Viewpoint - February 2, 2011

Editorial: City struggles to serve the 'media'

We can understand why some government officials believe that answering media queries takes valuable time away from their other duties. It isn't easy to do your assigned job while fielding phone calls and e-mails throughout the day from every newspaper and website in this area.

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.


Posted by Long time Menlo Man, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 5, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I'm not a city employee but Sandy, you're off base here. Cub reporter trying to take minute details out of context and fabricate a "Breaking Story."
As explained at the meeting and after reading the report the city staff seems to have bent over backwards to accommodate the loser of the bidding process. If the city staff had went with the other bidder, there would have been a ground swell of complaints on why the city staff selected the far inferior bid. I don't agree with every thing city staffers do but I have more respect for them now than I did before.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 5, 2011 at 1:15 pm

The Almanac editorial identifies an important example of how the City of Menlo Park could be more responsive to the citizens whom it serves.
The new pool contract issue has been identified as an issue about which the citizen have strong and varying opinions. Why doesn't the City release the full staff report well in advance of the Council meeting so that everyone can have adequate time to become better informed on this matter before the Council deliberates the matter?

The City's habit of putting everything in the Council packet and releasing that as late as is legally permissible before the Council meeting (and also practically at the same time that the Almanac staff are trying to put next week's edition to bed) does not serve the purpose of having a well informed public - particularly for controversial issues. Under this practice the public is given only 72 hours to be aware of and read and be prepared to comment on issues like the staff report and new labor contracts.

The lmanac is right - The City can do better and the citizens deserve better.

Posted by Long time Menlo man, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 6, 2011 at 11:25 am

Peter this information has been out for a long time (my guess - 6 plus weeks, maybe more). It's on line. Also, I went to one of the input sessions after the RFPs were received by The Parks and Rec Comm. meetings. The Parks and Rec Commissioners took all ideas, some were "out there" in practical terms, and tried to accommodate all parties.

The pool contract has been identified as an "issue" only by the loser of the bid (I forgot their name). After Belltramo's lost out in their effort to stop the competition of Bevmo, they aren't making an "issue" of their loss.

If you read the staff report you'd find the loser of the bid is actually paying less for their pool time than any other group in town. Why? Sqeaky wheel I guess.

This doesn't seem fair to all the other pool users but the Parks Comm., trying to accommodate the loser let them pay less than you or I if we want to use the pool. Fair? Absolutely not!

Posted by fact checker, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Sorry Long Timer, but there was a special Parks and Recreation Commission meeting this week because the details of the staff report and draft contract were not available previously.
The draft staff report has some really questionable data. Such as $22/lane hour, which means the Burgess pool costs $1.8 million when the city itself says it should cost about 1/3 that. A number of programs don't "pay for themselves" but some of that analysis assumes each contributes equally to profit. They don't in any pool. Some programs are very profitable and others aren't.
The community loses if SOLO can't thrive. At this point, that is one of the main issues. The city has to make that a condition of awarding the contract to Sheeper. Unfortunately he and staff are presenting questionable information and it's really sad that staff isn't responsive to the press. The stink factor goes up when that happens.

Posted by Long time Menlo Man, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Sorry Fact Checker, you're wrong. I'm not anyone special and I personally saw those numbers about 6 weeks ago (maybe just a bit longer ago now). I also heard those numbers at the Parks and Rec meeting I attended, again about 6 weeks ago. They didn't seem "questionable" at the time nor do they now. At the Parks and Rec meeting the only people who characterized the numbers or data as questionable were the losers of the bid.
For almost my entire life I've been a City of Menlo Park supporter. Over the years the city has made some decisions I really didn't understand but I didn't have time to investigate. I did notice that no matter what the city does, someone objects. Recently, I started going to more community meetings because I wanted to see for myself if all the crazy stuff people were saying was true. I've come to realize I was really right all along. When I did a little educating of myself, for the most part, city staffers are doing an OK job in this economically tough environment. I'm just glad I'm sitting on the outside looking in.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Long Time Menlo Man may well have seen "those numbers about 6 weeks ago " but he certainly did not see the final staff report at that time.

This month's regular Council meeting is 8 Feb. The Council meeting packet, which contains the final staff reports on all item on the agenda, was posted late last week. Anyone interested in the final staff report therefore only had a few days to find out that it had been posted, to download it and read it. Long Time Menlo Man may well have seen "those numbers about 6 weeks ago " but he certainly did not see the final staff report at that time.

Posted by Roxie, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Feb 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Hi Long Time Menlo Man,
What numbers did you hear 6 weeks ago? Did you hear the numbers that one rfp offered to pay the city $20,000 per month for the pool while the other proposal only offered to pay $3,000 per month?

I did not hear those numbers until the Almanac story. Wading through the reports I have seen posted on the city website, the main reason the $20,000 bid was turned down was because the Community Services Department made a judgement that Solo Aquatics (the bidder) would not be able to pay that much per month. What the criteria for this decision was is unknown, since the head of Community Services based it on "confidential" data. I do think Solo Aquatics has been an organization with at least the same credentials as Team Sheeper had when they were given run of the pool. If the judgement that Solo Aquatics could not meet the rent THEY proposed is in error, then it will cost the city over $2,000,000 in lost revenue over the 10 years Community Services is suggesting the City Council give the contract to Team Sheeper.

I'm glad the Almanac reported this story. But I am curious if Long Time Menlo Man heard of the 20K vs. 3k issue six weeks ago and what he thought of it.

Posted by Long time Menlo Man, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 8, 2011 at 8:08 pm

I don't use the pool or have immediate family who does. I have no vested interest in the pool decision. I'm educating myself about the decisions made by city staff now that I have more time. I came to a judgment based on what I saw and heard. I think others who could have and did avail themselves of the facts presented would have come to the same conclusion.

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