By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Atherton has begun the process of taking more control over its own fate by changing from a general law city, operating under pre-set state conditions, to a charter city, operating under conditions set by the town and approved by voters.
City council members voted unanimously to appoint an ad hoc committee to explore the charter issue at their May 16 meeting. Any charter would have to be approved by town voters before going into effect, Interim City Manager Theresa Della Santa reported to the council.
Council member Jim Dobbie said he has been pushing the idea of a charter for Atherton since before he became a council member. A charter, he said, could allow the town to run more like a business "without all the restrictions that come from Sacramento." One advantage mentioned by Mr. Dobbie and several other council members is that with a charter, a real estate transfer tax could raise a substantial amount of money for the town and could replace the town's current parcel tax.
Mayor Bill Widmer cautioned that the process will take time. "We're not talking about something that potentially would be on the ballot in November," he said. "It's more like a year process."
Council member Elizabeth Lewis expressed some reservations. "I haven't made up my mind one way or another," she said. "It's not something we should undertake lightly."
"I think this needs to be looked at from all different angles," she said. "I'm not opposed to us looking at it and investigating it."
No one in the audience commented on the charter proposal.
According to a League of Women Voters website, the basic difference between general law and charter cities is how much control the state government has over them. "Charter cities have more freedom to innovate and to pass ordinances according to local need," the website says. However, it says, in California "the legislature has tended to give general law cities the same control over internal matters that the constitution grants to charter cities," leaving little difference between the two government forms.
California has 83 charter cities. Nearby charter cities include Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Mateo. San Carlos is currently considering becoming a charter city.
Other Bay Area charter cities include Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Gilroy, Hayward, Oakland, Piedmont, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Clara.