But nevertheless, we were taken aback to hear top Menlo Park officials grousing about the time spent telling the media — and hence the public — what they're doing. In our view, city workers need to be forthright about what they're doing.
We say this after having some experience in dealing with the fallout when public officials withhold information. In today's online world, secrets are almost always found out, and quickly broadcast around the world. Too often, Menlo Park's approach has been to seek forgiveness instead of support.
This issue came up last week during a staff presentation to the City Council regarding the budget. When describing challenges facing their departments, several managers included responding to information requests.
City Manager Glen Rojas voiced the hope that in the coming year he could "spend more time on the bigger picture," adding that, "we just can't respond to every single (e-mail to the City Council), every inquiry of the press." Deputy City Manager Kent Steffens joined the chorus.
One example, cited by Community Services Director Cherise Brandell, came following the announcement that the administration had recommended awarding Team Sheeper a contract to manage the city's swimming pools. The City Council will make the final decision. Ms. Brandell told the council that the city is already being "peppered with" questions about how the process was handled when such information is rarely released until after the council receives it.
But those requests came after residents discovered the city staff had altered the process for awarding the contract without notifying the public — or even the City Council. Originally, the city's published outline of the process stated the council would determine whether or not to pursue negotiations. Instead, it will now be presented with a pre-negotiated contract.
We expected more from Ms. Brandell, whose original job description involved community outreach. What better way to maintain good relations with city residents than making every effort to share information with them? It was clear early on that there was high media and public interest in the terms and awarding of a new pool contract.
In other cases, the city could have benefited by informing the public before taking actions such as poisoning the squirrels at Bedwell-Bayfront Park. Or notifying the community sooner about children becoming sick at Burgess pool. In both cases, the public had every right to know sooner rather than later.
Some city departments do make public communication a priority. Margaret Roberts, the city clerk, does an outstanding job of responding quickly and thoroughly, even during hectic campaign seasons. The police department and City Attorney Bill McClure also provide strong examples of commitment to transparency.
Rather than look for ways to reduce communication with the media, we urge the City Council and administration to brainstorm ways to be more forthcoming with those who are simply doing their job by informing the public about their city government. In these days of ever higher demands for disclosure at all levels of our society, it is critical that the city make transparency one of its strongest values.