Almanac

News - October 26, 2011

Menlo Park City Council acts to avoid pressure from Facebook

by Sandy Brundage

The latest council appointments came wrapped in an agreement to not allow Facebook to pressure subcommittee members during negotiations over how the social networking company can develop its new Menlo Park headquarters.

Mayor Rich Cline and Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith were elected by the council at its Oct. 18 meeting to serve on the subcommittee, which is meant to serve as a liaison between the council and the negotiating team, without the subcommittee members doing any actual negotiating themselves. The negotiating team is made up of the Menlo Park city manager and other city staff.

Before the selection, the mayor commented that he was worried about subcommittee members being "buttered up" with goodies from Facebook, such as lunch with the company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He said the subcommittee should be "fully invested, but not targeted" as there was already enough pressure from Facebook.

While City Attorney Bill McClure cautioned that the council couldn't prohibit individual council members from holding private meetings with project applicants, he acknowledged that the members themselves could agree not to do so.

"By council members having direct interactions with people on the other side of the table, you in essence potentially emasculate the power of the negotiating team and the authority," Mr. McClure noted, creating a possible "divide and conquer" scenario.

Open meetings?

The council agreed to limit the subcommittee members' access to Facebook employees. So far so good, as far as limiting controversy.

But after the meeting, debate surfaced over whether the subcommittee's meetings with the negotiating team would legally require public notice under the Brown Act. Open government advocate Peter Carpenter said yes; City Attorney Bill McClure said no. The key issue is whether those meetings constitute a meeting of a legislative body.

Mr. Carpenter said that if the meetings recurred, that equals a legislative body that is then subject to public notice requirements and that he would take action against the city if those meetings weren't open to the public. The city attorney countered that it's not a legislative body because there only two appointed members, regardless of who those members meet with.

According to the Brown Act, an advisory committee made up of less than a majority of council members is not a legislative body— unless it has a fixed meeting schedule and "continuing subject matter jurisdiction," which seems to be Mr. Carpenter's point.

"This arrangement has all of the ingredients necessary to bring the entire process to a screeching halt after months and months of what might otherwise be productive negotiations. The Council would be wise to just trust its negotiators and then to conduct its discussions of any proposed arrangement in a public session," Mr. Carpenter fired back in an email.

Earlier this year Facebook signed a 15-year leaseback agreement for the 1-million-square-foot, 11-building campus at 1601 Willow Road that used to house Sun and Oracle employees. Facebook also bought two nearby lots on Constitution Drive, linked to the 57-acre Sun campus by a pedestrian tunnel under the Bayfront Expressway. That gives Facebook the growing room to triple the number of employees to 6,100.

Facebook now hopes to get the city's permission to have more than the currently allowed 3,600 employees on site in exchange for limiting the number of vehicular trips to the campus per day to 15,000. Public benefit will be part of the negotiation, as would criteria for future projects, including infrastructure improvements.

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