News - November 10, 2010

Atherton council race: Challenger gets most votes, incumbents re-elected

by Renee Batti

Atherton voters decided to keep two council members in office, but showed the most enthusiasm for challenger Bill Widmer, who campaigned on promises to improve communications between the town and residents, and establish financial stability and accountability in town government.

Mr. Widmer was the top vote-getter in last week's City Council election, with incumbents Jerry Carlson and Jim Dobbie coming in second and third, respectively.

Challenger Cary Wiest, who has lived in Atherton less than a year, came in fourth and out of the running.

The latest election count: Mr. Widmer, 1,827; Mr. Carlson, 1,603; Mr. Dobbie, 1,380; and Mr. Wiest, 923.

A member of the town's Audit Committee and an active participant in its Finance Committee, Mr. Widmer next month will replace Councilman Charles Marsala, who did not seek re-election.

Mr. Widmer, who has extensive experience in finances and management, said he plans to apply those skills to balancing the town's budget, which now is saddled with a $1 million structural deficit.

Both incumbents have also been outspoken about the urgency of getting the town's spending under control. During prolonged budget discussions last spring, Mr. Carlson hammered on the need to develop a five-year financial plan, which would include addressing rapidly growing employee costs.

Mr. Dobbie, a member of the town's Finance Committee, has referred to employee costs as "the elephant in the room" — accounting for nearly 80 percent of the town's spending. He said the Finance Committee is studying options for reining in those costs, including by increasing employee contributions for benefits.

Among members of a sometimes polarized council, Mr. Dobbie now often finds himself holding a minority position along with Mayor Kathy McKeithen, while Mr. Carlson is considered by many to be the swing vote on contentious issues.

In addition to the town's budget-related headaches, the new council faces a number of challenges over the next two years, beginning with the hiring of a new town manager and a town attorney. City Manager Jerry Gruber resigned his post last month. An interim manager, Nadine Levin, is now overseeing Town Hall, and the council is poised to appoint a longer-term interim manager, perhaps as soon as this week.

With a new council seated next month, the town will be seeking proposals from attorneys to provide legal services. Current attorney Wynne Furth has expressed interest in retaining the position.

The town also is the defendant in several lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages for complaints ranging from alleged police department misconduct and building department negligence, to improperly charging developers road-impact fees.

The newcomer

Mr. Widmer's success at the polls has something to do with the fact that he "walked around a lot and met a lot of people," he said the morning after the Nov. 2 election. But, he added, "I think my slogan, 'Expect More,' really hit the mark with people. They do expect more, and some people really want a fresh approach.

"With my qualifications, I can bring a fresh approach, but it will be a measured fresh approach."

One "fresh approach" may be that he intends to keep his campaign promises, among them, to be a "budget-minded, independent, listening leader," he said. He also reaffirmed his commitment to maintaining an active website that will include town-related news to keep residents informed, and his voting record as a council member.

Mr. Wiest could not be reached for comment for this article, but by the morning of Nov. 3, he had posted the following message on his website: "I am thankful we were able to bring some issues to light through the democratic process. However, ultimately the voters decided to leave things status quo, which is unfortunate."


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