Atherton officials are stepping up their public outreach efforts, announcing a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 22, with City Manager Jerry Gruber and police Chief Mike Guerra at the pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Ave.
Town officials have been under pressure to improve communication with residents following a recent string of bad press, from a month-long delay in releasing information about a $230,000 settlement to a former police officer, to criticism from a resident suing the town over the handling of a domestic dispute.
Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League, has called for the creation of a police oversight commission to restore trust in the department.
Mr. Gruber said the public is invited to make comments and express concerns at the question-and-answer-style meeting on Monday. It's an opportunity for the public to get to know a little more about the new police chief and his background, as well as learn about the services available from town hall and the police department, Mr. Gruber said.
"I think it's important that Mike and I meet with the community several times a year," Mr. Gruber said.
Chief Guerra has been on the job since December. His appointment to the chief position was announced at the same time as then-Chief Glenn Nielsen's decision to retire was made public. The lack of public involvement or an open application process in choosing a new chief drew criticism from some residents.
Mr. Gruber defends his decision, saying that he thinks history will show that Chief Guerra will be the best police chief Atherton has ever had. By not hiring an interim chief and contracting with a search firm to find candidates, he saved the town about $100,000, Mr. Gruber said. However, he does have some regrets about how he handled it.
"I could have done a better job soliciting resident input," he told The Almanac. "It was the right decision, but I think it's important the residents feel that they're part of the process and the council feels well-informed."
Chief Guerra said his admiration for the management team put together by Mr. Gruber is the reason he took the job. He's focused on keeping crime from neighboring jurisdictions from infiltrating Atherton, he said.
Currently, the town is in the final stages of selecting a new second-in-command for the department. The hunt for a new police lieutenant, the job formerly held by Chief Guerra, is down to three candidates following a two-month process that involved advertising for candidates and subjecting finalists to questioning from three panels, including one composed of residents.
In the meantime, Chief Guerra is doing both jobs at no additional pay, Mr. Gruber said.
In his 25 years with the police department, Chief Guerra said he's gotten to know a lot of Atherton residents, but he hopes to meet more by holding regular community meetings.
Defusing concerns about the police department is only part of the agenda for Mr. Gruber. Financial matters are a pressing issue for Atherton, as the town struggled to cut costs and bridge a projected $2 million revenue gap last year. State take-aways and flat property tax revenues have inspired close scrutiny of the town's expenditures.
"We're going good," said Mr. Gruber. "We've brought salary costs down considerably. We're running a tight ship here, we really are."
Mr. Gruber said he's ready to focus on the town's future.
"If we keep looking backward, how are we ever going to look forward?" he asks.