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Editorial: Menlo Park consultant's election-year work needs hard look

 

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.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by looking on
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 11, 2014 at 8:57 am

This editorial represents very much better coverage to this issue than what the Almanac had produced thus far.

All of this needs to be thoroughly investigated. Today the Daily Post says, the District Attorney will look into the matter and decide whether to start an investigation.

The one very important matter, which this editorial does not address, is McIntyre has thus far steadfastly claimed the work product was discarded and cannot be found. Really! Amazing in this electronic age.

Finally, without the work product we really don't know if they were or were not used. The work product might be the "smoking gun", yet they can't be found!




3 people like this
Posted by Dagwood
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 11, 2014 at 9:21 am

This is an excellent editorial, thanks to the Almanac for publishing it. The city is owed both an explanation and an apology to start, and the sooner the better. The Almanac itself deserves its own apology as it would have been the target of some of the materials to be developed. This would have been a great abuse of our town newspaper and its allied media.


1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Note that the Almanac Editorial (which had access to ALL the public material produced by the City) does not even suggest that there was any such material that expressly advocated (which is the legal standard) either a Yes or a No vote on Measure M.

Being stupid or make bad management decisions is deplorable but it is not illegal.


2 people like this
Posted by Gern
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 11, 2014 at 10:08 am

Gern is a registered user.

"To his credit, Mr. McIntyre scaled back the work before signing a contract ..."

From the documents I've seen attached to Mr. McIntyre's email to the City Council (Web Link) the contract was signed on March 5th while the "Amended" scope of work is dated two weeks later, March 19th, but contains no signatures. Would city staff typically require a new contract for an amended scope of work, or some other signed document acknowledging such a change? How do we know that "Mr. McIntyre scaled back the work before signing a contract" as stated in this editorial?

Given Mr. Smith's activity during the two weeks between the signing of the contract and the appearance of the amended scope of work (13 billed hours over 7 days) can we trust the veracity of the amended scope of work, or that the original proposal was rejected as claimed? There's no indication in Mr. Smith's invoices that the scope changed on or around March 19th, but there surely must be in email or other electronic form if no such signed acknowledgement exists.

Perhaps I've missed some key document here which others have seen -- apologies if that's the case.

Gern


4 people like this
Posted by Credibility and Respect Lost
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 11, 2014 at 12:52 pm

As a long-time Almanac fan and financial supporter, I feel that the Almanac has lost its way as a trusted newspaper for the people of Menlo Park.

Throughout the Measure M campaign, the Almanac's coverage was pretty thin, with few hard questions being asked of city council, staff, Greenheart and Stanford, or the Measure M crew. Coverage, yes, but despite the complexity of the issues and high emotions, the reporting was mostly superficial, and surely won't win any awards.

Why? One might speculate that the Almanac is too small to separate its decision about what stories its reporters are assigned to investigate and cover from its editorial bias against Measure M. Perhaps it was all those real estate ads...

Nonetheless, today we have an issue that adds fuel to the fire that the city was not an honest broker of information on Measure M. I find it disappointing that a PA paper, and not our own newspaper, it taking the lead on figuring out what happened. I hope the Almanac steps up its game, or it will lose me as a reader, and the check I send every year.


1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As a daily newspaper the Post has the advantage of being able to print something quickly.

As a weekly newspaper the Almanac has the advantage of being somewhat more reflective.

Both the Post or the Almanac have been responsible in their reporting.

Both perspectives inform and serve the community.

And competition in journalism, as elsewhere, is a very healthy thing.


2 people like this
Posted by George C Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 11, 2014 at 4:54 pm

McIntyre admitted that March 5 Agreement he signed with Smith led to Smith’s writing the City Measure M web site (“Web Site”) on line from the end of March, over the entire seven months prior to the Measure M election. The Web site contains false information and concealments, among other purposes, to (1) refute Measure M’s limit of office space to the amount “disclosed and analyzed in the 2012 Specific Plan EIR (240,820 sf)” and to (2) refute Measure M ‘s claim that office space in excess of that studied in the EIR would cause 90% of its traffic to cut through Menlo Park residential streets and neighborhoods coming from, and going to, non Menlo Park locations mainly to East and West freeways. Retail and other uses are mainly locally disbursed. There are other topics such as balanced community and financial impacts that are falsely stated as well. If staff or city council participated in any activities related to, or undertaken by, the Smith/Menlo Park Agreement, those need to be disclosed as well.

Smith may have written the Web site claims that non-residential impacts and associated mitigation don’t vary by specific non-residential use “whether an office building was proposed, versus a retail, restaurant, or hotel structure.” This is nonsense, and it is proven false by the Specific Plan EIR itself, the City’s CSA document, all W-trans traffic studies done for the Stanford Site, and probably all city traffic studies ever done, all of which report different impacts depending upon the specific use such as office space. The web site also concealed the fact that the EIR studied only 240,820 sf of office space, along with other retail and hotel space, while falsely claiming no such “EIR Impact Limits” on the 474,000 sq of maximum new development. Did staff or city council know or approve these false claims.

Measure M proponents asked City Council to investigate staff and the Web site statements by letters of October 8, and October 27, with documented proof, and an Oral plea at the October 21 City Council Meeting to investigate and hold Staff accountable. City Council took no action.

The deceptive nature of the Menlo Park /Smith Agreement including web site content was not discovered until the day before the election, and the Almanac has called for investigation and public disclosure of the Agreement and individuals participating, and activities undertaken, distributed, and possibly used. This must also include information obtained and used on the Web site, and lack of correction after reasonable knowledge by City Council.

Current explanations are simply not credible. Reestablishing lost public credibility and City responsibility and accountability require complete disclosure without purpose of evasion, keeping in mind attempted cover ups are often more inflammatory than original acts undertaken if candidly and non defensively explained and disclosed.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Smith may have written the Web site claims ..."

This is a perfect example of conjecture.

Wrong doing determinations must be based on facts, not conjecture.


1 person likes this
Posted by George C Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 12, 2014 at 7:29 am

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood

"Smith may have written the Web site claims ...

This is a perfect example of conjecture."

Thanks for inviting clarification. City Manager McIntyre represented to the city council in his Nov 5 email on City website: “In fact, his [Malcolm Smith’s] initial major product was developing the website content and getting it up and available.” McIntyre’s credibility is not high at the moment, so it may have been McIntyre's conjecture on author[s?] of website. Although there is a basis for the statement, the language that Smith may have written was used. In any event, any investigation of "dirty tricks" or Menlo Park Agreements therefor, should include the content of the website, its veracity and council's failure to investigate or correct after notice given with supporting documentation.


1 person likes this
Posted by Menloshopper
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 12, 2014 at 11:43 am

The emerging picture seems to be: the proposal led to more than the web site, but in the form of draft materials, such as letters and messaging language, rejected by Alex and/or others and not retained in permanent form by the city. This was contracted work, so while it was draft and rejected, there should be a paper or electronic trail of the work product. Why we need a costly 'investigation' to determine that and obtain the drafts, if they still exist, is unclear. A missing player here is the city attorney. According to Malcolm Smith, there was input from him or someone from his office at some point in deciding the proposal was inappropriate to for the city.


Like this comment
Posted by Drafty
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 12, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Agreed, the City attorney makes one call to MR Smith and demands a copy of all of the materials..including the drafts. Done without spending another dime or wasting any more time. So easy, that is if the mayor really wants answers.


Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 12, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Better yet, the City attorney requests that Smith provide all drafts directly to the public, not to the city that is itself under scrutiny. Doesn't the city attorney defend the city? This could be fox watching chicken coop.


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

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