The City Council voted 3-2 on Aug. 7 to put the two measures on the November ballot, along with a measure asking whether a new library should be built in the park — a measure the council approved at an earlier meeting in an attempt to quell the outcry that has arisen over the issue since the project was approved by the council last fall.
Council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson on Aug. 7 voted against placing the latest measures on the ballot, saying that, unlike the situation with the library plan, residents have not been concerned about the proposed projects, and haven't "clamored" for a vote.
But the council majority argued that since there's an election in November that will include choosing two council members and deciding the library question, it would be reasonable to ask voters about two other projects that will have a major impact on the town.
City Attorney Bill Conners crafted language for both measures, asking council members for suggestions to make the questions fit their purposes. But it was a representative of the Little League, Michael Haven, who suggested language that, with a few tweaks, passed muster with the council.
On that issue, voters will be asked: "Should the town permit the Menlo-Atherton Little League to improve the baseball field and surrounding areas at Holbrook-Palmer Park, including covered seating for spectators and players, an improved playing area for children, and new restrooms for all park users, using private funds only?"
Mr. Haven told the council that the Little League organization is "pleased to let the voters decide" the question, noting that Holbrook-Palmer is "the public's park." He said the organization is gearing up to put before the voters a persuasive argument for the project, which would be paid for in full and maintained by Little League.
The Town Center measure was approved after the ballot language's emphasis was placed on how the center would be paid for, rather than whether the center would be built. All council members say they support replacing the cramped facilities, which don't meet seismic, fire, or other building codes, but the council majority insisted on legally restricting the bulk of the project's funding to private contributions.
"The issue isn't shall we construct; it's how it's funded," Mayor Bill Widmer said, insisting that he wouldn't support any new taxes for the project.
The approved ballot language asks: "Should the town of Atherton primarily use private donations to construct and design a new Town Center? Other funding sources might include funds derived from building fees or future grant money, but would not use general fund or parcel tax money."
Councilwoman Lewis, a lead figure on the Town Center Task Force, implored her colleagues not to put the measure on the ballot, asking repeatedly what purpose it would serve. Donors are at the ready to open up their wallets, she said, but the project is in its early planning stages and a ballot measure is "putting the cart before the horse."
Under current council direction, "there's no way that any taxpayer money ... can be spent on this project," she said.
But Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen noted that "councils come and go. Resolutions can be passed ... and changed."
Voter approval of the ballot measure would ensure that "this is indeed going to be paid for in private donations," she said. "There's no legitimate reason not to bind ourselves to that commitment."