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Atherton hard times: Candidates' tough choices

 

Candidates for the Atherton City Council have agreed to undertake a challenge if they are elected: Make up for a $1 million annual shortfall in the budget by cutting expenses and not raising taxes.

That, in effect, is what they said at a candidates forum in the Pavilion at Atherton's Holbrook-Palmer Park on Thursday night, Sept. 30.

A full house -- about 100 people -- showed up for the forum, organized by the Atherton Civic Interest League and the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County.

Four candidates are running for three seats on the five-member council in the Nov. 2 election, including two incumbents -- Jerry Carlson and Jim Dobbie -- and two new candidates, Bill Widmer and Cary Wiest. (Mr. Wiest hadn't planned to be there due to a scheduling conflict, but changed his plans and showed up after all. )

The candidates answered questions from the ACIL, read by moderator John Davey, and written questions submitted by the audience and read by League of Women Voters moderator Linda Craig.

None of the candidates favors increasing the parcel tax to deal with the town's financial problems, which is basically that it is spending about $1 million more a year than it is bringing in.

"We need to focus first on our cost structure, and bring it in line with revenues," said Mr. Carlson.

Town employee compensation is the big cost factor. Many of the union contracts are up in June, and the town needs to look at how to renegotiate those contracts to bring costs down, said Mr. Dobbie.

Asking employees to contribute more to the pensions, and setting up a two-tier benefit system, with lower benefits for new employees, are among the options the town may consider, said the incumbents.

Outsourcing services, such as park maintenance, and even some police services, such as dispatch and investigations, will likely be looked at, Mr. Carlson said.

But outsourcing the entire police department won't be done without the consent of the community, said the candidates. "It's your decision, not our decision," said Mr. Wiest.

Mr. Widmer said the town should compare its services with other communities, such as Menlo Park, in making decisions about outsourcing.

Mr. Dobbie said the town has to be careful in whatever actions it takes that it doesn't lead to litigation, noting the town spent $900,000 on litigation expenses last year.

On another topic, the new candidates, unlike the incumbents, favored some type of community oversight board for the police department, to give "input to the police," in the words of Mr. Wiest.

Mr. Widmer said he favored creating an independent group, maybe composed of retired judges, to oversee "employee ethics."

Mr. Wiest, who moved to Atherton last year, said that when he told people he wanted to run for the council, he was asked: "Why put yourself in such a dysfunctional group?" He said the question alone was enough to make him want to get involved.

There were many other issues discussed during the forum. A video of the forum will be posted soon on the League of Women Voters website (smartvoter.org), according to Ms. Craig. Also, the Almanac will publish a Voter's Guide with more information about the candidates in its Oct. 13 issue.

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