New Mayor Menlo Park, posted by Disappointed Resident, a resident of the Menlo Park: Downtown neighborhood, on Dec 20, 2006 at 2:56 am
Well, it did not take long for the new spirit of openness and cooperation touted by Menlo Park’s incoming Mayor Kelly Fergusson and Vice Mayor Andy Cohen to come to an end. Tonight after only two regular meetings, the new mayor proved that she is just as capable of quashing the minority view and pushing her own agenda as her predecessors.
At last week’s council meeting, the new mayor found time to allow her friend Gail Slocum to make a 20 minute non-agendized presentation of a global warming ordinance and then tried to cut off discussion regarding the reconsideration of three development projects before the council on the basis that it was after 11pm.
This week she managed to avoid any public discussion of the Utility Users Tax that she championed, instead giving staff a blank check to implement the new tax at the maximum rate as quickly as possible. After council members pontificated about the need to reform decision making, the council chose not to ask the staff ANY questions about a three page memo summarizing the implementation of what is probably the biggest new local tax in Menlo Park history.
When Councilmember Boyle suggested that perhaps the matter should be agendized to allow some public discussion about exactly how much money is needed and how it will be used prior to setting the tax rate, Vice Mayor Cohen replied, “The tax measure won by a narrow margin, you won by a narrow margin, I don’t think that it is appropriate for you to bring this up.”
You might think that after 49.5% of the community voted against the tax and (according to the Almanac) a majority of neighborhoods opposed it, that the new kinder, gentler, majority, would at least give the other half of the community an opportunity to express their concerns about the tax before rushing it through.
Posted by Disgruntled, a resident of the Menlo Park: Belle Haven neighborhood, on Dec 20, 2006 at 9:13 am
This new council has gotten off to a very shaky start, and will have to get its act together pretty quickly if it wants to have any hope of tackling the huge issues that face this city. Looks to me as though they're waiting for a few developers to come in and tell them what to do. Any takers?
Posted by ProDemocracy, a resident of the Menlo Park: The Willows neighborhood, on Dec 20, 2006 at 8:53 pm
Count me among those who still think that in democracies, majorities rule, and that the utility tax won, having been approved by a majority of voters in a certified election.
Its unfortunate that "disappointed resident" missed the irony of Cohen's point: John Boyle won his council seat over Vince Bressler winning with as small a margin as that won by the utility tax. Is either Boyle or "disappointed resident" open to the position that Boyle should share his council seat with Bressler who got nearly as many votes? Did Boyle advocate a public discussion about hearing why Bressler voters should see Bressler seated instead of Boyle.
Why is it that the extremely close vote which seated Boyle is authoritative but the extremely close vote that gave the victory to the utility tax should be open to further negotation beyond the vote of the people other than that neither Boyle nor "disappointed resident" respect votes of the people when they don't produce the desired outcomes.
It is this blatant kind of intellectual dishonesty and utter disregard for the clear, sanctity of democratic processes that got the prior council un-elected. Boyle continues to show open disregard for the thousands who vote for items, and so does "disappointed resident."
Thank God this council is doing the voters will. That is what democracy is about.
Posted by Tyranny of the Majority, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Dec 20, 2006 at 10:17 pm
The Utility Tax approval set a maximum rate that could be levied. I believe that Mr. Boyle was only asking that there be some public inpput and discussion to determine if the maximum rate was truly neccesary.
Posted by Worried, a resident of the Menlo Park: University Heights neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 7:05 am
As a supporter of the Robinson/Cline/Bressler ticket, I've got to say I'm very concerned about the council's decision not to have a public hearing on the tax rate. I thought this "new and improved" council had made a commitment to allowing the public in on the process. Also, the voters OK'd a tax rate UP TO the specified amount, and I for one believed that the council intended to have a discussion with the public before setting the actual rate.
And I truly hope that Disappointed Resident misquoted Andy Cohen in the initial posting. If he really said that, shame on him.
