For two years, Atherton was without a permanent town manager, overseen instead by two interim managers. Last year, with unanimous council approval, interim manager John Danielson privatized building and public works services, laying off most of the town's non-police employees — a move that appears to have helped eliminate a structural deficit that town officials predicted would exceed $1 million in the near future.
Turning a corner, the council earlier this month named George Rodericks the town's permanent manager after a nine-month search.
Voters are in charge of the next big change in town: They will decide next month who will fill two council seats, with one incumbent in the running and three challengers asking for a shot at a four-year term.
Voters also will decide on three ballot measures concerning construction of a new library, funding for a new Town Center, and a plan to improve the ball field in the town's only park. The library issue is by far the most contentious, with a plan to build the new facility in Holbrook-Palmer Park winning approval a year ago by a divided council, and dividing residents in the bargain.
Although ballot Measure F has placed the decision of whether to build the library in the park in the voters' court, the issue remains a hot button in the council race, with one candidate, Denise Kupperman, as one of the chief proponents of the plan and candidate Elizabeth Lewis, the incumbent, an ardent foe who pushed for putting the question on the ballot months before the council majority agreed to do so.
The following summaries are based on candidate interviews with the Almanac, a recent candidate forum, and the candidates' website information.
A former member and president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Greg Conlon has been active locally on the town's volunteer Rail Committee and bodies reviewing the town's finances.
His No. 1 issue: To make sure that if a high-speed rail is built, "they do it right." That means "they put it in a trench, without excessive noise and without ruining our Town Center," he said. The town must work with neighboring cities, Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority, he said, to ensure that the train traverses the Peninsula in open trenches that would be covered in residential areas such as Atherton and in downtown areas of other communities.
Other key issues include protecting police services from being outsourced, and ensuring that a new Town Center is built in the best location — not a cut-and-dried decision, given the uncertainty of how the high-speed rail project will impact the area the Town Center is now located in, he said.
If the rail project is built to minimize the noise and other impacts to Atherton, he wants the Town Center to remain where it is, and if that is feasible, he prefers to keep the library in the center with other town facilities, he said. But the voters will have the final say about that, and he will respect their decision, he added.
Another issue he wants to focus on is increased traffic through the town, he said, adding that he will push to have long-standing Marsh Road problems fixed.
Mr. Conlon said he supports renewal of the parcel tax when it expires in 2014. "Without the parcel tax, (the town) will really have a financial crisis," he said.
Of the town's financial health, he said it's also crucial to address escalating costs related to pensions and employee health-care benefits.
As chair of the Atherton Library Building Steering Committee, Denise Kupperman has received public accolades for the hundreds of volunteer hours she has contributed to the two-year process of studying the issue and shaping the recommendation to build in the park.
But she's also faced fierce criticism by residents who oppose the park location, some of whom accuse the steering committee of leaving the public out of the process. In her defense, Ms. Kupperman points to the number of public meetings — more than 100 — held during the long process of studying options for a new library.
"The question was handled fairly and properly," Ms. Kupperman said of the 3-2 council decision to follow the steering committee's recommendation to build the library in the park. But in light of the subsequent public outcry, "it was a good decision to put (the question) on the ballot," she said.
A longtime volunteer advocate for the park through her work with the park foundation and Atherton Dames, Ms. Kupperman said she believes that "a well-designed, 10,000-square-foot ... library can fit quite nicely in the park," complementing existing uses.
"But no matter where the library goes, it's important that it meet the needs of the community — not only now, but in the future."
A longtime attendee at council meetings, Ms. Kupperman said her financial expertise puts her in a good position to help the council oversee financial challenges faced by the town. She said the town was in a dire situation when the council was faced with the option of outsourcing public services, but "it takes a long time to get (to such a financial situation), and addressing it in a positive managerial way should have been done years ago," she said, concluding that the financial crisis reflected "a failure of management."
Other key goals for Ms. Kupperman include developing traffic management strategies and safe routes to school, improving communications with residents, and maintaining the "quality of our public safety." She supports having an in-town police force rather than outsourcing the services, and supports renewal of the town's parcel tax, adding that without the tax, police services run by the town would be difficult to maintain.
Elected to the council in 2008, Elizabeth Lewis has often cast one of the minority votes, with Jerry Carlson, in 3-2 council decisions. She's also been the target of intense criticism over a home renovation project, completed before her council tenure. Critics charged that the house was bigger than was legally permitted, and that the construction project involved other code violations.
