Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia has endorsed Diana Hawkins-Manuelian, who is challenging incumbents Elizabeth Lewis and Cary Wiest for one of the town's two open council seats in the Nov. 3 election. DeGolia's motivation: Hawkins-Manuelian opposes a controversial proposal for the town to detach from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
DeGolia says Wiest favors leaving the fire district. Wiest said he doesn't and that his position on the topic has been "mischaracterized" by DeGolia.
DeGolia said he is supporting Lewis, who has vocally opposed separation from the fire district. Talks of separation were spurred by a 2016 fire services study, which showed a disparity between the fixed percentage of tax revenues the town's property owners hand over to the fire district in return for emergency response services, and how much it actually costs the district to provide those services to the town.
Wiest actively supports detachment, DeGolia claimed in a Sept. 21 email. But Wiest says on his official campaign website on his campaign website that while he and the council supported collecting financial and service information from the fire district, he does not support detachment.
"I am disappointed that Rick is making false statements about my position," Wiest said in a Sept. 21 email. "This misleads the public and creates discord within the council. I can only assume he has another agenda."
In his email, Wiest claimed that Hawkins-Manuelian did not gather any of the signatures required for candidates to qualify for the ballot, and that DeGolia recruited her right before the filing deadline and collected the majority of signatures for her. Hawkins-Manuelian disputes that claim.
Candidates are allowed to have supporters collect signatures for them and are not required to collect signatures themselves. San Mateo County rules simply require that any "circulators" of candidate nomination papers be age 18 or older and disclose their names and addresses.
Hawkins-Manuelian said it is not true that she did not get any of her own signatures to run for office. An Almanac reporter viewed the signature forms in person — election code prohibits duplicating the nomination documents. Although she is not listed as the circulator, she told The Almanac she collected signatures along with the people listed as the circulators of the nomination papers.
"I did help collect some signatures myself in my neighborhood and my husband, daughter and another volunteer all collected signatures for me while I rushed to get the required paperwork done on time," she said in a Sept. 22 email. "It is true that I decided to run last minute."
DeGolia said it is his understanding that Hawkins-Manuelian "definitely obtained a good number of the signatures that she required to run." Immediately before the candidate filing deadline, Hawkins-Manuelian called DeGolia to ask for his support to run, which he gave her once he understood that she was opposed to detachment from the fire district.
DeGolia said that "the big issue is that the council position could change 180 degrees on this issue depending on the results from this election." He called it "a waste of time and money to continue to consider detachment." DeGolia said it is "disingenuous" to say that Wiest is not supporting detachment, adding that Wiest indicated he supported detachment during January and March council meetings. Wiest did not respond to requests for comment on this assertion before the Almanac's press deadline Wednesday.
"I don't take lightly supporting a challenger over an incumbent," DeGolia said. "Our five-member council has been the longest standing council in Atherton's history and we have been extremely collaborative. This issue of considering detachment from (the fire district) has fractured the council and this is why I am supporting a challenger in this election. That doesn't mean that I don't have a great deal of respect for Cary. I do and will work really hard to avoid fractures on the council no matter who is elected."
Wiest said he sees a darker motive.
"He is mischaracterizing my position in order to advance a candidate with no experience and possibly to further his environmental agenda," Wiest charged in his email.
Hawkins-Manuelian is a 27-year Atherton resident and relative newcomer to politics who currently serves on Atherton's Environmental Programs Committee. Her candidate website lists fire safety among her first priorities. She has a doctorate from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, a postdoctoral degree from MIT, and professional consulting experience with companies like NBC, MTV and Citibank.
Hawkins-Manuelian said in a Sept. 21 email that she is "thrilled" DeGolia is endorsing her.
Her other key priorities are helping local schools keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency preparedness, and climate change. She said she hopes to see the town do more to make a difference in the fight against global warming.
Christine David is the other challenger in the race. She told The Almanac she does not support detachment.
In January, the council voted to initiate a two- to three-month process of gathering community input on the review after deciding in December to consider the following options:
• Complete an application to LAFCo for detachment from the fire district. Should the town proceed with a detachment process through LAFCo, that process would include various public meetings and could ultimately include a public vote.
• Discuss possible legislative relief with county and/or state legislators.
The council last took action on the detachment process at a March meeting. Examining the services has been postponed until the pandemic ends since "the City Council felt strongly that positive partnerships with first responders was paramount," City Manager George Rodericks said in a Sept. 22 email.