Posted by Tryanny of the Majority, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 8:19 am
It is rather unfortunate that we still need to put up with Mr. Cohen's argumentum ad hominem in the council dealings now that he is in the "majority". His ego must be quite huge to think that we all want to hear his pompous posturings on each and every issue.
Posted by Pragmatist, a resident of the Menlo Park: Downtown neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 9:18 am
I don't see a council majority at all, rather a range of perspective among the council members with Andy Cohen as most pro-resident and John Boyle as pro-developer/pro-wealthy. The other three seem to spend a lot of time waffling and trying to be all things to all people.
The result is that much of what you see in the council chambers on Tuesday nights seems to be driven by whatever admonitions the city attorney and city manager have administered in closed sessions prior to the meetings. That was particularly obvious during the regular business segment of last Tuesday's meeting, when a thoroughly cowed council repeatedly deferred to McClure. If McClure offered a more consistent interpretation of the prevailing laws (some of which he seems to concoct on the spot), he might be credible; as it is, you have to wonder whose interests he truly serves.
I hope to see this council develop some backbone and integrity. I am not confident that will happen, but unless it does, we will continue to experience the kind of distress expressed by the original poster.
Posted by ProDemocracy, a resident of the Menlo Park: The Willows neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 9:30 am
Agree that Cohen needs to tone it down.
Disagree with tax opponents who no longer wish to honor certified election outcomes with all sorts of mental gimmicks about how their personal interpretations and expectations are valid and binding on legitimate democratic processes.
Measure T also specified collection UP TO a particular max rate, that is the way ballot measures are frequently worded, but none of the 30% who disagreed insisted on a public debate to set the rate. But it sounds more reasonable than, "Let's nullify the vote."
Disagree that Boyle and others on this forum "just" want a dialogue using all those reasonable sounding words. Truth is you oppose the tax and would nullify the vote (but not Boyle' election) at your convenience. The majority becomes "tyrannical" only when it disagrees with the outcome some want, but no doubt reflects the true will of the same people when they get the outcome they want.
That transparent disrespect for the public will and blatant authoritarianism is what brought down Duboc and Winkler, who smugly disobeyed thousands upon thousands of Measure T voters and referendum signers.
The valid public process that began with placing a tax measure on the ballot, setting the max rate, limiting business, etc ENDED when the public approved the measure.
Honor the vote. Stop whining. Show some mental strength. Stop using your lack of integrity for public processes as a gripe against a council that obeyed the public will.
If you want a reduced tax rate, begin a valid public process that builds public consensus to do that, and win at the ballot box. Then we'll see how you feel about those whose wish to nullify your result.
Posted by Tyranny of the Majority, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 1:04 pm
A clear demonstration of the concept and not understnding the concept all in one response. Just glad that we do have a representative democracy and not what was described above. At least there is hope.
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Dec 21, 2006 at 11:21 pm
While I did not support Boyle-Duboc-Winkler, I gotta agree with Boyle regarding the utility tax. It most certainly DOES matter that it barely squeaked by (remember it was pronounced defeated at first and didn't even get 51% of the vote, despite no organized opposition to it and $10K reportedly being spent to get it passed) and the wording DID say it was a maximum rate.
Plus there is the little matter of crying wolf about a $2.9 million budget crisis and then - lo and behold - it magically turned into a surplus at the last minute. Let's face it - if the news about that budget surplus had come out just a little earlier, no way would this tax had passed.
So, no, I'm VERY unhappy with how this new council is acting. Boyle is right - you need to get the budget numbers straight FIRST, then enact the tax at a reasonable rate to make things work.
Unfortunately, it probably means that they're going to use that $$ for new pet projects or it'll just end up going into our enormous reserve fund.
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Dec 22, 2006 at 12:03 am
Two more general points regarding the new council:
- So much has been made of the pro-development/anti-growth split, but there is also the "tax-and-spend" side (Fergusson and Cohen) versus the fiscal conservative side (Boyle). So the question is: Will Robinson and Cline be swing votes on such matters or will they become "tax-and-spenders" themselves?
