Was councilwoman's house built lawfully? Atherton, posted by Editor, The Almanac Online, on Jun 1, 2010 at 10:58 am
The question has been raised, publicly and emotionally, for at least two years: Did Atherton City Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis and her husband, Joe, violate town building law when they constructed a new house and accessory unit on their half-acre lot on Emilie and Alejandra avenues some five years ago?
Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, June 1, 2010, 10:27 AM
Posted by R.GORDON, a resident of another community, on Jun 1, 2010 at 11:22 am R.GORDON is a member (registered user) of Almanac Online
If that is so, then it looks like it leaves room to mention the names of other prominent citizens who have added and built millions of dollars in completely illegal construction which was permitted sans permits........it is STAGGERING. Lots of construction teams outside of SAN MATEO COUNTY......Start with the amount of bomb shelters/basement/playrooms in dozens of homes at &600 a foot....tons of proof both on film and photos and even filmed interviews with illegals. The arrogance of some of these culprits is absolutely ming boggling......OR WAS.
Posted by opposite experience, a resident of the Menlo Park: other neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 12:50 pm
As a former local elected official who later did a major remodel, I can tell you that, at least in Menlo Park, the Ity staff made us jump twice and more carefully through every signle hoop. Staff always erred on the side of conservatively requiring more process. I believe it was because no one wanted any after the fact questioning of whether anything was done differently for a former elected than would have been done for any other citizen. We certainly experienced a super fine toothed comb being used both during the planning and the building inspection process. It certainly took us many many months more than other projects to reach final inspection.
I am not sure whether Ms Lewis was on the radar as a future councilwoman, but quite possibly if she was already active in Atherton city politics, the same might have happened to her. This is even more likley once she was elected in terms of toughnes of building inspections.
Posted by John P. Johns, CPA, a resident of another community, on Jun 1, 2010 at 2:12 pm
On her permit application, which Ms. Lewis signed as an "owner builder" Ms. Lewis called her house a remodel. It was not, it was a completely new structure. The significance of this is that it is one thing to modify an existing non-conforming structure as she was given permission to do by the Planning Commission, and it is an entirely different matter to tear the non-conforming structure down and build a new one.
Ms. Lewis' permit was flagged as a result of my Phase III audit of the building department because the permit had expired before work began on the property. This is something that Mike Wassman, who claims to have been completely ignorant of his responsibilities as a building inspector should have recognized.
The first thing one does as a building inspector is see whether a current permit is on file (there was not in Ms. Lewis' case).
I also strongly believe that it is entirely inappropriate for Ms. Furth to be reviewing this matter. Clearly this is a ruse to evade further scrutiny of the matter.
Ms. McKeithen is right to call for an independent investigation of this matter. Ms. Furth's argument that she wasn't around nor was Mr. Gruber at the time is and therefore can be objective is ridiculous.
Posted by tired, and a little bored, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 2:26 pm
First it was "Is Charles Marsala a legal resident?" Now it is "Did Elizabeth Lewis build her house illegally?" Is it just coincidence that these two Council members are targeted by their political adversary, the Mayor, and her supporters, the former Finance Director? It must mean their is another election coming! Please get to work.
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 3:09 pm
The very sad fact is that the citizens do not trust the Town Council and/or the Town's Counsel to adjudicate questions regarding alleged improprieties by sitting Council members. The decision by the Town Counsel to make her report to the Town Council on Charles Marsala's residence a confidential document not available to the public shattered any possible public trust in the Council or in the Counsel.
It is time to ask for outside review of such alleged inappropriate behavior with the reports being made to all of Atherton's citizens rather than being hidden behind closed doors.
Posted by R.GORDON, a resident of another community, on Jun 1, 2010 at 3:13 pm R.GORDON is a member (registered user) of Almanac Online
I completely believe in John P.Johns veracity. Out of sheer curiosity, who did you find yourself dealing with in the Bldg.Dept?I would LOVE you to post them here and send you all of the "All the construction is OK"S....there are close to 385 infractions including
adding a concrete wall, almost an entire cottage, a fences,and a total of 1300 sq.ft of living.
