Should Atherton become a 'charter' city?


By Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

Atherton has begun the process of taking more control over its own fate by changing from a general law city, operating under pre-set state conditions, to a charter city, operating under conditions set by the town and approved by voters.

City council members voted unanimously to appoint an ad hoc committee to explore the charter issue at their May 16 meeting. Any charter would have to be approved by town voters before going into effect, Interim City Manager Theresa Della Santa reported to the council.

Council member Jim Dobbie said he has been pushing the idea of a charter for Atherton since before he became a council member. A charter, he said, could allow the town to run more like a business "without all the restrictions that come from Sacramento." One advantage mentioned by Mr. Dobbie and several other council members is that with a charter, a real estate transfer tax could raise a substantial amount of money for the town and could replace the town's current parcel tax.

Mayor Bill Widmer cautioned that the process will take time. "We're not talking about something that potentially would be on the ballot in November," he said. "It's more like a year process."

Council member Elizabeth Lewis expressed some reservations. "I haven't made up my mind one way or another," she said. "It's not something we should undertake lightly."

"I think this needs to be looked at from all different angles," she said. "I'm not opposed to us looking at it and investigating it."

No one in the audience commented on the charter proposal.

According to a League of Women Voters website, the basic difference between general law and charter cities is how much control the state government has over them. "Charter cities have more freedom to innovate and to pass ordinances according to local need," the website says. However, it says, in California "the legislature has tended to give general law cities the same control over internal matters that the constitution grants to charter cities," leaving little difference between the two government forms.

California has 83 charter cities. Nearby charter cities include Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Mateo. San Carlos is currently considering becoming a charter city.

Other Bay Area charter cities include Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Gilroy, Hayward, Oakland, Piedmont, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Clara.


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Posted by Protection
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Only a week ago the Council disbanded the General Plan Committee which would have studied this concept. Now it forms a new committee of residents in favor of the Real Estate tax which comes back with a positive recommendation.

Once a Charter City the council majority has more power.

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Posted by Term Limits
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on May 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Could the council put term limits on the ballot at the same time?

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Posted by shutdown
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 18, 2012 at 5:36 am

Protection says, "Once a Charter City the council majority has more power."
I would not like to see giving this Council any more power given the fact they are and have been acting like an all powerful oligarchy. Examples such as disbanding committees and then appointing the like minded to new committees (or old ones) and ignoring the desire for citizens to vote on the library in the Park issue. The Library Steering Committee is a prime example of a phony effort to champion what a few on the Council want. Given the construct of a Charter city without the checks and balances of a general law city would be a formula for disaster.

Mr. Dobbie in response to the Athertonians newsgroup says "Let's go ahead and get started in shutting it down," Councilman Jim Dobbie said at the council's April 18 meeting. "It's high time we do something."

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Posted by Formula
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on May 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

Dobbie claims that a real estate transfer tax could replace the parcel tax. Has anyone done the math? How much does the parcel tax bring in? How high of a percentage on the transfer tax? Do residents vote on the transfer tax or can a 3-2 vote put the transfer tax inplace?

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Posted by shutdown
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 18, 2012 at 11:13 am

The parcel tax brings in $1,860,000 per year. Here is the town budget just revised.
Web Link

The real estate transfer tax I believe can be anything they want it to be and greed has no bounds. Of course when it come to buying and selling your house they have interfered with the free market and it will dampen sales. At least the parcel tax is a voluntary tax and currently mandates it be used for police services, safety issues such as road improvements, lighting etc so at least the residents have a say. The Council has decided that at least 60% be used for police department. They decided this after being caught spending over $30,000 for Holbrook tennis court netting. So a real estate transfer tax will just go into the general fund and be unpredictable depending on the real estate market.

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Posted by Formula
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on May 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm


With about 100 homes sold a year, to raise $1,860,000 a year in real estate transfer tax, the council needs to charge about $20,000 per sale to replace the Parcel Tax.

I wonder if as a General Law city the council can pass a parcel tax with less than 2/3rds vote?

