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Atherton attorney: Lewis house not legally compliant, but no action needed

Original post made on Jun 16, 2010

The word is in from Atherton's town attorney: The size of Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis' house exceeds the town's zoning ordinance by about 129 square feet; she should not have been allowed to demolish and rebuild the portion of the house that was "nonconforming" because it was too close to the property lines under existing law; and the blame for those violations of the ordinance lies with the former building official, so no action by the town should be taken in the matter.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, June 16, 2010, 5:34 PM

Comments (29)

Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 16, 2010 at 6:36 pm

I'm shocked! NOT

Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 16, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Please note that Furth has exhonorated Ms. Lewis exactly 3 hours before Elizabeth votes on Furth's performance evaluation and Gruber's proposed salary increases for upper management.
NO CONFLICT OF INTEREST HERE ATHERTON ......... your tax dollars at work to institutionalize quid pro quo

Posted by John P. Johns
a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Dear Members of the City Council

I have reviewed Lisa Costa Sander's report on 1 Emilie.

Compliments are in order to Ms. Sanders. Her analysis is thorough, complete and rigorous.

Despite Ms. Furth's obfuscation, denial and rationalization, Ms. Costa-Sanders' report is unequivocal, Ms. Lewis' home is out of compliance with the code.

The property exceeds maximum allowable floor area ratio, the sidewalls are too high, and the main residence does not meet minimum setback requirements.

Ms. Furth is incorrect in stating that there were no objections from neighbors about the project. I have spoken with Ms. Jane O'Neil a neighbor of Ms. Lewis who was referred to me by Mr. John Ruggerio. Ms. O'Neil, a former Superior Court judge told me that she had complained to Mike Hood about the structure to no avail.

Ms. Furth's report implies that the review of plans for zoning compliance only started with the creation of the Planning Department. This is incorrect. Plans have always been reviewed for zoning compliance. The only difference is that the Building Department was responsible for conducting such reviews in the past. Clearly in Ms. Lewis' case, either staff failed to perform their duties, or worse, were rewarded for not performing their duties.

It should be noted that at least one employee was reprimanded for accepting gifts. Furthermore, the individual who was reprimanded appears to have been involved in processing Ms. Lewis' permit. So whether or not the Building Department and Ms. Lewis acted in good faith remains an open question.

Ms. Furth fails to acknowledge that this project should never been allowed to proceed because the permit had expired. before construction was initiated.

I would note that this is not the first time that Mr. Wasmann was involved in inspecting an illegal house for which a permit had expired. The other case that comes to mind is Mr. Ackley's poolhouse at 55 Belbrook Avenue (yes, Mr. Ackley of Pacific Peninsula Group). [Portion removed; unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behavior violate terms of use.]

I would also call to Ms. Furth's attention that Ms. Lewis voted to spend taxpayer dollars to defend a lawsuit I had initiated against the Town. She knew full well that I had brought her illegal house to the attention of the City back in 2008. As such Ms. Lewis is guilty of abusing her power to try and discredit me for bringing a legitimate matter of public concern to the City's attention.

There is also one glaring omission from Ms. Furth's report, there is no mention of the original plans' square footage, nor is there any indication as to whether the revised set of plans authored by the new architect called for additional square footage. (I suspect that they did). There is also no discussion as to whether the accessory structures conform to the minimum setback requirements.

I would also ask that the Town's zoning investigator, Mr. Bob Cushing investigate another violation of the Town's building and zoning ordinance. That being illegal construction at the residence of Charles Marsala. As I had brought to Mr. Wasmann's attention, back in July, 2007 the plans for Marsala's remodeling project were approved by the Building Department for the relocation of interior load bearing walls without any structural calculations as to whether the movement of the walls could be accomplished without jepoardizing the structural integrity of the residence.

I would also note that Mr. Wasmann either failed to inspect the construction in a timely manner or that the records were altered after the fact to make it appear as though a final inspection was in fact performed in a timely manner.

In short I am bringing to the City Council's attention of illegal construction at the residence of Councilman Charles Marsala that could very well constitute a threat to the health and safety of Mr. Marsala or of a buyer of Mr. Marsala's property in the future.

I have brought these concerns to the attention of Mr. Wasmann in the past. However my voice has fallen on deaf ears. I have been encouraged by the City's willingness to examine Ms. Lewis property. However I would respectfully submit that the housecleaning at Town hall remains a work in progress.

