Menlo Park: Running the city's the easy part
City manager is still working to win skeptics' trust
Menlo Park and Chino, California, don't have much in common. Chino is a rapidly expanding metropolis whose population has nearly tripled in the past three decades, as land developers gobbled up dairy farms to extend Southern California sprawl. The population of Menlo Park, meanwhile, has been relatively stable over the past half-century, according to the Bay Area Census.
So it must have come as something of a surprise to Glen Rojas when he was interviewing for the Menlo Park city manager job in 2007 to learn about the fervent political battles that take place here around land-use issues. He hadn't seen anything like it in Chino, despite the fact that the city had added 50,000 new residents during Mr. Rojas' 26 years working there.
"People basically trusted their government, and liked the level of development that was going on," he said. The city was constantly busy drawing up major land-use plans and paving the way for development, efforts that consumed much of Mr. Rojas' time. Menlo Park appealed to him in large part so that he could focus more on the "operational" side of running a city, he said, though the proximity of hiking trails and bicycle routes also played a part in his decision to come here.
But that doesn't mean that things have settled down much for Mr. Rojas, as he gets used to living and working in a small, mostly residential community with an aging population.
He has repeatedly gotten an earful from some residents, in public meetings and in private, especially from wary community members in the "slow-growth" or "residentialist" camp. While members of that group have faulted Mr. Rojas' management staff on several points, their major fear these days is that the staff is allowing the "village"-like city they know and love to slip away.
"In general, my feeling is, here's a city manager who came from a very high-growth city, and he transplanted that (mindset) into Menlo Park," said resident Morris Brown, adding that a city manager has more influence than one might think in a city where council members work only part-time. "You know, people of my persuasion tend to think we should be a slow-growth, lower-density, village-like community. And some of the things we see going on seem to be contrary to that view."
Mr. Rojas denied that claim, saying the city staff is simply trying to respond to the desires of residents, and to give council members the information they need to make good decisions.
"I was very involved in development issues (in Chino), but I'm not 'pro-development,'" Mr. Rojas said during a recent interview in his office, backed by long windows that look out over a courtyard. "People have this idea that the manager is what the city is. That's a misnomer."
Part of the reason that Chino residents were so trusting was the stability of the government, Mr. Rojas said. By the time of his departure after serving 10 years as city manager, he had personally selected every department head. Council members' service time ranged from 10 to 14 years.
When he arrived in Menlo Park, the longest-tenured council member was going on three years, and the city had just voted two incumbents out of office.
Mr. Rojas maintained that Menlo Park is making strides in communicating with residents, and involving them in decisions. Even Mr. Brown, one of Mr. Rojas' more vocal critics, conceded that the city has done a "really outstanding job" involving residents.
Following Mr. Rojas' recommendation, the council initiated a painstaking three-year effort to build community consensus around plans to redevelop properties along El Camino Real and in the downtown area; one meeting netted 150 participants.
"If we had gotten 150 people out for a meeting in Chino, (city officials) would have been standing on their heads," he said.
Still, Mr. Rojas and his staff have not been able to escape criticism that they are pushing behind the scenes to allow increased development. There have been other accusations, as well, some based on more evidence than others: the staff is inflating the payroll; the staff is making it harder for interested residents to find out what went on at council meetings; the staff is secretly in favor of the state high-speed rail project that council members oppose.
"My goal is for the community to feel that the staff, the council, and the commissions are looking out for their best interests," Mr. Rojas said. "I hope they really believe that their best interests are being look after — not that decisions are being made behind closed doors, or that we're trying to manipulate them, or keep information away from them. We need to close that gap. Then, when there's debate, you're debating for the right reasons."
"The key point I want to make is that this is a team effort between the staff, the council, and the community," he said in a later interview. "I think we're making some big strides in developing trust. We've got a ways to go, but the council and the staff are really making some big strides."
Mr. Rojas has a quick wit that can take you off guard, given his seriousness of purpose and his succinct manner of speaking. Asked for his age, he said: "How old am I, or how old would I like to be?" before answering the second question: "32."