News

Menlo Park: Council approves updated travel policy

 

Using a model policy developed by the Institute for Local Government, an organization that promotes good local governance in California, the council adopted a new travel policy that will relate to council or staff travel reimbursements.

Under the new policy, expenses may be reimbursed in situations that involve:

● Discussions with regional, state or federal government representatives about city-adopted policies.

● Attendance at educational seminars.

● Participation in activities with regional, state or national organizations that have to do with city interests.

● Recognition for someone's service to the city.

● City events.

● Strategies to attract or retain businesses in the city.

Any other expense would require prior council approval. That includes international travel or travel for which requested expense reimbursement exceeds $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.

Also, if a trip is paid for by the city, the attendee will be expected to report about it at the next City Council meeting.

The policy should also have a clear list of examples of the type of trips the city will fund, Mayor Peter Ohtaki added.

"I am happy to support this policy," said Councilwoman Catherine Carlton. "It's fair and balanced."

Sister cities?

Whether travel related to visits to the city's sister and friendship cities should be reimbursed, and whether the expense should be cleared in advance through the council, were other questions.

Ohtaki recommended that if travel is reimbursed, it needs to be approved in advance by the council. If council members foot the bill themselves, he said, they don't need to clear it in advance, but "As policy, the City Council should be informed in advance of an upcoming sister cities trip."

In June, 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, along with Ohtaki. Clay Curtin, the staff member who chaperoned the trip, said Ohtaki paid his own airfare and train fare. Curtin said his travel costs came to $2,254 for airfare, car and rail transport.

Other travel policies

In recent years, various council members have traveled abroad as part of local delegations, accepting substantial contributions for travel and lodging from third parties.

According to documents disclosing council members' economic interests, which they are required to file annually, the number and value of contributions for trips that council members have taken have escalated in recent years. While some portion of those reimbursements came from places Menlo Park reports as a sister city or friendship city, many travel reimbursements reported fell outside of these locations.

International travel and lodging reimbursements funded by third parties began in 2014 with a trip to China by then-Mayor Mueller, which added up to an estimated contribution of $3,770.

In 2015, Carlton reported receiving a total of $16,205, with $180 coming from sister city Galway, Ireland, and $2,560 from Kochi, India, a friendship city to Menlo Park. The rest of the reimbursements she received were for travel in China that year. Mueller in 2015 reported receiving a total of $2,560 funded by the Kochi government.

In 2016, Carlton reported receiving $13,580 for travel in China and Korea, and Keith reported receiving $13,032 for travel in Shanghai, Zhengzhou, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, China. In 2017, Carlton reported receiving $1,050 from the government of Bizen, Japan, as part of a trip related to Menlo Park's friendship city program.

Some members of the public have raised concerns about a trip to China that Keith took in March, where she attended a signing ceremony during which she was pictured with the mayors of Mountain View and Dublin, California, and others.

In public comments, George Fisher, a Menlo Park attorney, cited certified translated documents indicating that international media had reported the result of that signing ceremony was a memorandum of understanding in support of establishing a finance center and tech accelerator at an office park in China, with an outpost planned in Mountain View.

In July, Fisher filed complaints with the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging violations of the state's Fair Political Practices Act by Keith and Carlton for accepting reimbursements over the $470 gift limit by organizations that were not certified as 501(c)(3) nonprofits.

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 has provided letters from the FPPC indicating that organizations that funded the trips Fisher raised concerns about were permitted to reimburse for travel in excess of the gift limit.

Fisher maintains that the organization that has funded some of the trips, the China-USA CEO Association, may not have the proper legal clearance to operate as a 501(c)(3). The FPPC has not yet determined the validity of Fisher's complaints.

"This is not something to be taken lightly," he told the council.

Keith defended taking the trip, noting she had planned months in advance to travel with her daughter, a student at University of California, Davis, during her spring break, and while she did miss a City Council study session about Facebook's massive Willow Village proposal, it wasn't an agenda item that involved a vote.

"I did choose to be with my only daughter on her spring break," she said.

Keith told the council and meeting attendees that she did not sign any documents on the trip, nor was she asked to.

The March trip, like other delegations she'd traveled with, she said, often involve speaking in general terms about Menlo Park, talking about what makes the city great and providing basic details about the city.

She suggested that the city develop a letter template that council members send to organizers of future trips to ascertain what documents are expected to be signed, and by whom, and who else will be in attendance.

Any documents provided should be translated into English, she added.

Carlton noted that on a previous trip, she had been asked to sign a document previously discussed by the City Council, but the way it was written changed what the council had approved in advance. She said she called City Attorney Bill McClure, and they reworded the document to align with the council's intentions.

Other policy questions that arose as part of this incident were determined to be best addressed in the part of the council's policy manual that deals with communications. As a general rule, council members agreed, they should not sign anything without clearance by the City Council – whether at home or abroad.

