The council met in a special session on Feb. 28 to discuss the process of finding a permanent city manager, which the town has been without since October 2010.
Council members approved budgeting up to $17,000 to hire a recruitment firm, abandoning their original plan to hire the recently resigned interim city manager, John Danielson, to conduct the search.
Mr. Danielson and town officials decided the town should switch course because of uncertainty over whether Mr. Danielson, a retired city manager, would be able to continue receiving his pension if he continued working for Atherton.
The town's goal is to have a permanent manager in place by May 16, although council members and Interim City Manager Theresa DellaSanta acknowledged that date is optimistic.
The council also discussed what it wants in a city manager. Councilman Jerry Carlson listed three criteria he felt were most important. Number one: The new manager has to have "backbone enough to stand up to council members." In summary, he said, he didn't want a wimp in the city manager's office.
Councilman Jim Dobbie agreed, saying that he wants "someone to tell me to go jump in the lake" if he gets out of line. Also, he said, it's important that the new manager "be capable of dealing with the unions."
Although the town laid off 13 of its 16 general employees to outsource services last year, officials say it will look to more cuts in employee costs when it negotiates a new contract with police officers this year.
Council members generally agreed with job qualifications outlined in advertisements already published, including a strong financial background, municipal management experience, and a commitment to efficiency of services.
Mayor Bill Widmer is expected to appoint an ad hoc committee of two council members to oversee the recruitment process soon.
When Mr. Danielson, the former city manager of Elk Grove, was hired as interim city manager in January 2011 at a rate of $15,000 per month, one of his major tasks was to find his replacement.
Because he was collecting a pension from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), his tenure in Atherton was limited to working a maximum of 960 hour per fiscal year, not to exceed 12 months. If he worked beyond that period, he would forfeit his pension, according to state law.
By the end of December, the process to find a permanent manager had yet to be started, but town officials believed CalPERS would approve an extension of the contract.
By mid-January, however, the state agency ruled that Mr. Danielson must resign or stop receiving his pension. He resigned, effective Jan. 19.
In late January, the council appointed Ms. DellaSanta, the town's deputy clerk, to the interim city manager post, and approved a contract that would pay Mr. Danielson $12,000 per month, for up to three months, to help find a permanent city manager, and to serve as an adviser to the new interim manager.
But Mr. Danielson never signed the contract, preferring to wait for a ruling from CalPERS on whether he could continue working for the town and still receive his pension, Mayor Widmer said. So when CalPERS informed the town in late February that it may not decide for another two months, Mr. Danielson bowed out of the picture, the mayor said.
The council had allowed Mr. Danielson to remain in the town-owned house in Holbrook-Palmer Park, which traditionally houses the town's city manager. But now that he's not working for the town, "I'm going to give him a reasonable time to move out," Ms. DellaSanta said.
Ms. DellaSanta had never managed a city government before January, even as an assistant manager. But even though the person who was supposed to offer support if she needed it is no longer in the picture, Mayor Widmer expressed confidence that she will do just fine in her interim role.
"I think she's doing a great job," he said. "She's taking counsel from the city attorney" and staff members who manage individual departments, and "she's extremely communicative," he added.