Atherton: Cutting cost of code enforcement


Like all California cities and towns, Atherton has a municipal code meant to take care of matters such as the incessant barking of a dog or the fate of a heritage tree or whether it is acceptable to operate a backhoe on a weekday after 5 p.m. (It is not.)

With public finances a major concern, the question before the City Council on Thursday, Sept. 30, was how to enforce the code for less than the current annual cost of $57,000 for a consultant to do eight hours of enforcement work per week.

By a unanimous vote, the council approved soliciting new proposals for such services.

In the discussion leading up to the vote, Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis' suggestion of having police officers handle it, as is done in Menlo Park, raised arguments for and against.

Police officers don't know the municipal code, Councilman Jim Dobbie said. He added that he does hear from residents every week about code violations. "We can just walk around and see the rules being broken all over the place," he said.

Resident Gene Elsbree noted that code violations have been a regular occurrence in connection with a home construction project on Fletcher Drive. Over the summer, 18-wheeled dump trucks crept up the winding road before 8 a.m. and back down after 5 p.m., he said.

How hard is it, Councilman Charles Marsala and Bill Witmer asked, for a police officer to tell someone that weekend work is not allowed or that its past time to be operating a backhoe.

Mayor Kathy McKeithen commented that using police officers is not without costs and that uniformed officers at the door would be chilling to residents who expect complaints to be handled in a nonchalant, neighborly, "kind of, would you please" approach.

"Officers should not be perceived as a threat," countered Ms. Lewis. "They should be perceived as our friends (and) protectors." Besides, she added, they can do the job in plain clothes.

There are important privacy concerns, said resident Jon Buckheit during public comment. Once inside, an officer can do a search-and-seizure if he or she sees something to justify it. "It really creates a tense situation," he said.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Riff Wilkins
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I see nothing at all "chilling" about an Atherton officer showing up at my door. On the contrary, I would welcome it. The last thing I'm worried about is search and seizure if an officer came to my door. C'mon, what's with that? The presence of an officer in a uniform is a good thing. A uniformed officer brings authority to a situation. I have no reason at all to believe that a police officer is any less likely to be friendly, courteous, and non-threatening than a non-uniformed code enforcement officer.

Like this comment
Posted by "cop out"
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm

The police may or may not be friendly, but they will do as little as possible about enforcing any town ordinances-all of which they refer to as "dog and cat" issues. This is why the code enforcement officer concept emerged to begin with. I don't know how well thats working out if its back on the table. Is it only a money savings issue or has this program been ineffective as well? Do not imagine the cops are going do this job.

Like this comment
Posted by Bewildered
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Good grief! There have been multiple articles, including pictures of violations, in the Almanac over the years pointing out how the Atherton overlords have chosen to ignore enforcement of codes in this town. Why is this suddenly a new problem? And why on earth has the all-wise, all-knowing council condoned spending $57,000 a year(of taxpayers' money!)on someone who works one day a week? Where do I go to apply for that job?! Whenever I've called City Hall regarding a breach of code (eg: construction vehicles parked in front of my house or someone's landscaping all the way to the street so pedestrians cannot safely walk past, I've had the dubious pleasure of a uniformed police officer at my door. He has always been argumentative and unwilling to pursue the matter with those who were causing the problem. He was usually a fresh-faced kid who treated me as though I were the problem and should back off. He was typically unaware that there was even a code violation at all and quickly disputed my word. Intimidated by these little boy scouts? Never! Disappointed? Yes! Angered to learn that the town of Atherton actually pays that kind of money for a worthless effort? Absolutely!

Like this comment
Posted by "cop out"
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 7, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Like I said the cops won't do anything except make you feel stupid for disturbing them with a call.
This way we all get trained not to bother them.
I have no idea if Cushing was really much better. I have heard stories both ways. I think he figured out who he needed to keep happy to keep his job, and who he was safe to blow off.
This issue like every problem, is because the council chooses management that can not control the police dept or much of anything else.

Like this comment
Posted by John P Johns, CPA
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2010 at 6:57 am

Having conducted a three phased audit of the Building Department and in dealing with the current code enforcement officer who is employed by CSG consultants, I consider myself an authority on this matter.

The current code enforcement officer has been a disappointment. He has approached his job with self preservation as his first priority. I clearly recall bringing to his attention the matter of an Atherton police officer renting an accessory structure in violation of the Town's zoning ordinance.

Mr. Cushing refused to investigate the matter, telling me that what I was bringing to his attention is the kind of thing that gets his company "kicked out" of a town like Atherton.

This was not an isolated instance. I brought to has attention a complaint of Ms. Lewis and her non conforming structure in early 2008. Mr. Cushing told me that he was too busy chasing down illegal campaign signs to be able to address my complaint. (The irony of Mr. Cushing's reply seemed to have been lost on him).

I have complained about the life safety issues associated with the illegal construction at the residence of Charles Marsala. Mr. Cushing has still to properly investigate this matter.

It is for all of the reasons above that I respectfully suggest that a prerequisite of a new code enforcement officer should be a willingness to actually investigate and to enforce the code.

Like this comment
Posted by A New PD Please
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 8, 2010 at 9:29 am

How about the police do their actual job, such as writing speeding tickets so people don't get killed by speeders on El Camino? I have it on good authority the PDs policy on El Camino is not to ticket unless someone is 50mph or higher. That's 15 mph over the limit. Brilliant. How about nailing the speeders on Watkins? Or the idiots that make the illegal left turn at Watkins & El Camino from 4-6? I'd love to see an article posted regarding the number of moving violation tickets the PD has issued every year for the past 10 years. Do your jobs! They can also easily look for code violations on the graveyard shift. What exactly is there to do in Atherton from midnight to 8am?

Like this comment
Posted by black and BLUE
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 8, 2010 at 9:57 am

APD is too busy falsely arresting residents and then harassing them with trumped up probation checks and home invasion serches to be concerned with anything else.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 8 comments | 4,307 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 1,241 views

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 9 comments | 1,204 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,128 views


The Almanac Readers' Choice ballot is here

It's time to decide what local business is worthy of the title "The Almanac Readers' Choice" — and you get to decide! Cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 27th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 17th issue of The Almanac.