Menlo Park: To retreat or not to retreat?

Off-site retreats by city staff invite questions

Trips by Menlo Park city staff to Half Moon Bay and Napa during the past two months came as a surprise to at least one council member, and have raised questions about where the money -- and how much -- should be spent.

The first, an overnight trip to the Beach House in Half Moon Bay on Oct. 10-11, was the second retreat held by Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre since being hired in 2012. The beach retreat cost $11,412, and came complete with homework for the 20 managers attending.

Managers were assigned reading from "Made to Stick" by Dan and Chip Heath, "who describe how stories get told in a way that they are best understood. I used this book in a presentation I did earlier at the International City/County Management Association," Mr. McIntyre told the Almanac in an email a few weeks after the retreat.

The retreat focused on integrating new managers into the operation as well as focusing on the question of how staff can "better tell our stories" to the audience, whether that be the council, residents or other departments.

"So often, that which we do is not well understood," Mr. McIntyre said.

Although waiting one more month would have let Menlo Park pay off-season rates for the hotel, Mr. McIntyre said that they picked the date first, then looked for a place; early fall coordinates best with family commitments and the onset of the budget-planning season.

Getting out of town means getting away from distractions, he said. "In fact, we had a policy during the retreat that no one was allowed to use their telephones/computers until a break. The only exception was the police chief."

The tab included hotel rooms, two group breakfasts and two group lunches, a group dinner and the meeting room rental. The city provided facilitation, according to Mr. McIntyre.


A few weeks later, on Nov. 1, a total of 13 members of the Community Services Department took a jaunt to Napa, spending about $2,200 for transportation and use of the Yountville Community Center, which was provided at a discount since a staff member lives nearby, according to Community Services Manager Cherise Brandell. She said the team stopped at Artesa Winery on the way home, at no cost to the city, and "participated in team building activities" as well as a tour.

The retreat was meant "to push the principles the Exec Team has discussed and adopted deeper into the organization for implementation" as well as "celebrate the progress the team has made over the past four years," such as increasing cost recovery from 64 percent to more than 80 percent due to fees for services, Ms. Brandell wrote in a memo to the City Council on Nov. 21.

While Mayor Peter Ohtaki said he thinks annual retreats are very useful for managers (but he hopes, in the future, they will be held in Menlo Park) and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said she had seen the Half Moon Bay trip mentioned in a weekly council update (cost not included), at least one colleague wasn't thrilled.

Vice Mayor Ray Mueller said that while he wasn't crazy about the cost of the Half Moon Bay retreat, "it does appear that quite a bit was accomplished. I have a much stronger view regarding the trip to Napa Valley: there was a lack of judgment in the organizing of the event."

Mr. Mueller weighed in with a few guidelines: Stay in Menlo Park if possible, to both keep tax dollars in the city, and to have professional staff nearby in case of an emergency. Keep the cost modest. And while staff doesn't have to notify the council of every off-site event, he said, they should be told about activities that could appear extravagant or in need of explanation.

"The test is an objectively reasonable test from the eye of the tax-payer. Would a reasonable tax-payer, looking at the event objectively, have questions about how tax dollars were spent," Mr. Mueller said in an email.

And when notification is needed -- "full and detailed disclosure is necessary. Simply telling the Council, we are going on a retreat, with limited detail, is not notification. I have no need nor desire to cross examine staff like a parent. If circumstances require you to tell me about the event, that means I need to hear the whole story."

Inexplicably, Mr. McIntyre told the vice mayor recently that he didn't know about the Napa retreat -- even though the Almanac specifically asked the city manager about it in an email on Nov. 1, the same day as the retreat.

When asked how he remained unaware of the trip until the vice mayor inquired about it several weeks later, Mr. McIntyre said, "I don't know what happened on Nov. 1. You asked a question that I had no idea about. I didn't know it was based upon some information that you had that I did not have at the time."


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Posted by Julie
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2013 at 10:53 am

After seeing this article my thought is:

Is it any wonder why City Governments are going bankrupt??

Seems like no one has any money anymore for city programs. We spend our cash flow on field trips, instead, for those who cannot work in the office, since it has too many "distractions".