- I can certainly understand Fergusson and Cohen being rather short in their dealings initially - after repeatedly being "poked in the eye" by Jellins-Duboc-Winkler for 2 straight years, I'd certainly be inclined to "poke back" myself once I got in charge. However, once the "residual issues" from the old council are resolved, they'll need to live up to higher standards lest they end up with the same fate as Duboc, Winkler, and Jellins. It's unfortunate that we have this silly "pass-the-baton" policy on mayor - this is certainly a time that cries out for fresh, brand new leadership and I personally think that the top vote-getter Mr. Robinson would make the best mayor (sorry Kelly).
Posted by Rich Cline, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Dec 22, 2006 at 9:30 am
I figure it time there was some communication directly from council on matters of debate. I am willing to discuss my mindset on the tax issue with anyone. I don't expect agreement -- but I do want you to understand my position since I ultimately report to you all.
The tax rate we voted on this past Tuesday will be implemented in April or May at the earliest, which leaves two months at best for a sample study for council to evaluate. After that, we will know marginally how much revenue this tax will produce monthly. More importantly, we will have an idea as to what our projected 2007/2008 numbers will be and we can use both reports when discussing the tax rate for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2007.
I wanted to get this in motion as fast as possible to try to get at least a moderate data point for council and community to consider when deciding upon the tax rate for FY 2007-2008.
I wanted to expedite a two-month trial and felt if we delayed into January 2007 the decision -- or longer -- it might mean pushing out our sample timeline further resulting in less data to work with as we plan for the next fiscal year.
I don't believe the city will become "addicted" to a tax rate after two months. I do believe that because of the way this tax measure was drawn up we have full control to redefine it, throttle in up or down, with your input for the next fiscal year.
I also don't prescribe to generalities like "tax and spenders" and "conservatives"...in my experience the best decisions are based on the data in hand, the current economic climate and a variety of external factors -- not on ideology.
Again, I do not expect full agreement. The process -- late in council meeting after most everyone tuned out -- was less than perfect. And I agree that this new council has yet to find its pace.
But I also don't want the only form of communication around decisions to be council meetings and newspaper articles.
Feel free to contact me directly if you want to talk more about this.
Posted by MeasureKSupporter, a resident of the Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park neighborhood, on Dec 22, 2006 at 2:19 pm
No one else seems to be interested in WHY some of us supported Measure K. My household of voters did so because we hope these funds will be used short term to INVEST in sorely needed planning. At the same time, we are hopeful the new Council will dig into the budget numbers so they and the public will know what the fiscal situation really is. Campaign posturing muddled more than necessary the unseemingly elusive truth.
We also hope that the investment in planning and budget analysis (operating and capital)will lead the city into a more sound financial footing so that in the near future the UUT is not necessary.
It would have been "nice" for more in depth discussion last Tuesday but there's still time before final decisions get made, it seems. I'm glad the UUT is moving forward and deeply hope the CC has a good discussion with the public about how it is to be used, in the context of good information about the current and projected financial situation. A re-constituted Budget Advisory Committee could help.
Posted by Resident, a resident of the Menlo Park: Downtown neighborhood, on Dec 22, 2006 at 10:40 pm
I wish the funds were going be used for investment or for paying down our existing employee benefit obligations.
My concern is that a deal is being cut behind closed doors with the SEIU and that we are going to come back in January to learn that (in closed session) the new council has just approved a big pay and benefit increase that consumes most of the new tax revenues. Once those benefits are granted, we will not be able to afford to lower the rate.
Let's remember that the union was one of the biggest supporters of the measure K campaign and spent tens of thousands getting Council members Robinson and Cline elected.
Posted by Disappointed Resident, a resident of the Menlo Park: Downtown neighborhood, on Dec 22, 2006 at 11:13 pm
ProDemocracy - I am afraid that you are the one who is completely missing the point.
Of course the new majority can do whatever they want. You are correct that a 50.5% majority gives them the right to implement the full tax. Just like the old 3-2 majority could ignore the opponents of their policies on the basis that they were our representative leaders doing what they thought was best.
