Lawsuit settlements and attorney fees totaling around $900,000 in the past year. Two building officials abruptly retiring in the last four years after coming under intense scrutiny and criticism over their oversight of the building department. A $1 million structural budgetary deficit in a community famous for its multimillionaires and billionaires. And a City Council that's become almost dysfunctional in the eyes of many in the community because of its inability to find common ground on key issues.
Atherton is a small town with big problems.
Four candidates, including two incumbents, are running for three seats on the five-member council as the town faces a number of thorny challenges. They include: unpalatable plans by the state's High-Speed Rail Authority to divide the community by laying tracks above ground along the Caltrain route; replacing the town manager, who late last month announced his resignation; resolving still more existing and threatened lawsuits; deciding on whether to rebuild its Town Center and move the library to Holbrook-Palmer Park; and finding a way to cut spending and erase its structural deficit, largely the result of skyrocketing employee costs, while maintaining services residents expect.
In addition, the council will decide whether to continue with the services of City Attorney Wynne Furth, who has come under intense criticism not only from a number of residents but from Mayor Kathy McKeithen as well, and how to replace the top official in the building department after the unexpected retirement last month of building official Mike Wassman.
The Almanac interviewed council candidates last month. What follows are summaries of their responses to specific questions, and their ideas and goals for trying to fix what ails the town.
Incumbent Jerry Carlson said he's got the knowledge and experience, both as a longtime community volunteer and a five-year council member, to help the town fix its financial problems, address its concerns about high-speed rail, and maintain the rural character of Atherton.
Mr. Carlson has been among those at the forefront of the town's resistance to the High-Speed Rail Authority's process for planning the Bay Area portion of the rail line. The town has joined lawsuits against the authority, challenging its compliance with environment impact studies requirements.
During budget discussions, he has pushed for a five-year financial plan, which would include addressing employee costs, to tackle the deficit. "Everything has to be on the table," he said. "The biggest piece of the pie is employee compensation."
Before the council decides on any major cuts and changes to public services, Mr. Carlson said, he wants to hear from residents about what they are willing to give up and what is most important to them to retain. That includes their views on police services, which a vocal group of residents has advocated outsourcing to the county Sheriff's Office or other outside agency.
Mr. Carlson said outsourcing isn't the only option for providing costly services. For example, the town is already sharing Redwood City's technical staff for its technical needs, and the town can also consider outsourcing only portions of some departments' services, such as dispatch, investigations and canine patrol services in the police department.
Regarding the possibility of building a new Town Center, estimated to cost around $12 million, Mr. Carlson said, "The town must do something" about its aging, cramped facilities. To pay for such a project, however, he favors Portola Valley's approach; that town financed the building of its Town Center almost completely with private donations.
A number of residents have called for a housecleaning in Town Hall, and Mr. Carlson said there is "always room for improvement." But he also noted that "not everything is wrong" with town government, and one of his goals -- to raise the level of professionalism in government -- is gradually being met. He favors a "customer response" survey for people who do business in Town Hall as a way to continually monitor the quality of services residents receive from their government, he said.
Mr. Carlson said he is "running a fiscally conservative campaign," seeking endorsements and donations from residents only, not from employee unions or other special interests. "If I can't raise the $8,000 (he estimates he will spend) from residents, I'll spend less."
Mr. Dobbie has served two years on the council, and wants to continue to help sort out the town's "serious financial problems" and other matters, such as the plan to run high-speed rail tracks above ground through town -- a plan he fiercely opposes.
Some of his criticism of town government is reserved for the council itself. "I'm a do-er, and I believe we (the council) waste a lot of time at council meetings," he said, adding that council members need to "talk less, say more, and prevent pontification." He said that the council now is so divided it is "unable to accomplish what needs to be accomplished."
A member of the town's Finance Committee, Mr. Dobbie said the town "can't ignore the elephant in the room" -- that nearly 80 percent of town expenses are employee costs. The committee, he said, is looking at employee benefits, and possible increases in employee contributions for them, as a way to rein in costs.
While some services might be best provided by outsourcing them, Mr. Dobbie said the town must look carefully at the prospect of outsourcing police services. "Do we want to reduce those services? The voters should decide," he said.
Although some residents have insisted that the Sheriff's Office could provide police services at less cost than the town now pays for its own police force, Mr. Dobbie noted that the town wouldn't have any control over future increases after the initial bid by the county agency, and "we're stuck with whatever happens."
Mr. Dobbie said he supports building a new Town Center "only if we can get all the money via (private) contributions." He thinks that's possible, he added.
The resignation of City Manager Jerry Gruber gives the town an opportunity to find a strong manager "who will give good guidance to the staff," he said. Although Mr. Gruber suggested that the town could hire a part-time consultant to replace Mr. Wassman as building official, Mr. Dobbie supports a permanent, full-time staff member in that position. He noted that the building department pays for itself with revenues from fees, and it should be a priority for the town to "make sure that everything (in the building department) is done right ... and everything is totally clean."
Mr. Dobbie said he raised all his campaign funding early on, and that none of it came from employee unions or other special interests.
Challenger Bill Widmer said his professional skills in finance, mediation, and innovative problem-solving "are right for the town's situation right now." A member of the town's Audit Committee, and an active participant on the Finance Committee, he said the town's operations "are not well-run," nor does town management adhere to "best practice" procedures that are the standard in industry.
