Election of Novato mayor raises charges of open meeting violation

A divided Novato council elected a mayor bypassing a long standing tradition of elevating the pro tem mayor prompting her to challenge the election through accusations that the decision was made behind closed doors violating California’s Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. -db

Marin Independent Journal
December 8, 2010
By Rob Rogers

Under ordinary circumstances, Novato’s annual election for mayor is as regular as the tides — and about as exciting.

On Tuesday, however, the Novato City Council elected Councilwoman Madeline Kellner as the city’s new mayor. In doing so, the council broke a long-standing tradition by making Councilwoman Carole Dillon-Knutson Novato’s first mayor pro tempore in 17 years not to succeed to the mayor’s office.

The move infuriated Dillon-Knutson, who accused her fellow council members of breaking the state public meetings law by making decisions in private, behind her back.

“Councilmember Kellner broke the Brown Act that guides our behavior as elected officials,” Dillon-Knutson said in a statement. “By going to two members to obtain their vote, she created a serial meeting.”

The Novato tradition of elevating the mayor pro tem “should have been honored,” said Councilwoman Pat Eklund, who nominated Dillon-Knutson for mayor and abstained from the vote that elected Kellner. “But that’s not what the other three council members felt. In the history of the city, there’s only been two or three times that rotation has not been honored.”

Both Councilwoman Denise Athas and former Mayor Jeanne MacLeamy said they meant no slight against Dillon-Knutson, who has served twice as mayor during her 15 years on the council. Instead, the two said they wanted to recognize the leadership shown by Kellner, who was elected to her first term in 2007. Kellner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

“We are in unprecedented times, and I believe we need a really strong leader,” Athas said. “Madeline is a level-headed person who does her homework, is able to tackle hard issues head-on in and has proven herself capable of being available for all of her council obligations.”

Athas said she and MacLeamy only met with each other to discuss the issue, as allowed by law.

“We would have liked to discuss the issue with Carole, but under the Brown Act, we couldn’t,” Athas said. “It put us in the situation of blindsiding her (during Tuesday’s meeting), which was not our intent. This wasn’t a personal decision. It was a business decision for the town.”

Ernie Gray disagrees. Although it’s been decades since the former Novato councilman was passed over for mayor — and although Gray served as mayor on four other occasions during his five council terms — he still remembers the pain of that decision, and the dissension it caused within the council.

“As much as you can pretend that you’re going to be tough and forget about it and play along, it burns,” Gray said. “I was hoping this would never happen again.”

Former Councilwoman Gail Wilhelm, who was also passed over for the mayor’s seat during her time in office, said the decision felt particularly petty because Novato’s mayor has no real political power.

“The office of mayor is purely a ceremonial thing. You preside over meetings, but you don’t have any additional power over the other members,” Wilhelm said. “When these things happen, it’s a sign that there’s some friction on the council. I imagine there will be for awhile.”

MacLeamy, whose term as mayor ended Tuesday, insisted the role is more than a figurehead.

“The mayor is the symbol of the city, more than many of us realize,” MacLeamy said. “The mayor’s actions and comments are critical, because the mayor represents Novato in many ways. There are many demands on your time — you have to be available on weekends or during the evenings for events, because your presence builds goodwill in the community. People love it when the mayor shows up.”

Dillon-Knutson acknowledged that much of her time had been occupied during the past year while she cared for her husband, former Novato Sanitary District board member Arthur Knutson, who suffered a stroke and died Oct. 6. But that care never interfered with her council duties, Dillon-Knutson said.

“I treasured those duties, as they helped me cope in this, the most difficult time of my life,” Dillon-Knutson said in a statement.

Dillon-Knutson and the other members of the council said Wednesday that the council’s vote, while divisive, would not prevent them from working together to solve the financial and social challenges facing Novato.

Gray believes they can do it — but that Tuesday’s vote will make that challenge much more difficult.

“I think they have to bend over backwards to not look like they are as fractured as they appear to be,” Gray said. “They’re going to have to not only make amends, but make it look like they’re making amends.”

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