper, “we need to put it in something else and pass it out to the residents of the community.”

“We just go to their homes and drop it on their front porch, or drop it in their mailbox,” he said. “They should be allowed to know what’s happening. … It’s only fair.”

Bello, the board member who abstained from voting on Fergusson’s appointment, said although the district’s noticing of the position met legal requirements, there’s “no harm in kind of doing a little bit extra.”

“This is a very legal, technical thing,” she said. “Unless folks know to look for it, they’re not going to necessarily find it.”

Bello said even though Fergusson’s resume was impressive, “I’m just a little bit jarred by the process today.”

Questions for the board

Thursday’s vote doesn’t necessarily end the debate over the appointment process. East Palo Alto resident Keisha Evans fired off an email to the sanitary district board on Friday morning, demanding to know when and where the vacant seat on the board was announced to the public. Evans also wants to know what the board’s policy is for soliciting applications.

Fergusson, the newly appointed board member, will take the place of board member Martha Stryker, who resigned in April. Stryker is the daughter of Scherzer, a long-time board member.

Fergusson works for a company that develops large clean energy projects for public agencies in Northern California. She has three degrees from Stanford: a bachelor’s degree in land use planning and master’s and doctorate degrees in civil engineering.

As a Menlo Park City Council member, Fergusson was forced to step down as mayor in 2010 due to a violation of the Brown Act, which is the state’s open-meeting law. Fergusson met one-on-one with at least three council members to tell them she wanted to be mayor.

‘Hostile takeover attempt’

More recently, Fergusson was active in a letter-writing campaign to block what the sanitary district calls “the hostile takeover attempt” of the district by the city of East Palo Alto.

The San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo, is in the midst of a process to make the sanitary district a subsidiary of the city of East Palo Alto rather than an independent entity. LAFCo oversees government agencies within the county.

During a protest period from Feb. 12 through May 22, landowners and registered voters within the district had a chance to submit written protests to the proposal.

Rob Bartoli, San Mateo LAFCo’s executive officer, told the Post last week that LAFCo is still counting and verifying protest forms. Preliminary results might be available later this month.

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