Council flare-up over controversial postcard

The Portola Valley Town Council spent a few lively minutes last week discussing a controversial Town Hall decision to mail residents a postcard with information about unusual expense cuts the town has taken to balance the budget.

At issue: the propriety of spending public money on such a mailing three months ahead of an election in which voters will consider renewing a tax on utility bills that brings in about 10 percent of the town's revenues.

The postcard could be seen as making a case for renewing the tax, something a government body is not allowed to do.

In 2005, voters renewed the tax by a 52 percent majority, a 20-percentage-point drop from the 72 percent majority that approved the tax in 2001.

Town Manager Angela Howard told The Almanac that she accepted responsibility for the decision to mail the card. Residents had been asking about the town's finances and something needed to be done, she said.

It was a novel situation. For the first time in her career in Portola Valley, as she told the council in June, she had to slash planned expenses by about $420,000 to draft a balanced budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The postcard repeats statistics she cited then: building permit revenues are down some 40 percent, interest income is down 62 percent, and the cash-starved state is threatening to borrow up to $200,000 in property tax revenues in December. The card does not mention the utility tax.

Ms. Howard said she decided a postcard would be appropriate and discussed key points with Stacie Nerdahl, the administrative services officer, before leaving on a three-week vacation on July 8.

Ms. Nerdahl wrote the text of the card and Councilman Steve Toben reviewed it, Ms. Howard said, adding that she was away and did not see it before it was mailed on June 27.

The postcard was meant to say, "Hey, we're OK, and by the way, the budget's out there on the Web site. Go see it,'" Ms. Howard said.

Ms. Nerdahl, in an interview, added: "We really want people to know we're still balanced."

Asked to comment on the controversy, Ms. Howard replied: "It is unfortunate. It really is. That's all I can say about it."

Council views

The topic came up at the Aug. 12 council meeting during the regular discussion of recent communications. Mayor Ann Wengert defended Ms. Howard's decision.

The town has sent 13 postcards in recent memory and this was one more, Ms. Wengert said. The annual budget, she added, "is a major event that we go through," and one probably not well understood by residents.

All well and good "on the surface," Councilman Richard Merk noted, but the potential for misinterpretation should have raised a flag. "I think this was a mistake at this time," he said. "If the town is going to send this out, we have to send it out (having given it) full thought."

Councilwoman Maryann Moise Derwin said residents had phoned her asking about the card before she'd seen it. "I got blindsided by this," she said. "It made me look like an idiot."

Councilman Ted Driscoll said he thought the card useful in the context of a general economic malaise in that it specifically addressed the town's situation, but later called the timing "just unfortunate."

Mr. Toben was absent and did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.


Like this comment
Posted by Emma
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 19, 2009 at 1:57 pm

The Atherton Council will vote tonight on spending 15,ooo for a P.R. firm to push forward a parcel tax--How is this different from Portola Valley sending out a post card so much more economically and to the same end??? Please keep Atherton informed on this matter as you get it clarified Portola--we've gone a bit rogue downhere in the flatlands--I would hate to think we have become contagious

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