There was "no violation of the law" by the city of Menlo Park in hiring a consultant and producing materials, including a web page, to inform voters about a controversial ballot measure last year, the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office announced on Thursday, Feb. 5.
California law prohibits spending public money on campaign activities. Proponents of Measure M, an initiative seeking to change Menlo Park's downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, questioned the legality of the city's activities after a public records request by former councilman Heyward Robinson uncovered the hiring of a public relations consultant who produced the materials in the months leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
Mr. Robinson then asked the state attorney general, county district attorney and civil grand jury, and the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate. The attorney general declined to get involved, he said.
Malcolm Smith's initial proposals were rejected by City Manager Alex McIntyre "because they would amount to a 'campaign' as opposed to simply providing information to the public. Additionally, the City Manager rejected much of Smith's work because he felt it crossed the line from providing information to advocacy. Thus, it appears that City officials recognized and sought to adhere to the line set forth by the law," Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato wrote to Mr. Robinson.
Mr. Serrato noted that while specific content would always be subject to some debate, that he found the materials did not amount to campaign activity, and that state law does not require the city to be completely neutral in its assessment of Measure M. "Indeed, it is to be expected that the administration in power would express a view as to the merits of the proposed changes" so long as it's not spending taxpayer money to campaign for or against them, he wrote.
Mr. Robinson said he disagreed with the DA's conclusions, and alleged that the city has not produced all the relevant documents.
"I have to wonder if the DA would have reached a different conclusion had all relevant documents been available," he said. "The DA's office did make it clear that they could reopen this investigation should new evidence come to light."
He called on the council, which has been given copies of documents produced in response to Mr. Robinson's record requests, to provide the public "with a full accounting of staff's activities around Measure M." The first step, he said, should be to insist on what he considers full compliance with all public records requests.
Currently traveling in India, Mayor Catherine Carlton told the Almanac that she was relieved for Mr. McIntyre and not surprised by the outcome of the DA's investigation.
Councilman Ray Mueller, who had asked his colleagues to consider hiring an independent investigator before the DA had agreed to look at the case, said he appreciated the thorough investigation, "closing the issue of whether City Manager McIntyre or city staff acted criminally with finality."
The District Attorney's Office said the inquiry is considered closed. "However, as in all cases that we consider, should new evidence be uncovered, we would want to review it to determine what impact, if any, it has on our determination," Mr. Serrato said.
Measure M advocates also recently asked the city to file a Form 460, the campaign finance disclosure form that the state requires all political action committees and candidates for public office to file.
"It is clear from the documents produced by the City that the City Staff was engaged in a campaign to defeat Measure M and therefore should be completing a 460 filing as did Menlo (Park) Deserves Better and Greenheart Land Co.," Menlo Park resident Brielle Johnck wrote in an email to the city on Wednesday, Feb. 4.
City Attorney Bill McClure told the Almanac that the DA's findings "clearly show that the city did not engage in any political activities that would require the city to file a Form 460." The findings are consistent with Menlo Park's position that it did not engage in any prohibited activities, he said.