Guest opinion: Leadership in Atherton


The author, Jim Dobbie, is a member of the Atherton City Council and was mayor in 2011.

By Jim Dobbie

I have lived in Atherton for more than 18 years and have been involved with its civic affairs long before I was elected to the City Council. I am responding to last week's editorial in the Almanac "Atherton struggles without leaders", which is counter to what I am seeing as a former mayor and current member of the Council. I feel the need to help people go behind the scenes.

Until the beginning of 2011, when my mayoral term began, many residents believed that our leadership in Town was lacking in almost every administrative position.

Some of the residents believed our "leaders" were mostly overpaid and underperforming. We had staff with experience but no drive. Some were virtually retired on the job. Some knew what needed to be done, but if it was controversial, they did not have the backbone to do it. Not only was there incompetence and lethargy, but outright insubordination.

A successful business is measured by the products it produces. These have to be high quality and the price must be right. In Atherton, our product is service to the community and, the price is the cost of providing that service.

Before John Danielson was hired as interim town manager, these tenets had been ignored. The Town was spending nearly $1 million more than it was collecting and complaints about service were commonplace. "Long term" was used to describe some of our employees, but long term and high performance do not necessarily equate.

Nearly all of our functions were running in a manner that could not be called efficient or effective. Many residents were unhappy with the police department, public works, building department and park supervision, to name a few.

In my capacity as mayor, I found John Danielson to be very professional and together we realized that serious changes were required. Through attrition and retirements, John brought in new department heads with energy and motivation, such as the interim police chief, interim public works director and interim finance director.

Expenses were reduced when positions were eliminated or dramatically changed. This was done over the loud objection of a local union and the threat of a lawsuit. The Town moved forward with competitive contracts and was able to hire highly qualified contractors to take over many of the municipal functions and improve service to our residents.

The Council decided that our legal expenses were out of control, sometimes exceeding $40,000 a month. With the help of a resident selection committee, Bill Conners was hired as our new town attorney. Bill has not only been a highly effective lawyer, but has also reduced our monthly legal fees in 2011 to a fraction of previous years, from up to $40,000 to as low as $10,000 a month.

And for the first time, the interim city manager put job descriptions in place for each employee with measurement criteria including regular evaluations. And at my request the town conducted its first comprehensive inventory of equipment and assets. An action plan to decide what to do with excess items is under way. Scrap, sell or keep are the choices.

In 2011 expense reductions reduced the deficit by over $500,000, still not enough, but serious progress from where we started a year ago.

I am sad that CalPERS has recently changed its own rules and will not allow Mr. Danielson to finish the job he has started. We assumed that we would have John much longer, but that is not now possible.

The Council should possibly have pushed harder to hire a permanent town manager sooner, but without the positive changes accomplished in 2011, I believe it would have been nearly impossible to recruit a highly qualified replacement.

However, our town is now much stronger than just one person. Even though they are on contract, I believe we have some of the most qualified and capable department heads anywhere in the state. These people have real talent and abilities.

They're still with us, working every day. And long before they depart, we'll make sure we have secured highly talented replacements. I'm hopeful some of them may decide to stay with us for the long term.

The incredible load of corrective actions needed to make the Town viable reduced the time Mr. Danielson could spend looking for a replacement city manager. As we begin our search, we can rest assured that our past year's efforts have blessed us with a strong management team. Unlike the gloomy comments in your editorial last week, leadership is not judged by having a permanent employee in every slot.

Our leadership will be judged by the services that we are providing to the community. A professional, service-oriented police department; a building and safety division that regularly processes complex engineering plans in five days and not four weeks, like in the past; a street crew that is accomplishing more work than ever before, and the list goes on.

On that basis, I believe even without a full-time manager our service is as good, and frequently much better, than in previous years. That's real leadership.


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Posted by Poster
a resident of another community
on Feb 7, 2012 at 5:52 pm

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