Almanac

News - November 16, 2011

Atherton 'master plan' meeting reflects divisions over new library

by Barbara Wood

Atherton residents who requested a special city council meeting about creating a master plan for all town facilities got the discussion they had asked for on Nov. 8, but no resolution, because the council did not vote on the issue.

No action was taken because the meeting had been advertised as a "discussion" of a citizen proposal for a master plan, so council members said they could not vote on the issue.

The meeting was scheduled at the request of at least 300 Atherton residents who signed a petition requesting a master plan to 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.

The decision about a site for a new library has already been made, however. The council voted 3-2 at its Oct. 19 meeting to make town-owned Holbrook-Palmer Park the "preferred site" for a new library.

In addition to planning a new library, the town has been studying building a new police station and administrative offices. A separate committee has been working on each project. The library project has funding in a special account that can only be spent on the library, but the town offices would need private funding.

Council members James Dobbie, Bill Widmer and Kathy McKeithen, who was on the task force which recommend the park site for the library, voted for the park site. Council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson voted against it.

The issue has divided the town, and no one seems happy about it. "I think it's horrible to divide a community this way," resident Janet Larson said.

"There's all this bickering going back and forth over this library." However, she said, many feel they were not allowed to voice their opinions before the decision on the park site was made. "We have not been included in this process and I think that makes everybody angry," Ms. Larson said.

Others, however, urged the council to move on with designing the new library without more delay. "This issue has been studied and an evaluation and a recommendation made and approved," said Walter Sleeth. "What can possibly be gained by unraveling this process now?" he asked. "We certainly run the risk of community fatigue over this issue."

About 50 residents attended the meeting, which ran from 6 to 8 p.m. on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Several speakers, including council member McKeithen, brought up the fact that the website for the town's Environmental Programs Committee has a page pointing out a number of problems with putting the new library in the park. But the committee has not met since well before the council voted on the issue and the library site has not been on the agenda of a recent meeting of the committee.

"What right does a town committee have to make statements like this on their website?" Ms. McKeithen said.

Others at the meeting questioned a survey done by local residents after the town did not follow through on a recommendation by its Park and Recreation Commission to conduct a survey to determine if residents want the library in the park.

"I looked at this survey that was purported to let us know what Atherton residents thought," said Mayor Jim Dobbie. The questions were biased, he said, and the survey did not go to all Atherton residents. "That's not the way that we should conduct a survey," he said.

Council member Jerry Carlson said that perhaps the council should reconsider doing its own survey. "Right now we don't know what the will of the majority of our residents is," Mr. Carlson said. "We're making some of the largest and lasting decisions that the council will ever make," he said. "I think doing a poll shows respect for the residents."

But council member Dobbie disagreed. "We're elected here by the residents of this town so we don't need a referendum on everything that comes up," he said.

Council members said the cost of a master plan might rule it out. Interim City Manager John Danielson said it would probably take six- to eight-months and cost between $100,000 and $150,000.

But others said the decisions about the library and the new town center are so important that it would be worthwhile. "I haven't heard anyone say they don't want a library," said former council member Didi Fisher. "I'm challenging all of you to do the right thing. The right thing at this point is the master plan."

Council member Elizabeth Lewis agreed. "If the library in the park is the perfect solution what is the harm of going through a master plan?" she said. "It's not about the library, it's about the process."

Council member McKeithen let her frustration show near the end of the meeting. "This whole process I find incredibly distasteful," she said. Citing threats to recall council members, she said: "If you want to recall me, just do it quick."

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