City council meetings aren’t usually an ideal place for parents to bring small children for obvious reasons.
But Tuesday evening, families with kids in tow braved the stodgy atmosphere of Menlo Park’s City Council Chambers to show their support for Michelle Sutton, who’s firing last month from the city’s gymnastics program sparked a flurry of calls for her reinstatement.
Sutton previously had little to say about the incident publically, and the city was equally tight-lipped about her firing, citing the inherent confidentiality of personnel matters. But the issue was brought fully front-and-center before city officials Tuesday as Sutton spoke before the city council, expressing her surprise, confusion and frustration over the matter. She called for more transparency from the city regarding the precise reasons for her termination.
While many of the details surrounding Sutton’s firing remain unclear, she was apparently let go after the parent of a student in the gymnastics program complained about not being able to stay with her child during a practice session. The parent was asked to monitor her child from a viewing area.
Asking parents to watch from afar is a routine gym policy, but Sutton was not convinced that a single complaint over her attempt to enforce gym rules was the only reason for her termination.
In her statement to council members, Sutton alluded to a separate issue that, in her words, “arose under the returning preschool program coordinator and the community services director” in September of 2012. Sutton said that chronic friction with gym management intensified following the gym’s fall session last year, causing her to seek third-party intervention to help resolve the issue.
Sutton made inquiries from a union liaison and a union representative between February 6th and 7th of this year. “My goal was simply to determine whether such matters could be resolved for myself and for the good of the gymnastics program,” she said. “Unfortunately, as I was fired just six days after making such inquiries, I was unable to determine whether a positive resolution could be reached.”
It’s unclear whether or not there is a connection between the parental complaint, made 12 days before Sutton’s termination, and the ambiguous issues she mentioned with gym management. City officials have declined to comment in detail.
Last week, in a statement to issued to families with children enrolled in the gymnastics program, Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre said “I believe, from my review, that the management team has treated all staff with dignity and fairness … I am satisfied that I understand the situation and that proper procedures were followed and informed decisions were made regarding staffing decisions in the gymnastics program."
McIntyre also mentioned in his statement that given the fact that many gymnastics staff members are temporary employees, “turnover” is not uncommon.
Sutton doesn’t blame the parents who filed the complaint against her for getting her fired. “While I always try to accommodate the parents, and take their concerns seriously, I do not fault the parents in this instance or in any similar instance," she said. "These encounters are inherent in most activities where children are involved, be it little league or any other team sport," she added.
But Sutton is still looking for answers to numerous questions, and because the initial letter of complaint was sent to the city council, she called on council members to initiate a new investigation.
“I am here asking for the council’s support for, if not my reinstatement, an investigation into the events leading to my termination…However, no matter what the result of this process may be, I will always love and support the Menlo Park gymnastics program.”
Sutton thanked the families who came to support her after finishing her prepared remarks, and was met with a resounding round of applause.
Numerous individuals also approached the council Tuesday to praise Sutton’s abilities as an instructor and express their deep dissatisfaction with her dismissal. Some parents said they would be removing their children from the gymnastics program if Sutton would not be allowed to return. Others identified what they saw as obvious strife within the gymnastics program itself.
City officials were also criticized for the decision to remove a number of letters of support for Sutton from the city’s website. Typically, communications with the city are archived and made public, but in this case the e-mails were removed, officials said, in order to prevent any confidential personnel information from leaking out.
Following her address to the council, Mayor Peter Ohtaki said that he could plainly see the community’s genuine concern, but reminded those in attendance about Menlo Park’s municipal code, which puts hiring and firing decisions squarely in the purview of city administration, and not with the city council.
“We regret that city staff has been unable to share more specific information due to the confidentiality of personnel matters," Ohtaki said. "We do welcome you to send your comments directly to city staff; and certainly I can tell you as a father of three kids in the gymnastics program, I certainly want to see our program succeed and continue.”
Did city staff make the right call here? Does Michelle Sutton deserve to get her job back? Scroll down and tell us in the comments.
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