I have ALL of the paper work, names and figured they would screw up again.....it is GREED again.There is some kind of payola and graft and even the hired stooges who spell like three year olds acted like CEO's for major building companies.If we are talking outside of San Mateo County, stop me now.The rest of the infractions are a mixture of electrical and construction, but the work runs into the millions.
I can corroborate ALL.This illustrious community does not shine.
Posted by Are all Politics are loco ?, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 8:45 pm
Dear Road Kill--Peter Carpenter is one of the most civic minded citizens on the entire peninsula, and he also currently serves as president of the ACIL here in Atherton. Everyone I know and respect, happens to agree with Peter's statement about the council having lost major credibility because of widely known improprieties on the part of both Charles and Elizabeth. These well known "secrets" of sitting council members, are precisely what has set the bar of expectation for ethical behavior, so low as to cause your average resident to just plain give up on community, and to look out for only # one. The Town's management team have also decided to just run their own game, since without good leadership, all self respect and morale has been lost.
In today's Almanac article, Ms Lewis actually asks why anybody would care whether or not her residence is legal. This is a shocking question for her to pose, but it is very illustrative of the attitude of entitlement, expectation of special privilege, and presumed immunity that she brings to the table in the way she represents our town.
I wouldn't mind nearly as much about her ignoring all the building and zoning ordinances, or the fact the she completely blew off the planning commission, if she had stayed home and had not run for office.
Having sneaky council members is worse than almost any other abuse of power that exists in this world, because local politics is the one level where we can all actually have an impact. We have no excuse for tolerating corruption here. I have no particular opinion about how or what Ms Lewis might be forced to change about her house to bring it into compliance--but I sure wish she would resign from office as soon as possible and stop trying to justify her own behavior by ruining the whole town.
Posted by Face It, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm
How can Elizabeth Lewis act as part of an appellate body over zoning and planning issues when her own house was done illegally? She needs to step down from the council.
John Johns was fired for bringing this issue (and others) to light. Actually more was done to him than simply firing him; he was persecuted, slandered, and vicitmized by a gang of bullies including the real estate developers, selected council members (notably Charles Marsala) and their goon squad, the cops.
John Johns was completely vindicated and proven 100% correct when the town paid him a quarter of a million dollars recently. Nope, that wasn't done due to the "expense and uncertainty of litigation"; if that were the case, the town could have settled with him for $10,000 much earlier on.
The town settled with Johns because he wouldn't back down, and they knew they were wrong. Now that he was regained his well-earned credibility, it's important to pay attention to what he has to say.
Unlike Wynne Furth, he has no axe to grind. Elizabeth Lewis isn't controlling his contract or his paychecks, unlike Furth's and Gruber's.
If Johns says Lewis' house is illegal, it's illegal. Now the only question is what to do about it.
Posted by POGO, a resident of the Woodside: other neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 9:41 pm
Dates, permits and measurements are not subjective. The facts surrounding Ms. Lewis's home should be easy to verify.
One only needs to use a tape measure to see if the home's current setbacks and square footage conform to code and conform to the plans that were submitted. They either do or they don't.
A record of a signed and dated building permit should be easy to verify. If Ms. Lewis doesn't have it, her general contractor will. For tax assessment purposes, permits have a dollar amount assigned to them which indicates remodel or new construction.
Finally, plans are always stamped, signed and dated. The plan checkers will always have a record of their review and the date they invoiced the town for their services. The date construction work was performed is easy to verify from subcontractor bills and supplier invoices.
Ms. Lewis, her general contractor and the town should have this information in triplicate. This isn't a particularly difficult task - but the results should definitely be made public.
Ms. Lewis says she didn't receive special treatment and therefore would have nothing to hide.
Posted by Are all politics loco?, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm
I think she should resign her council seat, and stay home under mandated house arrest to write self recriminations and a thorough list of all the General Plan, Building Code, Zoning Ordinance, Housing Element and Town Charter rules that she has so desperately worked to have had rewritten, in order to try to legalize her own house. Also she should never be allowed to sell it, as is.
