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Council members Cline and Cohen call for "Open Government Initiative"

Original post made by Rory Brown on Feb 21, 2007

Menlo Park City Council members Richard Cline and Andy Cohen sent a letter to the rest of the council calling for more transparency in how the city does its business. They've created a list of objectives to help make that happen, and labeled the goals an "Open Government Initiative." The first objective is to establish an Audit/Finance Committee which would review the city's fiscal situation on a monthly basis.
Here is the full letter:

To: Mayor Fergusson; Council Member Boyle; Council Member Robinson
From: Council Member Cline and Mayor Pro Tem Cohen
Subject: Adoption of an Open Government Initiative and Appointment of Finance Committee
Date: February 21, 2007
Please accept this request of city council to place on the agenda consideration of adopting an Open Government Initiative (OGI). The OGI would be a broad initiative to set in place programs that would enable our citizens to better access information, become involved more in the city itself and act as a tool to keep our city leaders proactive in working with our community to make decisions.
Considerations under the OGI would include but not be limited to:
• Sunshine Reforms Act -- tightening up of the meeting and posting process to allow for a longer time between posting the agenda and the actual meeting -- two weeks minimum.
• Sunshine Reforms Act -- set forth a mandate for city council and city management to give commissions proper lead time to make recommendations on a particular issue under the purview of those commissions (example: fields and the parks and recreation commission)
• Sunshine Reforms Act -- reform the community services (city council) agenda and procedures literature to limit the overuse of the consent calendar for issues more fit for regular business and put a hard stop on council meetings at 11pm. No exceptions. We cannot continue to make decisions after the community has gone to sleep.
• Re-design the city website to make information more accessible, easier to find and more timely -- and to allow real-time communications with the city council.
• Develop a mandatory schedule to hold regular city council meetings in Belle Haven.
• Appoint a finance/audit committee as oversight to the budget reporting process.
First things first.
As the first pillar of the OGI, we propose that our city council immediately appoint a Brown Act guided audit/finance committee made up of three council members. Residents could be added based upon qualifications. This audit committee will work with the finance director to put in place a structure to manage the numbers -- a set of rules to guide the reporting process and set in place a consistent platform to evaluate costs of running programs and how to present the data clearly. This will allow the committee to review the budget reports from the city finance office for accuracy, raise questions for the finance director and put the report through council to the public without bias. The committee can address future financial matters and make recommendations to council as appropriate. But this is not a policy making body. All policy will be set by the council.

The goals of this audit/finance committee are as follows:
• Creation of a consistent process around the presentation of the budget
• Better and more frequent communication to the community as to the city's financial picture
• Systematic reporting structure that will provide quarterly reports for the community and potentially move to monthly reports.
The proposed finance committee would report into the city finance director and to the city council if approved.
This type of committee has been suggested by many citizens of Menlo Park. And while there are many great projects that our council is pursuing right now, there no more pressing needs than getting our financial picture back into focus.
In light of a very busy council calendar over the next several weeks, we respectfully withhold the Sunshine Reforms and website evaluation requests under the Open Government Initiative until this item have been addressed.
Respectfully,
Rich Cline, Council Member, Menlo Park
Andy Cohen, Mayor Pro Tem, Menlo Park

Comments (7)

Posted by Responsible Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 22, 2007 at 12:34 pm

Thank you, Andy and Rich. Cohen and Cline are to be commended for their position regarding open government and the establishment of an Audit/Finance Committee. What they are addressing is both the council process and critical issues like budget. This is the foot in the door we have been waiting for. Let's see if the entire Council participates in negotiating their proposals and let's see who on the Council supports these and other reforms. Then, let's see which of these proposals become reality. Now, more than ever, it behooves all of us in Menlo Park to let the Council know what we believe, what we want, and what we expect.


Posted by Thrilled, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Feb 22, 2007 at 12:40 pm

This is a huge step on the part of the new council, not only demonstrating unprecedented (at least in recent years) regard for the public and for concerns expressed by many but also showing leadership by Mssrs Cline and Cohen.


Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 22, 2007 at 3:33 pm

The best news to come out of this new council so far - kudos to Cline and Cohen!


Posted by Morris Brown, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 22, 2007 at 4:48 pm

Let me add my appreciation to Council Members Cline and Cohen for taking the leadership in the much needed effort. Surely all Menlo Park residents should applaud these objectives.


Posted by Gadfly, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Feb 22, 2007 at 4:59 pm

I'd suggest anyone interested in joining the audit/finance committee take a look at some of Woodside's past budgets for ideas on how Menlo Park could do a better job of organizing its financial information.

A municipal budget is never a fun read, but out of all the local towns, Woodside stands out for having sensible budgets that are thorough AND easy to read, qualities that Menlo Park's budgets have been sadly lacking.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 26, 2007 at 10:17 pm

Some good ideas that I support in principle.

However, before any new reforms are adopted, I'd like to see the two council members proposing the OGI "walk-the-talk" and ask for reconsideration of the council's decision to shield our Green Ribbon Panel from the Brown Act at tomorrow's city council meeting.

If the council is not willing to enforce the spirit of our existing open government laws on such a high profile example, then why bother passing any new ones.

On the other hand, being willing to stand up for the principles of the "Open Government Initiative" – with or without any new laws – will have a profound impact on the behavior of staff and council.



Posted by Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 5, 2007 at 6:17 am

I think that Rich is still finding his way on council and has followed Kelly on some pretty bad policy decisions. I hope that he starts voting his conscious and the views of those of us who got him elected. If he does, I think he could be a powerful moderate voice on the council.


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