The town attorney at the time, Wynne Furth, conducted an investigation, and concluded that the house exceeds the town's zoning ordinance by about 129 square feet; that Ms. Lewis should not have been allowed to demolish and rebuild the portion of the house that was "nonconforming" because it was too close to the property lines under existing law; and that the blame for those violations of the ordinance lay with the former building official, so no action by the town should be taken in the matter.
Ms. Lewis is now vice mayor, making it likely that she will serve as mayor in 2013 if re-elected.
She has been a leader in the effort to plan and raise private funds for a new Town Center, and is running on a platform that includes greater transparency. "Residents deserve to know what's going on in their town," she said. "We need to use technology that's right on our doorstep," she added, citing the need for an email notification system to let residents know about meetings and other town activities, among other technological opportunities.
Her support of term limits — two four-year terms — is based on a belief that it will lead to "a broader base of people getting involved."
Another key concern is traffic, and she has been involved in regional transportation planning. "I've been advocating safe bike and pedestrian routes in town," she said, noting that, with 10 schools within the town's limits, "our population doubles every day school is in session." She said the town needs to be working with Menlo Park and the schools to deal with the issue. "Our children can't safely ride their bikes to school — that's something I think needs to be addressed."
Regarding the library, Ms. Lewis said, "I don't think our residents were allowed to provide input" on the choice of location. She opposes Measure F, saying that a library "will forever change the park." But, she added, "whatever the residents want, I'll get behind 100 percent."
Cary Wiest ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 2010 after living in Atherton for less than a year. He was criticized for not attending council meetings before filing papers, and not trying to be involved on a town committee or commission before running for council.
Since then, in 2011, he applied for a seat on the Planning Commission and the General Plan Committee, but others won the council's support for those appointments.
Regardless of his lack of participation in Atherton civic affairs, Mr. Wiest said his experience in regional and countywide matters, including the county's Vision 2025 Committee and its Jail Planning Advisory Committee, has given him the necessary tools to serve on the council.
He criticizes the council for not listening to residents, citing as one example the council's vote to build the library in the park. Although a number of residents asked the council a year ago to put the question to the voters, the council failed to do so until months later, sending a message to the community that its voice was unimportant, he said.
As a council member, he said, he would listen to residents and, in doing so, would restore trust in town leaders and reassure residents "that their views matter."
Mr. Wiest said he opposes outsourcing police services, saying that "residents have spoken loudly in support" of retaining the town's own police force. On his website, he said he will focus on the question of "why one of the top-five riches cities in the country is struggling to properly fund public safety."
He supports renewal of the town's parcel tax when it expires in 2014. The current City Council has allocated 60 percent of the $1.8 million in parcel tax revenue to police services, with the remaining 40 percent spent on public works projects. Mr. Wiest has expressed doubt about how the tax revenue is actually spent, and said "the money needs to be monitored" carefully.
Years in Atherton: Over 35
Age: Not provided
Civic experience: Atherton Rail Committee, 8 years; town's Finance and Audit Committee, over 2 years.
Education: Bachelor's degree, business/Accounting University of Utah; law degree/University of San Francisco.
Years in Atherton: 16
Occupation: Small business owner, landscape and environmental design and planning firm
Civic experience: Atherton Tree Committee, 12 years; Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation/Atherton Dames board member; co-creator, Holbrook-Palmer Park Landscape Master Plan; town's ad-hoc Grading and Drainage Committee member; Atherton Library Building Steering Committee chair; San Mateo/San Francisco County Master Gardner.
Education: Master's degree, landscape architecture/UC Berkeley; bachelor's degree, business administration/Menlo College
Years in Atherton: 14
Occupation: Atherton City Council member
Civic experience: Atherton General Plan Committee, beginning 2006; during council term, member of General Plan, Transportation, Environmental, Rail committees; chair of town's ad-hoc legal selection committee; chair, Town Center Task Force; member, Peninsula Traffic Congestion Relief Alliance, Regional Housing Needs Assessment board, HEART of San Mateo board.
Education: Attended San Jose State University, San Francisco State University; licensed real estate agent; certified registered property manager.
Years in Atherton: 3
Occupation: Business owner
Civic experience: Member, Vision 2025 Committee, San Mateo County; member, Jail Planning Advisory Committee, San Mateo County; member, 2010 Charter Review Committee, San Mateo County; member, Crystal Springs County Sanitation District Review Committee; president, Highlands Community Association, 5 years, vice president, 4 years.
Education: Attended DeAnza, West Valley, College of San Mateo community colleges; San Francisco State University College of Extended Learning; Coast Federal Savings appraisal training program.