We are two council members from Atherton who are not currently up for reelection. We are concerned about repeated misrepresentations of Atherton's relationship with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. The Almanac recently published an article, "Atherton mayor endorses newcomer for council over incumbent" (Sept. 25) that may mislead readers about the position of the town on this important issue.
The town is not pursuing detachment from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. We believe the services provided by MPFPD are critically important and want to strengthen those services. Unfortunately, a member of the council and at least one candidate have misled the public about the town's position and the council's actions during this election season. Furthermore, these individuals have sought to create an election issue by misleading on a subject when the town has responsibly delayed holding education and feedback sessions with the public due to COVID restrictions.
The Almanac article quotes current Mayor Rick DeGolia as saying that council member Cary Wiest supports the town's detachment from the fire district. That statement is simply false. Wiest has publicly stated that he is opposed to detaching from the fire district. DeGolia has acknowledged that he misstated Wiest's position on this issue, but he has not publicly apologized or clarified his misstatement. Thus, DeGolia has identified what he considers to be the most important issue in the current election and completely misrepresented Wiest's position on this same issue.
The town conducted a fire services fiscal review that determined Atherton residents contribute over $18 million per year in taxes to the MPFPD and also concluded that the cost of providing services was between $4.6 and $7.4 million per year. This surplus of $11 million to $13 million was in 2016. That difference is expected to exceed $20 million within the next five years. This imbalance has caused the town to try to understand options and improve the value of the services it receives.
It is important to note what the town has and has not done. Critically, the council has taken no vote or action to detach from the MPFPD. Instead, the town has focused on collecting data, learning about the issue and seeking public input. The council unanimously requested the town look into the question of revenue and costs associated with fire protection services. Finding it very difficult to obtain information from the MPFPD, the town retained expert consultants to develop the 2016 fire services fiscal review, a copy of which is available on the town's website, ci.atherton.ca.us.
Next, the town held a joint meeting with the fire board to discuss the findings. One positive result was the town and fire district agreed to appoint subcommittees to meet and discuss the concerns raised in the fire services fiscal review. Unfortunately, the MPFPD has not agreed on Atherton's suggestions to improve fire preparedness (such as housing an emergency response vehicle at the new Town Center).
The town also gathered information from state and local officials to learn what other communities have done in similar situations and what options exist. Next, the council decided to pursue education and to seek public input from Atherton residents. The town sent a mailer to all residents providing information and establishing two communitywide meetings to gather input. DeGolia was the only council member to vote against sending out the public education and outreach newsletter. Because the COVID pandemic created new priorities, the council postponed the two community meetings indefinitely.
The council has repeatedly acknowledged the quality of service provided by the MPFPD. The question involves the unusually high cost of those services to Atherton. Even asking this question may threaten entrenched political forces. Appeasing those forces may provide short-term political advantage, but it may also impose significant unnecessary costs on Atherton residents.
There are many real issues that Atherton is addressing as a town, including our budget, traffic, rail and our new Town Center project. These issues are real enough that no one needs to create false issues by misstating the position of a council member or of the town. Voters deserve the truth; that's why we write to set the record straight here.
Mike Lempres and Bill Widmer are members of the Atherton City Council. Widmer is also a Menlo Park Fire Protection District Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member and a volunteer for the Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team (ADAPT).