Viewpoint - December 15, 2010

Editorial: Musical chairs for Menlo Park mayor

Will the real mayor of Menlo Park please stand up!

It was a question on the minds of many residents over the weekend, and for good reason. In the space of three days last week, City Council member Kelly Fergusson was elected mayor, admitted that she violated the Brown Act while campaigning for the office, and then officially resigned the office. This Tuesday, after The Almanac goes to press, the new City Council will be back at square one, with new member Kirsten Keith serving as both "accidental" mayor and vice mayor (to which she was elected last week) until a new mayor is elected, which is the first item on the agenda.

To complicate matters even further, Andy Cohen, who along with Ms. Fergusson has the most seniority and thus is next in line to be mayor, may not prevail this time around despite the council's succession policy. We respect Mr. Cohen, but his sometimes quirky comments and behavior are not what the city needs right now and should be a deterrent to giving him the gavel.

We say that because the two most critical jobs facing the mayor and council next year will be to guide the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan through its final public hearing process and to continue pressuring the California High-Speed Rail Authority to reduce the impact of the project on Menlo Park and other Peninsula communities. During the past year, outgoing Mayor Rich Cline has chaired the Peninsula Cities Consortium, the group of five Peninsula cities that have banded together to articulate their concerns about high-speed rail, which means he is already up to speed on how this major project will impact Midpeninsula cities.

He also believes that the city's downtown plan must go forward, but not without fine-tuning to take into account feedback from downtown merchants and others. He is an articulate spokesman for this $1 million-plus planning effort that finally will offer a blueprint to redevelop the abandoned car dealerships lining south El Camino Real and to implement a new vision for downtown that will help solve the perennial employee parking problem and add sidewalks and bike lanes as suggested by the hundreds of residents who attended workshops on the plan. He also would explain what the plan will NOT do, which is build garages on every parking plaza and interfere with the farmers' market.

We believe Mr. Cline's experience on these two major issues outweigh the pressure to abide by the succession process. In this case, a one-year term limit is not in the city's best interest.

The musical mayoral chairs began a week ago when Ms. Fergusson admitted violating the Brown Act while campaigning to be elected mayor prior to the Dec. 7 regular meeting. Somehow, she failed to remember that a council member cannot have one-on-one discussions with more than one colleague (in this case Rich Cline and Peter Ohtaki) about her strong interest in becoming mayor. City Attorney Bill McClure said Ms. Fergusson may have asked an intermediary to lobby Kirsten Keith for her vote as well. Ms. Keith obliged, but Mr. Ohtaki joined Andy Cohen as the two opposed in the first vote.

The entire affair leaves Menlo Park voters wondering what will happen next. Some have called for Ms. Fergusson's resignation from the council and already are talking about how her replacement should be selected. That is a solution that would not benefit Menlo Park.

The City Council must put this debacle aside as quickly as possible. A new mayor should be chosen, allowing the council to move forward. We doubt if Ms. Fergusson will resign from the council voluntarily, and unless the district attorney somehow believes a case can be made to remove her from office (highly unlikely) Ms. Fergusson will serve out the remainder of her term.


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