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About this blog: While state and federal politics dominate the headlines, local issues have an enormous impact on our everyday lives. This blog will attempt to shine a light on topics of public interest and facilitate greater participation in the ...  (More)

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Part 2 of Walk The Talk: Honoring The Compact

Uploaded: Nov 22, 2013
On November 14th, I wrote about my concerns with a City leadership retreat that was held in Half Moon Bay, therefore sending our tax dollars out of our local economy. After my posting, it became clear that the City Council did not know about the retreat in advance. Many residents and City Council Member Ray Mueller questioned the City Manager's wisdom in not keeping them informed.

Details then emerged about another retreat that was recently held, and this time, even the City Manager, Alex McIntyre, didn't know about it. On November 1st, thirteen members of the Community Services Leadership Team, under the direction of Cherise Brandell, had a driver take them to the Yountville Community Center for a one-day offsite. The use of the Community Center was at a discount, but the outing also included a trip to a local winery for, according to the agenda, a private tour, team building and to celebrate department successes. The total cost of this retreat was $2175, with $1500 of that expense coming from the use of the driver and van. It should be noted that while the City Manager (Mr. McIntyre) did not know about the retreat, his Assistant City Manager, Starla Jerome-Robinson, did.

Should the City Manager have known about this offsite, particularly because it included $1500 worth of travel expenses and a winery tour outside our city? In my opinion, absolutely. Should the City Council have known? I would say so, and judging from the outcry when the information finally did surface, I am not alone in that opinion. Clearly, the public's response to the revelation about the first retreat indicates the public has concerns about where tax dollars are spent and how. Members of the City Council, who receive calls from concerned citizens, shouldn't be blindsided.

Recently, the City took a great step towards better transparency by publishing the City Council Weekly Digest as part of its public email log. However, to be a reliable source of information, that digest needs to be consistent and thorough. In the November 4, 2013 digest, the City provided information about a team and skill building workshop being held for city employees. The workshop was held in Menlo Park at Burgess. Why did the City choose to be open and transparent about that event but not mention the other two? All three gatherings have similar objectives; to team and skill build. Open and honest disclosure garners the public trust but selective disclosure erodes it. It looks as though you are hiding something or picking and choosing to release only the information that makes you look good. People don't like that.

There is no policy that requires City management to disclose an off site or to keep tax dollars in the local economy if possible. To be clear—City leadership has broken no policies or regulations. When you don't have a hard and fast rule to follow, you need to use your best judgment according to an underlying value system. We expect city leadership to demonstrate a value system that:
• Is loyal to local commerce
• Embraces consistent and transparent communication
• Spends our tax dollars wisely

Council Member Ray Mueller summed it up this way: "When you spend public tax dollars, it is incumbent to be respectful of the compact—the covenant you have—with the public taxpayer, who trusts you to spend the money economically to serve a public purpose. I always try to imagine my late, 90 year old Sicilian grandmother, handing me a check, and telling me to go forth and do good. How would she look upon the way the City spent what she entrusted to it? I am troubled by the lack of judgment displayed in this instance, and have voiced my displeasure to the City Manager."

Postscript: Yesterday, November 21, 2013, the City Council issued its public weekly digest and included a notice about the Yountville retreat. This does come after the filing and answering of my public records requests, but is welcome news. This is precisely the kind of transparency and disclosure the public was asking for—and deserves.


Second Postscript: Because I recently assessed the transparency and good governance of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District (MPFPD) as compared to BART, I went back and took a look at how the MPFPD handles retreats. Prior to their most recent retreat, they publicly announced (per an October 15th board packet posted online) that they would be holding that event. Following the retreat (a 1/2 day event held to do strategic planning), they also posted a detailed account of what was accomplished there. Finally, I have now confirmed where the retreat was held: in Menlo Park at Sunset Magazine offices.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Tony R, a resident of another community,
on Nov 22, 2013 at 9:54 am

Erin - your columns are consistently top notch. Outstanding investigative work!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by A Good Vintage, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Nov 22, 2013 at 10:43 am

I heard that the Yountville \\\'retreat\\\' was actually for a baby shower for the staff member who lives there. Looks like Alex is throwing Cherise under the bus.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by top notch, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights,
on Nov 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

Erin,

Have you spoken with any other Council Members about this? Or the Mayor?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jeannette, a resident of Portola Valley: other,
on Nov 22, 2013 at 5:58 pm

There are not enough hours in the day to keep track of government misdeeds. Thanks Erin for bringing local issues out in the open. Your thoughtful investigations are appreciated


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Lorraine W, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Nov 23, 2013 at 10:29 am

I agree...excellent investigative work and bringing this info to our knowledge! Our tax money could be used in a much more productive way!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sheri , a resident of another community,
on Nov 24, 2013 at 7:23 pm

We should all remember that politicians are supposed to work for the good of the people which means making decisions and spending our tax dollars respectfully and with good judgement.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Peeved, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Nov 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Keep on digging, Erin. What else has been omitted from the previous pubic weekly digests? Not only is wrong to keep the public in the dark, but hiding these sorts of expenditures from the City Manager and the City Council is something that should not be tolerated.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Follow the money, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Nov 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Thank you, Erin. Many of us have long wondered if our staff really care about the people they allegedly serve -- the residents who pay their salaries. I think we're getting a glimpse of the answer.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Amazed at the entitlement, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Dec 3, 2013 at 2:27 pm

How funny/sad. 20 managers do not realize spending a chunk of taxpayer money erodes "trust with council members and residents" (quote from PA Daily article) much faster than "better telling our stories" (from Almanac) can build it up? Don't they know actions speak louder than words?

Or, maybe some of them know better but are too afraid to "rock the boat", an indication the work group lacks trust.

How hard will average lower level employees work when they read an article like this?

How funny they spent tax money partially to (from Almanac article)
…celebrate the progress the team has made over the past four years," such as increasing cost recovery from 64 percent to more than 80 percent due to fees for services, "

Don't they get paid to increase cost recovery? In other words, that is their job, no celebration of them required?

Lastly, this makes me wonder about the council members as well. They should be asking each manager why they did not speak up. If for no other reason, then for amusement! It would be heartening to hear that at least one them squirmed a little bit.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Stu Soffer, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Stu Soffer is a registered user.

The issue here, for me, is not the amount, nor that there are offsite retreats. Comments regarding doing them locally are valid.


The issue is that council did not know about the retreats beforehand, nor did the mayor, vice mayor in their weekly meetings with the city manager, but learned of them from Erin in the Almanac. It raises a question about what else happens in which the council may have an interest that they don't know.



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