News

Tuesday: Menlo Park council to evaluate its travel policies

 

The Menlo Park City Council may update its policies on travel funded by taxpayers and third parties at its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

If the council opts to follow staff recommendations, it could set clearer rules about what travel can be reimbursed at taxpayers' expense. The council may also develop clearer guidelines about how to deal with potential conflicts or ethical challenges that arise from international travel funded by third parties.

Some state laws already govern council reimbursement procedures: Council members may be reimbursed for expenses incurred while doing their official duties, based on an adopted city policy. Cities that provide compensation or expense payment for council members must require council members to complete ethics training, according to a staff report. To ensure public funds are used carefully, council members must submit expense reports, which are public records, and they must accept group travel rates when offered. They also must provide reports on the meetings they attend at city expense at the next regular council meeting, staff said.

Under the state's Political Reform Act, council members are not permitted to accept gifts valued at more than $470 from a single source in a calendar year, with a few exceptions, such as if the expense is paid for by a state, local or federal government agency, or by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Why now?

The city's lack of clear guidelines regarding how council members should present themselves while traveling abroad, under what circumstances they should accept travel funding from third parties, and which third parties should be permitted to fund council members' international travel became apparent in recent months.

In March, Councilwoman Kirsten Keith traveled to China as part of a delegation with the mayors from Mountain View and Dublin. During that trip, she was present at a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding that appeared to formalize support for a business deal to establish a tech incubator and finance center in Mountain View. While the precise details of the memorandum aren't public, the incident raised some public concern about the role council members should play in representing or appearing to represent the city abroad, particularly without advance council knowledge.

In Menlo Park, lawyer George Fisher filed complaints in July with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that council members Keith and Catherine Carlton mischaracterized travel reimbursements they received from organizations they said were 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Fisher alleged he had not been able to verify that those organizations met the proper nonprofit tax-exempt status, and raised concerns that those contributions may not be exempt from the state's $470 gift cap.

Carlton reported that she accidentally put the wrong organization name on her form and has corrected the form to list the right tax-exempt nonprofit that reimbursed her travel. Keith said the commission had given clearance for local elected officials to accept reimbursements for similar delegation trips. The commission has not yet determined the validity of Fisher's complaints.

The last time the council's travel policy was updated was in March 1991, according to a staff report. The policy also applies to city employees.

Taxpayer-funded travel

Using a model policy developed by the Institute for Local Government, city staffers are proposing a number of changes to Menlo Park's current travel policy.

Expenses would be reimbursed in situations that involve discussions with regional, state or federal government representatives about city-adopted policies; educational seminars; activities with regional, state or national organizations that have to do with city interests; recognition for someone's service to the city; city events; or strategies to attract or retain businesses in the city.

Any other expense would require prior council approval, as would any international travel or expense reimbursement exceeding $2,000 per trip.

Reimbursement would not be provided for personal time on any trip; political or charitable events and contributions; family, guest or pet expenses; entertainment expenses; non-mileage personal car expenses; or personal losses incurred while on city business.

Policy options

In addition to the staff-recommended policy, the council may consider further restrictions and policies to apply to travel by elected officials.

One big consideration is about the ethical issues that could arise from accepting third-party travel reimbursements.

The council could consider prohibiting members from accepting travel payments from third parties, requiring council permission before a member accepts a third-party travel payment, or adopting standards for what kind of reports members should give if they do accept payment for a trip from a third party.

Another question is whether a council member should be permitted to speak on behalf of the city at non-city events. However, there is already a provision in the council's procedures manual that directs members to clearly indicate they are speaking only for themselves at non-city events, and not the council as a whole.

The council could also consider whether to establish a "sister city" travel policy. In July, the council approved a one-time expenditure, not to exceed $3,000, for an employee to chaperone a delegation of Menlo Park kids on a sister city trip to Bizen, Japan. Generally, the city doesn't reimburse council members for travel related to sister cities, but it does reimburse for staff travel if it's approved by the council first, according to staff.

