Menlo Park's Community Engagement and Outreach Committee, or CEOC, has had its fair share of challenges since its creation in May 2021, including the resignations of at least five members.
The advisory group is focused on helping with, as its name suggests, community outreach and engagement, including encouraging people to participate in the housing element process, providing information to the public and receiving community input, according to staff.
However, current and former members have expressed unhappiness with the group's limited role, unequal representation across the city's five districts, and feeling disrespected, among other concerns. Then there was an incident in which committee member Vicky Robledo worked to collect roughly 50 surveys from residents of District 1 but they were accidentally discarded.
As the city moves forward with the environmental review of the city's new housing element, begins to update the city's safety element and create a new environmental justice element, the City Council recently debated whether to end the committee or to reshape it.
Ultimately, the council agreed that Mayor Betsy Nash and Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor would be part of a new subcommittee aimed at working through CEOC challenges, including shrinking the size of the committee.
The committee has 14 members, but a number of them quit and leaving only eight, which means that since a majority of committee members are required to form a quorum, all of the remaining members would have to be in attendance for a meeting to be held, creating a serious scheduling challenge.
The council also supported working with a third-party, community-based organization to help with additional community outreach, particularly in District 1 – although it is the district in the city where the new housing element, is, ironically, not slated to add any new homes because of the 4,500 new homes the city already opted to zone for there in 2016, Councilman Drew Combs noted.
However, community outreach in District 1 will still be important, according to Deanna Chow, assistant community development director, because the next step of the process is to start studying environmental justice problems with the city, and District 1, which includes the Belle Haven neighborhood, is considered disadvantaged in some ways when it comes to environmental equity.
The City Council also signaled interest in possibly decreasing the amount of that zoning in District 1 as part of the housing element, but it's not clear yet if that proposal will move forward.
Belle Haven resident Pam Jones suggested that the City Council poll committee members to see if they were still interested in serving and to consider having paid outreach workers from the Belle Haven neighborhood lead community engagement.
"If we want to make progress, we need to refresh and come in with a clean slate," said Lesley Feldman, who has been serving on the committee as a representative for District 2. "I hope the council will have a discussion of why so many members resigned from the committee – there were specific reasons for those resignations," she said.
"Unfortunately, we can't start over," said Mayor Betsy Nash. "I would just ask that everybody realize that we're trying to do the best we can for the residents of Menlo Park, and I think there definitely have been challenges and I'm very sorry for those."
"My top priority is getting that feedback from community members who need to be heard from the most," said Vice Mayor Jen Wolosin.
Nash said she and Taylor, as members of the council's CEOC subcommittee, were open to meeting online with any of the current or former committee members who wanted to share their experiences so the council could learn "what we can do better as we move forward."
Councilman Drew Combs said he would only support the continued existence of the CEOC if responsibility for the group pivoted from staff to the City Council subcommittee of Nash and Taylor, noting that when he served on the subcommittee as mayor, "there were instances of hostility directed toward staff, which I thought were inappropriate and far from professional. ... I think to ask staff to go and reengage in this situation is asking them to engage in a hostile work environment."
City staff planned to poll the committee members, and have Nash and Taylor work through follow-up details to be ready for the Jan. 25 meeting, but it is likely postponed because the matter does not appear on Tuesday's agenda.