During the next four years, the Menlo Park City Council will make decisions that will shape the city's future for years to come. Here are the high points:
After they explain it to residents, council members will need to sell the already controversial downtown visioning plan to merchants and property owners; continue the major effort to reduce the local impact of the high-speed rail project; balance the budget without raising the utility tax; adopt a hard line on staff salary and pension increases; and oversee planning upgrades in the industrial M-2 zone, as well as oversee the Menlo Gateway project if voters approve it.
This is an agenda that cries out for a council that is up to speed and ready to go to work immediately to bring these high-profile tasks to fruition. In our view, no matter how tempting it might be, this is not the time to take a broom to City Hall. Mayor Rich Cline and council member Heyward Robinson have spent hundreds of hours with these issues and many others. While we have serious questions for both men, we respect their dedication and believe both are sincere in wanting to do the best they can for Menlo Park.
As chair of the Peninsula Cities Consortium for high-speed rail, Mr. Cline is playing a major leadership role in making sure that the rail authority understands the needs of Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto as they make final plans for the project.
And just as critical, in our mind, is the role Mr. Cline and Mr. Robinson must play as the downtown visioning plan works its way through the public approval process later this year and early next year. True leadership will be needed to wade through the thicket of opposition from downtown merchants and property owners who believe they will suffer with the changes suggested in the plan.
It will also take delicate negotiations to resolve differences of neighbors and some residential property owners about the vision for El Camino Real, which hopefully will spell the end of the abandoned car dealerships south of Middle Avenue.
Our third choice was the most difficult, but we believe Peter Ohtaki, now chairman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board, has the business and budgeting skills that are badly needed on the council. With the unfortunate departure of John Boyle, who decided not to seek re-election, the council lost a perspective that we believe will be filled by Mr. Ohtaki.
Our endorsements should not reflect badly on Kirsten Keith and Chuck Bernstein, who we rate as highly qualified, although we gave the edge to the incumbents. We urge them, as well as Russell Peterson, to stay active in city affairs and consider another run for the council.
Measure L, the pension initiative
The current down economy has intensified interest in the often bloated salaries and pensions received by public employees, including in Menlo Park, where residents gathered more than 3,000 signatures to put a pension reform measure on the ballot.
Measure L would increase the retirement age from 55 to 60 for new rank and file employees (not police officers) and reduce the pension calculator from 2.7 to 2 percent per year for each year worked up to 30 years. Measure L also would restrict pension increases by the council without a vote of the people.
As we have said here before, Measure L does not change benefits of current workers or of current or newly hired police officers. It only will apply to new non-police employees, so it will not have a significant impact on the city's budget for years.
But like its proponents, we agree that Measure L sends a message to other communities and to the public employee unions that enough is enough. Local governments need to pay reasonable wages and pensions and remain competitive with private industry. But long ago private employers gave up defined benefits and converted to defined-contribution — such as 401(k) — plans, which are managed by the workers. In addition, many small communities have discovered that they cannot sustain their current salary and pension commitments without drastic budget overhauls.
Ultimately, the problem must be solved at the state level, but for now, vote for Measure L. It is a good start.
Measure T, the Menlo Gateway project
The Almanac supports this massive office and hotel project that will be built on the city's eastern border by David Bohannon, a local resident whose family has owned the property for several generations.
Detractors have trotted out a slew of environmental arguments, but the same could be said for any project of this size. Two intersections, Marsh and Willow roads at Middlefield, are expected to experience the most impact from the project, but downtown streets will be relatively unaffected. It is also expected that tenants in the buildings will provide shuttle service from Caltrain to the offices.
Mr. Bohannon has done a good job in minimizing the project's impact, including making a substantial effort to reduce greenhouse gases and make a commitment to build the offices and the hotel to the highest green building specifications.
The timing is uncertain, but when built-out, Menlo Gateway will contribute millions of dollars to the city in one-time fees. The hotel is expected to add $1.5 million a year in transit occupancy tax revenue. And the Belle Haven community has given strong endorsement to the project, in the hope that many of construction and other jobs will go to local residents.
Certainly Measure T, one of the largest projects in the city's history, has its drawbacks. But in our opinion, on balance, Menlo Gateway is a good deal for the city, and deserves a Yes vote.
Atherton City Council
When they are seated, the three winning candidates for Atherton City Council will face the huge job of hiring a new city manager and city attorney who can bring in a workable budget, provide a clear direction for city staff members, and work to resolve several legal matters that continue to attract far too much attention.
