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Voter's Guide: Atherton candidates offer ideas for fixing town

 

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.

Jerry Carlson

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."

Jim Dobbie

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.

Bill Widmer

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.

Cary Wiest

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

Jerry Carlson

Years in Atherton: 19

Age: 74

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.

Website: jerrycarlson2010.com

Jim Dobbie

Years in Atherton: 16

Age: 79

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.

Website: reelectjimdobbie.com

Bill Widmer

Years in Atherton: 14

Age: 55

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.

Website: Bill4Atherton.com

Cary Wiest

Years in Atherton: 1

Age: 46

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.

Website: carywiest.com

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by David Henig
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Oct 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Thank you Almanac for posting this information. And Thank you to the candidates for your willingness to serve our community. My hat is off to all of you.


Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Thanks for presenting such a clear picture of the candidates.

One comment struck me as odd, "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."

I thought that Carey only received one donation and that was $500 from the Realtors who are a special interest group. Is this true and if so, is Carey going to return his one donation?


Like this comment
Posted by Bill Widmer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

I have previously seen a post regarding my endorsement by Mr Janz. I am pleased to have his endorsement. He has served our community selflessly in the past and has been volunteering his time to support the best interest of our community since. We need nore hands on contributors.


Like this comment
Posted by smart voter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Bill Widmer just lost my vote. He should be more selective in whom he receives endorsesments from.

Rembember Bill we are all judged by the company we keep.


Like this comment
Posted by Bill Widmer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I believe we are judged on what we do and the value we bring.


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Mr. Widmer There are people like myself who will be voting for you that may have gotten a little nervous to see you rush to Janz's defense. I appreciate the the sprit in which your own very civil remarks were made, but must admit to an involontary tingle down my own spine.
Mr. Janz once told me with conviction, that he "would rather die first--than ever admit that McKiethen had ever been right about anything". Over long years of council meetings, I have witnessed this vendetta born out with every vote he ever made on the council, and I shudder to think how such closed minded thinking might continue to influence Atherton's future. This is only my one small opinion, based on both "actions made, and value" lost to this town. It is both right and important for you to remain above these old frays, but it is understandable to me that some people might rightly fear that they could carry forward from old councilmen.... Janz, Didi, Allen, Marsala.....all of them need to just move on. This is the micro management that has been the most damaging of all to the town. You still have my vote but I did get goose bumps.


Like this comment
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm

I have a different perspective and stand with smart voter. Mr. Widmer did defend Mr. Janz. And beleives "He has served our community selflessly in the past and has been volunteering his time to support the best interest of our community since." Which means to me Mr. Widmer believes in Mr. Janz's actions, perpsectives and contributions. Therefore, he will just be a continuation of the past problems...




Like this comment
Posted by skywriter
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Oct 14, 2010 at 6:42 pm

[Post removed; personal attack.]


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

There is also a thing called the lesser of multiple evils--Widmer and Dobbie are as good as you are going to get from this menu. Don't make life impossible for them by seating Wiest.
Jerry Carlson will have to do for a third and last choice.
THE TOWN COUNCIL HAS TO ACHIEVE A FUNCTIONAL MAJORITY OR NOTHING WILL IMPROVE!


Like this comment
Posted by Homeowner
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 8:38 pm

In the interest of disclosure, I note that Mr. Carlson includes Jim Janz and Didi Fisher among his endorsers.


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm

About Janz an Fisher:
Jerry Carlson has long burned the candle at both ends to retain his swing vote leverage--log jamming any reform and paralyzing the town.
Its not going to work for him any more. There will be a new majority and his vote won't be worth as much--still it is FAR better to vote for him rather than Wiest. If Wiest gets on the council then Carlson would still be the swinger and Atherton's problems would continue.


Like this comment
Posted by sandy salerno
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm

[Post removed; personal attack.]


Like this comment
Posted by Long time resident
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 15, 2010 at 7:01 am

Mr. Widmer, we need to figure out what you actually stand for.

On the one hand, you are endorsed by respected members of this community such as Jim Janz and Elizabeth Lewis. On the other hand, you are endorsed by Kathy McKeithen and Jon Buckheit (and yes, I know that Mr. Buckheit is not listed on your website, but you were seen palling around with him at a recent council meeting).

That's like putting matter and anti-matter together. At the end of the day, it means (at best) you stand for nothing.

I also noticed you favor a police review board. This is obviously coming from Buckheit and McKeithen. That dog just won't hunt. As you know, aside from Buckheit, McKeithen, and a handful of other highly disgruntled and vindictive individuals, everyone in Atherton supports our police department 100%. Buckheit and McKeithen tried to put such a board in place just a few months ago, wasting time and resources, and no one, not even Jim Dobbie, would support it.

