Viewpoint - October 6, 2010

Editorial: Atherton needs outside manager

Following the sudden and unexpected resignation of Atherton city manager Jerry Gruber, the City Council has a major opportunity to steer the city out of the most troubling period in its history.

The job won't be easy, but already the city's leaders have agreed on a plan to quickly bring in an interim replacement for Mr. Gruber, and then begin an executive search for a permanent manager that could take six months or more and will involve Atherton residents in the final hiring decision. Other key positions will be filled as well, including the critical job of town attorney.

Looking back, the blame for most of the town's turmoil rests not with Mr. Gruber, who joined the city in January 2008, but with City Council members who often failed to make good choices, particularly when it came to legal advice. Many of these flawed decisions have come back to haunt the town in the form of significant lawsuits that add up to around $900,000 in the last 12 months.

And more legal trouble is on the way. A federal lawsuit filed by resident Jon Buckheit over police behavior during his arrest in a domestic disturbance case could result in another substantial settlement, and although it has yet to be filed, resident Kimberly Sweidy has indicated she will bring a claim against the city over improper work by a building official.

On top of worrying about legal actions against the town, a new city manager will need to cope with a pile of other challenges, including a budget that is structurally out of balance; some pressure to outsource the police department or at least lower its cost; low employee morale; and a council whose members often feud among themselves.

In this environment, it will take an experienced manager to stay on course to resolve these difficult issues. Some have suggested that the town tap one of its own residents as manager, but in our view, it could be difficult to find anyone who was not allied with one side or the other in Atherton's internecine squabbling on the council. Someone with virtually any prior associations could be on the defensive before he or she even got started. It would be far better for a new manager, without any former ties in the town, to consult with residents who are eager to help resolve problems as volunteers, rather than as paid hands.

Others have raised questions about whether the city can afford to pay a top-quality city manager. We believe the answer is an unqualified yes. There are ways to reduce spending in a small town, but given Atherton's issues, the town needs a proven performer who can save the game. That kind of talent may be expensive, but if a new manager is able to balance the budget, restore morale, resolve at least some legal disputes, and convince the City Council to work cooperatively, the cost will be worth it.


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