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."
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.