Trips by Menlo Park city staff to Half Moon Bay and Napa during the past two months came as a surprise to at least one council member, and have raised questions about where the money -- and how much -- should be spent.
The first, an overnight trip to the Beach House in Half Moon Bay on Oct. 10-11, was the second retreat held by Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre since being hired in 2012. The beach retreat cost $11,412, and came complete with homework for the 20 managers attending.
Managers were assigned reading from "Made to Stick" by Dan and Chip Heath, "who describe how stories get told in a way that they are best understood. I used this book in a presentation I did earlier at the International City/County Management Association," Mr. McIntyre told the Almanac in an email a few weeks after the retreat.
The retreat focused on integrating new managers into the operation as well as focusing on the question of how staff can "better tell our stories" to the audience, whether that be the council, residents or other departments.
"So often, that which we do is not well understood," Mr. McIntyre said.
Although waiting one more month would have let Menlo Park pay off-season rates for the hotel, Mr. McIntyre said that they picked the date first, then looked for a place; early fall coordinates best with family commitments and the onset of the budget-planning season.
Getting out of town means getting away from distractions, he said. "In fact, we had a policy during the retreat that no one was allowed to use their telephones/computers until a break. The only exception was the police chief."
The tab included hotel rooms, two group breakfasts and two group lunches, a group dinner and the meeting room rental. The city provided facilitation, according to Mr. McIntyre.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 1, a total of 13 members of the Community Services Department took a jaunt to Napa, spending about $2,200 for transportation and use of the Yountville Community Center, which was provided at a discount since a staff member lives nearby, according to Community Services Manager Cherise Brandell. She said the team stopped at Artesa Winery on the way home, at no cost to the city, and "participated in team building activities" as well as a tour.
The retreat was meant "to push the principles the Exec Team has discussed and adopted deeper into the organization for implementation" as well as "celebrate the progress the team has made over the past four years," such as increasing cost recovery from 64 percent to more than 80 percent due to fees for services, Ms. Brandell wrote in a memo to the City Council on Nov. 21.
While Mayor Peter Ohtaki said he thinks annual retreats are very useful for managers (but he hopes, in the future, they will be held in Menlo Park) and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said she had seen the Half Moon Bay trip mentioned in a weekly council update (cost not included), at least one colleague wasn't thrilled.
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller said that while he wasn't crazy about the cost of the Half Moon Bay retreat, "it does appear that quite a bit was accomplished. I have a much stronger view regarding the trip to Napa Valley: there was a lack of judgment in the organizing of the event."
Mr. Mueller weighed in with a few guidelines: Stay in Menlo Park if possible, to both keep tax dollars in the city, and to have professional staff nearby in case of an emergency. Keep the cost modest. And while staff doesn't have to notify the council of every off-site event, he said, they should be told about activities that could appear extravagant or in need of explanation.
"The test is an objectively reasonable test from the eye of the tax-payer. Would a reasonable tax-payer, looking at the event objectively, have questions about how tax dollars were spent," Mr. Mueller said in an email.
And when notification is needed -- "full and detailed disclosure is necessary. Simply telling the Council, we are going on a retreat, with limited detail, is not notification. I have no need nor desire to cross examine staff like a parent. If circumstances require you to tell me about the event, that means I need to hear the whole story."
Inexplicably, Mr. McIntyre told the vice mayor recently that he didn't know about the Napa retreat -- even though the Almanac specifically asked the city manager about it in an email on Nov. 1, the same day as the retreat.
When asked how he remained unaware of the trip until the vice mayor inquired about it several weeks later, Mr. McIntyre said, "I don't know what happened on Nov. 1. You asked a question that I had no idea about. I didn't know it was based upon some information that you had that I did not have at the time."