I was just hoping for a little better.
I was hoping that if HALF of the citizens in town said they were against something, the coucil would at least take as much time as they spent listening to Gail Slocum's global warming proposal to hear why over 5000 citizens voted against the tax.
I was hoping that after all of the talk about being a more responsible council, they would have spent at least as much time questioning staff on the implementation details of a >$2.5M tax measure as Mayor Fergusson spent questioning staff about whether the city could require developers to install more "family friendly" toilets.
Perhaps I thought that they would at least be politically astute enough not to completely snub 49.5% of the electorate on such a major issue.
Posted by Bottom line..., a resident of the Menlo Park: Belle Haven neighborhood, on Dec 23, 2006 at 9:48 am
...this is not an issue that should have been addressed at 1 a.m. The UUT that was discussed by the residents in the Let's Pretend We're Listening to You charade earlier this year was much lower than the UUT that (narrowly) passed.
Given that there appears to be no emergency, as the deficit magically disappeared during the campaign period, most of us would have preferred a little more attention paid this new tax. I don't care if it won by 6, 60, or 600 votes, it needed more discussion.
I appreciate Rich's candor, and suspect we can attribute the blame for this faux pas to our mayor, who was the force behind the passage of K.
Posted by Ken Gardner, a resident of the Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park neighborhood, on Dec 23, 2006 at 7:55 pm
The UUT tax passed - barely. These are facts. There is now a surplus. Also a fact. I am pretty sure that the tax would have failed had the voters known about the surplus in advance.
I think the Council should set the rate to get the money they need to fund the budget. If they set the rate at the maximum then that will hurt them the next time the City needs to raise money. Credibility in this matter is everything.
Posted by Taxpayer, a member of the Hillview Middle School community, on Jan 1, 2007 at 2:52 pm
The whole thing seems very rushed to me and inconsistant with the new open and participative spirit that the new council keeps talking about.
I see from the tentative city council agenda that the 2006 year-end financials will be reviewed at the next regular city council meeting. Why would the city council rush to set the tax rate prior to hearing how the year went? What difference could a few weeks make?
If the audited financials are going to be released in a couple of weeks, then surely the staff knew the year end results to within a few percent for some time. Why didn't anyone on council ask how much of a deficit we are expected to have before rushing to implement the tax at 1am in the morning.
Without knowing more, it sure sounds like the council majority has some hidden agenda that they are very anxious to push through.
Posted by And the pointing finger says..., a resident of the Menlo Park: Belle Haven neighborhood, on Jan 3, 2007 at 2:45 pm
I don't think the council has a hidden agenda. My observation is that they are still figuring out the basics, like how to nap with their eyes open during late meetings. As a result, they are accepting way too much "guidance" from Mssrs McClure and Boesch, who may well have a hidden agenda. I'm guessing our city manager is the guy who wanted to tax to the max.
Posted by MPworkingMom, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Jan 3, 2007 at 6:00 pm
I reluctantly voted for the utility users' tax because I didn't want to see cutbacks to the police force or city staff (although I'd be in favor of a few key staffers being replaced by more competent people).
I'm still irked by the ridiculously low cap on businesses, because it shifts the burden of supporting the city onto residents, including Menlo Park's low-income (yes, they do exist!) residents.
However, the reason I and many of my fellow renters shell out to live in Menlo Park is because it is a great place to raise a family -- wonderful parks, great recreation programs, lovely library, responsive police, access to childcare, great public schools, etc.
Since everything on that list except public schools will be helped by the utility tax, I sucked it up and voted yes. I suspect I'm not alone in making that tough decision.
However, I'd have much rather seen a two-month trial of the tax at, say, HALF the maximum rate, if all the council really wants to do is measure how much money the tax could generate.
