Atherton: Library issue heads for ballot after heated debate | August 1, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - August 1, 2012

Atherton: Library issue heads for ballot after heated debate

by Renee Batti

After four and a half hours of at times sniping comments and polarized debate during a special Atherton City Council meeting on July 25, it appeared that the desire by the council to end the divisiveness in the community by allowing a vote on the plan to build a library in the park may have been mere wishful thinking.

There were only four items on the agenda. At the end of the lengthy, standing-room-only meeting, only two were decided, and two were tabled.

By a 4-1 vote, the council approved what was probably the most controversial matter on the agenda: the language for a November ballot measure on whether a new library should be built in Holbrook-Palmer Park.

The approved ballot language is: "Should the town of Atherton construct a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park using funds dedicated for library purposes only by replacing the Main House and some surrounding patios and walkways?"

Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis voted against the language, arguing that it wasn't straightforward enough.

Also on the agenda was the certification by the council of the environmental impact report (EIR) on alternatives for locating the new library, including options not in the park.

The council certified the document on a 3-2 vote, with Ms. Lewis and Councilman Jerry Carlson opposed. The two council members had also opposed the council action late last year to approve a library in the park.

In addition to ballot language for the library measure, the council was asked to approve language to place two other questions before voters in November related to plans to rebuild the Town Center and a proposal by the Little League to build permanent facilities on space in Holbrook-Palmer now being used as a ball field.

Unable to determine what either project would actually entail, the council tabled both matters and will meet again at 6 p.m. Aug. 7 to continue working on the language, which must be submitted to the county by Aug. 10.

Library in the park?

Ballot language recommended for council approval by City Attorney Bill Conners asked voters if the town should "construct a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park using funds dedicated for library purposes only, and not using any existing park open space for this purpose."

Council members Carlson and Lewis, as well as numerous residents who addressed the council, wanted the references to funding and open space deleted, arguing that the question should be: Should a library be built in the park — yes or no?

While some asserted that the language about funding and open space was confusing, others said it was biased in favor of building the library in the park. The additional information, they said, could be included in the ballot arguments instead.

But others argued that without funding and location information in the labeling language, the question would be too ambiguous and wouldn't tell voters what they need to know. "Vague and amorphous (language) could also be biased," said Mr. Conners, who said he wrote the language with no "axe to grind or oar to pull" in the debate.

Mr. Conners also noted that the extra language would restrict the town from using money from its general fund, and from encroaching on existing open space in the park. (The town has a special fund that can be spent only on the library; it is expected to exceed $8 million by the time construction begins.)

Resident Peter Carpenter commended Mr. Conners' language, but urged the council to add one more element: the fact that the library would be built on the site of the existing Main House, which would be razed.

Other residents also argued for the addition, and the council added language telling voters that the library would be built "by replacing the Main House and some surrounding patios and walkways."

Library EIR

The council's certification of the library EIR, which includes environmental analysis of options for building in the park and in the Town Center, won't have a direct impact on the November ballot measure. But the recommendation to certify it drew many of the same opponents who wanted to simplify the ballot language of the library measure.

Councilman Carlson said certifying the document will confuse residents, who will wonder if the council is "taking one step further" in supporting a library in the park. "I'm concerned about the message we may be sending," he said.

But Councilman Jim Dobbie said that the town attorney "has made it crystal clear that approving the EIR is not approving a project. They're totally separate. The only reason to delay (certification) is if we think it's inadequate."

Mr. Conners and Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen noted that the EIR could provide voters with useful information to help them make their decision at the ballot box.

When Councilwoman Lewis pointed out that the document is already posted on the town's website and residents can review it before the council acts on it, Ms. McKeithen countered: "Certification says it's been completed in accordance with California law. It's an issue of credibility in voters' minds.

Mayor Bill Widmer noted that the EIR reviewed five library options, allowing comparisons of different potential sites for the facility, which could help voters in "deciding on one site over another."

Meeting start time

A number of residents criticized the town for beginning the meeting at 4 p.m., when many people are still at work or commuting home.

Interim City Manager Theresa DellaSanta said after the meeting that the start time for the special meeting was discussed at two prior council meetings. It was decided to begin the meeting earlier in the day than usual because the Planning Commission was meeting at 7 p.m. the same night, she said.

The commission had earlier planned to review the Little League proposal for permanent facilities in Holbrook-Palmer Park that night, but after the council decided to put the issue on the ballot, the commission chair and Ms. DellaSanta agreed to postpone discussion of the proposal, she said.