For all of the above reasons, this code violation and that of Mr. Marsala's should be subject to an independent review.


John P. Johns

Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 16, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I need to wait for Peter's cut and paste job before I feel informed enough.

Posted by Mimsey
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 16, 2010 at 11:16 pm

So Mike Hood played fast and loose with building regulations? Gee, what a shocker. We've never heard anything like this before ... zzzzzzzz.

Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 12:16 am

One way to balance the budget might be to just go ahead and dissolve the entire planning department--the only plan Martin and Costa-Saunders have anyway, is to milk the system from both ends while doing favors for for council allies and resident developers.
We could have a "free for all" for free, after all couldn't we?---we don't need to actually pay someone to run one for us.
The same goes for Wassman's building department--why even bother having that pension factory?--everyone builds what ever they want anyway--with or without approval.
Permit fees could be voluntarily mailed in to Gruber on the honor system- and it would amount to the same system we have in place now--AND WITH THE CITY ATTORNEY'S COMPLETE APPROVAL!
.....hmmmm do we really need Legal?.....
Anyway, with two or three departments crossed off the list we might be well on our way to proving once and for all, how exclusive this tony little burg really is. The overly fortunate and very well connected, may not actually require the common norms of governance.

Posted by read the fine print
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 8:33 am

Buried deep within Furth's report is a complaint from a neighbor of Lewis about the size of the Lewis house.

This letter flat out contradicts Furth's conclusion that there were no complaints from neighbors.

Imagine that. Wynn Furth caught in a lie.

All the more reason for an independent investigation.

Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 8:36 am

Well, unfortunately, Ms. Furth's report lived up to expectations. Regrettable, but definitely consistent.

The best recourse for voters is to make changes in the Atherton Town Council. Candidates should be asked to take a position on the competence of Ms. Furth, on the issues about Ms. Lewis, Mr. Johns and Mr. Buckheit.

Voters can decide if they are happy with the way their town is being managed.

Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Don't forget it was an Atherton attorney that advised it was OK to withhold Mr. Buckheit's police report from him.

No shortage of costly advice.

Posted by Westside Trucker
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 17, 2010 at 2:36 pm

When I remodeled, we hade to tear out the corner of our foundation because it was 2 FEET too close to the property line during a progress check by the Atherton people. I guess the wind was blowing when the inspector first measured it with his tape.

I guess it is just who you know, and I did not know the Town's attorney.

Posted by common sense
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 17, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Mr. Johns's political leanings are so partial, his opinion carries no weight. He has only looked into things that are to advance his position and has not looked into the truth of situations. It is common knowledge that his dealing have always been shady at best. He and his political allies (McKeithen) are on nothing but a witch hunt and it is time that the grownups in Atherton vote out such divisive individuals. We have a wonderful town and it is time to take it back from McKeithen and her lot.

Posted by cicero
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

If one does not like the message, attack the messenger.

All the better smear the messenger with false criminal complaints as in Johns' case.

Johns supports his allegations with facts. Common sense doesn't.

Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 3:24 pm

common sense -

Your comments about Mr. Johns aside, I'm not sure I would characterize (1) Mr. Buckheit's experience with the police - malfeasons which were acknowledged in and by a court of law, (2) Mr. Marsala's admission that he solicited a $500,000 loan or (3) Ms. Lewis's obvious disregard for the legal and compliant permitting of her home - ALL OF WHICH ARE NOT DISPUTED - as hallmarks of "a witch hunt" or "a wonderful town."

These are serious issues, common sense. I'm betting you wouldn't ignore them if they were happening to you, your family or your company.

Posted by Fedup
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 17, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I thought we,Atherton, paid a huge sume to John Johns to go away. He was a bad apple and is still attacking everybody he doesn't like. Please John Johns, get a life. Common Sense is right. All the fighting in the town started when Kathy McKeithen was elected to the council. Also, the legal bills started then. She wants complete control of the town, its employees and the police department. Please, Kathy, why don't you and John Johns harass some other town.

Posted by spin doctor
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Johns wasn't a bad apple. He received a resolution of commendation from the city council, approved by a majority and signed by the mayor.

You can try and smear him all you want. The record is clear. He was honored in a way few if any other employee has been in the town's history.

