There are four people vying for two open seats on the Atherton City Council this November, marking the first time in six years there has been a contested election in town. The candidates are incumbents Elizabeth Lewis and Cary Wiest, and challengers Christine David and Diana Hawkins-Manuelian.
Lewis was elected to the council in November 2008, while Wiest was elected to the council in 2012. David and Hawkins-Manuelian are both longtime Atherton residents.
Recently, Mayor Rick DeGolia made waves when he endorsed Hawkins-Manuelian over Wiest because she opposes the town detaching from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, while claiming that Wiest is in favor of it. Wiest denies he has ever supported 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 property tax revenues from Atherton that fund the fire district and how much it actually costs the district to provide emergency response services to the town.
Town officials have prioritized the construction of the new civic center, which is slated to be completed in 2021. A major topic of concern among the council members earlier this year was how the project is going to raise additional funding. They ultimately decided to borrow money through a financing mechanism called "certificates of participation" (COPs). There are also questions of how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect city budgets.
The council is weighing how to use the Caltrain station space since it decided earlier this year to recommend Caltrain shut down the station (which only runs limited weekend service). This month, the council will discuss and vote on approving a memorandum of understanding to close the station, said City Manager George Rodericks in an email. Removing the train station will make Atherton less attractive as a location for affordable or multifamily housing, which is usually targeted to areas near public transit.
Officials are also grappling with how to address growing concerns about smoke from wildfires in the Bay Area and throughout Northern California affecting air quality throughout the Peninsula.
The Almanac asked candidates about all these issues and more via questionnaires.
Lewis said she's running to preserve Atherton's rural character while promoting new, forward-thinking policies, and added that she can be a voice of reason.
"I understand the political process under which to operate to move projects along within the guidelines of the FPPC (California Fair Political Practices Commission) and Brown Act, and working with my fellow council members to achieve consensus and not create division," she said.
Her top priorities are financial oversight, safety and security in town, and council transparency.
Lewis said the greatest challenge Atherton will be facing is the potential for state mandated legislation requiring the town to create multifamily housing. Senate Bill 50, which would have relaxed zoning standards for residential developments along transportation corridors, failed to pass the state Senate in January.
"All of these bills would have required Atherton to compromise its General Plan and zoning ordinance that we are a single-family residential town without commercial, retail or multifamily housing," she said. "I am the Atherton council representative to the San Mateo County C/CAG board and member of the Legislative Committee. In this role, I make sure that Atherton's voice is heard loudly and clearly and I lobby against any loss of local control."
Also of concern to Lewis: developments in neighboring Redwood City and Menlo Park causing increased traffic in Atherton.
"Speeding, cut-through traffic, unsafe intersections are a few of the top issues," she said. "The challenge will be how to mitigate these issues without losing our rural, small-town character and not move the problem from one street to the next."
She would like to help improve the town's relationship with the fire district, which has been contentious in recent years. She wants to work with the district to develop more Atherton-related fire programs, such as identifying the risk of tree canopy fires and how to mitigate it. This could include education and financial assistance to residents to manage the risk.
Lewis noted that the structure of the train station is "historic, charming and should be maintained and used in some manner."
"There have been several ideas floated around over the past several years, including possibly moving it from its existing location and incorporating it somehow into the Civic Center or maybe even (Holbrook-Palmer) Park as a historical venue showcasing the important part that Atherton and its former longest-term council member, Malcolm Dudley, have played in the development of the rail service," she said.
Lewis is endorsed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and San Mateo County supervisors Don Horsley and Warren Slocum, along with DeGolia, according to her website.
With a long career as an academic, entrepreneur, board member, and startup mentor, Hawkins-Manuelian said she can bring her problem-solving and consensus-building skills to the council.
"We face a global pandemic, a deteriorating climate, economic uncertainty, increased fire risks, and unhealthy air quality," she said. "The pandemic has disrupted work, forcing many to work from home; disrupting back-to-school routines and ended normal social interactions. With social media bubbles that exacerbate the divides, we need our local elected officials to represent our needs and be engaged in building community and working to solve our problems in ways that bring us together. I would like to see the City Council work more collaboratively to take an active leadership role within the Bay Area community to address the matters that will impact our future."
