By Sandy Brundage, Renee Batti and Dave Boyce
This was not a year reporters spent idling at their desks, desperate for news to write. On the contrary, 2013 brought a deluge of stories. Menlo Park struggled with growth pains; Woodside brainstormed how to grow. Atherton took a large step toward better transparency.
Local voters showed solid support for their elementary schools throughout the year, most dramatically in November, when hefty bond measures passed in two school districts. The Sequoia Union High School District will likely propose a bond measure as it attempts to accommodate a surge in enrollment.
Ups and downs in Menlo Park
Going by news headlines, Menlo Park residents have seen the best and the worst sides of the city this year -- corruption, car crashes, accidents and drive-by shootings captured the city's attention, even as the recovering economy helped restore services, encouraged development and added jobs.
In January the Almanac broke the story of veteran detective Jeffrey Vasquez, who got his job back despite being fired for getting busted naked with a prostitute in a Sunnyvale motel room, and despite reportedly admitting it was not the first time he'd solicited a hooker for sex. He appealed the termination through binding arbitration and was reinstated with $188,000 in back pay.
Data obtained by the Almanac showed that the confidential binding arbitration process, carried out without any public disclosure, is broken: Arbitrators reduce or reverse public safety employee discipline approximately 50 percent of the time. Officers in other cities fired for conducting inadequate investigations, drug use on duty, and other severe breaches of public trust were all reinstated, with the public none the wiser as to what had transpired. The Menlo Park City Council tweaked the arbitration process during contract negotiations with police unions this year, yet retained the binding clause.
Two crashes with different outcomes stood out: A 90-year-old driver crashed into a pair of young twin brothers outside Walgreens on Santa Cruz Avenue on Oct. 17, leaving one with a broken arm and the other fighting for life. Bystanders rushed to help. Both boys are now home.
Another accident, seven days later, had a tragic ending. An alleged drunken driver killed Balbir and Kamal Kaur Singh on Oct. 24 as they walked their dog. The Menlo Park couple leaves behind three teenage children; the community rallied to create funds to help support them.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District, serving Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas, persevered through an off-duty fall that paralyzed Chief Harold Schapelhouman in May and a November election that unseated incumbent Jack Nelson while returning Peter Carpenter to the Board of Directors, accompanied by newcomer Chuck Bernstein and incumbent Rex Ianson. All three victors disavowed campaign support from the firefighters' union, while Mr. Nelson and slate partner Carolyn Clarke had welcomed the assistance with open arms.
A spate of drive-by shootings, with four in the past month alone, inspired police to try a new tactic -- letting landlords know when a violent crime occurs on their properties. After being notified, the landlords of properties targeted in recent gang-related cases decided to evict the tenants, according to the police.
Matters on the civic front weren't much quieter. The downtown/El Camino Real specific plan underwent a review while the public got a look at two large developments proposed under the new regulations. The Stanford Arrillaga mixed-use complex at 300 to 500 El Camino Real underwent changes, including the elimination of medical office space and a collaborative redesign of a public plaza.
Greenheart Land Company stepped up with its own development, this one at the long-empty Cadillac dealership site at 1300 El Camino Real and the former Derry project site, proposing to build 420,000 square feet of office space, apartments and retail.
The specific plan emerged from the review relatively unscathed despite vocal -- sometimes vitriolic -- criticism from some residents. Opponents of the large-scale Stanford development have threatened to take legal action.
For the first time in 10 years, Menlo Park passed an update to the city's housing plan to comply with state law. The city identified five sites as potential locations for high-density housing and created guidelines for legal secondary, or "granny," units. Another update, still in progress, will zone at least one area, probably on the Veterans Affairs campus off Willow Road, to allow construction of a homeless shelter.
All the incoming development is taxing the resources of city staff, and not everyone stuck around. Two planners left, as did City Clerk Margaret Roberts and Finance Director Carol Augustine. Long-time Executive Secretary Pat Carson retired in December, while Police Cmdr. Lacey Burt did so earlier this year. The council approved a package of salary and benefit increases -- a total of 7.1 percent -- for management, hoping to stem the outflow of talent and increase Menlo Park's attractiveness as an employer for newcomers.
One returning employee exited again via the revolving door in January as CalPERS, the state's retirement system, declared former human resources director Glen Kramer's post-retirement work as a contractor for Menlo Park illegal.
Another employee's exit also raised eyebrows. The firing of popular gymnastics instructor Michelle Sutton stirred debate as well as scrutiny of internal strife within one of the city's busiest recreational programs. Staff leveled allegations of harassment and bullying against Karen Mihalek, Ms. Sutton's supervisor; the same complaints the fired teacher had tried to raise shortly before being let go. Ms. Sutton's complaint, now filed with the state, continues to work its way through the system and the Almanac has learned that another gymnastics staffer recently filed a similar complaint.
But finally, more than two years after her death in a drive-by shooting, the city created a memorial at its new gymnastics center to teacher Cate Fisher, Ms. Sutton's 19-year-old daughter, which had been delayed by what public records suggested was bureaucratic pettiness.
