After weeks of debate, the Menlo Park City Council agreed Tuesday to cancel an order to buy air quality monitors through PurpleAir.
The purchase was intended to address concerns that, until very recently, there were no air quality monitors in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood. The neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by streets that, at least pre-pandemic, experienced very heavy commuter traffic where idling vehicles released air pollution on Willow Road, U.S. 101 and Bayfront Expressway. Council discussions in recent weeks then extended to the question of whether the city should get in the business of buying air quality monitors for areas that don't have them. As of Tuesday's decision, the council appears to have decided to at least hold off on buying extra monitors in an area where high-quality ones were recently installed.
Last year, the city agreed to work with SMC Labs to purchase and install air quality monitors in Belle Haven. SMC Labs is an initiative by San Mateo County's Information Services Department to use "smart" technologies like the Internet of Things, machine learning, big data and blockchain to address regional issues, according to its website.
But toward the end of August, when the debate began, the monitors hadn't been delivered, and the air quality had become unhealthy on some days due to smoke from the state's many wildfires.
The council at its Aug. 28 meeting agreed to send a letter calling on the county to deliver and install the monitors as soon as possible, and in the meantime, to purchase three air quality monitors from PurpleAir.
But then, the air quality monitors arrived. The new air quality monitors, run through the county and a company called Clarity, were installed Sept. 14, according to Assistant City Manager Nick Pegueros.
Anyone can view the air quality monitors and the readings they produce at openmap.clarity.io. Pegueros noted that the SMC Labs monitors are wireless, solar-powered and maintained regularly.
Mayor Cecilia Taylor opted to hold off on sending the letter since the monitors had arrived already, but then the council had to decide whether to cancel the order with PurpleAir.
PurpleAir monitors are considered consumer-level products and are not maintained regularly, Pegueros told to the council Sept. 22.
However, as wildfire smoke blanketed the Bay Area, some residents found the company's map to be useful because it reports out readings from its large network of air quality monitors in real time. Even though the readings from the regional Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are generally considered to be more reliable, they are usually several hours delayed. Plus, the nearest BAAQMD monitor to Menlo Park is in Redwood City and may not pick up on air quality variations in nearby communities.
During the council's Sept. 22 debate, a new question emerged: Should each council district within Menlo Park get its own small, discretionary budget? While council members Ray Mueller and Drew Combs said they didn't agree with the idea of purchasing the additional PurpleAir monitors, they were willing to defer to Taylor's wishes to acquire them – acknowledging that in the future, they might have their own district-specific budget items that other council members might not agree with.
But Taylor ultimately decided against the purchase and proposed to cancel it.
Mueller said he felt that the city had already addressed the equity issue with monitors by bringing the high-quality monitors to Belle Haven through SMC Labs, which don't exist elsewhere in the city. "I don't think it's good public policy," he said.
Combs called the district-specific budget idea a "natural evolution" of the district system. "We will get there, I can promise you," he said. "Almost every district system gets there."
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton opposed both the purchase of the PurpleAir monitors and the idea of district-specific budgets. "Why are we doing this if we are already using tax dollars to pay to do this?" she asked. She said she favored creating a grant system for residents to apply for monitors in unrepresented areas if they agree to maintain them.
She also defended the consensus-based budget process for vetting projects to fund based on their merit, rather than allowing council members exclusive say over particular line items. "This is the bad side of districting," she said. "If we want to not have a frivolously spent budget, then we make decisions as a group."