By the way...
Why was "records Management" (read: document destruction), on the May council agenda a few weeks ago???? Has city manager McGruber been promised another big perk, if he can make Elizabeth's paper trail all disappear from the Planning and Building files... Or did Lois already shred the Lewis stuff before she got fired...?
Posted by Michael G. Stogner, a resident of another community, on Jun 2, 2010 at 7:13 am
Elizabeth Lewis asks?
"Who are the people accusing me here -- and why?"
The who answer: Mr. John Johns former Finance Director of the Town of Atherton.
The why answer: This subject never got resolved the first time Mr. John Johns brought it to the attention of Atherton. Now it is time for completion.
The public is able to see how a Finance Director who in doing his job discovers illegal behavior, reports it, request further study to see if more is happening. Why this wasn't investigated by Steve Wagstaffe several years ago we don't know.
Mr. John Johns also suggested an audit of the Atherton Police Department which triggered an anger management issue and an illegal issue by then Chief Robert Brennan who illegally accessed the criminal computer system to get personal information on Mr. Johns.
Why this wasn't investigated by Steve Wagstaffe several years ago we don't know.
It takes citizens who care to solve this. John Johns is a citizen who CARES.
Posted by The Ugly Truth, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 10:15 am
When a municipality wants to fire an employee, they put him or her on "administrative leave" and conduct an investigation. If the employee resigns before the investigation is finalized, it becomes moot and the report (which will reflect in a negative way on the employee and thus his/her future job prospects) is never issued.
Some cases in point:
1. Jerry Gruber was put on "paid leave" by his former employer, Big Bear Lake, over sexual harassment allegations. He resigned during the investigation, took the job at Atherton, and thus the report was never issued. (This is public information, was actually reported on by the Almanac at the time, and should not be censored).
2. John Johns went through this recipe when Atherton fired him, but he would not resign. Of course, the report was issued that was highly negative of Johns. By the way, the city says an "unbiased, neutral investigator" (in this case, Mary Topliff) writes the report, so it can be trusted, but think about it: will the investigators continue to get hired as part of this recipe if they don't find wrongdoing? Also, isn't it ironic that the Johns report got issued but the Marsala report by Furth did not, as Peter Carpenter mentioned above?
3. Mike Hood, former head of the building department, went through this recipe and resigned before the report got issued.
A 20,000 some square foot house was built on an acre on Park Lane. How is this possible with FARs? Hood decided the second story shouldn't count because of the roof design. Hmmm.Ö
I believe Furth is getting ready to issue a report that says Hood approved Lewis' house even though it violated various rules (notably, and shockingly, the setbacks - drive by and see how close it is to both Alejandra and Emilie), it's Hood's fault, and let sleeping dogs lie.
Of course, Lewis and her husband are real estate developers. The biggest and "best" builder in Atherton, Pacific Peninsula Group (Steve Ackley's company) built her house. Are these naive people who got "duped" by Hood, or people who knew how to game the system?
Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of the Menlo Park: other neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 10:40 am
The ugly truth is someone's palm got greased for Elizabeth Lewis' house to be built as it is. It wasn't a remodel, it was a "scrape." Anyone knowing anything about construction going by that site while construction was under way could tell you that. Because it was a scrape current zoning regulations should have been applied. That means the house is in violation of the FAR and the set backs. The fact is Elizabeth Lewis knows full well she broke the law, either actively or inactively. Why the town would not put this out for independent review is amazing. Why there isn't a demand from other council members that Lewis recuse herself from anything even remotely having to do with zoning due to her percived or actual conflicts is also amazing.
Furthermore, if Elizabeth hasn't broken the law, why doesn't she prove it? I'm sure she has all of the documents from the construction of her home. Publishing this paperwork would put this matter to rest if she actually had permission to build the house as it is now. My bet is she won't because she didn't have permission to build an entire new house.