When the Audit Committee was asked to review a new proposed purchasing policy, Mr. Widmer said, he recognized and pointed out flaws, including procedures that could lead to fraud. As a result, he was asked to rewrite the policy, which he will submit to the town soon.
The town, he said, has been over-spending since 2008, and the upward spiral in spending is due to paying employees at a level above the average of comparable cities -- a negotiated situation that must be changed.
"If we can't change the contracts, or the unions dig in their heels (holding out for) pay increases, we can go for contract labor, for temp labor, and part-time labor," he said. And, he added, "hiring practices need to adhere more to industry standards."
Regarding the possibility of outsourcing some town services, he said he has extensive experience in outsourcing in private industry, and noted that decisions to go outside for services must be made carefully. For example, the town must look at which services are critical to its operations, streamline those operations, and determine the level of services residents want and expect.
Voters should decide whether police services are to be outsourced, as some residents have advocated, he said.
The Town Center facilities are not adequate and "could use an upgrade," Mr. Widmer said. But he is strongly opposed to raising taxes to build a new center. If private funds can be raised to build one, he said, "I would have no reason to disagree" with a plan to build it.
Asked for his view of town management and staff, Mr. Widmer said the town should take more of a "citizen first" approach, and provide services to the public evenly and fairly. But he notes that the council needs to play a more decisive role in ensuring that Town Hall meets adequate standards in serving the public.
"The council must provide clear direction (to the town manager) ... on objectives, and then hold staff accountable," he said. "Now, objectives are not always clear, and there's so much wiggle room. The council has been divided, and staff has had an opportunity to maneuver a little bit."
Mr. Widmer said he believes the current council members are "all well-intentioned," and that he would be able to work well and effectively with them.
Regarding the high-speed rail issue, Mr. Widmer said he supports the town's position in challenging aspects of the plan.
Mr. Widmer said he would not accept donations from employee unions or other special interests, such as people doing business with the town.
Although he's lived in Atherton for less than a year, Mr. Wiest said he's running for council because "I've observed shortcomings in the town's government, and I have the ability to help fix them."
He said he's always been involved in local government, adding that he has a history of "jumping in" after arriving in a new community. He did so, he said, within a month after moving to San Mateo Highlands, where he lived before moving to Atherton.
Some of the problems he's observed, and that trouble him, include the lawsuits the town has faced and continues to spend time and money addressing. "Frivolous or not, they're a distraction," he said. "If there's a problem, the town needs to acknowledge it and fix it."
He said that people he runs into while campaigning ask: Why is Atherton's government so dysfunctional? "Well, I say we need to get back to functional," he said. The council "can't micromanage the staff, but the manager needs to manage the staff," and the council needs to make sure that happens, he said.
Addressing Atherton's budgetary problems, Mr. Wiest said the town needs to review all departments individually to determine how costs could be cut while maintaining services. The town must find ways to lower employee costs, including freezing and capping salaries.
Asked about the option of outsourcing the police department, advocated by some residents, Mr. Wiest noted that residents have become accustomed to the level of services they're receiving -- a level that exceeds that of most other communities. "They have to decide if they're willing to pay for it," he said.
In exploring options, the town needs to compare its police services with those of other communities, and come up with a realistic overview of service costs, he said. The public "must be given full disclosure of what the differences in services can be" if an outside agency is brought in to police the community.
He supports the town's litigation challenging the high-speed rail environmental review, and said the rail authority needs to provide a better management plan for constructing the massive rail project. At the same time, he added, the town needs to "keep the lines of communication open" between the authority and the community.
Asked if he would accept campaign donations from employee unions or people doing business with the town, Mr. Wiest said he would refuse a donation if he were aware the donor represented a special interest.
>> CANDIDATE BIOS
Years in Atherton: 19
Occupation: Retired; former corporate executive.
Civic experience: Member, Atherton City Council, 2005-present; member or past member, various town committees, including audit, finance, rail, transportation; town representative on various regional commissions, including City/County Association of Governments, League of California Cities, High-Speed Rail Policy Working Group; member, Friends of the Atherton Library; member, Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation; former president, Atherton Civic Interest League; board member, Selby Lane School Foundation.
Education: Stanford University, MBA; UC Davis, bachelor's degree.
Years in Atherton: 16
Occupation: Retired; formerly, in senior management, high-tech industry.
Civic experience: Member, Atherton City Council, 2008-present; member or past member, various town committees, including general plan, finance; past member, Atherton Planning Commission.
Education: Arizona State University, master's in electrical engineering; Glasgow University, bachelor's in electrical engineering.
Years in Atherton: 14
Occupation: deputy vice president, commercial management, Orange Business Services.
Civic experience: Member, Atherton Audit Committee; active participant, Atherton Finance Committee; member, campaign committee for 2009 town parcel tax renewal; AYSO board member, coach, referee; volunteer fundraiser, grant writer, Church of the Nativity; member, U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment Defense Diversification committee.
Education: Texas Christian University, MBA, and bachelor's degree in computer science; Northwestern University, Kellogg School, executive program.
Years in Atherton: 1
Occupation: Real estate consultant; real estate appraiser.
Civic experience: Member, Vision 2025 Committee, San Mateo County; member, county Jail Planning Advisory Committee; member, county Charter Review Committee (2010); past member, Crystal Springs County Sanitation District Review Committee; past member, county Youth Services Center Development Committee.
Education: Associate's degree; two-year training program, Coast Mortgage Investors.