Viewpoint - June 8, 2011

Guest opinion: Menlo Park's curious position on high-speed rail

by Brielle Johnck

With every Menlo Park City Council election, there has been a noticeable shift in the political direction of our city's policies. The November 2010 election is no exception.

The California High Speed Rail (HSR) issue met controversy in Menlo Park even before the project (Measure A1) passed in November 2008. Three full months before the voters in our city voted to approve the project by 57 percent, the council voted (2-1) in a midnight closed session not on the agenda to join Atherton in a lawsuit against the rail authority. That was a definite shot across the bow and the ship had barely come into sight.

Two and a half years later, the city has formed a subcommittee, drafted a statement of guiding principles, joined the Peninsula Cities Consortium, retained a lobbyist, approved a $200,000 expense in the 2010-2011 budget for high-speed rail activities, filed a second high-speed rail lawsuit, and watched council member Kelly Fergusson travel to Washington, D.C., to allegedly represent Menlo Park's position on high-speed rail.

What's missing? The answer: A full council discussion that would result in an official policy regarding high-speed rail. On April 1 of this year Mayor Rich Cline stated at a Peninsula Cities Consortium meeting that the Menlo Park City Council needed to bring its two new members up to speed before the city can formulate its position on high-speed rail.

Our new City Council members Kirsten Keith and Peter Ohtaki are in their sixth month on the council and both have shown keen instincts for fiscal responsibility and accountability. During the May 24 council budget discussions, a proposed $100,000 expenditure for high-speed rail lobbyist Ravi Mehta was reduced to $50,000 after the two questioned the expense and the need for his services.

These are the same concerns raised by former council member John Boyle in 2009 and 2010. Mr. Boyle expressed surprise in March 2009 that the two-member subcommittee (Mr. Cline and Ms. Fergusson) had retained a lobbyist without full council approval. Again in October of 2010, Mr. Boyle questioned a $200,000 budget item for high-speed rail activities, which included lobbyist Ravi Mehta. Mr. Boyle argued for a more positive use of this large amount of money, such as designing grade separations in Menlo Park.

Had Mr. Boyle, who had expressed conceptual support for the project, been appointed to the subcommittee in January 2009, we could have had a more balanced, open and reasonable approach to the city's interaction with the high-speed rail authority. When Mr. Cline and Ms. Fergusson voted to sue the rail authority in August of 2008, they put the city of Menlo Park in an adversarial position, which may have lead to their believing a lobbyist was needed. As it stands now, we share the cost of a lobbyist with three other cities, one of which is south of San Diego (Pico Rivera) and may have interests completely different than our community.

Mr. Mehta's contract is up for renewal in July of this year. Before then, the council needs to place on the agenda a discussion of a city policy regarding high-speed rail, which includes its benefits, impacts, and our design preferences for how it moves through Menlo Park.

At a minimum, if the city is to extend the contract with Mr. Mehta, there needs to be an open meeting between representatives of the Menlo Park, Atherton, Pico Rivera and Menlo Park councils to discuss what our joint position is regarding high-speed rail. How else can our highly paid lobbyist represent us?

Are all four cities in lockstep agreement about the benefits and the impacts of the project? Or shall we save the money and leave the leadership up to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Assembly member Rich Gordon and State Senator Joe Simitian? Their approach has a more positive tenor and we can save our money for something more beneficial to the Menlo Park community, such as saving Flood Park.

Brielle Johnck is a Menlo Park resident who lives in the Willows.


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