The council will begin its regular meeting onTuesday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 701 Laurel St., in the Menlo Park Civic Center.

Access the meeting agenda here or watch it online here.

--

• Sign up for Almanac Express to get news updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 10, 2018 at 12:06 pm

About time this matter is properly addressed.


Like this comment
Posted by correction
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 10, 2018 at 1:08 pm

The first reference to 501(c)(3) is not correct. A 501(c)(3) or a foreign government are both acceptable funding sources.


4 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 10, 2018 at 1:37 pm

Brian is a registered user.

whatever,

I think you may be optimistic if you think it will be "Properly addressed" because the people who would update the policies are also the ones that have been abusing the existing policies.

If they really wanted to make a travel policy they would forbid travel paid for by 3rd parties and only approve City related travel with a vote by the City Council on any travel totaling more than $1,000.

We will see what they come up with but I would not be surprised if they tabled any decision until after the election because this is already a topic for district 2 and Kirsten is trying to get re-elected.


2 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 10, 2018 at 3:11 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Here's my email to council on the topic. Web Link First bad sign was the staff report, which didn't directly address the main concerns. In contrast, other staff reports have been quite directive with their recommendations to Council. Unfortunately, my email included a table which didn't show up well in the email to council format, but the content is there. Misuse of position should be addressed along with more guidance regarding accepting money from foreign entities as they could be fronts for a government. I detail my major concerns in my email, so won't repeat them here. Anyone with concerns on this topic, please write council at city.council@menlopark.org.


2 people like this
Posted by FPPC Investigation
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 10, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Dollars to donuts the matter isn't heard until late, after 10:30pm at night and the Council majority tries to insulate Kirsten's trip to China from criticism in their comments.


Like this comment
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 10, 2018 at 5:10 pm

I see no reason for any MP councilperson to go to China on our money to "help" Mtn. View with its business deal. Mountain View is perfectly able to do that without Kirsten's presence. Did she take her husband along?
Trips by kids to a sister city (why?) should be chaperoned by a teacher who's certainly better able to handle kids they probably know than some council member.
With skype, face time, etc., there really isn't a good reason to spend thousands for anyone on the council to take a taxpayer-paid trip.


Like this comment
Posted by correction
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 10, 2018 at 11:33 pm

@Downtowner writes, "I see no reason for any MP councilperson to go to China on our money..."

Not your money, the China trips are paid for by the Chinese government.

Trips to sister cities in Ireland or Japan seem to be paid for out of pocket by council members.

We're not aware of Menlo Park tax payer dollars being spent on any of these trips.


Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 11, 2018 at 9:40 am

Brian is a registered user.

Correction,

I am guessing that by using an anonymous name you are not an official nor are you stating facts. I have heard that the China trip was paid by Chinese businesses looking for business opportunities in Silicon Valley. The money coming out of the City or not this brings up questions of ethics and conflict of interest. I would also point out that Kirsten missed a city council meeting and a working discussion of the largest proposal to come before the CIty Council, Facebook's Willow Village. At the very least she abandoned her duty to Menlo Park and the residents to take a paid trip to China for which purpose is still murky.

Any travel policy needs to address these issues and state clearly that trips where anyone is representing (of mis-representing in Kirstens case) they role with the City are approved by the council and the intent and extent of their role clearly defined ahead of time.

I agree the majority of the council will probably have the discussion late and delay (as well as water down) any criticism of current members running for re-election. They will probably also try to table it until after the election.


3 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 11, 2018 at 12:30 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Correction -- you say the Chinese Government paid for the trips and you seem to think that that makes accepting the money okay. The FPPC may well determine that the Chinese government was the front for the (supposed) non-profits that "gave" the money. This makes the matter even more awful! Why would the Chinese government be so interested in Silicon Valley? To attempt to influence business and elected officials in Silicon Valley -- to benefit China! The U.S. trade deficit with China has just reached a record high ($167.3 Billion or so as of March 2018) and this trade imbalance is becoming (or already is) a national security problem. MP elected officials should not be accepting money to visit foreign countries. They are needed in MP. They also don't have the skillset and background to know about all the possible landmines and to avoid doing harm to broader U.S. foreign/trade policy efforts. We also have the matter of wearing the MP name badge and pin in an attempt to appear to be an official representative of MP. The whole handling of this matter is deeply troubling. The matter should have been an agenda topic months ago.


