In Menlo Park Mayor Drew Combs' household, he's in an ongoing debate with his young daughter, he told a mostly online audience at the city's annual State of the City address on Nov. 30.
The debate is this: Is it a bigger deal to be a kindergartner or a mayor? His daughter's logic is that being in kindergarten is a bigger deal because it means going to school every day, while being mayor means sitting at home for long, boring meetings, Combs said.
"I'm not sure of the logic of that reasoning," he said, adding that the discussion has made him reflect on all that has changed during his tenure as mayor.
He started out 12 months ago leading meetings via Zoom from a makeshift desk in his bedroom, a corner of his home where he hoped his children's voices would carry the least, he said.
Now he's wrapping up his mayorship under conditions that don't exactly look like the "return to normalcy I had hoped," but said there is much that is going well citywide.
He called attention to the fact that he was addressing the public from the City Council chambers. "Of course, these chambers are mostly empty. But this is progress," he said. "The city hasn't shrunk from its traditional role or any of its pre-pandemic ambitions. This leaves me hopeful and it should leave you hopeful."
During a global pandemic that has threatened lives and lifestyles, Menlo Park residents, instead of turning inward, did the opposite and invested in their community, Combs said.
As COVID-19 altered all of our lives, he's been impressed by how the community has remained civically engaged and committed to helping those in need, he said. Residents have checked in with elderly and at-risk neighbors, established informal support groups and learning pods, volunteered for vaccination drives, and supported small businesses and nonprofits. They have continued to advocate for policies that were important to them, and all city commissions have at least one new appointed commissioner, he said.
The city is now back to operating at pre-pandemic levels, and in many cases has adapted new protocols to be able to offer services safely, including in the areas of child care and policing, Combs said. The city has also worked to safely reopen some facilities for indoor programs, such as libraries and recreation facilities.
Menlo Park is making progress on a number of important projects too, he said. The city has begun construction on a $45 million project to build a new community center in Belle Haven with funding from Facebook, and has received state and county grants to support child development and day care programs. It is in the final stages of securing what will likely be a $50 million grant from the federal government to protect the city's bayshore from sea level rise.
During the year, the police department processed nearly 50,000 calls, responded to 28,000 incidents and received about $500,000 in grant funding. The city also hired a new police chief, David Norris, and is talking about progressive policing changes, he said.
In the community development department, a total of 923 new homes were approved in three residential developments on the city's Bay side, including 139 that will be dedicated for very low- to moderate-income households. Building permits were issued for a project by MidPen Housing to build 140 new affordable housing units for families on Willow Road, where there had previously been 82. The city has a new website and has switched its building permit application process to be entirely electronic, he said. The city is also working to update its housing element and create its first ever environmental justice element.
At the same time, Combs said, there are a number of challenges for the city. There are still longer than normal wait times for planning and permitting, key staff vacancies, and a downtown that is not the vibrant hub that many wish it to be, he said. On the downtown front, he added, "I promise that in the months ahead, you'll be hearing more from us on these efforts."
Ultimately, he said, "I can't say conclusively whether being mayor of Menlo Park is a bigger deal than being a kindergartner at Laurel (Elementary). But what I can say is that being mayor during this historic and challenging time has been an honor and a responsibility of which I'll always be immensely humbled to have been entrusted with."
Combs invited the community to attend a holiday tree lighting ceremony at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 10, in Fremont Park. The event doubles as a food drive, and people are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item. Donations will be given to the local nonprofit Samaritan House.
Go to is.gd/holidaytree for more information.