The Menlo Park City Council is facing lots of objections to a proposal by city staff to hire a Washington, D.C.-based firm, Mercury Public Affairs, to lobby on behalf of the city in Washington, and maybe in Sacramento, too.
A leader of the Mercury LLC team that would work with the city, according to the firm's proposal, is former GOP congressman Vin Weber, who is under scrutiny in a federal investigation of ties between President Trump's campaign and Russia, according to the Associated Press.
Another leader of the team, Bryan Lanza, was communications director of the Trump transition and of Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, before being hired by Mercury LLC in February of this year.
In a staff report released Nov. 2 in advance of the City Council's Nov. 7 meeting, city staff recommended that the council hire Mercury LLC at a rate of $8,000 a month ($96,000 a year) to lobby on behalf of the city.
The Associated Press reported on Nov. 2 that Mr. Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into ties between the Russian government and President Trump's campaign.
The AP reports that Mr. Weber and Tony Podesta, a "longtime Democratic operative," were "hired as part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort directed by (Paul) Manafort and longtime associate Rick Gates." Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were indicted Oct. 30.
Mercury LLC allegedly received a subpoena from Mr. Mueller's investigation in August, according to the Washington Post.
The Post reports that the firm was asked to "answer questions and provide records regarding their interactions with the consulting firms led by Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser to President Trump, and Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump presidential campaign."
When asked about Mr. Weber being named in the investigation, Menlo Park city staffer and analyst Peter Ibrahim responded, "We are aware of that," and noted that staff planned to meet to talk about the news.
"(Mr. Weber) would not be our direct contact at Mercury," he added. The man who would be Menlo Park's direct contact is Mr. Lanza.
The City Council has received many emails from the public opposing this recommendation. (As of 9 a.m., Nov. 6, there have been about 60 emails opposed and two in favor.)
Betsy Nash, a member of the city's Complete Streets Commission, wrote to the council: "As a resident and taxpayer I am stunned that our city would even consider hiring Mercury Public Affairs and Bryan Lanza. Please do not execute this contract for government relations and legislative advocacy with this firm."
Katie Behroozi, also a Complete Streets commissioner, wrote: "I understand that we are looking for public funding for our much-needed infrastructure projects, and that DC, a potential source of funding, might currently be dominated by the Trump wing of the Republican Party. So hiring a firm that can work across the aisle makes sense. But – Bryan Lanza, communications director of one of the ugliest campaigns in history? If you think he's put that campaign behind him, do check out his current Twitter feed, in which he enthusiastically retweets his former boss's inanity and distortions while calling our junior senator a liar."
Mr. Ibrahim, the city staffer, said that the decision to recommend Mercury LLC came after the city received 13 proposals and interviewed four firms: Carpi & Clay, Federal Advocates, Townsend Public Affairs and Mercury Public Affairs.
The interviews were conducted by a panel of three city staffers: Mr. Ibrahim, Assistant Public Works Director Nikki Nagaya and Housing and Economic Development Manager Jim Cogan.
Mercury was the costliest of the finalists, at $8,000 per month.
Mr. Ibrahim said a big consideration was on what might work best to secure funding for the city's big-ticket projects -- adding that the specifics of what the city would seek funding for haven't been ironed out yet.
The City Council is interested in hiring a lobbyist to drum up federal and state funding for major projects the city can't finance alone, such as infrastructure along and near the Dumbarton Transportation Corridor.
"I don't see this as a red or blue issue," he said. "I think the focus is on funding, especially federal funding – how to position the city to receive that sort of funding that is out of the scope of the general fund."
Another priority, Mr. Ibrahim said, was to find a firm that offered both federal and state advocacy. "Bryan (Lanza) brings several years of experience in the California state government," he said. "That was a bonus in and of itself."
He said it is not yet known if Mr. Lanza would represent the city just in Washington or in Sacramento, too.
Jim Cogan, Menlo Park's housing and economic development manager, told the Almanac, "We were simply given the task of finding people who could help us get federal money from the administration. Our recommendation was based on who we thought would be the most effective at lobbying this administration."
He cited the old political adage, "There's no such thing as a Democratic or Republican pothole." "As staff, our recommendations are supposed to be apolitical."
The Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to meet Tuesday, Nov. 7, beginning at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 701 Laurel St.
Access the emails people have sent the City Council here.