Almanac

News - August 18, 2010

Four vie for three seats on Atherton council

by Renee Batti

Voters will choose from among four candidates to fill three vacant seats on the Atherton City Council on Nov. 2, with two incumbents, one civic volunteer, and one newcomer to town qualifying for the ballot.

Incumbents Jerry Carlson and Jim Dobbie are running to retain their seats. They will be on the ballot with Bill Widmer and Cary Wiest.

Councilman Charles Marsala chose not to seek another term.

The election of three council members comes at a time of divisiveness and strife in the small, affluent community. The town has been hit with a number of lawsuits, two of which it recently settled at a high cost to its general fund. Two pending legal conflicts are based on complaints against the town's police and building departments.

Employee compensation is rapidly driving up town spending, and is a major cause of a structural budget deficit. As a result, there is a growing call for the town to seriously study options such as outsourcing services to reduce staff.

Incumbents

Councilman Jerry Carlson said he's running for another term to address "some big, unfinished business." Among the issues he wants to focus on is "reinventing the town's financial structure."

He said that Atherton, like most financially strapped towns, will have to tackle tough wage and benefit issues with employees, and "look at the way town services are delivered" and options for changing those methods.

Mr. Carlson has been a leader on the high-speed rail issue, serving as the town's representative on the Peninsula Cities Consortium, and chairing the town's rail committee. He voted to support Atherton's joining with other cities to sue the High-Speed Rail Authority.

His involvement with high-speed rail issues has been challenged by some residents, who say that he has a conflict of interest because he lives near the tracks.

The town attorney recently reviewed the charge, and determined that Mr. Carlson's participation in those issues didn't constitute a legal conflict of interest because his house is sufficiently distant from the tracks — about 710 feet from the right-of-way.

Mr. Carlson is on the Town Center Committee, and is Atherton's representative on the City/County Association of Governments in San Mateo County.

Now retired, he spent many years in finance positions, and was Hewlett-Packard's first corporate controller, he said.

Councilman Dobbie could not be reached for comment before press time.

He was elected in June 2008 to fill the council seat vacated by Alan Carlson, who resigned because he was moving from town. Before that, Mr. Dobbie served on the town's Planning Commission and General Plan Committee.

Mr. Dobbie, a retired high-tech executive, now serves on the town's finance, audit and transportation committees.

Challengers

An Atherton resident since 1996, Mr. Widmer is a member of the town's Audit Committee, and participates on its Finance Committee.

While his two children were growing up, he was active in the community as a soccer coach and referee, and in other youth programs. He has attended council meetings "here and there" since moving to town, but for the last two years has been a regular attendee, he said.

Now the deputy vice president for commercial management for France Telecom's Orange Business Services, Mr. Widmer said he has worked for 30 years "at the forefront of high-technology organizations."

His work and civic experience, plus his commitment to accountability and listening to residents, make him well-suited to serve on the council, he said.

Areas he said he'd work to improve include fiscal management of the town, and communication between the town and its residents. "I think we should expect more (from the town), and I think I can help get more," he said.

Mr. Wiest, a real estate appraiser, moved to Atherton in the latter part of 2009, he said. Although that hasn't given him much time to participate in local civic matters, he has been involved with San Mateo County issues.

He was a member of the San Mateo County Charter Review Committee, convened last November to review the county's charter and make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on issues such as by-district elections and how to fill vacancies on the board. He also has been involved with youth programs, he said.

Mr. Wiest is currently a member of the county's Jail Planning Advisory Committee, which is examining possible locations to build a new jail.

Before moving to Atherton, he lived in unincorporated San Mateo Highlands, and was active on that neighborhood's community association for about 10 years, serving for a time as president, he said.

Mr. Wiest said he has attended some City Council meetings since moving to town, and "monitored the town's (issues) through the newspapers." He said his involvement in neighborhood and county government issues for the last 10 years gives him the kind of experience that "would be a real contribution to the town council."

He comes in "with a fresh face and with neutrality ... and without baggage," he said.

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