Posted by Disappointed Resident, a resident of the Menlo Park: Downtown neighborhood, on Jan 5, 2007 at 1:10 am
The lack of public input or council oversight on this issue cannot be blamed on the city manager or the city attorney. While Council members Robinson and Cline may be new to politics, the Mayor has served on the council for two years and knows how to ask questions of the staff. She works with the city manager to set the agenda for council meetings. She has to take responsibility for making this a minor footnote on the agenda rather than a major discussion item. She led the campaign for this tax measure and should be acutely aware of how divided the community is on the issue. Furthermore, aside from the rate, there are a myriad of details about this multi-million dollar tax program that should have been reviewed by the council prior to implementation.
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Jan 6, 2007 at 11:49 pm
Yes Disappointed Reader, our new Mayor was the lead on the tax push, so they're no way she's going to let it be debated if she can help it. This points up a fatal flaw with the system here in MP - the position of mayor is called ceremonial when it's really not at all. The Mayor wields real power - controlling the agenda and council meetings. You saw Jellins do it adroitly and now Kelly is, starting with letting Gail Slocum talk ad nausea about global warming when they have much more pressing local issues like the Derry Project that they should be addressing. Perhaps it's time to have an elected mayor, so at least when we complain, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves, having voted in the mayor!
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Jan 8, 2007 at 10:28 pm
OK, let's settle on "effectively" - bottom-line, they got the 3-2 votes on everything they (i.e., Mickie Winkler) put forth (including installing da Mayor in the first place) and, by taking no action, the new council has let them get away with it.
Posted by Rory Brown, Almanac staff writer, on Jan 11, 2007 at 12:27 am Rory Brown is a member (registered user) of Almanac Online
On paper, it may look like the city had a $3.7 million surplus for the 05-06 fiscal year, but that's not exactly the case. That "surplus" doesn't account for the $2 million withdrawn from the city's general reserve for capital improvements (street, sidewalk, park repairs, etc.). Once that $2 million is subtracted from the $3.7 million, the city is left with $1.7 million more than projected, and that surplus (which is largely due to savings associated with staff vacancies) was revealed in October.
The $3.7 million number may seem striking, but when looked at more closely, there's nothing to it that hasn't already been spelled out. It took me a while to figure that out.
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Jan 11, 2007 at 10:29 am
Whether it is $3.7 or $1.7 million is not the point. We were told that the city was facing massive deficits which was then used as justification to cut city staff and services, reduce program budgets, raise user fees, privatize the pool and attempt to privatize child care.
But even that wasn't enough, supposedly, so the UUT was put up. And in the end we end up with at least $1.7 million SURPLUS AND a record-breaking reserve fund BEFORE the UUT kicks in. Sorry, but that doesn't cut it. The Almanac SHOULD come out and hammer the council on this. The UUT should be taken off the table for at least one year, until we actually have recorded a REAL deficit, not just another projected deficit.
And as far as this surplus being revealed in October so it was out in the open, let's get the facts straight: The surplus announcement came in very late October via email posted by our ex-Mayor Jellins in what was clearly a last ditch attempt to try to get his cronies Winkler and Duboc re-elected with an "October surprise." I'm sure many voters were unaware of the "new-found surplus" when they went to vote and given the UUT's razor-thin margin of passage, if the surplus had been revealed even just one week earlier, no way would the UUT have passed. That's why it's so galling that the council has said full steam ahead with the UUT set at the maximum rate without any public discussion at all.
Posted by Another Questioner, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Jan 11, 2007 at 12:18 pm
I'm curious about the "$2 million withdrawn from the city's general reserve for capital improvements (street, sidewalk, park repairs, etc.)"
Is that $2 million coming from the general RESERVE or from the general FUND?
And is this the same $2 million that you wrote about earlier this year that formed the bulk of the $2.9 million deficit that was being projected?
And if it was, do you know if the city is similarly set to raid $2 million from the general reserve/fund again next year for capital improvements? As I recall, the $2 million increase you wrote about was supposed to be a permanent increase.
Posted by Rory Brown, Almanac staff writer, on Jan 11, 2007 at 6:02 pm Rory Brown is a member (registered user) of Almanac Online
The $2 million earmarked for infrastructure costs is being pulled from the general fund, not the reserve. It's the same $2 million that made up the bulk of the city's projected $2.9 million shortfall during the "your city/your decision" process.
