A Menlo Park committee created in May has lost five of its 13 members to resignations. Former members of Menlo Park's Community Engagement and Outreach Committee, created to support the city's Housing Element process to zone for up to 3,800 new homes citywide, spoke recently to The Almanac about why they quit.
Vicky Robledo, Soody Tronson, Carol Mayer Marshall, Yadira DiSiena and Nehezi Ollarvia have all resigned from the committee. Among the reasons cited for leaving were the limited role of the committee, feeling disrespected, lost surveys and unfair representation across districts.
A limited scope
One of the consistent complaints The Almanac heard about the committee was that its purpose was so limited. Other city commissions are tasked with weighing in on policy matters in an advisory role, but members of the Community Engagement and Outreach Committee (CEOC) for Menlo Park's Housing Element process were tasked with serving as a community ambassador for the project, encouraging others to participate, acting as a resource and giving feedback on the community engagement plan.
Committee member Ollarvia, former vice chair of the committee, said that she felt that the committee's purpose was not to provide input at all, but to "be a hype man" for the city.
The city was clear from the beginning that the committee wasn't going to be providing policy direction, Mayor Drew Combs said in an interview.
Instead, the goal was to have the city's existing housing and planning commissions provide that advisory input to the City Council, Combs explained.
Had the city created yet another advisory commission specifically for the Housing Element project, he said, "It was probably going to a little bit too many voices for staff, to then add another dozen or so people to that substantive discussion."
At the same time, "In all honesty, we ended up with lots of committee members who were unhappy," he added.
In her resignation email to the city, District 1 resident DiSiena wrote, "The city of Menlo Park has many voices speaking for it. I was hoping to engage in those conversations to help facilitate, problem solve, build relationships, connections, understanding and support strengthening my community and city. However, my voice and the voices of other members from the CEOC were not heard or respected."
Another problem committee members identified was that the process for selecting committee members seemed at first to prioritize equal representation across districts, until all of the people who applied for the committee were then selected. Initially, nobody from District 5 applied, so after the applications were received, the City Council agreed to keep two spots open so District 5 Councilman Ray Mueller could appoint two people from his district. The council accepted the rest of the applicants, installing four representatives from District 4, three from District 2 and two from each of the other districts.
"The way in which the committee was put together was super funky," Ollarvia said. "You're supposed to be appointed, (but) they accepted everyone that applied."
In an effort to try to enable the CEOC to provide more substantive policy input on the Housing Element, Committee Chair Max Fennell and Vice Chair Ollarvia met with Combs and city staff, including the city manager and city attorney, according to Fennell.
While Fennell remains chair of the committee, he said that he felt disrespected during the meeting, in which he said he was insulted by Combs and was told he wouldn't be able to influence policy.
"I think that a lot of members of the CEOC felt insulted that the purview of the committee wasn't expanded," Combs responded.
"If he feels insulted, then I'm sorry he feels insulted, but I was not going to let a situation (happen) where we were going to be rewriting the plan and process when ... we were always completely transparent about what this committee was about," he said.
Robledo, a Belle Haven resident, said she joined the committee after some encouragement because she and her fellow commissioners believed that they would be tasked with helping to create surveys to engage the community and to participate in a more advisory position.
Robledo said she made it a goal to try to collect at least 50 surveys in her district, Belle Haven.
"I busted my butt," she said. "I went and I volunteered a couple of days doing outreach."
She said she was told to drop off the completed surveys at the police substation in Belle Haven, which she did.
"Four days later, I get a call saying mysteriously, the surveys got lost, and, believe it or not, had the audacity to ask me to backtrack," she said.
After the surveys were completed, she said, the committee hasn't heard anything.
"I just expected a follow-up," she said. "I just sort of felt used. I felt like I was there so the city could say, 'See, we reached out.'"
Later, Deanna Chow, assistant community development director and the staff person leading the CEOC, told the City Council that the surveys had been accidentally thrown away.
Ollarvia resigned on Oct. 25.
'It seems like it (the CEOC) was created to check a box. We had no influence on policy, no influence on the process," she said.
She also said that the committee faced trouble in getting answers as to why the city was doing things differently than in previous zoning processes in Menlo Park.
Other recent city zoning processes, such as the ConnectMenlo General Plan Update, have had advisory committees made up of commissioners alongside community members and City Council members.
"This time, they separated it," Ollarvia said, noting that the committee hasn't been in contact with the other commissions who are empowered to advise the City Council on policy matters related to this project.
"We felt like we were handcuffed ... we felt like it was a complete charade," she said. "... This should have been a commission, not a committee," she said.
She added that she wanted some answers about why the city's last housing element failed, but hasn't been able to get answers.
Tronson, a former member of Menlo Park's Finance and Audit Committee, also recently quit the CEOC. She said she experienced pushback from staff and consultants for asking questions that she felt would have enabled her to better fulfill her community engagement and outreach role.
"Every time I and others would bring up any questions asking for information, we were told, "Oh, you're discussing policy, you don't have the authority, it's not in your zone of responsibilities to discuss policy,' which is totally outrageous," she said. "Asking for information so you can then engage the community is not policymaking."
She added that while she and others on the committee disagreed with the city's approach to bifurcate the policy advisory work from the community outreach efforts, the committee has worked to complete its assigned role. Yet responses to questions some members have asked has been limited, she said.
For instance, she said she raised questions about the design of the survey that was used to collect input from the community, arguing that it lacks credibility and was "designed to get the answers they want to get."
"Even a car salesman has to have a sale sheet," she said. "I'm not going to parrot (something) unless I understand the information behind it."
In an email, Chow said she appreciated the committee members' participation, adding, "our outreach is better because of their input."
"We hope the former members continue to stay involved and consider working with the city on future efforts," she added. "The project team will look to the City Council for guidance on the CEOC and plans on having a discussion at a meeting in the near future."
Combs said he has planned to discuss the topic of the CEOC resignations with the City Council before the committee's next meeting.
"We do have to assume that Menlo Park is filled with lots of really accomplished and talented and skilled people, and they really want to dig into substantive issues," he said.
"I would be in favor of not doing any outreach or communication committees like this in the future," he added. "Residents are very clear that when they engage with the city, they want to engage substantively. They don't want to engage just about communication, or just about outreach. I definitely think we should take that and respond accordingly."
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]