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In The News

Council hopefuls discuss budget, bullet train at forum

By Bonnie Eslinger
Daily News Staff Writer, 10/01/10

An election forum Thursday night for council candidates underscored that Atherton, while a small town, has a lot of issues.

The four candidates — two incumbents and two challengers -- took on topics such as state's high-speed rail project, the town's budget deficit and the neighboring Cargill development during a two-hour forum at the Jennings Pavilion in Holbrook-Palmer Park.

Three seats are up for grabs. One seat is being vacated by Council Member Charles Masala, who is not seeking re-election. The two incumbents are Council Member Jerry Carlson and Vice Mayor Jim Dobbie. Business executive Bill Widmer and real estate consultant Cary Wiest are also seeking a council seat.

"I think it's great that we have four of us running for three seats," said Carlson, 74, who has served on the council since 2005. "This way we come out and people talk about the meetings, rather than just automatically being put into office."

Wiest, 46, who moved to Atherton in 2009, said while he felt he could contribute to the council without "bias or an agenda," many people in the town have asked him, "Why would you want to put yourself in such a dysfunctional group?"

All four candidates opposed the state high-speed rail project in its current aerial form. Carlson and Widmer both suggested the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train should stop in San Jose, but also wanted an underground route in the Peninsula if the $43 billion project couldn't be stopped.

Wiest said he preferred communication over lawsuits in dealing with the state. Atherton is currently one of three cities involved in a lawsuit against the High-Speed Rail Authority.

The town's budget deficit was a hot topic; all the candidates suggested that city worker salaries and benefits be renegotiated.

"We're spending about a million a year more than we're bringing in," said Dobbie, 80, who won a 2008 special election to fill a council vacancy. "That means we're using our fairly meager reserves."

While open to outsourcing city positions, all the council hopefuls were reluctant to outsource the police department, similar to San Carlos's deal with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

Dobbie, Widmer and Wiest said residents should have the final say on outsourcing. Carlson suggested certain public safety jobs, like dispatchers and investigation units, could be outsourced.

No candidate supported increasing the current parcel tax to bring in more revenue.

"I think the town is adequately funded," said Widmer, 55, who is a member of Atherton's finance and audit committees. Instead, he said, the town needs to start living within its means.

Redwood City's massive 1,436-acre Cargill Saltworks development provoked strong reactions from the candidates.

"I think we should fight it every possible way we can," said Dobbie, citing traffic and environmental concerns.

However, Wiest said the council should prioritize fixing its own problems before expending energy on a development in a neighboring city.

The forum, attended by about 50 people, was co-sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County and the Atherton Civic Interest League.


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