Tonight: Menlo Park council to discuss becoming a charter city, the Guild


After postponing a discussion scheduled for last week, the Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to consider putting an "enabling" charter measure on the November 2018 ballot at its Feb. 13 meeting.

Doing so could lay the groundwork for possible seismic changes in the city's governance policies, creating a Pandora's box of sorts to alter what have traditionally been givens in the way the city runs what is called a "general law" city.

"In a nutshell, the benefit of becoming a charter city is the ability to have more control over local government autonomy," wrote City Attorney Bill McClure in a staff report.

Things that the city is not allowed to do as a "general law" city could be permitted under a charter. These include allowing public financing of election campaigns, making it easier to outsource certain jobs, and accepting bids that aren't just the lowest ones offered.

This might make it easier to do design-build projects, Mr. McClure said, because usually the city has to take the lowest bidder, even if that contractor has a record of trouble. Or it could contract with private developers to do public works projects -- for instance, someone working on a development.

A charter could also enable the council to explore a documentary transfer tax -- though this would require further voter approval, according to Mr. McClure -- and allow council members to determine their own salaries. Currently, council members receive compensation based on the state's salary ceiling, which establishes salary based on a city's population.

These possibilities are in addition to the original reason that spurred the council to look into a charter: exploring an alternative voting system to the options the city currently has, which is to use an at-large or by-district voting system. Currently, an appointed districting advisory committee is developing recommendations for how the city could be divided into five or six voting districts, each with its own elected council member.

City Attorney Bill McClure insists, though, that while a charter would grant the council greater authority and flexibility, it's unlikely the council would "run wild." As with a general law city, he said, a charter city would still be subject to a voter referendum, repealing or preventing policies from going into effect. Or voters could amend the charter to restrict the council's authority.

One drawback is that there are some ongoing questions with the courts as to just what cities can legislate for themselves, according to the report. Charter cities aren't supposed to legislate on matters that are considered of "statewide concern" -- and courts' definitions of what exactly that means has shifted over time, according to Mr. McClure's report. Housing policy, for instance, was once considered a local affair, but more recent court decisions indicate that it is a statewide concern, according to the staff report.

Guild Theatre

The council is also scheduled to host a study session on the Guild Theatre site. The Peninsula Arts Guild is offering to renovate the Guild Theatre on El Camino Real in Menlo Park into a live music and event venue and proposes to expand the square footage to about 11,000 square feet, from 4,800 square feet.

According to a staff report, the facility would likely be used one to three nights per week. It would have a basement intended for use as a dressing room and gathering area; a main floor with a lobby, a stage, a main viewing area, seating and a bar; and a second floor with a smaller bar and more viewing spots. The developers are offering to open the venue for community events, though how many events that offer entails is up for debate at the meeting.

The goal for the project is to adhere to a quick timeline. Between now and May, the city will develop a work plan, budget and project timeline for the project and retain a consultant to help with the specific plan revisions needed for the project to work. By June, the project could be brought to the Planning Commission and by July, to the council for review.

The rush is because the applicant (Peninsula Arts Guild) is under a contract to buy the property from the current owner; the contract expires in July.

Read previous coverage:

● January 26: New nonprofit hopes to transform Guild into state-of-the-art event venue

● Feb. 6: Menlo Park launches year with new set of priorities

The Menlo Park City Council's regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 13, starts at 7 p.m. at the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at 701 Laurel St. in the Civic Center. Watch the meeting online here, access the meeting agenda here.


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