Outgoing Mayor Peter Ohtaki made allies in far places as he signed a friendship agreement in October with the Irish city of Galway, the area from which early settlers in the Menlo Park area migrated. In December, the council selected Ray Mueller as mayor and Catherine Carlton as vice mayor for 2014; both are finishing up their first year on the council.
Atherton catches up with technology
In her final speech to the public and her colleagues as Atherton's mayor, Elizabeth Lewis on Dec. 18 listed what she considers the town's five top accomplishments for 2013. At the top: "Transparency through technology."
Anyone familiar with the town's moldy old website only has to visit the transformed ci.atherton.ca.us to know what she means. With the new website's launch earlier this year, affluent Atherton -- home of a slew of high-tech heavy-hitters -- finally came of age, technologically speaking.
Features include an alert system that residents can subscribe to, for notices of and updates on local emergencies. There's also a tool residents can use to report a concern on a range of issues -- from illegal construction to flooding, to trees down, to graffiti, said City Manager George Rodericks. And the "Citizen Rims" feature allows users to track and access crime information "up to the minute," he said.
In a town where residents sometimes complained that information was too difficult to access, the new system has helped turn that around, according to council members, town officials and residents. News flashes are sent out to subscribers regularly, Mr. Rodericks said, adding that staff is committed to posting three to four news items per week.
Atherton Online is a weekly electronic release that gathers together all current news flashes, upcoming special events, and community events, and the online calendar lists meetings and events, with email pushes sent to residents who subscribe. Council meetings are now reported on the day after with "That's a Wrap," Mr. Rodericks' summary of each agenda item and council action.
An archive center makes budgets, audits, meeting agendas and minutes, and a range of other documents easily accessible to the public, and videos of council meetings can be accessed online as well.
A website overhaul has long been talked about, and when Mr. Rodericks began his job in October 2012, funding was already in the budget but no work had been done. Councilman Bill Widmer made a technology upgrade for better public access part of his campaign platform in 2010, and he was a key proponent of the effort after his election.
With support of the council, Mr. Rodericks made the overhaul a top priority, "as I believe good communication and transparency are two cornerstones of good government," he said in an email one morning after finishing another edition of "That's a Wrap" after the Dec. 18 council meeting.
The past year in Woodside was remarkable for the turmoil that arose in parts of the community when a few ideas emerged from a couple of brainstorming sessions on how to relieve the Town Center's traffic congestion and what is commonly thought to be a chronic shortage of parking spaces.
From the springtime sessions emerged several trial balloons. Some were the subject of complaints over the summer and successfully targeted for deflation in the fall: a multi-tier parking garage; a rearrangement of traffic lanes at the central intersection in town, where pumpkin festivals and large bicycle tours can generate mile-long traffic jams; and the use of a colored polygon on a neighborhood map to indicate residential areas affected by a comprehensive effort to improve routes for children walking or biking to school.
Responding to complaints from a boisterous standing-room-only crowd of residents worried about Woodside's "rural character" at the council's Oct. 29 meeting, the council agreed to dispose of those three ideas. If the parking garage or the traffic-lanes redesign had any chance at all, they are now definitively off the table as a community task force considers options for the Town Center's next 20 years, a project called the Town Center Area Plan.
The residents' concerns were summarized in a letter to the council by resident Greg Raleigh, cited by many as representing their views. Along with the three ideas already mentioned, the letter requested guarantees of no "residential uses" in the Town Center and no changes to measures designed to protect the Town Center's character.
"If these things go forward, you're going to fundamentally change the nature of Woodside and I think that's a tragedy," said Leon Campbell.
"We want to know where our council stands on those five items," said Malcolm MacNaughton.
"Brainstorming is great," said Rob Solomon, "but these five are really bad ideas."
"I think you have some trust to earn back," said a resident of Tripp Court.
Other points of view saw value in brainstorming.
"I don't understand what all this upsetness is about," said Marne Page. "The crazy ideas will be jettisoned. ... We're supposed to able to talk about controversial ideas."
"I think when you do a planning process, you think of all ideas," said Thalia Lubin, a member of the task force involved in the brainstorming. "All we're talking about here is ideas. I'm not going to throw out any ideas until we've heard all of them."
The council was not swayed from its determination to hire a professional facilitator to conduct a series of community meetings in 2014.
Big support for schools
Local voters showed solid support for their elementary schools throughout 2013, most dramatically in November, when hefty bond measures passed in two school districts.
Both districts -- Menlo Park City and Las Lomitas -- serve children in Menlo Park and Atherton, and both have been struggling to accommodate the number of students on their campuses in recent years because of significantly higher-than-projected enrollment.
The Menlo Park district will use revenue from the $23 million Measure W bond measure to build a fifth school. The district is taking back its campus at the so-called O'Connor School site in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park; it has leased the site to the German-American International School since 1991, but earlier this year terminated the private school's lease a year early to build a grade 3-5 school that would open in fall 2016.
Measure W passed with nearly 75 percent approval; it needed 55 percent approval to pass. The district estimates that the 25-year, $23 million bond measure will cost property owners an average of $8.70 per $100,000 of assessed value, and district leaders have said they're aiming for a single-series current interest bond issue.
