Some know Janet Davis of the Stanford Weekend Acres neighborhood as a watchdog of public works and traffic-related services provided by the county and the city of Menlo Park in the Alpine Road area. And some in those government agencies may consider the watchdog a pitbull. However anyone wants to characterize her, Ms. Davis deserves a round of applause for her relentlessness in helping to track down the truth of the March 17 herbicide spraying right next to San Francisquito Creek.
The episode is an example of how easy it is for wires to get crossed when city outsourcing of services results in less oversight by professional staff over companies hired to take on the projects. But it also exemplifies how the conscientious pros in City Hall can spring into action when a problem is called to their attention.
The story unfolded when Ms. Davis witnessed a tanker truck next to the creek at Alpine Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard spraying what she believed to be herbicide. She dashed off an email to City Council members, among others, noting the proximity of the spraying to the creek, and adding the understatement: "This is idiotic."
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith copied her response asking for more information to the city's staff, getting the ball rolling for Public Works Director Jesse Quirion to check into it. Mr. Quirion initially determined that it was not a city crew that applied the spray, and he took the extra steps of checking with Stanford, Palo Alto and the county to try to pinpoint the responsible party. That effort produced no answers.
But Ms. Davis' persistence produced another resident's statement that she had talked to the man spraying the toxic, and he said he was hired by Menlo Park. And sure enough, Mr. Quirion followed up with an apology and new information: He had just learned that the company spraying the herbicide had been contracted by the city. Mr. Quirion added that as a result of this glitch, he's put a new rule into place restricting the use by city staff and city contractors of all pesticides/herbicides within a 100-foot range of waterways, and requiring formal notification 24 hours in advance of intended spraying.
This is the latest restriction the city has put on the use of pesticides such as Roundup. Last year, it restricted its use within a 100-foot range of day care centers, schools, picnic areas and playgrounds. But do the restrictions go far enough? A growing number of jurisdictions are banning the use of such spraying in public spaces out of concern for possible harm to humans, wildlife and the environment. San Mateo County is one such public agency, but the restriction applies only to unincorporated land, and Caltrans is exempt from the ban -- a situation that's causing more than a little unrest among residents in the Skyline area these days.
Menlo Park's Environmental Quality Commission is scheduled to review the city's policy on spraying in April, Mr. Quirion said, and if changes are called for, a revised policy should reach the City Council in May. Restricting the use of spray within a certain distance from sensitive areas is a good start for city officials. But with growing evidence of the harm toxic sprays cause to organisms -- including humans -- that are not their intended target, a complete review of spraying in public spaces should be on the agenda.
As we urged Caltrans to do regarding its spraying on Skyline, the city needs to look at alternatives to spraying. If it decides to continue controlling weeds with toxic sprays, it must explain to residents why the perceived need to spray in the public space should outweigh public health concerns.