Posted by sooo frustrated
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2010 at 6:06 pm

As a town employee, I used to be so proud to work for the Town of Atherton. To be honest, now its pretty much an embarrassment. I still LOVE the people who live here that we get to serve as public servants. But the place has gone totally coo-coo! The council fights amongst themselves to the point that I don't know what would possess anyone to want to run for an office. They don't trust or listen to their staff, who by my accounts are very hard working and want nothing but the best for ALL of the residents (sorry, I am pretty well placed, but I just don't see all this espionage and cloak & dagger people who spend 1/1000 of the time in Town Center that I do).

And there is a lot of flat out lying that goes on that is very hurtful. Its to the point where we can't DO anything anymore (balance a budget, build a town hall, build a Library). Like the worst dysfunctional family I have ever seen.

I hope somebody in the town can step up and get the politics "righted" soon, or me and a lot of other good employees are moving on. C'mon you guys...get it together. We work for the residents of Atherton and want the best for them (and so should you).

Posted by Ed
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jun 17, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Dear Fed UP and Nonsense:
Pretending that Elizabeth's transgressions are Mr.Johns fault is a tactic that will work in the end, only to hypnotize her friends and has already cost the public close to 700,000$. While I'm sure that the many law firms involved would be thrilled to see more of this myth making, and that the other development community members who were featured in Mr Johns' audit might revel in their own rarified air--YOU PEOPLE NEED TO COME UP WITH A NEW RECIPE FOR THE COOL-AID you expect us to swallow. WE ALL HAVE EYES--WE CAN SEE ELIZABETH's HOUSE--WE AREN't AS STUPID AS YOU THINK
NIce try though--know it was your only shot-and you certainly have come close to pulling this one off before.

Posted by John P Johns
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Dear Sooo Frustrated

You have not posted under your real name. However I have an idea who you are. In any case please consider this reply to your post to mean no disrespect. Instead I hope to elicit some additional thoughts from you for the benefit of the readers of this post.

You have said that you are a "pretty well placed" Town employee. By that I gather that you are a part of the management group and as such serve at the pleasure of the City Manager. If so I must ask whether your status as an at will employee has motivated you to keep you identity a secret.

I must ask whether you fear that speaking out against the conduct of highly placed elected officials (a matter of legitimate public concern and one that is protected by the 1st ammendment) could get you fired.

I must also inquire about just what it is that is the source of your embarassment. Is it the fact that members of the City Council have disagreemets that have broken out into the open, thus piercing the fragile veneer of tranquility and gentility that seems so important to the Town's image? Is it that you are embarrassed by the widely publicized ethical lapses of two members of your City Council?

You have complained about alot of "flat out lying" that is "very hurtful". In that regard I would ask, who is doing the lying and what are the lies?

Did Elizabeth Lewis lie when she said she followed all of the rules when building her house?

Did Charles Marsala tell the truth when he said seeking a loan from a man in litigation with the Town did not constitute a conflict of interest?

Is Jerry Carlson lying when he asserts his vote to sue the California High Speed Rail Authority was proper, despite the fact that he lives just a stone's throw from the right of way?

[Potion removed; follow terms of use] Am I being hurtful because I pointed out that there was at least one one other Building Department employee was found to have accepted gifts improperly? Am I being hurtful when I say that I was told the FY 2007 Civil Grand Jury recommended the DA conduct a criminal investigation of the Building Department?

Is Jon Buckheit lying when he says that his standing in the community and his financial well being have been damaged as a result of his unwarranted arrest and the falsification of a police report on his person?

Am I lying when I protest against an abuse of power by the Former Chief as he had his officers raid my office and detain me without probable cause?

Am I lying when I say that Chief Guerra tells me that he has initiated an administrative investigation into the conduct of two of his officers as a result of my citizen's complaint of evidence tampering?

You say that you see no " espionage" no "cloak and dagger". To that point I would ask, is that because you chose not to look or is that because you have looked and you have found nothing to worry about or be ashamed of?

Finally I have to ask, who's responsibility it is to stand up and "right" this Town? Who bears the responsibility for the impression that the Town's staff can't do anything right. Is it possible that City Manager Jerry Gruber bears any responsibility for the distrust and dysfunction you complain of?

I look forward to your reply.

