Top stories of 2011
What happened in 2011? The better question might be: What didn't happen?
Not much happened in Menlo Park this year. OK, maybe a little happened.
Let's start with the news no one has heard: Facebook moved to Menlo Park! The social networking giant took up residence at the old Sun/Oracle Campus now known as 1 Hacker Way. The blessings the move will confer on the city remain to be seen, but according to the environmental impact report for the planned campus expansion, they include the potential for snarled traffic alongside the economic benefits.
Both the El Camino Real/downtown specific plan and high-speed rail got more expensive this year: the specific plan to the tune of $225,980, to make community-inspired changes, and high-speed rail by at least $62.5 billion.
On the other hand, unions cost less, as the council negotiated pay freezes and benefit cuts for city employees, bringing Menlo Park closer to implementing Measure L, the pension reform initiative passed in 2010. Several senior staff won't be around to see the impact: City Manager Glen Rojas, Public Works Director Kent Steffens, and Business Development Director David Johnson all rode off into the sunset.
The year also brought tragedies as drive-by shootings, bicycle accidents, and a laboratory explosion killed people within the community.
The Menlo Park review would not be complete without revisiting one of the wackier campaign moments in recent memory. What appeared to be the missing cellphone of John Woodell, husband of Councilwoman Kirsten Keith and a figure in local Democratic circles, mysteriously turned up in a neighbor's bushes next to an uprooted campaign sign for Republican Virginia Chang Kiraly. Mr. Woodell has assured the public that he would never mess with a campaign sign.
Ms. Kiraly, along with fellow newcomer Rob Silano, won a seat on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board. Both victors were endorsed by local unions despite supporting pension reform, which may have helped them beat incumbent Bart Spencer, who lost the seat he'd held on the board for 12 years.
The word of the year in Atherton is "interim." It's a word that reflects a year of uncommon change in Town Hall administration and promises continuing shifts and adjustments in 2012.
The year unfolded with the Jan. 3 assumption of city management duties, on an interim basis, by John Danielson, a retired former city manager of Elk Grove and Wildomar, California. At year's end, four top administrative jobs in the town, including city manager, are held by interim employees.
But other words also aptly describe Atherton's employment scene over the last 12 months — for example: "shock," and "anger," and "uncertainty" as the town laid off 13 of its 16 general employees, giving their jobs in the building and public works departments to private outside contractors and weathering a court challenge of the actions.
Mr. Danielson, supported by a unanimous City Council, maintained throughout the turmoil of the July and August layoffs that the actions were needed to return the town to fiscal stability. The savings from the staffing cuts would go a long way, he said, toward closing an estimated $856,000 structural deficit in the town's budget — a deficit Mr. Danielson was tasked with fixing before his temporary job ran its course.
Meanwhile, an interim public works director, Michael Kashiwagi, was hired in the spring after public works director Duncan Jones announced his retirement in April after eight years on the job. Mr. Kashiwagi still holds the position, and it's unclear when the town intends to find a permanent replacement.
In July, Police Chief Mike Guerra announced his retirement after less than two years on the job, and the town simultaneously announced the appointment of Ed Flint as interim police chief, a position he still holds.
In late October, Finance Director Louise Ho, one of only a handful of full-time, permanent employees left in Town Hall after the summer layoffs, unexpectedly announced her retirement, effective late November. By Dec. 9, the town had brought in an interim finance director, Debra Auker.
When Mr. Danielson arrived in town, he told the Almanac he hoped he could finish the tasks the council handed him in six months. As the year ends, the City Council is scrambling to extend his contract for up to one more year, although such a move must be approved by the state's public retirement agency — CalPERS —to do so if Mr. Danielson is to continue collecting a pension.
If Mr. Danielson remains in Atherton beyond Jan. 2, when his contract as interim manager expires, one of his chief duties will be to take the "interim" out of the city management post by recruiting a permanent leader for the town.
Baseball and peanuts, cheese and crackers, horses and carriages — some things are meant to be together, like trees and Woodside. Reflective of trees' standing in town, the established penalty for felling a significant tree without having first obtained a $60 permit runs $5,000, with the next tree costing $7,500, and $10,000 apiece thereafter.
Two Woodside households in 2011 ran afoul of this law, but no one had the book thrown at them. The council discussed the matter several times and took note of lower fines in nearby communities, but a reasonable penalty that actually deters people is yet to be enacted.
The council opted to continue a precedent set in 2009, when a couple faced at least $92,000 in fines, but the council levied a fine of just $10,000 for cutting 10 significant Coast Live Oaks. (A tree is significant in Woodside if it measures at least 9.5 inches in diameter at 48 inches above ground.)
In the first 2011 case, resolved in July, the council fined the couple $5,000 for one buckeye, but nothing for seven bay laurels, which can transmit sudden oak death. By the book, the council could have demanded $72,500.
