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Three take shot at Atherton City Council seat

Three Atherton residents were undeterred last summer by the City Council's inability to agree on whom to appoint to a vacant council seat, and are now asking voters to make that decision on Nov. 5.

Greg Conlon, a longtime town committee member who lost his race for a council seat last November by about 200 votes; Rick DeGolia, a member of the town's Civic Center Advisory Committee; and Diane Sandhu, a member of the town's Audit and Finance Committee are in the race for a one-year term on the council.

Whoever wins the race will fill the seat left vacant by the July resignation of Jerry Carlson. The four remaining council members had hoped to avoid an election, given that Mr. Carlson had only 16 months left to his term, but the council deadlocked, with Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and Councilman Cary Wiest supporting Mr. DeGolia and councilmen Bill Widmer and Jim Dobbie supporting John Ruggeiro, another of the seven applicants.

The current council has been criticized for its divisiveness, with some members perceived as too focused on politics, with the public left shortchanged. Before the departure from the council last December of longtime councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, votes on contentious issues often had Ms. McKeithen, Mr. Dobbie and Mr. Widmer on one side, and Ms. Lewis and Mr. Carlson on the other.

Mr. Wiest is now perceived as an ally of current Mayor Lewis, and one question in some voters' minds is whether the winner of the November election will be part of an alliance, or will instead be able to help bridge differences.

Residents are also voting on whether to renew the town's parcel tax, a question rousing more debate this year than it did when it was renewed four years ago.

A summary of candidates' positions on some key issues and their vision for the town's future follows; candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

Greg Conlon

Of the three candidates, Mr. Conlon tops the list in terms of experience in Atherton civic affairs, with 10 years of involvement and more than five years of service on volunteer committees. He's been on the town's Audit and Finance Committee for two years, and now serves as its chair. He's also been on the Rail Committee for five years.

Mr. Conlon's resume also includes six years on the California Public Utilities Commission, with two years as president, and more than two years on the state's Transportation Commission. He is retired from a career as a senior partner in a major accounting firm.

Among his priorities, he said, is safety, including protecting the town from impacts of high-speed rail; making local streets safer, particularly around the Caltrain tracks; and retaining the town's in-house police services.

He also wants to continue his focus on the town's finances, which includes controlling pension and other post-retirement employee costs, he said, adding that as a council member he can increase his effectiveness.

Mr. Conlon supports renewing the town's parcel tax for four years, noting that the council has the ability every year to suspend the tax or lower its rate if the revenue isn't needed.

If elected, he said, he would work to increase civility among council members. At a recent candidate forum, he called what he sees as a lack of civility "pretty pathetic at times."

Mr. Conlon pointed to his decades of volunteer work the result, he said, of a deep commitment to giving back to his community and society in general. Although he's already contributing to the town through his committee work, being elected to the council would allow him "to elevate it to a new level and make a bigger impact," he said. "If I'm elected, I'll give it everything I've got I don't do things halfway."

Rick DeGolia

Unlike Mr. Conlon, "I hadn't been involved in town politics at all until the last election," Mr. DeGolia said. Prior to being appointed to the town's Community Center Advisory Committee in January and his subsequent appointment as chair of that group's library subcommittee, he had focused primarily on family, work, and service on nonprofit boards, he said.

Mr. DeGolia worked for 11 years as a partner in the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. He currently serves as a board member and governance committee chair of the Cleantech Open, which supports "clean technology" startups; and as an advisory board member of the nonprofit Clean Coalition.

His work on the Community Center Advisory Committee, which is helping to plan the building of a new Town Center that will be largely funded through private donations, has quickened his desire to be even more involved in the town, he said hence his decision to run for council. He has strong skills, he said, in listening to others and in helping groups find consensus, and noted that those skills would be valuable on a council that, in his observation, "didn't always treat people with respect."

His priorities as a council member would include a push for better communication with the community and a higher level of involvement of residents in civic affairs. He also wants to "bring a stronger focus to the needs of young families and of older residents," he said, noting that the number of parents with young children continues to rise, increasing the need for the town to accommodate that population.

Younger residents factor in another of his concerns: safety for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists on Atherton streets. Among his goals in that area is creating a better means for kids to cross El Camino Real near Watkins Avenue so they can safely access the town's only park.

Other priorities include sound management of the town's finances, and maintaining an in-house police force, which, he said, appears to have widespread, solid support among residents.

Mr. DeGolia supports renewal of the parcel tax, noting that there are many needed capital improvement projects, such as solving drainage problems and building bike lanes, that would be funded through the tax. The council, he noted, has a responsibility to assess its revenues every year and decide on whether to impose the tax. If the increase in property tax revenue seen in the last two years continues, "and if we pay off our long-term liabilities, we may not need a parcel tax," he said.

Diane Sandhu

Ms. Sandhu also is a relative newcomer to town civic affairs, having been appointed to the town's Audit and Finance Committee in September 2012. She was reappointed earlier this year, and now serves as vice chair.

She said she became involved after her children graduated from school, and she was becoming increasingly aware of problems involving road maintenance. When looking for a way to participate in the town, she chose the finance committee because of her background in business and finance, she said. One of her biggest concerns, she said, was over the town's "off-sheet liabilities," which are now being paid.

Ms. Sandhu, self-employed in the fields of software and staff augmentation, said she opposes Measure X, which would renewal the parcel tax for another four years. The tax, which raises about $1.86 million, expires at the end of June 2014. Sixty percent of the revenues go to police services and 40 percent to public works projects.

She said if she's elected to the council and Measure X passes, she would support suspending it or reducing its rate. The town, she said at a recent candidate forum, "is capable of managing our money better. ... It doesn't matter how much money you have. It matters how it's spent."

Ms. Sandhu said that, if elected, her priorities would include paying down the town's pension liability, and improve roads. In her campaign statement, she says: "I will monitor and work with the Public Works department to make sure there is continued improvement in our roads and to evaluate the road impact fees."

She also would work to install "non-intrusive, aesthetically consistent and environmentally safe lighting which will allow for pleasant evening walks and safe passage of our children walking home from school," she says in her campaign literature. To pay for it, she said, the town can apply for federal and state grants.

Ms. Sandhu said the town should evaluate all options for providing police services, but she doesn't advocate outsourcing. At a recent forum, she said she hasn't heard a call from residents to outsource, and "it wouldn't be something I would push for."

Regarding her inexperience in town civic affairs, Ms. Sandhu said, "It won't be a detriment." She has been a businesswoman for more than 25 years, she said, and she would be a fresh face with fresh ideas if elected to the council. "I'm not a career politician," she said.

Candidate bios

Greg Conlon, 80, longtime Atherton civic volunteer, with five years on the Rail Committee and two years on the Audit and Finance Committee, now serving as chair. Ran for one of two open council seats in November 2012, coming in a close third. Retired corporate accountant; former member and president of the California Public Utilities Commission, six years; former member, California Transportation Commission, two years. Education: bachelor's degree, business and accounting, University of Utah; Executive Education Program at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley; law degree, University of San Francisco.

Rick DeGolia, 63, vice chair of Atherton's Community Center Advisory Committee since January, chair of the CCAC's library subcommittee. Former law partner, Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati; former executive of several high-tech Silicon Valley companies. Current board member and governance committee chair, The Cleantech Open, since 2010; advisory board member, Clean Coalition, since 2010. Education: bachelor's degree, UC Berkeley; law degree, Harvard Law School.

Diane Sandhu, 51, member since September 2012 of Atherton's Audit and Finance Committee, now serving as vice chair. Businesswoman, owner and operator of a software company and staff-augmentation service. Education: bachelor's degree, finance, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.

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