At their January 27th meeting, the Menlo Park City Council was clear with city staff: there needs to be greater public transparency in the hiring of new employees, consultants, contractors and even interns. Mayor Catherine Carlton was especially direct with City Manager Alex McIntyre: "Alex, what you are hearing is that we want you to report to us when you hire a consultant. I think that can be rolled into your job requirements, and if you don't do that, it can be brought up when we review your work for the city. ? I absolutely want to see more transparency."
That's pretty direct.
Council member Ray Mueller, citing the need for a greater level of transparency with the public, put the issue on the council's agenda. The move comes on the heels of the revelation that city staff had hired consultant Malcolm Smith back in March 2014 for $5,125 to "inform and educate" the community with regards to Measure M. The council?and the general public-- did not learn about Mr. Smith's hiring until late October. Setting aside that issue, Mr. Mueller argued that requiring staff to publicly disclose potential and new hiring of new employees and consultants is simply smart policy in its own right. "Regardless of what has happened in the past, this is a good idea. This is just good, sound public policy," Mueller stated.
It is also a move that will help build?and for some, restore ? public trust. Staff's contracting with Mr. Smith is not the first time the city council has found itself uninformed or under informed about consulting services until work was well underway. For example, in December of 2013, staff spent approximately $25,000 to develop five potential new city logos designs before getting city council's direction to proceed.
The public and their elected representatives cannot find out about projects once they are underway and resources are invested. The process has to change; the process has to begin with the goals of a given project or service being discussed, defined and approved or at least publically noticed up front before anyone is hired or money spent.
That is what the council took a step towards doing.
While there was discussion among the council members about the timing of the discussion and whether or not changes should be made to city code rather than amending purchasing policies, the council agreed that changes are needed. They voted unanimously to ask the city attorney to draft language related to the city's purchasing policy as it relates to notifying the council and the public about open and newly hired positions for consultants and contractors. Council asked that reporting include a summary of what services are to be provided, and the drafted language will come back before council for public comment and a vote.
While regular reporting of hires and openings will likely mean more work for staff, City Manager Alex McIntyre welcomes the move. "I believe that the action the council took fits with our ongoing effort to improve transparency. As a result, we will work on how to best make information about city contracts available to the public." He points to other improvements to create greater transparency, including last year's launch of a new city website which makes it much easier to find information and provides granular tools for analyzing city financial information. Mr. McIntyre also adds that the city has "improved our budget process to ensure that the budget document clearly shows how funds are being spent. We have revised our weekly digest to provide more information to the public in a timely manner. I think that the council recognizes that transparency is a journey of improvement and not a destination. It is a journey that I told them I was interested in helping to lead the city through when I took the job and I remain committed to the effort."
Clearly, council is looking for a clear, unobstructed view into what staff is working on. Recognizing that there is "a balance between letting us know everything going on and a 50 page report", Mayor Carlton urged staff to over communicate rather than under and suggested "the nuance: if you think it is going to be controversial, bring it to our attention."
"I believe everyone's heart is in the right place," Carlton added. "We want to build the trust with the people of Menlo Park. This is the right first step to do that."