Atherton made progress on construction of its long-awaited $31.6 million civic center project in 2020 despite a brief shutdown in March because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
There were also changes in leadership, the closure of the town's historic train station, license plate reader installations and the possible return of burglars from two years ago. It, like every other nearby town, had to adjust to holding its government meetings virtually, on Zoom.
In July or August 2021, the town will begin transitioning the police department and other employees into the administrative building because construction workers need to demolish what is left of the police department building to complete the project, said City Manager George Rodericks in a Dec. 22 email. The official opening is slated for October 2021, he said. The town broke ground on the new facilities, which include police, administration and planning offices, and a library, in April 2019.
The final train stopped in Atherton on the evening of Dec. 13 after Caltrain opted to discontinue service in town.
The rail line's officials said the closure would allow it to add service to the nearby Menlo Park and Redwood City stations, which have much higher ridership and where denser developments are projected to generate higher levels of future demand for public transit.
The council agreed to shut down the more than 150-year-old station at the end of October because of years of low ridership and a desire to safeguard the town from future legislation similar to Senate Bill 50, which would have required cities to allow high-density housing development near public transit.
Cary Wiest was unseated from the council by newcomer Diana Hawkins-Manuelian in the November election. Councilman Rick DeGolia, who served as mayor in 2020, endorsed Hawkins-Manuelian, saying he couldn't back Wiest since Wiest supported separating the town from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District (a claim Wiest denies). Hawkins-Manuelian opposed detachment.
Town officials have been exploring the possibility of detaching from the fire district since a review, commissioned by the town and released in 2018, found that Atherton taxpayers pay more than twice as much as fire services cost, paying about $7 million more annually. The study shows that in the 2015-16 fiscal year Atherton, which has 8% of the residents in the fire district, provided 31.7% of the district's total property tax revenues.
On Dec. 16, the council elected Elizabeth Lewis as mayor and Mike Lempres as vice mayor to serve during 2021. Mona Ebrahimi became city attorney, replacing Bill Conners, who was appointed to his position in 2011. Conners retired in January 2020. He worked alongside his daughter, assistant town attorney Jennifer Conners Larson, who specializes in litigation.
In December, police said that they believe criminals responsible for residential burglaries in town from November 2018 to February 2019 are responsible for a recent spate of break-ins in town.
The 2020 crimes include the theft $800,000 worth of jewelry, which included Rose Bowl watches, from a home on Dec. 8. During the previous string of burglaries, millions of dollars of items were stolen in 20 residential burglaries over a four-month period.
In 2020, the town installed 21 license plate readers to help deter crime in an attempt to capture criminals coming or going from burglaries. The cameras were first proposed as a response to the 2018-19 burglary spree. DeGolia said one of these readers captured a vehicle involved in the Dec. 8 burglary.
Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) are mounted on police cars or on fixtures such as road signs and bridges. There were already public safety cameras at Holbrook-Palmer Park, and new police vehicles are equipped with ALPR cameras as part of their existing dashboard cameras.
In September, Atherton ditched its longtime garbage and recycling pickup service provider to reduce garbage rates, with Councilman Bill Widmer recusing himself from the vote. The council chose to employ the services of GreenWaste Recovery Services instead. A town staff report notes that Greenwaste Recovery offers more fiscally predictable services.
The move required the town's withdrawal from a joint powers authority (JPA) that contracts with Recology. The town will have to pay $2.2 million to leave the JPA.