Given the recent wildfires and smoke, ensuring the fire district has the best quality fire protection services for the town is her highest priority. She said she would work to reestablish good working relations with the district.
"Smoke and fire do not recognize city borders!" she said. "We need to work together with our fire district and the state to create a plan to address the difficult and costly longer-term problems of smoke inhalation and potential damaged drinking water systems. Because of the number of trees, the city of Atherton is at higher risk for canopy fires. I would prioritize planning with the fire district and the state to create a timely response to this increasing risk."
Addressing pressing environmental issues specifically air and water quality would also be a priority for her as a council member, she said.
"I believe Atherton needs to be more active in addressing the mandated state environmental codes and to work toward the reach codes advocated by Peninsula Clean Energy," she said. "The recent wildfires and smoke hazards will continue to be an increasing challenge that we must plan for and address on a local and state level. We need to work toward supporting policies that meet and exceed the minimum green building standards in the California code and lower our overall carbon footprint. I would like to see Atherton weigh in on demanding better grid planning."
She would like to see the town continue to pursue building a water treatment facility to solve the flooding challenge that results from "a serious rainwater drainage problem," she said.
She would also like to help the town better engage with a broader number of residents so they can stay informed.
"There is a natural tension between homeowners who prefer to live privately behind their hedges and fences and the need to build community and lines of communication between residents and the town," she said.
Hawkins-Manuelian is endorsed by the San Mateo County Democratic Party, Eshoo, and Josh Becker, a Menlo Park resident who is running for California state Senate in District 13, according to her website.
Wiest said he is committed to his work on the council, having not missed a single council meeting or study session during his eight-year tenure.
If reelected, Wiest plans to make sure public safety services police, fire and medical are first in class and aligned with residents' needs; maintain Holbrook Palmer-Park; address traffic issues; and enhance bicycle lanes.
Wiest said he is not in favor of detaching from the local fire district, despite DeGolia's claims.
"What I have supported is making sure our residents get the services they want and need (i.e., the vast majority of our calls are for medical service and we have requested enhanced ambulance response)," he said.
He said he supported the alarm testing for Walsh Road, funding ADAPT, the Atherton Disaster and Preparedness Team, installation of the hybrid beacon on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue, and initiated discussions offering the fire district an opportunity to build within the new Civic Center.
"One of my pledges is to provide transparent government, and part of transparency is knowing how and where tax dollars are spent in my mind, that is the only reason for the discussion not to leave the district," Wiest said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has the potential to erode city budgets and as an "experienced, fiscally savvy council member," he said he is already adept at understanding potentially hidden liabilities, or attempts at cost shifting. He can help avoid such pitfalls before the town becomes negatively impacted, he said. For example, because of the town's involvement in joint agreements with multiple jurisdictions, there will likely be increased demand by other entities on Atherton's fiscal resources since the town's revenue base is relatively stable, and not dependent on any in-town commercial revenues, he said.
The Atherton train station closure could potentially allow other jurisdictions with higher ridership opportunities to gain stops. It would also eliminate upgrade costs that would be necessary if the station remained open. He also noted the closure helps "protect the character of the surrounding community" from housing bills like SB 50.
He would also like to continue to ensure the town is environmentally responsible. He cites his past environmental work such as helping establish the Marsh Road drainage channel, which replaced a deteriorating stone and concrete drainage channel with a cast-in-place concrete culvert.
Fellow council members Mike Lempres and Bill Widmer and state Sen. Jerry Hill have endorsed Wiest, according to his website.
Despite eight years of civic involvement in Atherton through town committees, planning town events and generating awareness around local issues, David said she can make a greater impact in Atherton as a City Council member. She'd also like to see more fresh blood on the council and said she supports establishing term limits.
She resigned from her position on the Park and Recreation Committee in December in protest of a City Council decision to turn down the building of a new off-leash dog park near Holbrook-Palmer Park.
