By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor
Definition of Athertonians: residents of Atherton, California. Simple, right? Think again.
Athertonians is also the name of a Yahoo email message group that hosts discussions among Atherton residents -- a moderated group whose posters have become increasingly critical of certain City Council members and decisions.
The group, which has a blog at athertonians.blogspot.com, has come under the recent scrutiny of town officials, who say that the group's name is causing too much confusion among Atherton residents. That's because the town has for many years published a newsletter, also available online, called the Athertonian.
Ah yes, there's that word again.
As it happens, the question of that word's significance may result in litigation that would pit neighbor against neighbor in a town that, for its small size and idyllic environment, has seen more than its share of internecine squabbles.
Town officials and council members have had numerous inquiries about the Athertonians from residents who thought the site was operated by the town, said Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Larson. And Mayor Bill Widmer, who has been a member of the Yahoo group since before his election to the council, said that even he had believed the site to be town-sponsored when he first signed on.
Although the Yahoo group has been around for eight years, according to its anonymous moderators, objections to its name have been minimal until recently. But with the group's revved-up criticism of the town, particularly around the divisive issue of where to build the town's new library, council members have directed town staff to step in: Urge the moderators to change the group's name, and if they don't, prepare to take legal action.
"Let's go ahead and get started in shutting it down," Councilman Jim Dobbie said at the council's April 18 meeting. "It's high time we do something."
In a written statement sent to the Almanac in response to a request for more information about the group, an anonymous moderator said that Athertonians is "distinct from the name used by the town for its infrequent newsletter, 'The Athertonian.' As such, we have no hesitation in assuring you that we are not discontinuing our use of a name we have held for over 8 years."
The statement was also posted on the group's blog.
Last week, Ms. Larson, the town's assistant attorney, sent an email to the group's moderators, proposing that the name be changed, even slightly, to "create more of a distinction between the two unrelated news sources."
"While we respect your right to create and maintain such an efficient vehicle for neighborhood communication and discussion, it is in all of our best interests to find a way to resolve this growing confusion," she wrote.
Free speech issue?
In the written statement, titled "Defense of Free Speech," the moderator asserted the group's ability "to use a name reserved for the denizens of a locale, in our case Athertonians," as a right protected by the Supreme Court.
At the April 18 council meeting, former council member Charles Marsala also cited freedom-of-speech rights, and warned the council that it would be entering a "gray area" of the law if it pursued the matter in court.
But Ms. Larson said the matter is not a free-speech issue. "We are receiving reports of confusion, and feel it would be very easy for the Athertonians group to take steps to prevent this confusion without compromising their free speech rights in any way.
"We have suggested a better disclaimer on their site and perhaps a name modification -- nothing more than that."
The question of free speech is a two-way street in the matter: Some residents, including the mayor, have criticized the moderators' decisions to not post comments that contradict their views. Those views, as articulated in the group's written statement, include the charge that the "council majority ... has ignored expressions of concerns from both fellow council members (Carlson, Lewis) and residents and suppressed requests by residents and council for opportunities to vet these concerns."
The statement identifies the council majority as Mayor Widmer, Mr. Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen.
Mayor Widmer said in an interview that the group's censorship of comments and jettisoning of critics from the membership creates a lack of balance that doesn't serve the public well.
Betsy Colby said she's one of the people who were "unsubscribed" from the membership list without their request. She had "asked the moderator a while back to say who was behind it and got a response that they insisted on being anonymous. I think this is troublesome," she said in an email. A site "that appears to represent the town should disclose their sources so everyone knows the motives and bias of the group."
The moderators didn't respond to email asking them to explain why they want to remain anonymous, but in an email to Ms. Colby, they cited a number of reasons, including: "The town's political climate is unhealthy. Rather than informed dialogue, many individuals resort to unfounded, personal attacks.
"We believe naming the individuals involved will expose them to personal accusations for political reasons and will not be a benefit to the effectiveness of this group for residents, which is our goal."
The email also asserted that the list "is moderated to be non-partisan with respect to town issues -- with the only bias being to serve the important rights of Atherton residents to have a more accessible channel of information, better information about their town, and accurate information. We reserve the right to not send messages deemed misleading, no matter who they are from."
Mayor Widmer challenges the claim that Athertonians is nonpartisan. He cites examples in the written statement that accuse him and two council colleagues of "suppressing requests by residents," as well as Councilman Jerry Carlson and Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis, for the chance to discuss their concerns.
"I don't agree we're suppressing anything," he said, adding that he often lets speakers go past their three-minute limit during the public comment period at council meetings.
He challenged the group's moderators to point to examples in council videos "I'll take a look at them," he said.
Mr. Widmer emphasized that he supports the group's interest in participating in a public discussion of town affairs. "These people are providing a valuable service to the town," he said. "But I see a lot of this as an attack," he said of the group's written statement.
Is the confusion over the group's name enough cause to pursue the matter in court if the moderators don't change the name? "I'm hopeful there can be some sort of discussion" and that the matter can be resolved, he said.
"There are a lot more critical matters that the town needs to focus on and spend money on."