This does not just happen in Menlo Park. There are other cities who whine about their lack of funds but have no second thoughts about increasing their own annual spite of the shortfalls.

Wouldn't YOU rather work while sipping a glass of Merlot?

I know I would.

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm

How does one expect to attract talent and retain it when micromanagement is the call of the day? In our area the private sector offers better compensation and far better retreats for its executives. You will always get the quality comensurate to the money invested.

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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm

They have done the same no-phone thing at the Riviera or the Mermaid. Oh, they needed to spend city dollars for ambiance. Maybe they took their own Charles Shaw wine to save money?

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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 1:20 pm

edit above - "they could have"

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Posted by Irate
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Well, I guess better economic times call for reckless spending from the City management team, rather than saving for a rainy day, or betterment of the non-managment employees (remember them.... the poor SEIU suckers). Shows the arrogance of Mr. McIntyre.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Public sector supporters shouldn't think about competing with private sector for talents because they can't win on the argument. After all, private sector employees can easily lose their jobs if the company is not profitable; whereas county workers are unionized and have better job protection. The rules of the game are different when county governments spend tax money - not the money they themselves earned. Public scrutiny is a must!

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Posted by Tell us another Story
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:12 pm

The City Manager defends the retreat by claiming how it helped staff to "better tell our stories". Clearly the retreat was a waste of money since the Mr McIntyre and Ms Brandell can't seem to get their stories straight. The City of Menlo Park should be embarrassed at the way these two incompetents attempt and fail to communicate their goals and defend their retreats. To hear the City Manager babble on incoherently and try and blame the reporter for his lack of knowledge is absurd and undignified. "I don't know what happened on Nov 1st". Well, why the hell not, Mr City Manager? A wine tasting event as a "team building" activity? "So often, that which we do is not well understood". You got that right. When the reporter knows more than they do about the workings of the City, it's time to make some personnel changes, capiche?

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Posted by Long Time Menlo Man
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm

You wonder why city staffers are jumping ship faster than ever? City council members are supposed to act in a leadership like fashion. Airing their off the cuff remarks through the press is VERY un-leadership like. People will not stay with Menlo Park if they are micro-managed, paid substandard wages, AND attacked in the press by a person in a leadership position.

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Posted by Why Not?
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 5:44 pm

They went on a retreat. So what? Get over it already.

1 person likes this
Posted by Retreat from Retreats
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 3, 2013 at 7:53 pm

For those of us in private sector this has a name: B-O-O-N-D-O-G-G-L-E

Pls don't waste any more of our tax dollars!!

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Posted by Private Sector Speaking
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Those of us who are working in the private sector, know the long term value of building teamwork and leadership skills. We've all gone on away training. There is something special and different about away training. Experts validate the away training model. It seems hypocritical for a few who have benefited from that training, to now attack city employees who seek to improve. Shortsighted on your part. I hope city employees benefited from the training like others have and use these newly discovered skills to make Menlo Park a better place.

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Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 2:25 am

They could've gone local. Vallambrosa Center on Oak Grove. $55 per person for all day including meeting rooms, lunch and lovely grounds. 20 staff for two days $2,200 instead of $11,400. Someone wasn't thinking.

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Posted by poor judgment
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 8:26 am

The managers who authorized these two retreats used poor judgment regarding the venues and expenses despite the admirable objective of team-building. First, poor use of funds when much lower cost venues are available
Second, insensitivity about expenses when labor contracts are being scrutinized and negotiated
Third, disrespect for local businesses and organizations who could have benefited from a Shop Menlo mentality

Yes, the managers have budgets and should be allowed to exercise judgment in spending them. However, the managers should be held accountable for using poor judgment. There's a difference between being held accountable for making poor decisions and being micro-managed.

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Posted by Entitledment????
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 4, 2013 at 9:40 am

How funny/sad. 20 managers do not realize spending a chunk of taxpayer money in this way erodes trust with council members and residents faster than "better telling our stories" can build it up? Don’t they know actions speak louder than words?

Or, maybe some of them know better but are too afraid to "rock the boat", an indication the work group lacks trust.

