By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Some Atherton residents plan to petition for a special election on whether a new library should be built in Holbrook-Palmer Park.
Former council member Didi Fisher said they hope to get enough signatures to put the question to voters in a special election as soon as possible.
Ms. Fisher said she has talked to an attorney who will help craft the wording of a petition that Atherton residents will be asked to sign to get the measure on the ballot. On Monday, Ms. Fisher sent an email to Atherton residents asking them to help pay the attorney.
"It's an opportunity to help end the controversy in town and give people the option to weigh in on whether they want the library in the park or not," she said.
But others in town are not so sure about that. Kathy McKeithan, a City Council member who was part of the committee that came up with the recommendation to put the new library in the park, said the move to put the issue on the ballot has come at a very bad time.
"My initial feeling is it's an incredibly sad day for Atherton," she said. The town has just begun the process of an environmental impact report on the library project and was planning to get all residents involved, she said, including door-to-door visits with every resident in town to get their views on the project.
"All of that is a very detailed, very intensive public input process," she said. "To have a referendum which short-circuits that process is a terrible, terrible thing for the town."
According to the state elections code, to get the measure on a special election ballot, petitions with signatures of 15 percent of the town's 4,850 registered voters -- or at least 728 voters -- is required. If only 10 percent of registered voters signatures are gathered, or 485, the matter can be put off until the next state-wide election.
The issue of where to site the library has split Atherton. On Oct. 19, the City Council decided by a 3-2 vote to choose town-owned Holbrook-Palmer Park as the "preferred site" for a new library.
Since then residents, and council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson, who were on the losing end of the library location vote, have tried to get the council to agree to survey the town's residents about the library location or to prepare a master plan for all the town's public buildings before deciding where the library should go. The council turned down both those requests, again on split votes.
Ms. Fisher said once the attorney is on board, he will help them craft the wording of the ballot measure. It will go to the town, which will return it with an approved title and then signatures can be gathered. "That's why we're hiring an attorney, to make sure it works," she said
Once the signatures are gathered, the City Council must decide to approve the measure or put it on the ballot. The town will have to pay the costs of an election. San Mateo County Elections Manager David Tom said putting the matter on the June primary ballot would cost the town about $12,000. But a special election would cost much more because the town would not be sharing the costs with anyone else. It could cost up to $41,000, he said.
Mr. Tom also said that state rules would probably not allow a mail-in-only ballot.
"I'm not happy about" the cost, Ms. Fisher said. "But there's no other choice right now."
"I'm sorry the cost is there," she said. "If the council really wanted to avoid that, they could have done a cheaper survey to get the same results."
While a special election will cost the town more, she favors it because "waiting for a June election stretches this out too far," Ms. Fisher said. "The longer we carry this thing out, the further down the road we get ... the longer the controversy continues."
"If the majority says they want it in the park, then great, we'll go ahead," she said.
Ms. McKeithan said she worries an election would only cause a further rift in the town. "A referendum that will undoubtedly cost the town is a terrible mistake not only from a monetary standpoint," she said. "It is also a very divisive mechanism for the town."
"I think it has far less to do with the building of a library than it has to do with politics."