Of the four candidates running, we endorse incumbents Jerry Carlson and Jim Dobbie and newcomer Bill Widmer, a high-tech business executive who has wide experience in working at the top of large companies and who has volunteered on the budget and audit committees.
All three have deep business backgrounds, skills that are sorely needed as the town attempts to prepare a break-even budget. And all agree that employee compensation must be controlled to balance the budget. Mr. Carlson said he is ready to look at all options to bring down the cost of police services, including outsourcing or sharing coverage with other communities. And he agrees that any change must be approved by the city's residents. Mr. Dobbie said he has identified several town positions that could be eliminated, but added such a move would have to be taken with care.
In addition to his business skills, Mr. Widmer promises to push hard to make the council's business much more transparent, including digitizing many public records and streaming video of council meetings on the Web. He also suggests that council meetings be shortened and held on Tuesday and Thursday if necessary.
All the candidates have major concerns about the high-speed rail project and would only support building a new town hall if it was primarily paid for with private donations.
Atherton desperately needs experienced council members to lead it out of the current leadership crisis. Jerry Carlson, Jim Dobbie and Bill Widmer are the most qualified candidates in this race.
Menlo Park City School District
Three of four candidates stand out in the race to fill three slots on the Menlo Park City School District board . Laura Linkletter Rich, Joan Lambert and Terry Thygesen would bring a wealth of skills to the board, skills that are sorely needed as the district embarks on a major renovation and rebuild of Hillview Middle, the largest of its four schools. Ana Uribe-Ruiz also filed in this race.
The K-8 district continues to achieve high test scores and parents and residents of the district consistently approve parcel taxes and bond issues to help the schools keep pace with growing enrollment.
Already a legend in the district, Ms. Linkletter Rich is in the running for her fourth four-year term, even though her children left the schools long ago. First elected in 1998, she has served on PTAs, site councils, and school board associations, and is the voluntary website designer for the district and two of its schools She was a trustee when class-size reduction was implemented, when the academic program was redesigned at Hillview and when Superintendent Ken Ranella was hired.
With one child each in elementary, middle and high school, Joan Lambert still had time to work on the Measure C parcel tax campaign and now serves on the board of the district's education foundation. Saying the district does a good job preparing students to be critical thinkers and good citizens, she believes more could be done to teach students research skills and how to write more coherently and effectively. A former practicing attorney, Ms. Lambert said her legal skills and training in mediation will be an asset during negotiations with the unions.
Terry Thygesen is no stranger to the board, having served two terms from 2000 to 2008. Her focus this time around is to "improve educational equity" for all students. The district has made progress in closing the achievement gap for special education students, and now needs to focus on students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
With her finance and planning background, Ms. Thygesen helped develop the district's long-range plan that helped the district build up its financial reserves. She also supports the drive to bring technology to the district, but says such services don't replace "the need for live interaction."
The Almanac endorses Ms. Rich, Ms. Lambert and Ms. Thygesen for the Menlo Park City School District board of trustees.
Los Lomitas School District
Although its students finished with the highest test scores in the state, earlier this year the K-8 Las Lomitas School District had to struggle with teachers to reach a new contract, and its small class size could be threatened by lower funding and growing enrollment in the years ahead.
Four well-qualified candidates are in the running for three seats on the Las Lomitas school board and the top three finishers will play a key role in sorting out these issues in the four years ahead, which likely will include voting to place a parcel tax on an upcoming ballot.
The Almanac endorses Jay Siegel, Mark Reinstra and Ann Jaquith in this race, which will bring a nearly complete slate of new faces to the board.
Mr. Siegel is an incumbent but was appointed to the board less than a year ago to fill the term of David Baillard, who resigned. Besides his board experience, Mr. Siegel has served on the board of the education foundation and has volunteered at Las Lomitas School and has a daughter at La Entrada middle school.
Mr. Siegel believes his experience in financial research and economic forecasting will help as the board takes on the upcoming financial challenges. He said he would increase communication with residents and families about the district's financial issues, and help negotiate "a fair and just contract" with teachers that would not increase the district's deficit. He does support a new parcel tax, although no decision has been made to put it on the ballot next year.
With a doctorate in education from Stanford and a master's from Harvard, Ms. Jaquith has a background that is superb for a position on the board. She is a former middle school teacher and an assistant elementary and middle school assistant principal. With two children in district schools, she has spent time on the Las Lomitas site council, and has been a classroom volunteer and an AYSO coach and referee.