"We have all adhered to that," Keith said. "I don't think anything should be signed without council approval, no matter where you are," she added later. She suggested council members obtain advance letters from the FPPC validating whether an offer of trip reimbursements by a third party will be eligible for exemption to the $470 gift limit.

When it comes to travel funded by third parties, McClure said he'd draft new language for the policy laying out what is and is not allowed regarding reimbursable expenses. That language would include a requirement that council members obtain a ruling from the FPPC in instances where it's not totally clear that a reimbursement offer is exempt from the gift limit.

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Comments

20 people like this
Posted by Greg
a resident of another community
on Sep 12, 2018 at 12:24 pm

The city council missed the whole point of George Fisher's presentation, and instead got wrapped up in the mechanics of reimbursement for foreign travel and vetting of who can sign what. The mere presence of MP council members at these "technology cooperation fests" creates the implication that MP is supportive of these efforts to move our technology and intellectual property offshore for the benefit of China - whether they sign anything or not is a minor detail, as their participation in the conference suggests MP approval (not to mention wearing a pin that falsely identifies the participant as the mayor of MP).


9 people like this
Posted by Something's rotten in MP
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 12, 2018 at 8:22 pm

Something's rotten in MP is a registered user.

Greg, I hope you realize that missing of George Fisher's main point was no accident. That's a technique one Council member uses skillfully so as to avoid the real issues. The two people who might have pulled the topic back from the trivial, or tangential issues, were absent. Our City Manager and City Attorney should also be showing leadership here. While council might have to approve policy, the City Manager should be making policy recommendations designed to fix serious problems in MP. I hope the new Council will hold McIntyre accountable for delivering and not allow him to essentially put the blame on Council as his excuse for non-action. Residents and our small business owners deserve better.


Like this comment
Posted by The Willows
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Sep 12, 2018 at 11:22 pm

The Willows is a registered user.

Council did not ignore George Fisher's main points, they gave staff direction to address two specific elements; creating additional guidelines to clarify when council can sign documents and that FPPC approval should be obtained before taking reimbursement for international travel. Last night, the city attorney clarified that no document have ever been signed abroad without council approval. Also, council members already have FPPC letters for these trips. The additions to the travel policy merely codify what has already been taking place.

Greg suggests (above) there is an effort to move technology and intellectual property offshore for the benefit of China, and that the presence of a Menlo Park official in a photo implies that the City of Menlo Park is supportive of this specific plot. One could also suggest that the presence of an American Flag in council chambers implies the City of Menlo Park is supportive of separating families from young children and putting children in cages. These are equally flawed arguments.


6 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 13, 2018 at 4:31 pm

George Fisher is a registered user.

More is involved than the presence of a Menlo Park official in a photo. The Chengdu Hi-tech Industrial Zone Website Web Link# includes the following quotes in its explanation below the photo in question:
“. . .

Recently, mayor Leonard Siegel of Mountain View, mayor David Haubert of Dublin, mayor Kirsten Keith of Menlo Park, and the CEO of the Silicon Valley-based management consulting group Him Group, Michael Kasperzak, visited the Chengdu Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone along with 4 other technology companies from Silicon Valley. The crux of the group’s visit was the aspiration to extend the spirit and mature startup ecosystem of Silicon Valley to Chengdu, and to establish a partnership network formed by major Sino-U.S. economic and trade organizations.

On March 27, Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, the Silicon Valley city cluster (Dublin, Mountain View, and Menlo Park), and Him Group, a management consulting firm based in Silicon Valley, had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on the establishment of the “Chengdu-Silicon Valley Technology & Finance Center”.

. . .

The "Chengdu-Silicon Valley Technology & Finance Center" consists of three primary business units, including the establishment of the "Chengdu-Silicon Valley Technology Transfer Center" and the "Chengdu-Silicon Valley Financial Services Center" in Chengdu, as well as the "Chengdu-Silicon Valley Free Trade Zone" in Silicon Valley.

The Chengdu-Silicon Valley Technology Transfer Center will select exceptional projects and provide a platform to introduce high-tech projects to Chengdu, while accelerating such projects from Silicon Valley. The center will maximize the potential of its role as an incubator for firms in Silicon Valley, and an accelerator for firms in China.”.

A certified translation was sent to Peter Ohtaki and Bill McClure at Mayor Ohtaki’s request on April 25, 2018.

In addition Kirsten Keith tweeted a reference to Lenny Siegel’s “outstanding summary of our recent trip to @Chengdu_China. Siegel’s summary of March 28, 2018 stated:

“The Chinese are interested in obtaining Silicon Valley technology, and our visit served as a positive counterpoint to President Trump’s declaration of a trade war.”

More is needed than the minor changes made to the travel policy. Menlo Park should place a moratorium on its representatives travelling internationally at the expense of Foreign Governments or purported Charitable 501c3 organizations without prior consent of City Council after full disclosure.


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