Almanac

News - October 26, 2011

Atherton council votes 3-2 for library in park

• But the council wants to discuss a master plan for all town facilities before committing.

by Barbara Wood

A topic that's typically as traditional as the flag and apple pie has split the town of Atherton and its City Council — a new library.

In a meeting Oct. 19 that was standing room only, the council decided by a 3-2 vote to choose town-owned Holbrook-Palmer Park as the "preferred site" for a new library. The council chambers were packed to capacity with chairs, and other rooms in the building were filled with those who came too late to grab a chair and listened in via speakers.

Before voting for the park as the probable site for the new library, and perhaps indicating the depth of confusion and split opinions this issue has caused, the council took another action that had been requested by those who want the town to get more information before deciding on a library site.

Council members voted unanimously to request a special meeting to discuss conducting a master plan study of town facilities and buildings. Petitions bearing at least 300 signatures asking for the master plan were presented to the council at the start of the meeting by former council member Didi Fisher. Signatures on the petition included those of five former mayors of Atherton: Didi and John Fisher, Jim Janz, Chris Cobey and Malcolm Dudley, according to Ms. Fisher.

"A good master plan would, I hope, lead us to a town discussion," she said.

The petition requested a study include sizing and location of all town facilities, including administration, finance, building, public works, police and library, before making any decisions to move the library to Holbrook- Palmer Park.

Under town rules a special meeting must be set if requested by a petition bearing 100 signatures. The council asked for the meeting to take place within two weeks.

Mayor James Dobbie, Vice Mayor Bill Widmer and Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, who was on the task force that recommended the park site for the library, voted for the park site. Council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson voted against it. The vote also asked for a master plan for the park and stated that the size of the new library must be approved by the City Council.

The council was acting on the recommendation of the Atherton Library Building Steering Committee, a group that has spent the past two years drawing up a plan for replacing the town's current library, located near the Town Center in an 82-year-old, 4,790-square-foot building that does not meet current seismic safety standards. The town has about $5.6 million in a fund that must be spent on the library, and that fund is expected to grow to $8.3 million by 2015.

The two council members who voted against choosing the park as the library site echoed many of the speakers who asked the council to do two things: survey town residents about their preferred site and work on a master plan.

"The most rational thing to do is to slow things down here," said Councilman Carlson. "I think the town survey is ... a means of getting a sense of the community. I think there's more information we need to have in order to make an intelligent decision."

Said Councilwoman Lewis: "We need a master plan to look at all of the city projects in town. I'm so sorry that this has become a divisive part of the town process. It's prudent to be conservative and diligent here."

But the other council members disagreed, especially Ms. McKiethen.

"This library committee has done its homework. It's done its outreach," she said, referring to a series of public meetings that were held on the library plans. "What more could we have done, go door-to-door?"

Vice Mayor Widmer said he had some concerns about the proposed size of a new library building, but favors locating it in the park. "I feel personally that the library in the park is a good suggestion ... not only for the Atherton of today but the Atherton of tomorrow."

The process, he said, has not been perfect. "Mistakes were made." However, he said, more time would not help. "I have tried very, very hard to find a win-win situation here," he said. "We can't stick our head in the ground."

Mayor Dobbie said moving the library from its current location to the park would have many advantages. "A park site would move the library away from the train and possibly high-speed rail," he said.

A library in the park could be energy-efficient, and could help pay some park maintenance costs. "The old library building would immediately provide much needed space for town administrative offices," he said. "It could be absolutely a beautiful building."

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