This remarkable chain of events began in December 2010, when Interim City Manager John Danielson was hired and told to make finding a permanent city manager one of his two top priorities. The other was reducing an $800,000-plus shortfall in the town's budget.
To close the gap, it was agreed that the cost of employees was the problem, and a decision was made to lay off or force out 13 union staff members from the building and public works departments and replace them with contract employees.
Now the town has shrunk to only 29 employees, 21 of whom are either police officers or work in the police department. Only eight other staff members remain to address the city's needs.
And on Jan. 19, council members were informed of a ruling by the California Public Employees Retirement System that Mr. Danielson, who was paid $15,000 a month for part-time work and collects a pension from CalPERS, could not extend his stay beyond 12 months if he wants to retain his status as a retiree.
A hastily prepared stopgap plan was subsequently devised to pay Mr. Danielson $14,000 a month (downsized to $12,000 just before a special council meeting on Friday) to work as a consultant with only two jobs: to help find a permanent city manager and to advise the new acting city manager as needed. Although the contract states it is for up to three months, it could easily be extended if the town wishes. Meanwhile, Mr. Danielson continues to live rent-free in a house provided by the town.
How could this happen? How could five members of the City Council not know that Mr. Danielson was not conducting a search for his replacement? How could council members not know that Mr. Danielson was permitted to work only 960 hours, up to one year, with no exceptions? When will permanent department managers arrive to fill the positions vacated last year and now held by interim employees?
Is there another city on the Peninsula that is so poorly managed? Today, Atherton's workforce is understaffed and now without an experienced leader at the top. And its finance, public works, and police departments are headed by interim employees.
In our view, the city's troubles began when the council and Mr. Danielson thought the budget problems could be alleviated by wholesale layoffs. Other options to raise revenue and union offers to rewrite contracts were ignored, and now the town is operating with many contract employees who have nothing invested in serving the community. Their loyalty is to their company, not the town.
As a town that has virtually no commercial activity and collects no sales tax, Atherton existed for years on property tax revenue and by assessing an annual parcel tax that is approved by voters every five years. But as costs for wages and pensions have increased, Atherton came up short.
Now Atherton has no city manager, and the prospects of finding a truly talented person who could turn the town around are diminishing by the hour as Atherton becomes a textbook example of how to ruin what was once a quiet community that took pride in its employees and quality of service.
Atherton residents deserve better treatment. But they also have to realize that to go back to the old days may require more than a hotshot city manager and a roster of contract employees. The current plan amounts to a discount store operation. Is that what residents really want? There is a chance the town can recover with a talented city manager, but only if he or she is given the ability to bring in quality staff members who care about what they do.
It is time for the council to decide which kind of Atherton they want: the discount model or a first-class operation the whole town can be proud of.