The second 2011 case, also addressed in July, could have included a $42,500 fine but ended up at $11,074, the appraised value of one blue gum eucalyptus and four Monterey cypress trees. The council suspended the fine if the couple followed through with a replanting scheme at their expense.
After five years, the time for choosing came in 2011 for Stanford University's offer of $10.4 million to improve an old trail along Alpine Road between Portola Valley and Menlo Park. To be, or not to be: that was the question. The answer: not to be (barring a revised vote before year's end by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors).
The supervisors voted 3-2 on Dec. 13 to reject Stanford's money, echoing precedents set in 2006 and 2010 when unanimous votes by the board accomplished the same thing. But this time the offer expires Dec. 31.
The project included a sea of troubles from the point of view of Stanford Weekend Acres residents, and they took up arms of resistance in the form of impassioned rhetoric, whenever the opportunity arose, as it did in community forums in October, November and December.
Among the troubles: a crazily inconsistent public right of way, intense high-speed commute traffic, complex neighborhood exit and entries, freeway ramp and creek bank issues that raised questions as to whether $10 million was enough, and a deep mistrust of Stanford's intentions.
Equally impassioned were advocates, many from Ladera, who urged the supervisors to take the money and use a couple hundred thousand dollars to at least study the possibilities for what is widely acknowledged to be an unsafe path. Stop the unjustified allegations that the trail cannot be made safe and get facts to work with, they argued.
At long last, they said, the supervisors should take the long view and use this opportunity to finally fix the problems of getting children, dogs and families, by foot, by scooter, by bike, safely from Portola Valley, Ladera and Weekend Acres into Menlo Park and Stanford.
The troubles remain. Perhaps the supervisors can end some of them, as board President Carole Groom proposed, by repairing the cracks and bumps in the path and seeking grants for additional work.
Community college district
In a first for school bond measures, voters rejected Measure H, which needed only a 55 percent majority — not the two-thirds majority normally needed to increase a tax — which would have raised $564 million in construction funding for the San Mateo County Community College District.
The Nov. 8 decision missed the mark by just under two percentage points. The unofficial tally from the county Elections Office showed 53.09 percent, or 48,933 voters, favoring the measure while 46.91 percent, or 43,238 voters, opposed it.
Each of the three campuses — Canada College in Woodside, Skyline College in San Bruno and the College of San Mateo in San Mateo — have buildings that are 40 to 50 years old, governing board members said, but the 2008 economic meltdown and the still-struggling economy may have made Measure H unpalatable.
Asked to justify another half-billion dollars of indebtedness, board members noted the need for up-to-date science, technology, engineering and math curriculums, and that the district lost $200 million in state funding in 2006, and $25 million in 2008 when Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed.
Measure H would also have allowed bond funds to replace $2 million in annual maintenance expenses, enabling the district to enroll 6,000 to 7,000 more students, about 10 percent of whom would be full-time, board member Richard Holober told the Almanac.
For the past few years, local schools have faced several key common challenges: painful funding cutbacks, burgeoning enrollment, and the need to upgrade and expand facilities. In 2011, another common feature was added to the mix: Three of the four elementary school districts in the Almanac's coverage area have — or soon will have — new superintendents.
The year began with Ken Ranella's announcement that he was retiring from his post as superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District after nine years. The school board quickly launched a search, and in May, announced that Maurice Ghysels, former superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District, would take on the district's leadership effective July 1.
In recent years, the district has been engaged in major campus renovations at all four schools, to culminate with a massive reconstruction project at Hillview Middle School, which is scheduled for completion by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
In April, Woodside Elementary School's superintendent and principal, Diana Abbati, announced she would be leaving the district at the end of June to take over as superintendent of the Los Gatos Union School District. The five-school Los Gatos district is considerably larger than the Woodside district, which has only one school.
With only months before the start of a new school year, the school board sprang into action, and by July, announced that Beth Polito would take over as superintendent and principal. Ms. Polito was assistant superintendent of educational services in the Saratoga Union School District before beginning her tenure in Woodside on Aug. 1.
The year is closing with the announcement by Eric Hartwig that he is retiring at the end of the current school year from his post as superintendent of the Las Lomitas School District. Mr. Hartwig, who was principal at Menlo-Atherton High School for nine years, has led the two-school Las Lomitas district for nearly five years.
The school board has appointed a subcommittee to spearhead a search for a new superintendent to be in place by July.
Meanwhile, Tim Hanretty in August began his second school year as superintendent of the two-school Portola Valley School District, and doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Among the district's priorities is a "21st Century Learning" program that focuses on technology in the classroom. And at Ormondale School, a natural, but highly unusual, phenomenon has led to a development unique to local public schools: With 70 boys and 36 girls at the third-grade level — a 66 to 34 percent ratio — the district launched three all-boy classrooms in August.
Almanac reporters Sandy Brundage, Dave Boyce and Renee Batti, and photographer Michelle Le, contributed to this report.