She said the district can "strengthen how our schools support the development of our teachers," and she would like to see more emphasis in the classroom focused on performance assessments and assignments that require students to "think deeply."
Candidate Mark Reinstra is a parent who is active in the education foundation and as a volunteer in the classroom. He sees finances as the main challenge facing the district in the coming years, and believes a combination of a new parcel tax and spending cuts will be needed in the years ahead.
He said the tension created during contract talks with the teachers during the last school year is a concern, adding that the difficulties facing the district can best be addressed "if we are all pulling together."
The Almanac endorses Mr. Siegel, Ms. Jaquith and Mr. Reinstra for the three open seats on the Las Lomitas School Board.
14th Congressional District
Rep. Anna Eshoo, sworn into her first term in 1993, has gone on to become a key player in Washington while she continues to provide excellent service to her constituents. We endorse her candidacy and fully expect she will be returned to Congress.
Over the past year Ms. Eshoo has done a lot to keep the district informed about major national issues. She held phone-in town hall meetings about President Obama's health care bill, and lately has been monitoring federal involvement in the high-speed rail project.
She sits on major congressional committees, including the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and is a senior member of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet and the Subcommittee on Health.
In our view, Rep. Eshoo is doing an excellent job of playing a major role in setting national policy, and serving local residents. We endorse Anna Eshoo for the 14th Congressional District.
The 21st Assembly District
Our choice in this race to fill Assembly seat held by Ira Ruskin is Rich Gordon, who has served 12 years as a county supervisor and has a superb track record as an able legislator. His main opponent, Atherton businessman Greg Conlon, has served eight years on the Public Utilities Commission and ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2002 and U.S. Congress in 2008.
We believe Mr. Gordon is far more qualified than Mr. Conlon to join the state Legislature, which sorely needs members who have the skills necessary to end the gridlock in Sacramento. Over the years, Mr. Gordon has proven that he can bring opposing sides together and accomplish legislative goals that some thought impossible. He has also served two years as president of the state Association of Counties, where colleagues from both parties have endorsed his candidacy.
Rich Gordon has union support but backs reform of public employee pensions and supports repealing the two-third requirement for approving the state's budget. He also supports backing off term limits and tightening the initiative process that takes away responsibility from the Legislature.
We recommend Rich Gordon for state Assembly.
San Mateo County supervisor
Former County Sheriff Don Horsley and coastsider April Vargas are in a runoff for county supervisor and present an interesting contrast between a consummate insider and an environmentalist and small business owner who came in second in the primary.
The Almanac endorsed Mr. Horsley in that race, and we are doing so again, although Ms. Vargas is running a strong, grass-roots campaign that we expect will attract support despite her small constituency on the coastside. It has been 40 years since a coastside candidate has won a board seat.
The key issues in this race are the county's overblown budget, which supervisors had to balance using $90 million in reserves this year. Neither candidate identified $90 million in budget savings — the expected deficit in 2014 if current trends continue.
Mr. Horsley's suggestions included cuts in public safety and health care, and a plan to consolidate county fire-fighting agencies and save about $8 million.
Ms. Vargas agreed with the firefighting cuts, and said she would raise the retirement age for county workers and increase their contributions to health care and pensions, as well as cap pension benefits for the highest wage earners. She also said the county has too many managers, averaging one for every 5.6 employees, compared to about nine in other nearby counties.
Mr. Horsley's many years of experience in county government, along with his service on the Sequoia Health Care District board, gives him the nod in this race. We support Don Horsley for county supervisor.
County treasurer-tax collector
In the race for treasurer-tax collector, we endorse entrepreneur and community college board member Dave Mandelkern, who is in a runoff with Sandie Arnott, the deputy county treasurer.
The treasurer oversees a portfolio of about $2.4 billion, which is made up of deposits from county agencies and school districts. Former treasurer Lee Buffington, whose investments in Lehman Brothers cost the county $155 million in September 2008, resulted in losses of $6.5 million at the local high school district and $2.5 million for the Menlo Park City School District.
A major issue in the race is how the county can avoid repeating this scenario. Both candidates say they support tighter investment policies, adding that they will seek outside advice in investing the 20 percent of the portfolio not required to be in government securities.
Mr. Mandelkern knows the financial markets, having worked as an entrepreneur for many years. He suggests the county should pool its assets with a larger fund to lower transaction costs and gain access to fund-management software.
The Almanac supports Dave Mandelkern for country treasurer-tax collector.