By Lynne Bramlett
Sloane Citron's recent guest opinion on the state of the Menlo Park downtown raised many important points. Some comments:
Neighboring cities are actively working to revitalize their downtowns. For example, the Burlingame Downtown Business Improvement District initiative shows an inviting and creative approach. There are other local examples.
Reconsidering the role of the Chamber of Commerce would also help. I always thought a city's Chamber of Commerce focused on supporting small business owners. So I was surprised to see local "titans of industry" serving on the Menlo Park Chamber's board. These include the vice president of development at Facebook, a senior Facebook lawyer, and David Bohannon II. A former Menlo Park city manager also serves. Instead, I would prefer a focus on helping the small business owners and in revitalizing our commercial corridors.
Citron's column suggested "putting a can-do person in charge unleashed from the paralyzing Menlo Park bureaucracy." Unfortunately, staff can hinder, delay or halt council directives they disagree with, and I've personally witnessed blatant obstructionism. I'm not the only person to believe that staff runs Menlo Park although the council tries to lead. We need a healthier balance of power in our city.
To begin, we need more transparency into the staff organization and how it functions. This is shrouded in too much mystery. Some have suggested an overall performance/efficiency audit of the staff organization. Finding this kind of consultant may be difficult. Instead, the council could institute the role of city auditor, reporting directly to the council to promote honest, efficient, effective and fully accountable city government. The city auditor in Palo Alto works from an annual council-approved work plan, with the findings going directly to the council. Let's add this role in Menlo Park without needing to go to the ballot box.
The true size of the Menlo Park staff organization is also unclear when one considers the number of temporary employees, contractors, consultants, outsourced operations and "public-private partnerships." Our staff organization is also considered large for a city our size.
The biggest portion of the city's annual operating budget goes to pay for the staff organization. Development, especially the annual amounts coming in via development agreements, generates significant revenue. A smaller staff organization would reduce the need for development revenue, and perhaps reduce the staff's perceived focus of serving developers over residents.
The council also needs final approval power over the city manager's ability to hire direct reports. Recent senior hires have come from promotions and appointments. Instead, let's institute a more open hiring process designed to foster diversity and fresh ideas.
The city satisfaction surveys also need to include benchmarking information, to allow Menlo Park to objectively place its staff organizational performance into context. The National Research Council's community survey is considered the "gold standard" for city satisfaction surveys. This firm conducted Menlo Park's surveys in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
Longer-term, the city needs a community-led strategic plan that would sit above all other city plans. Instead of horizontal planning, we have many master "vertical" plans, such as the Transportation Master Plan and Parks and Recreation Master Plan, or development-focused plans (i.e. ConnectMenlo). These are not strategic plans. Forward-looking municipalities in the U.S. and abroad consider strategic plans a best practice.
Meanwhile, we could start by hearing the formal plans from the two City Council subcommittees working on plans designed to fix problems aired at the June development moratorium discussion.
I suspect the silence is partly because actual plans would require at least a tacit admission that ConnectMenlo was misrepresented as an authentic update to the city's General Plan Land Use and Circulation elements. Its benefits to residents were overstated and it lacked accountability. Current staff may also not know how to solve the problems, so outsiders may be needed along with allowing residents to help.
It's time to admit error, to learn from our mistakes and to re-do this process. The time cannot come soon enough.
Lynne Bramlett is a former Menlo Park library commissioner and a longtime resident of the community.