Posted by More frustrated than you are
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 18, 2010 at 1:58 am

Dear Highly Placed Employee:

I'm more frustrated than you are. Instead of Atherton paying me at the 70th percentile of what might be the richest county in California, I pay a ton of property taxes to live here.

What I've seen is unbridled corruption. Council members asking residents for bribes. Other council members building illegal homes and getting excused for it by an attorney who gets her performance review the same day. Developers milking every last cent from the residents of this town, and having their own representatives on the council to defend it (Elizabeth Lewis and Charles Marsala). The police we pay most of the taxes to support admitting they falsified a report against a _resident_ (not some punk driving through the town, but a taxpaying resident). The management of the town, paid highly, ignoring all of this, just concentrating on their own raises and pensions.

Kathy McKeithen has shown all the courage in the world by trying to stand up to this corrupt machine. Whenever she does, the corrupt bad apples accuse her of being on a witch hunt. I say if that's a witch hunt, let's hunt for more.

And you know what: if you want to leave, there's the door. I'm sure we can bring in someone at a lower salary to do at least as good a job.

Posted by Stop the attacks
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

"More frustrated..." I oppose the 70 percentile formula to pay employees, too. In fact I think public employee salaries and benefits have gotten way out of control. But your suggestion that the employee who posted can just pack up and leave and the town can get someone cheaper and better is just plain unfair and thoughtless. Town staff have to deal with enough demoralizing problems on the job without residents giving them grief.

Just as with any workforce, there are the dedicated and competent employees and there are those concerned only with their salaries and pensions. But be fair. There are some really committed staff in our town who deserve our respect.

Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 18, 2010 at 9:29 am

I agree with Stop the attacks. The town staff is usually hard working and dedicated people who are trying to make a living by serving the citizens. They are not the cause of the problem.

The staffer who provided their insight is to be commended for the information. Bribes, ignoring building codes, false police reports - it must be absolutely appalling to see this lack of integrity from the people running their town.

It wouldn't surpise me if this staffer did not answer the questions posed by Mr. Johns. I also think the answers are obvious. Moreover, retribution is both real and painful, as Mr. Johns knows from personal experience.

It is our elected officials who seem to have the imperial attitude and believe the rules don't apply to them. Even worse, the town attorney as well as our law enforcement and code enforcement officials do not appear to have the political will or integrity to remedy the situation.

Perhaps voters can, however - and one can hope they will.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 18, 2010 at 9:54 am

Pogo states:"Perhaps voters can, however - and one can hope they will."

A prerequisite before the voters can rectify the situation is the appearance of qualified, unblemished and committed individuals who are prepared to run for the three Town Council seats which will be open for election in November. Aug 6th is the CLOSING date for candidates to file their papers with the County - that is less than 45 days from now and I have yet to hear of anyone who plans to step up to the plate.

Posted by Harpooner
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 18, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Hey "Common sense" (sic) and "Fedup" -

Get real for a change! Johns and McKeithen may make their share of mistakes, but at least they have some sense of honor and truthfulness. Compared to the slippery Elizabeth Lewis and some of our Building Department lackeys, and of course the real-estate developer parasites, Johns and McKeithen come off as candidates for sainthood. What a town . . . If only its current management were just dumb and disfunctional rather than blatantly dishonest.

Posted by John P Johns
a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2010 at 11:24 pm

The following is an e-mail to Ms. Lisa Costa Sanders expressing my thanks for a job well done on the Lewis investigation.

I would encourage readers of this post to put the Town on notice that any action by Elizabeth Lewis or the Town Attorney to retaliate against Lisa Costa Sanders for having done her job provessionally and with integrity will not be tolerated.

From: john johns
Date: Sat, Jun 19, 2010 at 9:16 PM
Subject: Code enforcement complaint
To: Lisa Costa Sanders
Cc: Jerry Gruber ,,, Theresa DellaSanta ,,,

Dear Lisa

Thank you again for conducting a thorough and professional analysis of the complaint that I sent to Mr. Bob Cushing. I am truly sorry for any stress that having to perform this analysis may have caused you personally.

I clearly recall the length to which Charles Marsala went to try and discredit me after I brought to light the improprieties in the handling of his permit.

