Council nixes library survey | June 27, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - June 27, 2012

Council nixes library survey

by Sandy Brundage

After the vote was over, some in the audience wondered whether they were hallucinating. "Odd," one woman murmured while staring at the dais, where the Atherton Town Council had just voted 3-2 against conducting a phone survey of 300 residents to assess support for building a new library in Holbrook-Palmer Park.

The audience was used to 3-2 votes from the council on that topic. But before the June 20 meeting, the split always favored Mayor Bill Widmer, Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, and Councilman Jim Dobbie, who support building the library in the park.

It was noteworthy, then, when Ms. McKeithen defected to vote with Councilman Jerry Carlson and Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis against conducting the survey. Mr. Carlson and Ms. Lewis thought the bitterly polarizing issue would best be settled by either a ballot vote or a survey mailed to every single registered voter in Atherton.

Ms. McKeithen had spoken in support of the phone survey earlier, saying that people in Atherton weren't going to take the time to read the dense environmental impact report and make an informed decision. "Look at high-speed rail and how the voters bought into believing it would work," she said. No matter how many times the council presented factual information about the proposed library, "it just doesn't register."

Mr. Carlson retorted that Atherton was the only town to vote against high-speed rail when the state proposed the project. "Which says to me that Atherton residents are pretty damn smart."

Not one to let a challenge escape without response, Ms. McKeithen said, "And if you go back to who brought both of those (high-speed rail) lawsuits? It was me. I was mayor at the time. Thank you."

Still, something in the arguments presented by speakers during public comment as well as colleagues on the dais must have swayed the councilwoman. The speakers pointed out how easy it is to create bias in a survey, based on how questions are worded, and that calling only a few hundred residents would enrage those who weren't selected for the survey. And they applauded when Ms. Lewis said that she thought only a ballot would heal the town.

Mayor Widmer said that mail surveys had a 1 to 3 percent return rate, rendering them "inconsequential." He suggested increasing the number of residents to be surveyed by phone to 300; up from the 200 recommended in the proposed $18,500 contract with research firm Godbe.

A motion by Mr. Carlson to conduct a mail survey of all registered voters failed. The mayor then made his motion to have Godbe call 300 residents, and after hearing two ayes and two nays, looked at Ms. McKeithen, who sat in silent contemplation some time before she finally said, "Oppose."

Atherton resident Peter Carpenter began circulating a petition on June 21, the day after the meeting, that calls for a special meeting of the council to decide whether the library issue should be settled by voters. Other items the petition wants included on the meeting's agenda: whether a new library should be built, and if so, whether it should go in the park, a new town center, or on the current site.


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