EXTRA! EXTRA! The Almanac's top stories of 2010


By the Almanac staff

This was a busy year on the Almanac beats, what with a Menlo Park election that imposed limits on public employee pensions, turmoil in Atherton over multiple lawsuits and controversies, a spotlight on local schools in the "Waiting for Superman" documentary, and the passing of local legend, Bill Lane.

Menlo Park voters say yes to pension reform

In a time of nationwide economic hardship, Measure L, the pension reform initiative on the November ballot, gave Menlo Park voters a chance to turn their thoughts on appropriate retirement benefits for public employees into actual change. The measure was approved by 72 percent of the voters on Nov. 2.

The measure headed to voters after a grassroots campaign, led by the Menlo Park Citizens for Fair and Responsible Pension Reform, collected enough signatures to place it on the ballot. Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs spearheaded the drive, along with Roy Thiele-Sardina and Ed Moritz, and aided by council candidate Chuck Bernstein.

Measure L raised the minimum retirement age for new public employees, excluding police officers, by five years to 60, and also decreased their maximum pension benefits to 2 percent of their highest annual salary, averaged over three years, multiplied by the number of years they worked.

Under this measure, a new hire who retired at age 60 after working for the city for 30 years would receive 60 percent of that average salary. Current employees can retire at age 55 and get 81 percent after working 30 years.

Increasing those benefits will require approval by a majority of voters. That decision will not be left up to the City Council as it has been in the past.

But voters may not have the final say. The Service Employee International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees have threatened to file a second lawsuit against the measure.

Tumult follows Menlo Park council elections

The November elections brought change to Menlo Park's City Council, as voters knocked Councilman Heyward Robinson out of office, kept incumbent Rich Cline, and added Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki to the dais.

Change quickly gave way to upheaval, as Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson resigned as mayor three days after being selected by her fellow council members. Her resignation followed the revelation of Brown Act violations committed as she privately lobbied at least two council colleagues for the position.

Prior to the council members selecting a replacement mayor, Menlo Park residents stood before them to express their disappointment with Ms. Fergusson's conduct.

According to the council's non-binding policy, Ms. Fergusson and Andy Cohen were the members of the council most eligible to pick up the gavel. Members are supposed to serve at least one year on the council before becoming mayor.

If all the candidates have already served as mayor, then the one with the longest time elapsed since holding the position gets priority, which left Mr. Cohen as the front-runner had the policy been followed.

Yet the councilman's colleagues chose to abandon the policy in favor of unanimously choosing Rich Cline to serve a second consecutive term as mayor.

Local schools in 'Superman' spotlight

It is not every year that an Almanac community finds itself in a dispute that A) is the subject of a controversial film, B) includes local institutions, and C) may resurface when Oscars are handed out.

This was the case in 2010 with "Waiting for Superman," the documentary that has educators deep in conversation about the meaning of school reform and the role of charter schools. The film features two local public high schools, one small and one large: Summit Preparatory Charter High School and Woodside High School.

The Woodside High community was frustrated by the film's lack of depth. The school is seen for maybe 30 seconds and depicted as the second or third choice of a Redwood City eighth-grader. There is no attempt to explain the socio-economic circumstances that underlie the achievement gap at Woodside, nor its top ranking relative to similar schools in the state.

The eighth-grader is admitted to Summit Prep through a lottery, required when a school has more applicants than seats. Summit is a popular alternative to traditional schools in the Sequoia Union High School District and known for its commitment to preparing all students for admission to four-year colleges.

In a recent letter to parents in the wake of "Waiting for Superman," Woodside Principal David Reilly asserted that in the graduating class of 2010, a total of 93 percent were prepared to go to college, and that about half those graduates planned to attend community college.

"A better movie would have been a very balanced picture," Sequoia district Superintendent Jim Lianides said at a recent panel discussion.

Consider the film a mirror, Summit Prep co-founder Diane Tavenner said at that same panel discussion. "It's hard not to want to defend what we do. There's some stuff in there that's really truthful and it's not pretty."

