Almanac

Cover Story - January 12, 2011

Triumphs, trials, and two cents

Two councilmen look backward and forward

by Sandy Brundage

John Boyle and Heyward Robinson have a few things in common — both served on the Menlo Park City Council for one term. Actually, that might be where the similarities end. Operating from opposite ends of the political — and personality — spectrums, the two men frequently found themselves voting on opposite sides after heated debate.

In this story, they look back at their time on the council, and offer some advice for their colleagues going forward.

John Boyle: 'I don't want to be a grumpy old man'

John Boyle had traded the trademark suit and tie for casual wear when The Almanac caught up with him at Lutticken's Deli. He said he'd lived in Menlo Park for more than 20 years without knowing much about how the city works, prior to running for council. Mr. Boyle was elected in 2006, and decided not to run for a second term — at least for now.

Why? "It's complicated," Mr. Boyle said. An offer from his alma mater, Purdue University, played a role, as did a desire for more time with his family. "I also felt at times — to some degree, my views were marginalized," he reflected.

"I felt myself starting to get cynical and grumpy. When I thought about doing it for another four years, I asked, 'can I do that? Without turning into a grumpy old man?' I don't want to be a grumpy old man."

That said, Mr. Boyle's not ruling out a return to local politics if the circumstances are ever right. "It really was an honor." He grinned. "And a lot of people do say thanks."

There were triumphs small and large. He's also proud of delivering a monthly newsletter — no small task on top of the 60-plus hours a week Mr. Boyle estimated he spent on council business.

"I worked hard and think I helped the council make more constructive inquiries into things," he mused. Mr. Boyle pointed to questions he raised when the council considered paying to install solar panels at the new Arrillaga gym. No one was asking how much it would cost, and staff didn't know, he recalled. Once pushed to take that into consideration, the council realized it would take 49 years to pay back the approximately $100,000 price tag.

That drive for financial accountability led Mr. Boyle to call for a finance and audit committee — particularly after voters approved a utility tax increase in 2006 to help solve what the city claimed was a $1 million deficit — that turned into a surprise $3 million surplus post-election.

Money is also at the root of one of Mr. Boyle's biggest disappointments. "In public service, a lot of outreach and study is necessary. The process is painfully slow. A business can afford to fail. A city can't," Mr. Boyle said. That might explain his frustration at not seeing the downtown specific plan finished before he left office.

"The budget has gotten worse each year. Part of that's the economy, but part is never saying no enough. Sixty to 80 projects per year is way too many for a city this size," he said. "We tried to control that by saying we can't agendize an item if it's not requested by at least two council members. Then we proceeded to ignore that policy."

He quoted Hewlett-Packard's motto: "Do a few things well."

A few other words of advice for the new council: "The less you do behind closed doors, the less you have that 'gosh, I didn't think about that' reaction," Mr. Boyle said, ruefully. "There's a difference between what you're allowed to do and what you need to do."

He suggested making community outreach even more of a priority. "It's amazing the information you get by picking up the phone and calling someone. I can't count the number of times I got valuable insights that way."

"Most civic issues don't have perfect answers. You take the good with the bad, the bad with the good, and the sooner you realize that, the better."

He also thought holding fewer council meetings was worth consideration. If the council didn't meet most Tuesday nights of the year, Mr. Boyle's logic goes, they might have more time to look deeply into the issues they do consider.

Heyward Robinson: 'There are people in town who don't like me. There are people in town who REALLY don't like me'

Heyward Robinson sat at Cafe Borrone with his two sons and a friend roaming in and out. Leaning back in his chair, he looked more relaxed than on the dais, where he tended to jut forward at the microphone, arms folded. After losing a bid for re-election, his exit from the council was not as serene as Mr. Boyle's.

"There are people in town who don't like me. There are people in town who REALLY don't like me," he acknowledged, and attributed at least part of that to his bluntness.

The four years he served as a councilman held its share of accomplishments. "The idea of planning and forward thinking as something we really do," Mr. Robinson said, referring to progress made on the city's downtown specific plan.

Getting staff to really focus on business development, particularly in the Willows area, also made his list of high points.

So did guiding a flood-control project for the San Francisquito Creek, through the work of the Joint Powers Authority that Mr. Robinson chaired. "To get to construction within a year is pretty exciting," he said.

With those triumphs came tribulation. Two points of frustration: time and money. New council members often sound surprised upon realizing how long it can take to get anything done. The city's staff ends up with a "to do" list that can be hard to prioritze, according to Mr. Robinson.

"It's 'OK, what, on this long list of things to do, don't you want me to do now'?" Mr. Robinson said one challenge was moving projects forward without scaring staff half to death and making reasonable requests. Staff workload left some initiatives in limbo. "For example, the Climate Action Plan, you can't even bring it up."

On a more personal level, the death of 6-year-old Lisa Xavier in a hit-and-run crash haunts him, as the perpetrators are still free.

Mr. Robinson left the dais knowing the challenges facing Menlo Park, particularly the need to balance costs with services. He cited the $1 million budget increase for police salaries, which he said the city still hasn't figured out how to cover.

"It'll be interesting to see what the city does. There's no easy answer anywhere; if it were easy, it would've been done already," he commented, and suggested holding another round of "Your City, Your Decision," a community outreach that allowed residents to prioritize city services in light of budget cuts. "Everything's got to be put on the table; everybody's got to play with the numbers. It's frustrating to run up against 'we want it all.'"

Much as Mr. Boyle thought fewer meetings could benefit Menlo Park, the Almanac wondered whether Mr. Robinson might favor shorter meetings.

He laughed. "Everyone wants shorter meetings. That's a good goal, but not our purpose. We're there to do the city's business."

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