Editorial: Change of direction in AthertonElections can scuttle the best-laid plans of a ruling majority, and that is what happened in Atherton on Nov. 6, when Mayor Bill Widmer, Kathy McKeithen, who chose not to run for re-election, and Jim Dobbie lost their clout on the five-member body. Voters overwhelmingly re-elected Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis, and turned Ms. McKeithen's seat over to newcomer Cary Wiest, who with Jerry Carlson are likely to form a new majority.
Now Ms. Lewis and Mr. Carlson, who often were at odds with Mr. Widmer and his allies, have prevailed in the long-running dispute over whether to build a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park. By a healthy 2-1 majority, Atherton residents voted a resounding "no" on ballot Measure F, which would have authorized the new library.
With the library dispute settled, the council can move on to approve an earthquake retrofit and upgrade of the existing library at Town Center, using funds put aside by a county joint powers authorty for exclusive use on an Atherton library. In a year or two, there will be $8 million in the fund, which some residents had hoped would be used to build a new library. But strong opposition not only knocked the new library out of the picture, it also ended the council hopes of strong library supporter Denise Kupperman, who along with Greg Conlon lost her bid for a four-year term.
Now it will be up to Ms. Lewis and her allies to set the town's agenda for the next two years. In an interview last week, she said she aims to bring harmony to the council following the bitter disputes that characterized much of the discourse over the last four years. It is encouraging to hear that she is committed to renovating or replacing the old library at Town Center, and intends to push for beginning work on a master plan to identify the location and plans for all the town's public buildings.
In addition, the upcoming contract talks with the police officers union will not be easy, especially after the APOA inserted itself in the council campaign. The group spent more than $10,000 in support of Ms. Lewis and Mr. Wiest, paying for yard signs, advertising and a controversial robocall that some council members and residents felt was inappropriate and threatening. In response, the full council authorized Mr. Widmer to send out a press release to, among other things, counter the charge raised by the phone call that the current council was considering outsourcing police services to the county Sheriff's Office.
Ms. Lewis admits that the negotiations with the police union are "not going to be easy," and that what will matter is "whether we can pay for the services we are wanting to have."
The town dedicates 60 percent of a $750-per- household parcel tax to help pay for the police department, a position the union is banking on as negotiations grow near. Except on one occasion, Atherton residents have approved the parcel tax, which is renewed every four years.
Given the town's other financial challenges, it is virtually a given that without income from a parcel tax, the council will have to bring down costs in the police department, either by reducing staff or outsourcing the department to the county. It may be past the time when Atherton taxpayers will continue to support one of the costliest police departments per capita on the Peninsula. But it will take a courageous council to pull the plug on what has been a hallmark of Atherton for many years.