Almanac

News - August 27, 2014

Menlo Park: City newsletter criticized for bias against Measure M

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Focus, the city's quarterly newsletter, generally garners only as much attention as it takes to decide whether to read it first before recycling it. But that changed when the latest issue came out with an article on Measure M, the initiative on the November ballot that would change the city's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan.

Initiative supporters cried foul upon spotting the article, which compares the measure to the current incarnation of the specific plan. Calling the newsletter biased, former council member Heyward Robinson said he's asked the California State Attorney General's office to look into whether the city illegally spent public funds on a campaign mailer masquerading as a newsletter.

The city, on the other hand, said the information in the article was presented without bias.

"I think most of that context (and) background info has been up on the (city's website) for a while, so it's not really anything new," said Senior Planner Thomas Rogers, the city's lead contact on the specific plan. He added that an attorney had reviewed the material on the website.

Attorney Greg Stepanicich, who has a contract with the city to address specific plan issues, vetted the website content. (The city attorney has a conflict of interest since his office sits within the plan's boundaries.)

Mr. Stepanicich said state law allows a city to provide information on a measure that fairly analyzes its impacts and effects without taking a partisan position.

"A city may not advocate for or against a measure during the election campaign, although state law authorizes a city council to prepare a ballot argument against a measure filed by petition," Mr. Stepanicich said. "State law permits cities to send newsletters or other written materials to their residents that educate the public on the measure."

The attorney said he did not review the Menlo Focus newsletter.

The question is whether the newsletter article meets the standard of impartiality. A public agency "must present a balanced description of the favorable and unfavorable impacts of the measure," according to the state attorney general's website.

While the newsletter does copy information from the city's vetted website, it's an incomplete copy.

In its discussion of Measure M's proposed restrictions on office space, for example, the city's website states, "Like any proposed use, office use has both positive and negative attributes and impacts." It goes on to lists the negatives along with the positives.

However, the negative impacts aren't included in the newsletter, even though the article does mention the benefits: "Historically, office development generally has a positive fiscal impact on a community" and supports economic activity at other local businesses such as stores and restaurants.

Another section of the article describes the multi-year public process that created the specific plan, then states, "The proposed measure would implement revisions by a simple public vote, without the deeper public process that is recognized as most constructive for such complicated planning programs."

Menlo Focus is mailed to 12,000 households in Menlo Park, with an additional 1,000 copies available for pickup at city facilities, at a cost of $5,000 per quarterly issue, according to the city.

Mayor Ray Mueller was less than enthusiastic about the inclusion of Measure M in the latest issue.

"I don't review its content prior to publication. I am told the aforementioned article is technically legal. That being said, I personally would have preferred that it not refer to Measure M," he commented.

"It may unnecessarily create a question for some as to whether city resources are being spent for political purposes, and ammunition for others who would choose to criticize city staff."

Should the attorney general's office find that the newsletter advocates a position on Measure M instead of presenting a balanced summary, Menlo Park could face sanctions, including fines.

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