How hard will average lower level employees work when they read an article like this?

How funny they spent tax money partially to
…celebrate the progress the team has made over the past four years," such as increasing cost recovery from 64 percent to more than 80 percent due to fees for services, “

Don’t they get paid to increase cost recovery? In other words, that is their job, no celebration of them required?

Lastly, this makes me wonder about the council members as well. They should be asking each manager why they did not speak up. If for no other reason, then for amusement!

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Posted by Roy Thiele-Sardiña
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 9:51 am

Roy Thiele-Sardiña is a registered user.

The Private Sector does this ALL THE TIME. And we see TREMENDOUS returns from these activities, beyond team building. I have run and participated in similar activities throughout my career. It is particularly when you manage large organizations and this is that (over 250 employees). One would say this is even more important when you have multiple constituencies within one company: Police, Planning, Operations, Public Works, etc.

If it is in the operating budget and doesn't exceed that budget, it's part of running the business. And folks this is fundamentally a business, it is a business that is funded through our taxes. But it IS a BUSINESS and they run it as one.

And for the record, we ALWAYS serve and pay for alcohol at these events in the private sector.

Roy Thiele-Sardina

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Posted by Private Sector, really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 4, 2013 at 10:05 am

From what I am reading, Mueller is not saying do not have retreats. Mueller is just saying keep the cost down. These are tax dollars meant to serve the public. The operating budget for them should not be set extravagantly. I am surprised you are not advocating for fiscal restraint.
I expect Mueller does not enjoy having to stand alone and be critical like this, but I appreciate he is showing the courage and leadership to do so.

City management in the valley should not be trying to model itself after the excesses enjoyed by private companies. Cities' operational budgets are not as fluid, and as we know with Menlo Park, when budgets go into red, critical services for the public are cut. The only way cities can raise more money is to raise taxes or loosen development restrictions. I appreciate a public servant who does not want to risk either.

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Posted by With RTS
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2013 at 11:04 am

PSR, I'm with RTS. This is about staying within a budget, and Roy is absolutely correct. The city can't function is we continue to lose our best people. We should not praise management, staff, or our elected officials that save money by doing nothing. I'm tired to looking at weed covered vacant lots that generate no revenue for the City of Menlo Park.

Also, City Council is basically a volunteer position. If there is a regional event that Mr. Mueller should attend to represent the interests of Menlo Park, I hope he will attend without fear that line items from his expense report will be published here in a pie chart.

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Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

First, I want to say I absolutely agree with RTS's comments. Second, I'd like to point out that this retreat took place on a Saturday into Sunday. The 20 people who attended are salaried employees. In other words folks, they don't get paid any more for working on Saturday. So, to the issue of should they have gone local, my company holds this sort of team building event as well, and yes, we try to select a venue that also offsets the burden on the employee who is required to spend a Saturday away from family working on building the team to serve the good of the company (read City in this case). Sorry, a Saturday evening in HMB or Napa is more attractive than downtown MP. One more great example of how I chose my handle--whoRUpeople????

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Posted by Misinformation
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Who R U needs to consult a calendar.

The Half Moon Nay trip occurred over a Thursday and Friday. The Napa trip was on a Friday.

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Posted by Your Tax Dollars at Work
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 4, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I think the retreat was a great idea--they just didn't go far enough away. Maybe the city of Lake Oswego--McIntyre's former employer, would seem a natural choice, although he did leave in the wake of a big bust-up on the city council. And why should the retreat be only for a couple days? A couple years would give them plenty of bonding time, and do so much more good for the city.

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Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

@misinformation--You are correct, my apologies I misread the article and didn't double check my facts :-(

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Posted by lesson not learned
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 9, 2014 at 8:07 pm

They did it again. City staff had a nice excursion in half moon bay this weekend.
Did Alex bother to inform Ray this time?

1 person likes this
Posted by what was discussed
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 11, 2014 at 4:41 pm

I wonder how much time was spent in the effort to hide the Malcolm Smith work product and how much time was spent in preparing Senior Staff on how to answer questions if the DA starts an investigation.

Was the City Attorney or his substitue present?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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