The petition drive is an 11th-hour effort to derail a 3-2 City Council vote on Oct. 19 that agreed with the two-year study by the Library Steering Committee to locate the new facility in the park. Over the last two years, committee members attended more than 100 public meetings, which should have been enough to cover the concerns of anyone who was interested in how the new library would benefit the town and its residents.
Yet instead of welcoming what could be a tremendous asset to the town, a contingent of nay-sayers are doing everything they can to force a vote on the issue before the Library Committee and its supporters have a chance to explain once again why the site was selected and what impact it will have on the park.
We suspect that former council member Didi Fisher and her supporters, including council members Elizabeth Lewis and Jerry Carlson, who serve with her on the Town Center Task Force committee, were surprised by the council's approval of the park site, which would take up to $8 million away from a town center project that could include the library.
In order to move forward on a referendum, Ms. Fisher must obtain signatures from 15 percent of the town's 4,850 registered voters, or 728 residents. Before residents decide whether or not to sign this document, we urge them to keep in mind that doing so might help to start a process that could lead to a town expenditure of up to $41,000 for the special election sought by Ms. Fisher, who does not want to wait until the next scheduled election in June, which would lower the town's cost to $15,000. With a 50 percent turnout, a special election would cost about $17 per voter, while a June election would cost $6 each.
A few months ago, Ms. Fisher's group conducted an online poll that found a majority of respondents opposed to building a new library in the park. But the poll could have been manipulated to obtain those results. If the council would agree, the best course would be for the town to conduct its own survey using a professional firm whose work can be trusted. If the council chooses this option, members will need to approve the survey questions, which can mislead respondents if not worded clearly.
But whether a poll is conducted or not, holding off on the petition drive would give the city time to complete the environmental review process and public outreach, including the planned door-to-door visits to every household in town. The Library Committee wants to make sure that all residents get a full explanation of how they decided to locate the library in the park. In our view, it makes no sense to try to short-circuit this process with a divisive referendum.
By moving the library to the park, the way would be clear for Atherton to design and build a new town center complex to house the police station and other departments in and around the site of the current town hall.
Given Atherton's current fiscal crisis, the town will not be able to underwrite the expense of building a new town center anytime soon, if ever. It will be up to private donors, and it could take years to raise the $20 million or more that will be needed. A new library should not be held hostage by this effort. Instead, the library should move to the park, leaving its current site to be part of a new town center.