Posted by loco politics, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm
Put Lisa Costa Saunders from Planning and Lois English from Building under oath--or the lie detector--they are who made this project happen for Elizabeth from the other side of the self serve counter, but it was all "arranged" by the use of the builder -Steve Ackley's well established network here in town.
I have often wondered while watching Steve and Elizabeth drive around together to look at his P.P.G. projects all over town--Was there an established property business/investment connection between the Ackleys and Lewis families before the both moved into Town?
I believe both families first bought property in 1997 which I believe is when Wassman and Hood took charge of the Building Dept.--They all had a very sweet 10 year run didn't they.
Maybe PPG is who actually choose and decided to hire Neil Martin Associates to begin with --wish Steve would start paying for them himself.
Posted by Pam, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm
It's been public knowledge for years that Lewis's home was not legal. That's old news. The question is what are we going to do about it? And, how in the world can we have her sitting on the Planning Commission and the Council given these facts?
This is one of the reasons John John's got fired; he blew the whistle on a very powerful representative of the mega million dollar builders in town.
This is not about politics. This is about dirty money.
Posted by john p johns, cpa, a resident of another community, on Jun 2, 2010 at 1:44 pm
Elizabeth Lewis filled out the permit application herself. She signed it herself. She declared herself to be an "owner builder". By doing so, she took full responsibility for the project. She cannot claim after the fact that she was ignorant of the rules or of the particulars of her project.
Menlo Voter is right. This project was not a remodel. The old residence was completely demolished and a new one was built in its place.
Why did Lewis call it a remodel? Menlo Voter has answered this question as well: Because the plans approved by the Planning Commission were for a remodel, not for an entirely new house. In fact, The Planning Commission told Lewis that if there were to be any substantive changes to the remodeling plans approved, she would have to go back to the Planning Commission to have the plans reviewed again.
Lewis never went back to the Planning Commission. If she had, her completely new set of plans for a completely new (and much larger) house would have been rejected.
This is a classic case of "bait and switch" with Lewis' neighbors left holding the bag.
For Lewis to remain on the Planning Commission, let alone the City Council is an insult to those who care about respect for the rule of law.
Posted by Harpooner, a resident of the Atherton: West Atherton neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm
Like an out-of-control oil spill, the spreading stain from real-estate professional AND town councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis' illegal house continues to foul Atherton's body politic and erode the tranquility of our low-density Theme Park Of The Good Life. Is it any surprise, then, that councilwoman Lewis promotes watering down the land-use rules that protect small R-1A-zoned Atherton properties from the erection of larger dwellings? Hardly. Local real estate interests, now emboldened by Lewis' elevation to the Town Council, have long been trying to pry open the door to Athertonís residential candy store.
It was one of the builders of Lewis' controversial house, Steve Ackley's Peninsula Pacific Group partner Brad Smith, who first poisoned this particular water hole back in 1991. In a maneuver to expand the small spec house he had purchased on Parker Avenue, Smith petitioned to change the street's R1-A zoning to the less restrictive R1-B "downtown" zoning. Smith was joined by a handful of Parker residents who saw this as a back-door path to some easy money by allowing for larger houses. The attempt was deflected by a wise Council and Town staff which crafted a well thought out FAR compromise for small lots, but the issue -- most recently disguised falsely as an "equity" imbalance, has resurfaced continually. Parker Avenue remains the epicenter in the latest push by a greedy few and the real estate crowd to rezone all Atherton lots up to 10,000 sq. feet to R1-B -- foolishly abetted by Atherton's Town Council on May 19 in overruling the Planning Commission's unanimous vote to dismiss the request.
At some point, Atherton needs to decide, once and for all, whether the Town exists for its residents or for the real estate industry. A good start in the right direction would be to tow the present reigning Trojan Horse outside the city gates -- that is, remove Elizabeth Lewis from the Town Council, or at the very least, require her to recuse herself from voting on any issue involving the regulation of land use. A second corrective move would be for Atherton residents to wise up and cease electing real estate professionals to positions of power. As for Lewis' patently illegal PPG-built house, well, that remains yet another Gordian knot awaiting solution by the great minds of Faire Atherton.
