News - March 9, 2011

Menlo councilwoman pays for D.C. trip — for now

by Sandy Brundage

No stranger to raising eyebrows, Menlo Park Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson did it again when she mentioned her plans to stay at a $400-per-night hotel while in Washington, D.C., for two nights this week on council business.

Ms. Fergusson, who will accompany the city's high-speed rail lobbyist Ravi Mehta and Palo Alto Councilman Larry Klein on the trip, told the council the goal is to "educate members of Congress."

Ms. Fergusson defended herself in a memo written to City Manager Glen Rojas on March 3, stating that she'll pay for the trip until reimbursement can be placed on the agenda at the next council meeting on March 15.

The memo outlined the city's stance on high-speed rail, which Ms. Fergusson will present as a member of the city's HSR subcommittee: Build high-speed rail right or not at all; publish a credible ridership study and business plan; correct oversight deficiencies; and invest in electrification to benefit both Caltrain and Menlo Park.

The team hopes to meet with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California; Rep. Anna Eshoo D-Menlo Park; and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, according to Ms. Fergusson, to discuss those topics and ask for $1 billion in funding to electrify Caltrain.

But does Ms. Fergusson need to go?

"I don't think it's necessary," Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith noted during the March 1 council meeting. "We've hired a lobbyist, and that's the goal or the purpose of the lobbyist. Anna Eshoo has an office in Palo Alto, Jackie Speier has one in San Mateo. I don't see the need for it."

Ms. Fergusson responded that meetings are "a lot more powerful if elected members from affected communities are there carrying the message as well."

Who decides who goes where and how, anyway? Mr. Rojas explained the council travel policy: A $10,000 fund covers travel for all five council members. They can ask the city to pay in advance, or request reimbursement.

If they travel out of state, the reimbursement must be approved by the council during a regular meeting.

Political players, such as former mayor Lee Duboc, questioned whether a potential conflict of interest exists between Ms. Fergusson's service as a councilwoman and as an employee of Siemens, a global corporation that may bid for a high-speed-rail contract.

City Attorney Bill McClure said he hasn't seen any facts indicating that Ms. Fergusson's employment presents a conflict of interest as defined by the Fair Political Practices Commission. That could change if Siemens bids on or wins a contract, he said, at which point Ms. Fergusson would need to recuse herself from high-speed rail discussions conducted by the council.


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