Viewpoint - December 22, 2010

Editorial: Menlo Park, Atherton survive transitions

Given the tension and poor behavior of some City Council members in Menlo Park and Atherton, it was refreshing to see straightforward meetings last week that elected new mayors in both cities. Congratulations to Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, who will serve a second term, and Jim Dobbie, the successor to Kathy McKeithen in Atherton.

The Menlo Park transition was by far the most complicated, starting with the Dec. 7 election of Kelly Fergusson, and then her admission of violating the Brown Act while seeking votes from fellow council members, and finally, her resignation on Dec. 10. Ms. Fergusson and Andy Cohen were both eligible for the mayoral post according to the council's informal succession policy, but when Ms. Fergusson bowed out, members bypassed Mr. Cohen on the first ballot to unanimously elect Mr. Cline for a second term. It was the correct choice given the city's current challenges on high-speed rail, the downtown visioning plan, and union negotiations. Mr. Cline will be an effective leader on all fronts.

In Atherton, Mr. Dobbie was elected on a 5-0 vote, and the vice mayor slot went to newly elected member Bill Widmer, who won out over Elizabeth Lewis; Ms. Lewis mustered one other vote, from Jerry Carlson. Mr. Dobbie and Ms. McKeithen backed Mr. Widmer, who voted for himself. The vote was a sign that perhaps Mr. Widmer will join his supporters to form a new bloc on the council.

We are pleased that Mr. Cline pledged to bring more transparency to the hot topic of labor negotiations, although the effort began with an executive session that some residents, including former council member John Boyle, had hoped would be open to the public.

City Attorney Bill McClure announced that Mr. Cline and Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith would serve as a new subcommittee with the goal of increasing transparency in labor negotiations. The new process might include an open study session on contracts and a week or two of time for public comment on the proposals before the council begins actual negotiations. This is a good first start that we hope will accommodate much more public understanding of what has become a highly charged process since the economic downturn.

Menlo Park voters made a strong statement in November when 72 percent of them approved Measure L, which will reduce pension benefits for incoming non-police employees. In May, the City Council had taken a similar action, imposing pension rollbacks on the city's 152 SEIU employees, raising the retirement age for non-police employees from 55 to 60, and decreasing pension benefits from a maximum of four-fifths of annual salary to three-fifths. But the changes will go into effect only if the city negotiates the same deal with the city's middle management employees when their contract expires in 2011.

Two of the city's unions, the SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have threatened to sue the city to overturn Measure L, which sets similar pension limitations but also requires a public vote to increase benefits. The city attorney said last week that the council voted 5-0 during the closed session to defend Measure L if sued.

In Atherton, the council's first major task will be to hire a permanent city manager. The search for an interim manager may have ended last week when the council agreed to make an offer to John Danielson, which, if successful, will bring the former city manager of Elk Grove and Wildomar to Atherton. Wisely, the council required Mr. Danielson to agree not to seek the job of permanent manager. For that position, the council will conduct a full-fledged search for a person who can begin to lead the city out of a period of years that have been pockmarked by costly personnel settlements, the refund of a road impact fee that could cost the town several million dollars, and a budget that is woefully out of balance.

There is no question that both councils will have plenty to do in 2011, which already is shaping up to be a challenging year in Menlo Park and Atherton.


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