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Atherton suspends most construction amid coronavirus crisis

Council also OKs first step to ditch Recology garbage collection service

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During a uniquely formatted video meeting, the Atherton City Council decided to cut non-essential construction in town – including much of the work on its $31.6 million civic center project – until a countywide shelter-in-place order is lifted on April 7.

The March 18 meeting was the first of its kind for the town, with council and community members teleconferencing into the meeting remotely, a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

The council directed staff to prohibit non-emergency private residential construction, along with civic center construction work. Construction crews were allowed to work on March 21 to allow for a "timely shut down of the project," according to a memo written by City Manager George Rodericks.

"We are in uncharted waters with the COVID-19 contagion," Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said during the meeting, which took place via the Zoom online video conferencing service. "To prevent spread coming into our community, until the April 7 deadline, it would behoove us to stop work" on the civic center project, she said.

The project had been scheduled for completion in 2021 and includes a police and administration facilities, building and planning offices, and a library. Council members noted that if one person on the civic center project site catches the virus, the whole site must be shut down anyway.

Council member Mike Lempres said it was a hard decision to close down the civic center project. He didn't want to put people out of work, he said, but added that it's important to "flatten the curve" or the trajectory of infection to save lives and reduce the intense pressure on the medical system.

Emergency construction services that can continue, in accordance with the county order, include fixing a broken water heater or plumbing leaks, addressing electrical problems and other urgent needs that would ensure safety, Rodericks explained.

Landscaping is not considered an essential service, so it will be barred in town during the shelter-in-place period. Flyers will be left on vehicles of contractors and landscape service personnel in town advising that work is not allowed.

All project managers will be encouraged to hire security guards to keep the construction sites safe during closures and install video surveillance cameras, as the Atherton Police Department will be unable to patrol all sites, Rodericks said.

Home cleaning and home care services, such as those provided by nannies or home health aides, are considered essential services and can continue during the shelter-in-place period, he said.

Rodericks said the town doesn't have the resources to enforce all of the provisions of the shelter-in-place order and that emergency response personnel will address issues as they see them in the field, adhering to maximum safety protocols.

"There will be limited in-person contact unless such contact is possible through technology options and social distancing protocols," he said. "Residents are encouraged to self-regulate all non-essential services to their home.." Those services include non-essential construction or renovation work by house painters, field design workers, and projects such as flooring replacement, minor interior remodels, landscaping or gardening, and window washing services.

Town staff plans to put a "frequently asked questions" page about the stipulations of the shelter-in-place order on the town's website.

Rodericks said that since the council's next meeting is scheduled for April 15, after the shelter-in-place order ends unless extended, the town will likely hold a special meeting before April 7 to reassess its state of emergency guidelines.

Changing garbage services

The council also voted to take the first step in replacing the town's longtime garbage and recycling pickup service provider, Recology, a move that would require the town's withdrawal from a joint powers authority, the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, that contracts with Recology. The town now will send an "intent to withdraw" letter to the JPA.

Mayor Rick DeGolia explained in an email to The Almanac that the City Council began pursuing leaving the JPA because there is a "significant difference between Atherton and the other JPA members who use Recology in that Atherton has essentially no commercial businesses," as do other members. Those commercial customers "have different needs than residential customers, some of which are quite costly," he said.

"All members, including Atherton, share some of the infrastructure cost that supports those commercial businesses," DeGolia said. "Atherton has asked for some terms with (the JPA) to deal with our lack of commercial businesses and the impact of the costs related to (its) commercial customers on Atherton and we haven't been able to solve that issue, so we decided to see if there is an alternative that would be more attractive to Atherton."

The town is now considering employing the services of GreenWaste Recovery Services, which "responded with a proposal that could be better for Atherton residents than Recology," DeGolia said.

There was no public comment on the item at the meeting.

If the town were to withdraw from the JPA, it must issue a notice of intent to do so at least six months prior to the end of the current rate year, according to a staff report.

In May 2019, town staff released a request for proposals for solid waste services, according to a report staff prepared for the meeting. The town's franchise agreement with Recology, through its membership in the JPA, expires in December 2020.

In June 2019, the town awarded a contract to R3 Consulting Group to research alternative garbage collection services.

The Bayside JPA includes 11 other public agencies, the town's website states. It owns the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos, where all trash, recyclables and organics are delivered after collection, according to the website.

"The town has financially supported each of the JPA's initiatives, predominantly including the development, construction, and management of the Shoreway Environmental Center," a letter from Rodericks to the South Bayside Waste Management Authority JPA states. "If the Town was to withdraw from the JPA, the value of the Center – proportionate to the Town's contribution to the Center's development – would properly be valued as an asset owed to the Town, less the value of the Town's use of the Center until the time of withdrawal."

State of emergency

The council also approved a "local state of emergency" proclamation issued by Rodericks on March 13. The order allows the town to change its operations during the coronavirus outbreak.

For example, the town has canceled all committee meetings until April 30; City Council and Planning Commission meeting agendas will be limited to essential action items only.

The town is still obligated under an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide the public access space, so staff will set up a seating area, appropriately spaced, a speaker system and a microphone in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Pavilion.

Town staff announced in an email to residents on Wednesday, March 24, that the City Council will be meeting on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. on Zoom to certify the continuing existence of a local emergency and ratify any rules, regulations and changes in operations enacted by the Director of Emergency Services (Rodericks). The town will likely be releasing information on a daily basis from various sources, the email states.

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