Almanac

Viewpoint - November 10, 2010

Editorial: Newcomers star in local races

Unlike last week's congressional races, where the sour economy played a major role in helping Republicans slam the door shut on many of the Democrats who had been elected only two years ago, there was no Tea Party boiling over in local council races this year.

In Menlo Park, for example, there was a slate of six candidates for three City Council seats, but only four brought significant, applicable city experience to the table. And while some Tea Party issues resonated here — deficit spending, for one — it is not easy to smear a candidate for a budget shortfall when the city's reserves equal nearly one year's total budget outlay.

In the end, Menlo voters stepped out of character and preferred two council newcomers, local fire board president Peter Ohtaki and Planning Commissioner Kirsten Keith, and incumbent Mayor Rich Cline. Heyward Robinson, who did not convince voters that he deserved another term, finished fourth, out of the running. He cited the opposition of two council members and the lack of press attention for some of the outside work he performs for the city as possible causes for his defeat.

Both incumbents suffered for approving a major pension increase for city employees in 2007 — a key factor leading up to the citizen-inspired Measure L, which will reduce pensions for new employees and passed easily with 72 percent of the vote. Neither Mr. Cline nor Mr. Robinson endorsed the initiative.

Menlo Park's eager embrace of the pension rollback — which unions promise to fight in court — reflects voters' newfound distaste for what are viewed as overly generous pension benefits. Even in the mostly liberal precincts of the Midpeninsula, lifetime annual pensions of $100,000 or more plus health benefits for workers who can retire at age 50 or 55 do not sit well with voters. And it did not help the incumbents in this race that they accepted union support in their first campaign for council, although both declined, as did all other candidates, to accept union support this year.

In today's economic environment, voters are going to expect city councils to be much more adversarial with unions. Members who accept endorsements and campaign contributions from city employee unions are going to find it much more difficult to get elected in the days ahead.

Another dividing line in this year's council election was support for Measure T, the Bohannon Development Co.'s Menlo Gateway project. All three council winners back the huge project off the Bayshore freeway. Candidates Chuck Bernstein and Russell Peterson did not, and Mr. Bernstein soon found himself the subject of mailers accusing him of saying, during an appearance at a League of Women Voters forum, that he would sabotage the project. In fact, he said "no more sabotage," but that apparently was enough to generate three nasty mailers attacking Mr. Bernstein by the Bohannon campaign, which well before election day had reported spending almost $500,000 to assure passage of Measure T. Reporting on total spending won't be available until January.

Atherton voters had a much easier decision to make. With only four choices for three seats, they elected newcomer Bill Widmer, and retained in office incumbents Jerry Carlson and Jim Dobbie, who are associated with the town's management challenges over the last few years (the city manager, assistant city manager and top building official have all resigned in the last few months).

The exodus comes on top of a looming budget deficit brought on by the rapidly escalating cost of employee compensation. The town managers and city attorney have not looked good during the recent lawsuit settlements with former finance director John Johns ($225,000) and police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley ($230,000). Several other cases against the town have been filed within the last year, including a $10 million lawsuit by resident Jon Buckheit; and one by Kimberly Sweidy and Raymie Stata, a couple claiming that building department staff failed to identify shoddy work on their multi-million-dollar home. This lawsuit demands in excess of $10 million in damages.

Carey Wiest, who recently moved to Atherton, finished far behind the winners in the race for three seats. No doubt Mr. Widmer, who has served on town committees and is an experienced business manager, won votes by promising to help stabilize the town's budget and bring more transparency to the workings of the council.

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