McKeithen has gone so far as to start openly criticizing the police department in the newspapers along with Jon Buckheit. No council member should ever air dirty laundry outside in the press and this act alone justifies her recall.

If you don't support the police department, come out and say so before the election, not after.

Now is your chance to disclaim any allegiance to Buckheit and McKeithen. Will you? If not, Cary Wiest has publicly supported the police department.

I've lived in this community for over 40 years. And I am worried about you.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 15, 2010 at 7:37 am

Long time resident states:"Mr. Widmer, you are endorsed by respected members of this community such as Jim Janz and Elizabeth Lewis. On the other hand, you are endorsed by Kathy McKeithen and Jon Buckheit"

Nice to see that Mr. Widmer has the essential ability to bring people together.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 15, 2010 at 8:15 am

There is no indication that Mr. Widmer has brought the two sides together. Remember this is election time, and he is looking for votes. As Long time resident said, it means he stands for nothing and he is not being transparent -- we don't need more of that.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 15, 2010 at 8:27 am

Resident states:"As Long time resident said, it means he stands for nothing and he is not being transparent -"

Talking to a broad range of people means that someone stands for nothing - how petty and sad.


Why do you want to put everyone in a tiny box?
Can't we put all this divisiveness behind us.


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Cary Wiest stated at the candidates forum that he believes firmly that Atherton has no right to an opinion on the Cargill Development of 30,000 new homes because it is in Redwood City.
I believe that I do have the right to an opinion on Cary Wiest's candidacy.
I believe that as a real estate appraiser he has come to Atherton to represent the interests of development and to keep Atherton on a very short leash for his friends up at the county to protect the advancement of this project and others.
I think he is here to replace Charles Marsala for this mission.
That will a no vote from me.


Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Cary Wiest stated at the candidates forum that he believes firmly that Atherton has no right to an opinion on the Cargill Development of 30,000 new homes because it is in Redwood City.

Don Horsley has stated the Cargill Development of 30,000 new homes is a Redwood City issue only.

I think it is more of a Regional Issue.


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm

If HSR is implemented on the Peninsula, then we are all going to hear about why high density housing needs to fill in the bay so that people are living proximate to mass transit. This will become an excuse for multiple Foster Cities and Cargilvilles. The same people who want to make money building them will get a chance to build them again after they sink in the big earthquake.
Wiest is more than a Dark Horse--this a Trojan Horse delivered C.O.D. from the county.


Like this comment
Posted by Long Term Resident
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 15, 2010 at 2:21 pm

It seems there is wordsmithing going on here. At the forum I heard Mr. Wiest say he was concerend about the CEQA and EIR requirements and that it was being handled and addressed by Redwood City and its residents. He explained he believed Atherton needed to first focus on internal Atherton issues. He never said Atherton had "no right to an opinon"

Because I wondered, I talked to him briefly as well as someone who knows him. He has never worked for the County. I would suggest you talk to him before you provide misinformation.


Like this comment
Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 15, 2010 at 2:30 pm

The recording is available on the LWV web
His statement was that was a Redwood City issue and that he felt that Atherton should stay out of it.
I stand by all of my assertions.


Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm

L.T.R.

Talk about wordsmithing!

Ed didn't say Wiest ever worked for the County.

Ed said, "Wiest is more than a Dark Horse--this a Trojan Horse delivered C.O.D. from the county."


Like this comment
Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm

To Long time resident:

You are correct. I have not endorsed Mr. Widmer or any candidate because of the possibility that the controversy regarding my situation would unfairly impact such candidate. If Mr. Widmer and I had civil conduct at a council meeting (greeting each other, shaking hands), so what?

You seem to distill the requirements for an Atherton council member into just one issue: blind support of the police department, no matter what.

I respond by saying that if Atherton will ultimately retain an independent police department, looking into ways to achieve that service for the lowest possible cost to residents is not "meddling" or "lack of support". If a member of the police department behaves badly, particularly against one of the residents who are paying for the independent police department, holding that officer accountable is not "meddling" or "lack of support". Both are simply prudent, responsible, and necessary functions of any proper oversight body.

Finally, the constituency of an Atherton council member is the Atherton residents, not the Atherton police officers. Keep in mind, the police Teamsters union certainly does not view their job as representing Atherton residents (and I know that from first-hand experience).


Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 10:13 am

When I lived in Atherton, I remember most of us had video security cameras on our homes, gates and dogs. What are the Atherton police needed for? When people fall in their homes the parametics are called.


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

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