By Stuart Soffer
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About this blog: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I lived in high-density housing and experienced transit-oriented services first hand. During high school and college summers I worked in Manhattan drafting tenant floor plans for high-rise office buildi... (More)
About this blog: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I lived in high-density housing and experienced transit-oriented services first hand. During high school and college summers I worked in Manhattan drafting tenant floor plans for high-rise office buildings. This could have been a career option, but my interest in computers - unusual at the time - led me to the computer science program at the University of Wisconsin. A programming job on Page Mill Road brought me to Palo Alto after college. Since 1993 I consult on bridging law and technology, and serve as an expert witness in Intellectual Property litigation. We moved to Menlo Park's Linfield Oaks neighborhood in 1994. Neighborhood traffic issues motivated my initial volunteering as a Menlo Park Planning Commissioner, followed by a stint as a Chamber of Commerce board member and most recently a finance/audit committee member. I advocate community volunteering for meeting people, the neighborhoods, and understanding the myriad issues that somehow arise. As hobbies I collect contemporary art and vintage cameras. And? fly helicopters, which offer rare views of the nooks and crannies of the Bay Area. (Hide)
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Amongst the commissions and committees in Menlo Park noted on its web site is the Finance/Audit Committee (FAC). This relatively new committee was instituted by the city council in January 2008 in response to incomplete and misunderstood financial information that became fodder during the council campaign season of 2006. Subsequently the council created the FAC committee composed of two council and three public members to explore financial information and develop reporting and projection tools to assist the council as well as staff. Unlike all other commissions and committees that have 4-year appointments, the FAC appointments were for two years and limited to two terms.
While not stated as a goal, the FAC assured that at least 2 of 5 council members became 'experts' on the city's financial structure and dynamics. More importantly it provided a venue for airing urgent financial issues as they arose such as the consequences of the housing mortgage meltdown several years ago, and issues related to the city's bonds. Former City Manager Rojas took this committee very seriously and attended nearly every meeting. The composition of its council and public members was outstanding and brought real-world business expertise and previewed perception of issues for staff. As one of the three public members I thought the meetings were great healthy dialogs on this most important aspect of city operation.
The committee wasn't without frustrations. Staff probably on the one hand may not have been comfortable with the visibility but at the same time valued the result of vetting issues and having a better 'product.' The public committee members were always engaged, but frustrated that suggestions could have fell on deaf ears.
By January 2013 all three public members were 'termed out' without reappointments or new appointments to continue the body. Shortly thereafter the current city manager placed the disbandment of the FAC on the Council's Consent Calendar. This raised eyebrows of some council members who requested that it not be dissolved. Almost a year has elapsed without any action on appointments, without any meetings, and without, as far as I expect, the monthly financial status charts for council that were the key continuous work product for the benefit of the Council.
Ironically, concurrent with the attempt to dissolve the city FAC last year, Menlo Park School District created similar body recognizing the need for diligence regarding district finances and bonds.