I have heard many times over from friends and colleagues alike that if being investigated and terminated based upon trumped up charges could happen to a guy like me, me it could happen to anyone. [Portion deleted.]

It is for that reason that I wanted to assure you that it was me, acting alone who brought this matter to the attention of Mr. Cushing. I acted out of a sense of responsibility. I felt as though Ms. Lewis violated the public trust. I felt as though Ms. Lewis should be held accountable.

It is also clear that Mr. Bob Cushing "passed the buck" improperly by referring this matter to you. If Mr. Cushing can't be expected to investigate this matter, then just what is the Town of Atherton paying him for? Nonetheless, having leveled my complaint against Ms. Lewis and having this matter falling right into your lap, I do feel a certain sense of responsibility for the stress that you may be feeling at the moment.

I know that there are postings on the Town Square Forum accusing me of acting in concert with a standing member of the City Council who is frequently at odds with Ms. Lewis. These allegations are without foundation and are without merit.

Please rest assured that I am not acting on behalf of any faction on the Council. I am my own man acting on my own conscience rather than playing some political game. It is for this reason that I am taking the liberty of copying in the City Manager and every member of the City Council in on this note, along with the City Clerk so that she can make sure everyone on the Council gets a copy.

I also wanted to let you know thatI sent a separate e-mail to Ms. Furth and Mr. Gruber recommending that Ms. Lewis be put on notice that she should, in no way, take any adverse action against you. I went so far as to tell Ms. Furth and Mr. Gruber that when it comes time for your contract to be renewed, Ms. Lewis should recuse herself. It would also seem appropriate that Ms. Lewis step down from the Planning Commission.

I have heard from more than one member of the Town's current and former staff that staff feels a high degree of vulnerability from certain members of the City Council meddling in their affairs, a blatant violation of the council manager form of government. This is all the more reason to be concerned and to put Ms. Lewis on notice that retaliating against you in any form whatsoever will not be tolerated.

I fought a two year legal battle with Atherton because I did not want anything like what happened to me ever again. It would be most unfortunate if you suffered the same kind of victimization that I did just because you were doing what was required of you.

Unlike Ms. Furth who tried to cover up Ms. Lewis' illegal construction, you did your job honorably, honestly and capably. For that you should be commended and protected.

Best regards,


Posted by no retaliation
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 20, 2010 at 9:37 am

[portion deleted.] We all have a responsibility to make sure that no harm comes to an honest person like Lisa Costa Sanders just because she was doing her job.

Just say no to retaliation. [portion deleted.]

Figuratively speaking the body count has already been too high.

Posted by stop the madness
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

This is sheer madness. [portion deleted.]

It is time to take the Town back. Stop the madness. Tell the City Council to fire Wynne Furth. Tell Elizabeth Lewis that she will be subject to a recall campaign if she even thinks about making a move against Lisa Costa Sanders.

Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 20, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Since Mr. Johns' recent lengthy post which included his letter to Ms. Sanders, the only thing this thread has done is scare Ms Sanders. Wears a badge's latest admonition, while consistent with his/her earlier outrageous posts, is disgusting and deplorable. If he ever wore a badge, I suspect it was during his adolescence and he probably still bears a scar where he stuck himself with the pin.

Should there be even the slightest bit of retribution, given Atherton's recent history with litigation, I suspect Ms. Sanders will become a very rich woman.

Posted by de ja vu
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm

We've seen this script play out before.

An Atherton employee or contractor reveals misconduct by a high placed elected or appointed official.

Supporters of the official being outed receive thinly veiled threats by way of a variety of means, including this Town Square Forum. These threats are followed up by subtle comments here and there intended to cast doubt on the integrity and ability of the offending employee.

The unfortunate employee who made the discovery is given the chance to resign.

If the employee doesn't resign, then all out war is declared.

Let us hope that Lisa Costa Sanders stands her ground. This is one war the Lewis camp will lose and will lose big.

Posted by jaded
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Jun 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm

There was nothing noble about what Lisa Costa Sanders did. It is painfully obvious that she sees a new majority will be on the Council this November with McKeithen at the helm.

Lisa Costa Sanders could have written report any way she wanted. She wrote her report in a way to curry favor with McKeithen. Fortunately Furth saw things differently.

There was no harm, no foul. Lisa Costa sanders at McKeithen\'s bidding blew this all out of proportion.

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