By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Atherton police officers who need to catch some shut-eye between 12-hour shifts will soon have a pretty nice place to do just that -- Holbrook-Palmer Park's Watkins House, empty since the city manager declined the traditional offer of free housing.
Police Chief Ed Flint said at the May 21 Atherton City Council meeting that the arrangement offers numerous benefits for the town.
"We have a problem with the officers' not getting enough rest," Chief Flint said, explaining that officers work 12-hour shifts three or four days a week, and some live hours away. When an emergency arises, if officers are in Atherton when off duty, "if we need them they're not an hour and a half away," he said. "It also gets them off the road."
Chief Flint said the availability of a local place for officers to stay would also be "a good recruiting measure."
In addition, officers would be requested to stroll the park when there, adding some security benefits, he said.
All four council members supported the plan. Atherton is currently short one council member, due to Jim Dobbie's resignation in March.
"I think the town needs to maintain the house in the park," as a housing option for future city managers, said Councilman Bill Widmer. "We may not be able to get who we want if we don't have the option to house them."
Councilman Rick DeGolia said the plan could also help the town recruit new police officers. "We need to find tools and carrots that we can use," he said. "This is going to help."
Chief Flint said the Atherton Police Officers Association would be responsible for housekeeping, while the town would continue to take care of maintenance and repairs at the house. Furniture would be donated if needed, and locks would be added to bedroom doors.
The agreement would also be immediately revocable if the town needed the house for another reason, such as a new city manager who wanted to live there.
When George Rodericks was hired as city manager in October 2012, he asked the town to give him six months to move into the Watkins House, and also received a $2,500 monthly allowance to offset his housing and commute costs. He later told the town that he would not be able to move to Atherton and asked for a $30,000 raise instead. He got the raise, but lost the monthly allowance, and the town began looking into alternative uses for the house.
An opinion by City Attorney William Conners seemed to preclude renting out the home to a private individual or for some use not related to the park. When the land and buildings were donated to the town, the park was to be used only as "a first-class recreational facility," he said. Having someone, such as the city manager or police officers, live in the home who could also keep an eye on the park and provide some security qualifies because it benefits the park, he said.
A few public speakers opposed letting police crash at the house. "This is an asset of the town and we need to make some money from it," said resident Walter Sleeth. "That's better than having this be some sort of a playhouse for some of our town employees."