Atherton reeling from litigation costs

With their town facing a $1 million structural budgetary deficit, Atherton residents have been more than a little dismayed by the number of lawsuits the town has been smacked with in recent times, and the cumulative costs of defending against them.

Early this year, Atherton settled a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former finance director John Johns. The payout to Mr. Johns was $225,000, but the total costs to the town, including attorney fees and the cost of an investigation, amounted to a painful $618,000. The previous year, the town paid a $230,000 settlement to another aggrieved employee, Pilar Ortiz-Buckley, a former police officer.

At the end of this year, the town's contract attorneys are hard at work defending Atherton against at least three potentially costly lawsuits -- two from residents who each are seeking $10 million in damages.

Jon Buckheit's litigation stems from his 2008 arrest and the aftermath of that event. He has since been granted a declaration of factual innocence from San Mateo County Superior Court, but had to sue the town earlier to obtain the police report he was legally entitled to -- an action that cost Atherton $8,000 plus attorney fees. His current lawsuit seeks damages for a range of things, including the alteration of his police report to include false information.

Kimberly Sweidy and her husband, Raymie Stata, are also seeking $10 million in damages for what they characterize as the "gross negligence, fraud and breach of duty" by the town's building department after inspectors signed off on construction work on their new home that was later found to be flawed and, in some cases, dangerous.

Meanwhile, Pacific Peninsula Group, a development firm that has built many projects in Atherton, is suing the town to recover nearly $300,000 in road impact fees it claims it was wrongly required to pay.

School tax measures pass but tide could turn

Local elementary school districts didn't escape state funding cutbacks that afflicted public schools across the state this year. But the pain they experienced in their classrooms was generally less severe than was felt by others, thanks to strong education foundations and the willingness of residents to tax themselves.

In May, voters in the Menlo Park City School District approved Measure C, a $178 annual parcel tax. Property owners in the district were already paying almost $600 annually in extra taxes for the schools.

Also that month, voters in the Portola Valley School District passed Measure D, a $168 annual parcel tax.

Both measures passed easily, even though such taxes must receive two-thirds of the vote to win approval.

The Las Lomitas School District may not have such an easy time, however, if it goes forward with a parcel tax the board has been considering. A recent survey of potential voters in that district indicates that a parcel tax of $300 or more would receive far less than the two-thirds vote needed for approval.

The pollster, the Center for Community Opinion, determined that to reach the two-thirds voter threshold, the district would have to hold the line at about $186 annually. But district officials say that wouldn't be enough to meet the schools' needs, which are driven in large part by a higher-than-expected surge in enrollment.

Bill Lane's chair is empty

His presence lingers in Portola Valley though he is no longer there, as hard to believe as that can sometimes be.

The year 2010 was Bill Lane's 90th and his last, and the community that knew and loved him gathered twice to say goodbye. A long goodbye.

Mr. Lane, who died July 31 and was sometimes called the father of Portola Valley in recognition of his key role in founding the town, was also its tireless benefactor, as he was for his alma mater Stanford University, for the equestrian community, for children in his role as Santa Claus, and for public parks in California and elsewhere.

Friends, relatives and residents met at a Town Council meeting in August to remember Mr. Lane in a simple ceremony honoring the chair he normally occupied at council meetings.

Mr. Lane was a gentleman in the old way and waited until the right moment to weigh in on a controversial issue, said former mayor Jon Silver at that event. "That old-school way never blinded him to modernity," he added.

"Bill had time for neighbors as well, to do fun things with friends," said resident Bernie Bayuk. "He was my friend ... a great man who had the time to share."

Perhaps a thousand mourners met in October at the Memorial Chapel on the Stanford campus.

"He was an environmentalist before we had the word," his daughter Sharon said.

"Today, for the first time, I realized that (my father's) shadow was lovely for me to live in," Mr. Lane's son Bob said. "He was a humble man, believe it or not. He totally knew what forgiveness was about. He was a gentleman through and through."

Sandy Brundage, Dave Boyce and Renee Batti contributed to this report.

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