Menlo Park's divisive Measure M initiative may have been settled at the ballot box earlier this month but, regrettably, newly surfaced facts about the city's dealings with a consultant hired to "inform and educate" the community on the issues that led to the ballot initiative continue fanning flames that might otherwise be dying into embers by now.
The $5,125 taxpayers doled out to consultant Malcolm Smith certainly won't bust the city's budget, but the city's handling of the contract and staff's seeming inability to explain questionable elements of it have further eroded the public's trust in City Hall.
City Manager Alex McIntyre signed off on the agreement with Mr. Smith in March -- a contract that cited the "strong likelihood" of a ballot measure that would revise the downtown specific plan, passed in 2012. The consultant had proposed an extensive contract that would "refute the issues raised by the initiative's sponsors, and gain a more positive public profile of (the city's) position on the Plan by educating and informing the community about the value and importance of continuing with the existing Plan..." He would do that, he proposed, by developing "key messages and talking points" to state the city's position and refute pro-initiative arguments, drafting letters to the editor and opinion pieces for local media, and creating content for an informational page on the city's website, among other things.
To his credit, Mr. McIntyre scaled back the work before signing a contract, but based on invoices submitted to the city that came to light just after the election, he didn't go far enough. In addition to providing information on the city's website, Mr. Smith wrote multiple drafts of "talking points" and news releases that were to be distributed to area newspapers and other news sources.
He also billed the city for drafting letters to the editor, an "op-ed," and a comment for the Almanac's online forum. Those last services were not spelled out in the amended contract signed on March 19, and according to Mr. McIntyre, the drafts were rejected and never used. But they were nonetheless reviewed by staff and paid for by the public.
The contract and the work performed raise a number of questions and concerns. Among them: Although Mr. McIntyre was allowed to hire the consultant without council approval, why didn't he inform council members that he intended to do so given that the work pertained to such a volatile political issue? And, how can city officials hope to maintain credibility and the public trust when they even consider hiring someone to write what would amount to bogus letters to newspaper editors, and opinion pieces deceptively ghostwritten by a consultant? Such deceit has no place in Menlo Park government and politics, and the city should have rejected the very suggestions of them. The fact that they weren't used is not an excuse. They apparently were allowed by the contract, and if they weren't, why did the city pay for the drafts?
How troubled should residents be by payments to a consultant totaling a mere $5,125? Troubled enough to demand a full public airing of the matter. Mr. McIntyre has done a poor job in explaining various aspects of the contract and the work, even telling the Almanac before the election that the only role Mr. Smith was hired to perform was to write neutral, educational content for the city's website about the specific plan and the initiative. The city manager's claim that he didn't remember the consultant's other roles over the five months of his employment pushes the boundaries of credibility. But if it's true, it's fair to ask why he didn't consider contracted work involving such a consequential election issue worth keeping track of.
Mr. McIntrye should make every effort to produce drafts of letters to the editor and opinion pieces that he said he discarded to prove to residents that they weren't in fact used. And the City Council should put on its next agenda a hearing to shine light on this troubling matter.