By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
The Woodside Town Council is a skeptical crew that regularly challenges town staff on its priorities, but with the election in November of investment banker and former private-sector chief financial officer Tom Shanahan, the skepticism has intensified.
Elected without opposition from District 3, Mr. Shanahan told the Almanac last September of his preference for zero-based budgeting, in which officials question not whether to increase or decrease funding for a program, but whether the program should exist.
Woodside, for example, has access to $215,600 in federal and county grants to upgrade two poorly functioning and heavily used crosswalks that cross state Woodside Road (Highway 84) at Woodside Elementary School.
In the same area are a fire station, a library, a church and homes. This two-lane road leads to county parks, Skyline Boulevard and the beach, and is used by motorists, cyclists, pedestrians of all ages, and equestrians. It's busy.
The crosswalks' in-road lights have been painted over and scratched, Deputy Town Manager and Town Engineer Paul Nagengast told the Almanac. This upgrade would add solar power, new signs and stripes, re-graded paths, better drainage and new bright lights located where they won't be painted over.
At the council's March 13 meeting, Mr. Shanahan began a lively back-and-forth behind the dais after he questioned the rationale for proceeding with this project.
Councilwoman Deborah Gordon took the lead in responding: "We applied for these funds because we and others thought that this would be a good thing for our kids," she said.
"This supports safe routes to school," Councilman Ron Romines added, referring to town policy and the general plan, which encourages more and safer bike riding to and from schools and supports highly visible crosswalks near pedestrian destinations such as the school.
"The state of California has more good projects than it can afford," Mr. Shanahan countered, and wondered aloud: What if Woodside refused the money? Would it return to a communal pot?
Another community would take it, Councilman Peter Mason said.
Personally," Ms. Gordon said, "I have always felt that I am better off and safer if my neighbor is better off and safer."
"This is not the time to debate the philosophy of government, but I feel (the government) is going to break," Mr. Shanahan replied.
Asked in an email to elaborate, Mr. Shanahan imagined Woodside householders taxing themselves for the $200,000 project.
"Is it a good idea?" he asked. "Of course. Should it cost $200,000? I'm not sure. ... I very much doubt that would come close to approval if put to a vote, at least (not) without a lot more attention being paid to lower-cost mitigation alternatives.
"But we don't have to put it to a vote!" Mr. Shanahan noted. "We see it as a 'free' crosswalk provided by grants from some combination of county, state and federal government programs." Woodside families pay a little, but so do families in "East Palo Alto, Detroit and other places."
"Spending without having to tax is a fun but very dangerous business. I'm a little uncomfortable now finding myself in that position as a newly elected public official."
"If we don't spend the money," Mayor Dave Tanner said at the meeting, "we'll have to leave the crosswalk as it is."
"But we'll have to fix it anyway," Mr. Mason added.
Mr. Shanahan ended up voting to accept the money, joining a 6-0 council majority (with Councilwoman Anne Kasten absent). But he asked whether the town had responsibility for how the project was carried out.
It does, Mr. Nagengast said. "We design the project and advertise it and award a contract."
Other questions Mr. Shanahan has raised recently:
■ Can the town challenge the Woodside Fire Protection District's authority over how wide a road must be for fire truck access?
■ Who decided that San Mateo County needed an ordinance banning use of flimsy single-use bags at checkout counters? (The Town Council recently agreed in concept to the ban on a 5-2 vote, with Mr. Shanahan and Councilman Dave Burow dissenting.)
■ Isn't Woodside's "rural character" a conceit? "The further in you go (from the road) the less all of this matters," Mr. Shanahan said in February. "The challenge for Woodside is to pretend that we're rural. Don't we really have to focus on areas close to the property line? That's my concern with the rural character of Woodside -- what you can see."