It's up to the council, each year, whether they'll put aside $2 million for infrastructure costs, but during the YC/YD process, that number was projected as an annual expense.
Posted by Finance Geek, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Jan 12, 2007 at 12:26 am
I have to respectfully say that you and the Almanac should take more responsibility to report the budget facts accurately.
First, in your Dec 1, 2006 posting on this website you stated: "This past fiscal year, the council fell $1.85M short of covering city costs, and pulled the money from the city's reserves." In fact, the 2006 Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR) shows that revenues exceeded expenses by $3.7 M - a difference of $5.5M from your statement.
Second, that $3.7M surplus was added to the general fund reserves, bringing the total balance to $35.5M, the highest level in last 10 years (CAFR page 145) and perhaps ever. In fact the total of all fund balances was roughly flat at $91M (CAFR page 3) despite spending $7.7M on capital improvements.
Third, no money from the general fund was used for capital improvements in 2006. All $7.7M in capital improvements were funded either by Measure T bond funds or other dedicated capital funds leaving a balance of $8M in the capital improvement fund going into 2007 (CAFR page 9). The city has proposed to transfer $2M from the general fund into the capital improvement fund in 2007, as was done in 2005 but does not appear to have been done in 2006, 2004, 2003, or 2002 (prior year CAFRs). This reflects an increased level of commitment to infrastructure improvements.
Lastly, while the fiscal 2007 budget may be projecting a deficit of $1.9M (including the $2M transfer), the 2006 trends indicate a more optimistic scenario. Revenues from property taxes, sales taxes, and fees have all increased faster than was projected in the original budget and a number of staff positions remained vacant throughout the first half of the year.
We will know more In early February, when the city is due to delivering it's mid 2007 update.
Posted by ElectionWatcher, a resident of the Menlo Park: Sharon Heights neighborhood, on Jan 12, 2007 at 11:10 am
In defense of Rory, I think you need a CPA to properly wade through all this accounting "junk" (I would use another, more accurate term, but I don't want to get censored!).
And that seems to precisely have been the problem - our gone-but-not-forgotten council majority in conjunction with our soon-to-be-gone city manager seemed to have "Enron-ed" things all over the place that, like Alice in Wonderland, up is now down and down is now up.
To set things straight - because I think no one in the general public believes ANY number coming out of city hall these days - I would humbly suggest to the city council that they spend a few bucks on an outside firm to come in, look at the numbers and tell us where we really stand as a city, now and in the coming years and whether, quite frankly, a UUT is justified at this time. Public confidence in the budget and budgeting process needs to be restored.
One question for you, Finance Geek: A $35.5 million reserve seems ridiculously too high given that our annual budget is just $30 million. What do you think the reserve level should be?
Posted by Finance Geek, a resident of the Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park neighborhood, on Jan 12, 2007 at 2:08 pm
Election Watcher, It is true that the numbers take some work to understand. That is why most people rely on what they read in the papers, and why we should hold the Almanac up to a higher standard of reporting accuracy. The bottom line is that the city’s financial situation has been improving, and that the dire deficit projections made a couple of years ago did not come true, in part due to an improving economy and in part due to fiscal restraint by the city. Now we are in a situation where we have probably overcorrected by implementing a tax that we do not need unless we are planning to substantially increase spending. Whatever the course, the city council should be asking staff some tough questions about why this information was not released to the voters sooner and encouraging some open debate about what to do now rather than trying to sweep the matter under the rug and rush ahead with the UUT. With respect to the size of the general fund reserve, it depends upon what we are reserving for. If it is simply for "unforeseen circumstances" then it seems very large and could lead to a lack of fiscal discipline. Palo Alto has a similar sized general fund, with about 3x the budget as Menlo Park. On the other hand, Palo Alto has built up a large capital improvement fund to finance their long-term capital improvement plan. In addition to your suggestion about more clarity on the current financial situation, perhaps we need more clarity on a five or ten year vision for the city.