Like this comment
Posted by correction
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 11, 2018 at 7:51 pm

@Brian writes, "I have heard that the China trip was paid by Chinese businesses looking for business opportunities..."

Only foreign governments or 501(c)(3) non-profit companies reimburse these trips. George Fisher can tell you that Chinese businesses are not paying for these trips.

@Brian writes, "The money coming out of the City or not this brings up questions of ethics and conflict of interest."

Yes, the FPPC has rules and provides guidelines for participating in such trips ethically.

@Brian writes, "I would also point out that Kirsten missed a city council meeting and a working discussion of the largest proposal to come before the CIty Council, Facebook's Willow Village."

There was no regular council meeting, only the study session. Keith has stated that she was not in China but on an airplane during the study session. Also, that trip was during her daughter's Spring Break, she is the only council member with college-age kids, so other council members schedules will conflict. Also, her only opponent in the council race works for Facebook and is barred from participating in anything related to Facebook development and Willow Village traffic mitigation.

@Brian writes, "I agree the majority of the council will probably have the discussion late and delay (as well as water down) any criticism of current members running for re-election. They will probably also try to table it until after the election."

Both Mueller and Cline are not in attendance tonight for the meeting to discuss their travel policy proposal.

@Lynne_Bramlett writes, "You say the Chinese Government paid for the trips and you seem to think that that makes accepting the money okay."

Just clarifying a misstatement. When the FPPC says the reimbursement for the travel is OK, that's a fair standard.

@Lynne_Bramlett writes, "The FPPC may well determine that the Chinese government was the front for the (supposed) non-profits that "gave" the money. This makes the matter even more awful!"

George Fisher will be able to explain that these trips can be reimbursed by a foreign government or a 501(c)(3). These are the rules., but you are free to disagree with the FPPC.

@Lynne_Bramlett asks, "Why would the Chinese government be so interested in Silicon Valley?"

That is a rhetorical question.

@Lynne_Bramlett states, "MP elected officials should not be accepting money to visit foreign countries."

Maybe so, but no other peninsula city seem to care about their elected officials visiting China.


Like this comment
Posted by trolls
a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2018 at 8:09 pm

Mayor Ohtaki announced that Mueller is very sick and Cline couldn't be there.

It will be interesting to see what the other three do in their absence.


Like this comment
Posted by correction
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 11, 2018 at 10:20 pm

After several Almanac and Daily Post articles, the only person that cares enough to speak up about China trips is George Fisher. Nobody else showed up for public comment on this topic, not even candidate Drew Combs.

[Editor's note: Others showed up but donated their time to speak to Fisher. See below.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 11, 2018 at 10:55 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Correction -- I think I know who you are. Enough said.


Like this comment
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 11, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Correction -- You didn't point out that I donated my time to George Fisher as did Steve Schmidt. (You posted right after the meeting ended and you commented on Drew Combs...) Very sad that Menlo Park is such an outlier regarding ethics reform, which is urgently needed. The Sister Cities program has a strong ethics policy that prohibits the problematic behavior, partly discussed tonight. Web Link I think you know what I think of your posts.


Like this comment
Posted by correction
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 12, 2018 at 12:57 am

@Lynne_Bramlett, I referenced Drew Combs because he was criticizing Keith on this topic in a recent Daily Post article. Combs is a candidate. He should be attending council meetings and speaking during public comment. This is campaign season.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Salt & Straw Palo Alto to open Nov. 23
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 4,355 views

Lakes and Larders (part 2)
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,490 views