The Menlo Park City Council, in its second meeting of the week, pushed for a series of steps to tackle what some termed "institutional bias" and others called "racism" in city policies and practices, including within the police department.
The council on Thursday, July 16, agreed to take initial steps to develop a plan to recruit a new police chief who can help lead changes in the department, and to start a mandatory racial equity training program for all executive staff members, the City Council and the city attorney.
"I know some of the conversation is uncomfortable, but it's something we're going to move through together," said Mayor Cecilia Taylor.
Four council members or executives planned to attend a virtual conference called "Building Racial Equity" by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity on July 30 at a cost of $400 per person.
A more in-depth plan to assess how the city can better address racial inequities in the city is set to come back to the council at its Aug. 11 meeting.
"There is a national debate going on right now, and I think it very much makes sense for Menlo Park to plug into that debate," said Vice Mayor Drew Combs.
When it comes to starting a search for a new police chief -- Chief Dave Bertini suddenly announced on June 18 that he planned to retire -- the council agreed to work with an outside consultant to aid in the recruitment process, and to include the community, especially at the beginning of the process.
An overly public recruitment process can limit the applicant pool because applicants may be worried that it will be be revealed that they're looking for a new job, which could have repercussions for their current role, according to City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson
The council also agreed to reconsider in the future how funds the city receives from Facebook for "public safety" should be spent.
The Facebook funds previously have been put toward creating a new police unit on Menlo Park's Bay side, covering its newly rezoned areas where housing, life science and office buildings are now permitted. Since many of the development proposals are still under review, the new police unit doubles the number of beats that patrol the city's existing Bay side neighborhoods, including Belle Haven, where a majority of residents are Latino or Black.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash said she'd be interested in seeing more police data and analysis.
Councilman Ray Mueller said he was interested in talking more about why the Neighborhood Service Center has become more of an annex for police officers than a community serving center, and whether minorities feel uncomfortable around public safety officers. "We can be more. We're trying to figure out how to be stronger," he said.
Additional resources to help with the process are former East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis and NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, community members and NOBLE representatives said in public comments.
Less than a month after barriers were placed along Santa Cruz Avenue to block off the street to allow restaurants to expand outdoors, the council also voted Thursday to reopen some parts of the street, allowing traffic to run one way on Santa Cruz Avenue southbound from Doyle through Curtis Street and northbound from Crane Street to Chestnut Street.
The move was in response to a request to do so by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce. That's because retail businesses on the street have come out against the street closure, saying it has adversely impacted their businesses even while the street closures were set up to help downtown restaurants enable safer outdoor dining during the pandemic.
Vasile Oros, owner of Ace Hardware in downtown Menlo Park said that the closure has coincided with a 30% loss of sales at the hardware store, that the city's downtown is a "ghost town" during the day, and that many customers have been confused and called to ask about where they can park.
"Just seeing this drop, I am thinking about other businesses ... if they suffer the same, it's not good," he said.
In addition, other uses than restaurants, such as personal services and fitness and recreation businesses, will also be able to apply for permits to operate outdoors.
The discussion came with an acknowledgment that the city may be headed for more restrictions, including the elimination of outdoor dining, in the near future if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in San Mateo County. In addition, as case counts begin to rise, more people are staying in and are more reticent to go out, Mueller said.
That downtown retailers are so uniformly opposed to the closure makes it a failure already, Combs said. "There's no way we can end this in its current state and say it's a success. … A key stakeholder has already said it is not working for them."
The county is expected to soon be placed on the state's "watch list" of counties that face greater restrictions as COVID-19 case counts rise.