Update: The meeting was continued until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13.
Three members of Menlo Park's City Council have authorized a closed session meeting at 3:30 p.m. today (Oct. 12), a time when the two other City Council members are unable to attend due to their full-time job commitments.
The meeting was scheduled without the prior knowledge or consent of Menlo Park Mayor Drew Combs, a highly unusual step that, while apparently legal, breached established protocols that dictate that the mayor and city manager are expected to set City Council meeting agendas.
Council members Jen Wolosin, Cecilia Taylor and Vice Mayor Betsy Nash scheduled the meeting for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday without his knowledge. He said he didn't even know what the meeting would be about, beyond what's on the public meeting agenda, which states that the closed session will be regarding the "public employee performance evaluation of the City Manager."
City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson confirmed that she didn't know what the meeting would be about either, other than what was listed on the agenda.
Generally, council meetings are scheduled after polling City Council members for their availability, but that didn't happen this time, Combs said.
"No one had ever come to me and said, 'I want to schedule a closed session on the city manager's performance review,'" he said. "The focus has been on the city manager recruitment process."
Councilman Ray Mueller, who is also unable to attend the afternoon meeting due to work commitments, said the scheduling approach was unprecedented in his experience.
"I'm having a hard time reconciling why the mayor was not approached with setting this meeting. I've never seen that in the 12 years I've been serving the city as a commissioner and council member," he told The Almanac.
In an interview, Wolosin said that "there was not a deliberate attempt to make anyone miss the special council meeting." She said that there were constraints in setting the meeting time, "including rules around not being able to add a special council agenda item to an existing agenda, not being able to push back the start time of an existing council meeting (and the) availability of the lawyer."
Combs expressed concern that the scheduling process for this meeting could have an adverse impact on city staff, generating chaos and uncertainty within the city government, as well as potential incivility.
"This isn't about me being disrespected. Specifically, this is about the impact on this organization. This throws the organization into a lot of uncertainty," he said. "….That impacts the service we provide to residents."
In an Oct. 10 public email to the City Council, Combs said that failing to poll City Council members to determine their availability and omitting the mayor from the scheduling process "seems unethical and appears to violate the Brown Act."
The Brown Act is California's open meeting law that dictates that a majority of City Council members cannot talk privately about government matters unless a meeting is scheduled 24 to 72 hours in advance – depending on the content of the meeting – and the public is notified.
In a text, Nash said that she was "confident there was no effort to exclude anyone and I know of no Brown Act violations."
According to Wolosin, alternative times, at 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., had been presented as options for the council to meet after concerns that other council members were unable to make the scheduled meeting, but those weren't accepted. She said that the Brown Act had been followed.
Both Mueller and Combs have asked that the meeting be rescheduled. Mueller proposed Wednesday at 5 p.m. – and added that the council could still push the meeting back if it wanted to, under the government code cited in setting the special meeting. Combs had asked that the meeting be canceled and rescheduled for a "time more optimal for public engagement and full council participation."
Wolosin said there was an urgent need to hold the meeting and that it couldn't be rescheduled, but declined to say why the matter was time-sensitive.
Taylor did not respond to a request for comment.
The meeting is set to be held via Zoom beginning at 3:30 p.m. Access the agenda here.
The special meeting will be followed by a regular public meeting via Zoom at 5 p.m., which also begins with a closed session. Access the agenda here.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said that Combs' email was from Oct. 12. It was from Oct. 10.