Menlo Park: Council to reconsider charter city ballot measure

Special meeting set for Monday, Aug. 13

In a flip-flop of its majority opinion, the Menlo Park City Council voted unanimously on Aug. 6 to reconsider its plan to put forward a ballot measure asking voters to consider converting Menlo Park from a "general law" to a "charter" city.

The council has scheduled an emergency meeting to vote on potentially reversing its decision - and withholding the ballot measure - for 5:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13, in the City Council chambers at 701 Laurel St., in the Menlo Park Civic Center.

The reversal was spurred by Councilwoman Catherine Carlton, who said she changed her mind on the subject after speaking with residents, who she said are still trying to come to grips with the new district voting system being implemented in Menlo Park this year.

"It feels rushed," she summarized.

In May, the council voted 3-2 in favor of bringing the charter measure before voters, with council members Ray Mueller and Rich Cline opposed. Carlton and Cline were appointed to a council subcommittee to figure out the specific wording of the measure.

Mueller said that because the city hadn't thoroughly engaged the community in the discussions, some Menlo Park voters would likely encounter the charter city ballot measure for the first time in the voting booth. "That's not a good time to educate people," he said. "It's hard to go to our residents with a charter when we haven't had a charter process."

On the council dais, there was no clear explanation of why the matter needs to come before voters in 2018. As the city worked through the nuances of converting its voting process from an at-large system to one based on districts, some advocates for further election reform presented information about other potential voting systems the city might adopt, such as ranked-choice voting, or cumulative voting – methods that give weight to candidates who come in second or third at the polls in elections with multiple seats open. But those options are open only to charter cities.

The logic presented over months of council discussion on the topic was that in order to pursue the possibility of those alternative voting systems, the city would have to be a charter city first. However, according to City Attorney Bill McClure and Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver, those alternative voting systems don't provide the legal protection against the kind of lawsuit the city was initially threatened with, which forced its hand to switch to a district voting system in the first place. And, absent major changes in the city's demographic makeup, the city would still likely be vulnerable to such a lawsuit. The city won't have a full sense of its current demography until after the 2020 census.

Other news

Heritage Tree Task Force appointees

The City Council appointed 13 people to serve on its new Heritage Tree Task Force.

The task force is being created in response to concerns that the city's heritage tree ordinance is out of date, administered inconsistently and takes up too much valuable time on the city's environmental quality and planning commissions and on the council.

The council accepted all 11 applicants to the task force. They are Sally Cole, Drew Combs, Sally Johnson, Jen Judas, Kimberly LeMieux, Thomas LeMieux, Scott Marshall, Catherine Martineau, Horace Nash, Caroline Ordonez and Ronald Shepherd, according to a staff report.

In addition, the council appointed council members Carlton and Mueller, who said he is dealing with a heritage tree ordinance-related process on his property. The council ruled out appointing council members whose terms are up this year.

Currently, the city's heritage tree permit process often goes through the Environmental Quality Commission, and appeals of the ordinance can reach the Planning Commission and council. The task force will work to come up with a revamp of the city's heritage tree ordinance over the course of 10 meetings scheduled between late August and October 2019, and will eventually finalize a draft ordinance by winter 2019.

Key components of the ordinance will be up for discussion, and the task force could change how the city defines a heritage tree; what the procedures are for getting a permit to protect, prune or remove a heritage tree; what penalties should be for violating the ordinance; how the ordinance will be enforced; how heritage tree removals should be mitigated; and whether conflicts with the ordinance should be in the purview of city staff, commissions or the council.

Flexible job titles

The council voted 3-1-1, with Kirsten Keith opposed and Mueller abstaining, on a plan to allow the city to seek to fill roles with flexible job titles following unsuccessful efforts to recruit a housing and economic development manager, among other positions. Newly promoted Administrative Services Director Lenka Diaz insisted the move would not increase the city staff's head count.

Downtown talks ahead

The council also agreed to hold a study session sometime in the future on the subject of how to improve the downtown area, rather than appoint a smaller subcommittee that would work with the Chamber of Commerce on the matter.


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3 people like this
Posted by bad argument
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 9, 2018 at 8:03 pm

Once becoming a charter city, the charter committee could safely implement one of these alternative voting systems within the districts and have full protection from the CVRA.

8 people like this
Posted by John Kadvany
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 10, 2018 at 11:14 am

The charter option just gives the city flexibility depending on what happens over the next couple of years. For example, the California Voting Rights Act could be overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, leaving the federal Voting Rights Act in place. A couple cities with 'deep pockets' are trying to make that happen. Or, the unidentified Menlo Park sponsor of the CVRA threat may somehow indicate that with the 2018 election, and expected demographic changes, the CVRA has done its job for Menlo Park, and the city should improve on district elections. An alternative would be 'ranked-choice voting' city-wide. Kevin Shenkman, the attorney representing the CVRA threat, at one time stated methods such as ranked-choice voting could be an acceptable 'remedy', even though some attorneys might disagree. The messages for residents are: District voting is undesirable for Menlo Park; our city is small for districts and it's desirable for the entire city to be involved in all council elections. We want to unify, not divide. The city needs to have the option to change to a better voting system if that becomes possible with low risk. The charter amendment is about being ready to make a choice, not making the choice itself.

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