This year, I thought I would take a second look at how our city's management team handled their annual meeting and the results are pretty interesting. Twenty-one members of the senior staff again returned to Half Moon Bay's Beach House hotel. According to information obtained through the city and exchanges I had with the City Manager, Alex McIntyre, the event took place November 6 and 7th with attendees actually only staying one night at the hotel. The total cost this year was up significantly to $18,460. According to Mr. McIntyre, the $7,000+ increase was due, in part, to the addition of a facilitator's services.
I asked Mr. McIntyre whether or not the city had investigated a venue located within Menlo Park that would keep tax dollars within the city. He responded that the city had only looked into the Stanford Park and Rosewood hotels because "we knew that they have the only conference space, food service and sleeping accommodations for such an event." Mr. McIntyre went on to write that "once "Menlo Gateway is built, it might provide a more cost effective means for meeting our workshop needs."
Unfortunately, it seems that the city overlooked a very affordable, albeit less luxurious, local location that the city has used as recently as 2010, 2011 and 2012 for its staff retreats: the Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park. In general, those "commuter retreats" (day retreats in which attendees did not stay the night) cost approximately $25 per person vs. the $875 per person spent this year in Half Moon Bay.
? In 2010, under then City Manager Glen Rojas, a one-day retreat for "executive management" cost a total of $768, which included meals and use of the conference center.
? A one-day retreat held March 4th, 2011 for 50 city employees cost a total of $1,000 per the invoice.
? Lastly, an April 13, 2012 retreat at Vallombrosa, which Mr. McIntyre attended, cost $1,400 for 56 attendees.
Feedback captured in the retreat debrief notes did not express any issues with the center; in fact, it was mentioned that the group should "utilize [the facility more during unstructured time."
Given the local, convenient and affordable nature of the center, I asked City Manager McIntyre why the city did not return to the Vallombrosa Center and he stated that it was not considered because it did not have overnight accommodations. In fact, it does. Private rooms go for $155, which includes three meals and the cost of the conference rooms. Mr. McIntyre was surprised to hear of the availability of overnight accommodations. If the city felt that an overnight stay was critical to achieving the objective of the retreat, holding it at Vallombrosa would have cost approximately $3,255.
Beyond the missed opportunity for substantial savings and tax revenue retention, spending $18,460 ? or $876 per person-- to attend a two-day, one night retreat is rather staggering. At a time when city leaders are discussing eliminating some youth programing and raising surcharges on other programs (which are already significantly higher than those of surrounding cities), it is an interesting decision.
I'm wondering how this kind of choice reflects on Menlo Park's priorities. I'm also curious about what has changed since 2012. True, the local economy has improved, but the simpler, more cost effective retreats of 2010-12 reflected greater respect for taxpayers. In every case where I was able to review agendas and debrief notes from the more cost-effective retreats, comments were positive and objectives were met. There's a high probability that the same could have been accomplished for less this year. A lot less.
Lastly, what signal does this send from the leadership team to the organizations and department team members they supervise? On the surface, at least, it sends the message that "shopping Menlo Park" while being cost-effective and careful with tax dollars is not a priority.