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Posted by shutdown
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 19, 2012 at 5:33 am

Summary of Measure S..the last parcel tax:

To continue providing funding to maintain neighborhood police patrols and the Town's ability to respond to emergencies, repair and maintain streets, and repair and construct storm drains, shall an ordinance be adopted to continue the existing Town of Atherton Special Parcel Tax for four years?
Impartial Analysis from the City of Attorney, Town of Atherton
The California Constitution and state law authorize the voters of a town, by a two-thirds majority, to approve a parcel tax for specified purposes.

This measure would extend, for four years, at the current rates, a parcel tax for the following purposes: (1) police emergency response services; (2) street repair and maintenance; (3) drainage facility repair and maintenance, and (4) capital improvements.

Before levying the parcel tax, the City Council must adopt an annual budget. It must then hold a duly noticed public hearing on the proposed tax. The tax may not exceed the amount the City Council determines to be necessary to provide adequate levels of the municipal services and capital improvements described above, after deducting the projected revenue to be gathered from other sources.

The tax on individual parcels may not exceed in any year the amounts set forth in Section 4 of the proposed ordinance authorizing the tax. A copy of the ordinance is included in the ballot materials.

The tax will be a lien on individual parcels and may be collected by the Town or the County Tax Collector at the option of the City Council.

Any monies raised by this parcel tax will be deposited in a special fund and may be used only for the described municipal services and capital improvements.

Authority to levy this tax will commence for the fiscal year 2010-2011 and will expire after fiscal year 2013-2014.

A "yes" vote is a vote to maintain the Town's special parcel tax at its current levels.

A "no" vote is a vote to end the levy of a special parcel tax for the town.

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Posted by Long Term
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on May 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm

So the Parcel Tax would be on the Ballot in the Fall of 2013.

Back in 1999 and 2000 McKeithen ran campaigns to defeat the Parcel Tax to as a show of no faith in the council and position herself to run against Chapman and Dudley in 2000.

When she was mayor in 2004, it failed to pass.

In 2005 and 2009 it passed due to the efforts of Jerry Carlson and Elizabeth Lewis.

I think this council does not want to risk a Parcel Tax election.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The current parcel tax will be renewed in 2013 by the voters only if the voters have confidence in the then sitting Town Council.

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Posted by Long Term
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on May 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Once construction starts on the library in the park. It will be a long time before the voters have confidence in the Town Council.

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Posted by Skeptical
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on May 20, 2012 at 9:18 am

It all boils down to money. Charter City means more options for taxing. Dobbie has said many times the Town must find other revenue streams.

This isn't the first council to toy with the idea of replacing the parcel tax with something more reliable. They don't like having this separate referendum on their performance every few years, especially when it stands to create financial calamity when voters reject it.

If they replaced the parcel tax, it probably wouldn't be with ONLY a realestate transfer tax. They would most likely make it in addition to a utility tax, road impact fees, and maybe even park entry fees with paid parking.

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Posted by Taxes
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm


The Atherton budget needs probably $3500.00 to $4500.00 per household per year, yet many long time residents, like Dobbie, only pay $1000.00 per year towards the Atherton budget.

The Parcel tax is fair because it asks everyone to chip in almost the same amount to make up some of the difference.

If council members had term limits, there would be no need for a referendum. As long as council members can stay forever there should be a way to hold them accountable.

Back in 1999 as a resident this was McKeithen's position, defeat the Parcel Tax as a referendum on the council. She defeated the Parcel Tax and it did cause a financial calamity. Since then she has been looking for a non referendum method to avoid that situation happening on her watch.

If the council has been frivilous with the town's tax dollars, lawsuits and settlements, the residents should be say- no more.

We should be able to vote on a Utility Tax or Road Impact Tax without changing the charter.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"The Atherton budget needs probably $3500.00 to $4500.00 per household per year"

What the Town "needs" is to live within its revenues; if the parcel tax is not renewed the Town will "need" to learn how to do with less revenue.

It is irresponsible to have a base budget which requires an uncertain parcel tax. No business would incur long term liabilities such as pensions for extra employees based on short term revenues. The property tax revenues are highly predictable and those revenues should be the sole basis for the Town's base budget.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle

on Jun 5, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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