The Menlo Park City Council had a busy meeting Tuesday, ironing out details about news racks, which library information system to use, what to do about unfunded pension liabilities and a possible way to support grocery store workers facing health risks, low pay and no vaccine relief yet from the pandemic.
In a yearslong City Council debate over how to clean up the shabby appearance of some abandoned news racks in downtown Menlo Park, the Menlo Park City Council took action Tuesday, voting unanimously to start a permitting system that requires news publishers to register their news racks with the city, and to waive the initial permitting fees for at least the first two years of the program.
In a public comment, Bill Johnson, publisher of The Almanac and the Palo Alto Weekly, said that while he agreed with the goals of the ordinance, the proposed permit system created burdens for both news publishers and city staff.
At the proposed permitting fee of $79 per news rack, it would cost the publisher more than $5,000 to secure permits for the 68 Almanac and Palo Alto Weekly newspaper boxes located throughout Menlo Park. He argued that, at an estimated processing time of two hours per permit, it would take about 136 staff hours to line up permits for just his company's news racks.
"I really don't like imposing fees on entities that are involved in something as constitutionally protected and as vital to what these entities are doing for our public," said Councilman Ray Mueller.
He argued that implementing costly fees for struggling news organizations during a pandemic that prevent them from distributing their speech could possibly be litigated as prior restraint, a type of First Amendment violation.
The council ultimately agreed to keep fees in place for noncompliance with the ordinance, setting fees to appeal a permit denial or protest the removal or impoundment of a news rack at $465 and the fee to impound for 90 days and dispose of the news rack of the full cost plus 25%, billed to the owner.
In addition, the city attorney was directed to develop guidelines for a waiver process for renewal fees.
The fees are scheduled to be revisited in the spring of 2023 when the City Council reviews its master fee schedule. News publishers operating in Menlo Park now face an April 30 deadline to secure permits for their news racks. After April 30, racks without a permit or application on file will be subject to removal.
After waffling back and forth over the past half-year or so, the Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to stay in the Peninsula Library System after all. Its vote rescinded a previous decision to withdraw from the system after discussing the matter extensively during budget-slashing talks last year.
The council also had an option to move forward with a five-year contract for a new library management system that Library and Community Services Director Sean Reinhart said would eliminate labor-intensive workarounds that library staff currently have to use with the city's older library technology system. However, council members were not prepared to adopt the proposed contract for $176,695 with a cloud-based platform SirsiDynix.
The Peninsula Library System is "rather outdated and centrally controlled," Reinhart said, adding that it "lacks the technological capability to support new, emerging service models."
The library's books by mail or seeds by mail programs could be streamlined with the proposed new system, and it could expand offerings for a "library of things" loaning program for items like personal computers, Wi-Fi hot spots, sports equipment, kitchenware or garden tools, he said.
The city plans to reevaluate its services coming out of the pandemic, and that might be a good time to revisit the question, said Councilwoman Jen Wolosin.
"I understand there's some workarounds," she said. "If it's working right now, for the most part I'd rather keep it working and then assess more holistically in six months or a year."
"Let's wait. Now's not the right time to make this decision," added Vice Mayor Besty Nash.
The perennial question of how to tackle paying down the city's unfunded pension liabilities came up during a study session Feb. 9. The council agreed that it wanted to look at how much it would cost to tackle those liabilities assuming a 7%, a 6.5% and a 6% return on investment by CalPERS, the state employee pension system.
The council members said they could be willing to support sending a letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors encouraging it to pass a countywide ordinance mandating hazard pay for grocery store workers.
"Part of the issue here is that at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of chains gave hazard pay. (But that) went away even though the pandemic didn't go away at all," Mayor Drew Combs said.
Mueller said he'd draft the letter for the council to consider approving at its next meeting on Feb. 23.