"My decision (to run) is motivated by my commitment to protect our community's incredible character, charmed history and promising future by reinvigorating resident involvement on every level," she said.
She would like to increase council transparency by requiring that all projects and services currently under consideration by the council include memorandums of understanding, detailed business plans reflecting all short- and long-term costs, overhead and expenses, including long-term liabilities.
David said she is not in favor of SB 50 and similar housing bills since they "threaten the character of existing single-family residence only neighborhoods and towns like Atherton."
Ending train service in Atherton will help ward off potential threats from current bills concerning housing, she said. It will eliminate the use of train horns within the town's boundaries by establishing a "quiet zone" at the Watkins Avenue crossing with quad gates, she noted. Given the station's long history, she would like to see it be part of the new Civic Center. The space can act as a reminder of the "successful and important train service, which was once, historically, the only swift mode of transportation to and from San Francisco," she said.
David said she sat on the Civic Center Advisory Committee and co-chaired marketing for Atherton Now, the fundraising effort to support the financing of the new Civic Center. She suggests the committee should plan annual Atherton community events so residents can have regular opportunities to meet each other.
David would also like to see more civic engagement among residents. Council member term limits would generate more opportunities for residents to participate in local government, she said.
To further increase resident participation in government decisions, she would like to increase the responsibilities of town committees and see residents, rather than council members, lead subcommittees.
With the pandemic, David would like to expand local pedestrian and bicycle routes to mitigate traffic issues, while protecting the pedestrians, runners, dog walkers and bicyclists throughout Atherton. With indoor activities more limited and more people spending time outdoors, these routes have renewed importance, she said.
She wants to hold off on building a wastewater treatment facility and other projects of similar magnitude for at least the next five years since the town's budget is earmarked until then for the Civic Center project, she said.
Lempres and former fire district member and current candidate Peter Carpenter have endorsed David.
Candidates filed campaign disclosure statements Sept. 24 for the period starting July 1 and ending Sept. 19. Statements show Lewis has not exceeded the $2,000 threshold required to file campaign finance reports.
Hawkins-Manuelian's committee said it raised $2,000 from her spouse, George Manuelian, an Amazon executive. Her campaign didn't report spending any money during this period.
Wiest's committee reported raising $3,135 and spending all of it.
David's committee raised $5,760, including a $5,000 loan to herself. She reported spending more than that amount, $7,298.
Elizabeth Lewis, 70, is the vice mayor of Atherton and was elected to the council in 2008. Lewis, a 23-year Atherton resident, has worked in commercial real estate since 1985. She moved to Palo Alto in 1964 with her family and lived in Menlo Park before moving to Atherton. She sits on various town committees and regional bodies, including Environmental Programs, San Francisco Airport/Community Roundtable, San Mateo County Sub-Regional Housing Policy Advisory and more. She attended San Jose State University and San Francisco State University. Her campaign website is ElizabethLewis2020.com.
Diana Hawkins-Manuelian, 61, is an entrepreneur and board member. She has lived in Atherton for 27 years and sits on the Environmental Programs Committee. As a consultant, she has advised companies on the development of prototypes for TV services and virtual entertainment. She has a bachelor of fine arts degree and a bachelor's degree in psychology from SUNY Buffalo. She holds a doctorate in media and cognition from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her campaign website is DianaforAthertonCityCouncil.com.
Cary Wiest,56, has served on the Atherton City Council for eight years and is a business owner. He has lived in town for 11 years. He sits on various town committees: Rail, Audit and Finance, Contractor's Roundtable, Transportation and COVID-19 ad hoc. He is also a liaison to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, the Refuse & Recycling subcommittee and the Caltrain MOU ad hoc committee. His campaign website is carywiest.com.
Christine David, 57, is an independent marketing consultant with experience working at local tech startups and public relations firms. She has lived in Atherton for 21 years and has sat on town committees and is a Friends of Atherton Community Library board member. She graduated from University of San Francisco with a degree in international business and international finance. Her campaign website is Christine4Council2020.com.