Posted by Wee Newit!, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 7:39 pm
Back when Elizabeth Lewis first ran unsuccessfully for Atherton City Council and lost, it was because we all knew she was "in the builders' pocket". But then next time around, with sufficient funding and campaign tactics in a basicly apathetic town, she actually won election. Too bad for the foolish residents who let this happen! We all knew how she would behave and she has certainly fulfilled that suspicion. Sooner or later this town simply MUST clean house of all these shady people! Ever heard of RECALL folks?
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 2, 2010 at 7:45 pm
Given the level of apathy in Atherton, I seriously doubt that this issue will ever be properly investigated or that there will even be an attempt at recall.
There is a lot of cheap talk on this Forum but very little action except by the same handful of citizens who consistently attempt, with little help from others, to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable.
Posted by All politics are loco, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm
To Member of some other community:
Mayor McKiethen is the one council member who has been trying Harder and Longer than anyone else for fiscal accountability in this town!
Every time she tries to get to the bottom of a major budget leak--the beneficiaries of that money start calling it a witch hunt as their only means of keeping the public's eye off the ball. The overpaid upper management team and bloated Police Department immediately start to run interference, and begin to circle their wagons to protect their own established salary/pension gravy train --while the pro development council shills like Lewis and Marsala point the finger at Mayor McKiethen for nit picking. The big winners of corse are mega developers and contractors who actually own this town and want to keep their little Gold Mine just the way it is. The developers actually install council people into office who will guarantee them less restrictions on their revenue steam, more refunds, more special favors for well connected and wealthy clients to avoid having to pay fees on illegal and oversized monuments to themselves.
The town would be in far worse shape already, than it is without Ms McKiethen's tireless
efforts--I am amazed at her dedication to this Town and that she continues to try at all, with all abuse the "special" interests have heaped on her.
By the way--if complacent residents of Atherton don't start figuring some of this out before the next election, then we can all expect to paying a parcel tax in the tens of thousands, in order to keep the Town afloat in the future.
All most all of the Towns litigation costs are actually due to these "special" interests trying to protect what they have got and to gain more headway for the construction industry's gravy train in one way or another.
Posted by Corruption in Atherton, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 5, 2010 at 1:28 am
At some level, the corruption we are about to witness (Furth exonerating Lewis as she did for Marsala, with "stipulated" incorrect facts, no cross examination or consideration of other evidence, and no process) is the worst of all. It indicates a slippery slope that we can't recover from. Outside, impartial investigators with no axe to grind are used in every facet of government in situations like this. Furth's huge bills are under attack, her legal advice that's gotten the town into a pot of boiling water is under attack, and Lewis and Marsala protect her from the day of reckoning she's due, and in turn, she returns the favor. How awful is this?
Posted by plenty awful, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, on Jun 6, 2010 at 9:34 am
Furth has been giving the Town terrible legal advice. The town has paid $500k to settle disputes with two former employees, after running up a tab of over $400k, given back more than a million in road impact fees without a fight and provided cover for one of Atherton's most corrupt politicians in ages.
We need a new City Attorney there is no question about that.
Since Furth has made it clear that she is taking direction from both the City Manager and the City Council, we should dump Gruber also.
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of the Atherton: Lindenwood neighborhood, on Jun 8, 2010 at 12:43 pm
Wouldn't it be nice if we could get 100 Atherton residents to sign a petition calling for a Special Meeting of the Town Council with this single agenda item:
"The Council hereby resolve to appoint a Special Counsel, who is otherwise unaffiliated with the Town, to investigate and recommend remedial actions, including referral to the District Attorney if there is evidence of illegal activities, whenever more than ten Atherton residents file a Notice of Concern regarding the actions of a current member of the Town Council."
First there would be public comment on this agenda item and then the council would discuss it and vote yes or no.