In the two-school Las Lomitas district, about 73.5 percent of voters approved Measure S (it also needed 55 percent approval), which will raise $60 million to build new two-story buildings, eliminate 18 portable classrooms, and renovate existing buildings at Las Lomitas (K-3) in Atherton and La Entrada (4-8) in Menlo Park.
The Las Lomitas district estimates that property owners' Measure S assessment will be $30 annually per $100,000 of taxable property. According to the school board, the payments would likely be ongoing through 2045.
Bonds weren't the only funding mechanism voters were asked to support this year. In the spring, mail ballots were sent to all registered voters in the two-school Portola Valley School District, which had been able to raise nearly $1 million annually with a parcel tax.
The tax was set to expire next year, and the district got a jump on renewing it at a higher rate for another eight years. Measure O, which increased the annual tax to $581 from $458, was approved by 69 percent of voters.
Neighboring Woodside Elementary School District officials are hoping local voter support for education carries over into the new year. The school board is likely to put a bond measure before voters in 2014 to pay for construction, safety and modernization projects at the district's only school.
The highest-cost item would be the demolition of the Sellman Auditorium and construction of a new building that would include a permanent stage, added storage, connection to the campus' music room, a new food service area, and restrooms, according to a report from earlier this year. That project would cost an estimated $7.67 million.
District volunteers have been working for months to raise private funds for the project to reduce costs that will have to be borne by taxpayers.
Sequoia Union High School District
Using projections based on current enrollment at elementary schools that feed students into the high school district, the Sequoia Union High School District expects a 22 percent enrollment increase by 2020 at its four comprehensive schools, including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools.
Relatively underpopulated, Woodside High has room for more students, but much of the expected growth is concentrated in neighborhoods that serve M-A. Enrollment is burgeoning in the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park elementary school districts. At M-A, there is no more room for horizontal expansion and classrooms will need second floors, as they likely will on the other three campuses.
The district board is all but certain to propose a bond measure to pay for it all, but only after hearing from a community task force now engaged in preparing a ballpark plan on how to expand the facilities.
The enrollment surge generated controversy over which areas would be assigned to M-A and which to Woodside. M-A is known for the consistent high academic performance of its students and the high quality of its advanced-placement classes. Enrollment there is perceived by some parts of the community as on a par with a private school, but at a public-school price.
Many Las Lomitas households are physically closer to Woodside than to M-A, and 10 to 12 households are actually assigned to Woodside. But in the interest of keeping the Las Lomitas cohort together, those 10 to 12 households have long had guaranteed admission to M-A upon request.
Across town in East Palo Alto, which is physically closer to M-A than to any other high school, students have been bused to Woodside and Carlmont High (in Belmont) for 30 years. The East Palo Alto community had been served by Ravenswood High School until it closed in 1976. The school had declining enrollment and a concentration of people of color, according to a Ravenswood alumni association history. A 1983 court order required the Sequoia district to establish populations at each high school that fell within 5 percentage points of reflecting the district's ethnic diversity as a whole.
The consent decree expired after six years, and East Palo Alto parents and students now care more about the integrity of their eighth-grade community. They wondered aloud about who really benefits from this orchestrated socio-economic diversity. Over the years, many households have asked to attend M-A and many of those requests have been granted, but unlike the guarantee enjoyed by Las Lomitas households, East Palo Alto students have to participate in a lottery.
At a series of community meetings held in the spring, Sequoia Superintendent Jim Lianides laid out the situation, then stood back and fielded concerns from parents: What did the Sequoia district think it was doing, risking the property values of homes assigned to M-A?
"Expropriation!" said one parent who predicted a loss of $300,000 to $500,000 in his property value.
"It's politically inappropriate to say, but (property value) does need to be taken seriously," said another. "This is a huge investment to live in this community."
The disrespect for Woodside High was not lost on parents assigned to Woodside from Portola Valley and Woodside. At the community meetings, they stood up for their school. "It makes me really sad that people who cannot go to M-A think that Woodside isn't a good school," said one woman. "I wish people had a little bit more of an open mind about the equality of schools."
"It's a nice school," said another Woodside parent. "I get the feeling that we're the red-headed stepchild. I'm a nice person, and I spent a lot of money on my house!"
"It's hard to look at that (neighborhood assignment) map and think it's not awkward," said one East Palo Alto parent. "It's a head scratcher. ... Does this make sense if we're building communities and community schools? I'm sorry, but I can't help thinking of a gerrymandered district when I look at this map."
Mr. Lianides said everybody in the M-A community will be assigned to M-A, except a neighborhood in North Fair Oaks currently assigned there, but with a stronger affinity for Woodside High.
Toward that end and with due consideration given to an enrollment bulge that cannot be ignored, the Sequoia district board will also be looking at how to redraw the map that assigns neighborhoods to schools. The initial proposal to have each of the four schools share the load equally appears to be off the table, given the demand for attending M-A.
The district is also serious about building two new magnet schools for about 300 to 400 students each. The schools would be "very attractive" in terms of what they offer and located so as to relieve enrollment pressure on the comprehensive schools, Mr. Lianides said.