Editorial: City should reconsider Belle Haven 'engagement' plan | October 3, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - October 3, 2012

Editorial: City should reconsider Belle Haven 'engagement' plan

A number of questions arise from the City Council's decision late last month to hire a consultant and spend an estimated $90,000 to develop a "community engagement" process for the Belle Haven community in Menlo Park. The first question was implicit in Councilman Peter Ohtaki's explanation of why he voted against the plan: Why spend tens of thousands of scarce dollars primarily on what a staff report identifies as "community outreach activities," rather than on an "action plan"? Through surveys, community meetings and other means, Belle Haven residents have for years expressed their concerns, frustrations and ideas about their neighborhood. "I'd rather spend $90,000 of taxpayers' money to identify solutions to these issues and alternate funding sources," Mr. Ohtaki said.

There's no denying that Belle Haven, like all communities, has changed in some of its demographics in the last decade. But there are constants from which many concerns spring: The Belle Haven population remains far less affluent than the rest of the city's; the crime rate is significantly higher; the community is divided by a major freeway from the more affluent part of the city; and it is in a school district that is the poorest in the county, as opposed to districts serving other Menlo Park children that are among the wealthiest.

The city shouldn't be faulted for wanting to address the needs of Belle Haven, where about 20 percent of Menlo Park's population lives. But there's a high probability that the route chosen by the council, while paved with good intentions, will merely lead to one more thick, dusty consultant's report filed away in City Hall.

The plan's emphasis on information-gathering through "personal interviews, focus groups and community roundtable discussions, workshops, community connector hosted meetings and action teams" makes the process seem superfluous, considering the work that city staff has already done, as noted in the staff report. Staff has created a "community snapshot" that identifies various aspects of the community, including recent demographic information, available city services, statistics on use of the services, and information based on an August 2012 survey of nearly 250 residents.

It also conducted 25 informal "community conversations" with residents, many of whom are currently engaged in neighborhood programs and services. From those meetings and the survey, themes were identified that — surprise! — sound amazingly familiar. Residents are concerned with Menlo Park's east-west divide, the poor education opportunities for their children, "gentrification" resulting from higher home prices, and a lack of city investment in the care of the community that "would not be tolerated on the west side."

Does the city have enough information about Belle Haven and its residents to stop studying and start acting? Could the council do its own "outreach" by holding more of its regular meetings, or scheduling special meetings, in Belle Haven? These are among the questions that should be considered before the city goes forward with the plan to spend more money on a consultant and "outreach activities."

As one Belle Haven survey respondent said, as reflected in Attachment B in the staff report: "The City Council members should know all that there is to know. They shouldn't need me or anyone else to tell them. If you are going to run for City Council, you should know the community, know the issues, and know the people."


Posted by richard cline, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 2, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Excuse me for interrupting the regularly scheduled commentary. I was at the meeting and voted for the $90K. I respect the idea that consultant fees are wasteful at times and often there is an over reliance upon consultants. In this case, we determined that the $90K was not all consultant fees. In fact, it is a part of the entire process of making sure we are getting the proper feedback to rely upon when we make significant investments into the community. I can point to many past investments that were done "knowing the community" that had to be either recalled or killed as result of low outreach and engagement. Anyone remember Santa Cruz Avenue traffic furniture.

The simple fact is that the BH community has evolved and deserves to be treated like ALL communities in Menlo Park. We did this downtown. How is this different? Because it is Belle Haven? I disagree. Belle Have is Menlo Park. Period.

My second point is how does this discussion around fees and the reasons behind the decision slip out of an editorial? We all do know that the editorial represents the voice and leadership of a newspaper. Let's at least expect accuracy in the OpEd section. Right?

I know many disagree with me on this decision and others. But I do believe we need to make sure we have the pulse of the (a) community before we start spending major dollars on improvements.

Posted by contrived, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 3, 2012 at 1:17 am

[Post removed. Off topic.]

Posted by back-story, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 3, 2012 at 1:35 am

[Post removed. Off topic.]

Posted by confused, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 8:59 am

richard cline, I expect factual accuracy from the OpEd section too. But the Op in OpEd stands for "opinion." Sounds as if you don't like the opinion expressed. If you found inaccuracies, please share.

Posted by richard cline, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

confused, the only piece that I felt was inaccurate was the $90K for consultants. This is $90K for the entire engagement process. I think often it is hard for folks to understand the pieces of community engagement -- mailers to homes, workshops and translation needs, etc.

I do believe that how we engage our community should be consistent across the entire city and not be manipulated or short-changed because we assume we know.

Posted by follow the money, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

I've lived in Menlo Park for a while and don't remember the city ever trying to assess the needs of my neighborhood. With Rich coming in here promoting the project, simple induction leads me to conclude that the developers who truly run our city have designs on Belle Haven. The standard MO is to use the consultant to "prove" that Belle Haven wants whatever it is that the developers desire to build.

Posted by close reader, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 10:40 am

Rich, where in the piece does it say the $90K is for consultant fees only? That's not how I read it. It says "to develop a community engagement process," and later says it includes information gathering through several strategies, like focus groups, workshops, etc. That doesn't seem to imply the money would all go to pay a consultant.

Posted by Lee Duboc, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm

There was a major community-involved, consultant lead (I believe it was a non-profit firm) Belle Haven assessment/long-term needs plan in the 1990's. In fact, I believe Gail Slocum was mayor when this went on. I was on the Parks and Rec. Commission then and went to many of the meetings. Out of this came the building of the Senior Center in Belle Haven, many of the street improvements, the community library that is shared use with the Belle Haven School, renovation of Kelly Field, and other projects.

I am sure there is some record of this in the city.

Posted by taxpayer, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I thought we had a Community Engagement manager on staff. What has she been doing and why can't she do this herself? As a taxpayer, that is why I think this needs reconsidered.

There were plenty of reasons that the Santa Cruz debacle occurred, chief among them was that the design was not an incremental approach but rather full-blown based on a consultant's concept that assumed sidewalks exist. The street furniture just showed up without telling people it was a trial (what staff said), which it really wasn't because jack hammers were used to maim the freshly paved street.

Community engagement in Menlo Park all too often means asking people for some ideas to help create a vision and then not re-engaging them similarly for feedback when the details begin to emerge. This happens again and again.

Posted by new guy, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 4, 2012 at 7:51 am

Belle Haven is .671 square miles with a population (official) of 6290. But you know this rich cline.

How hard would it be to walk each street and meet with people to "engage" with them?

Charisse Brandel I thought was hired for this. I have seen community engagement processes on the MP town website. I am not sure we need a new plan or methodology here. If I remember correct, I pay her salary of $130K a year (pre bennies!). If she cannot do the job, I will gladly do it for less pay.

Still not sure what you are trying to accomplish here. Are you going to ask if people want more/better service (pretty sure the answer is yes). Are you going to ask if they want more clean streets, free maid services, free car washes, (pretty sure the answer is yet.)

or is this something else (FB) putting pressure on you guys to (clean up) this area as I am sure the new FB employees simply don't understand how in an area of such vast wealth, they have to drive/bike/walk through an area even I don't want to be in at night?

But, maybe you know better than me, and wish to spend my money on a consultant.

Posted by richard cline, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 4, 2012 at 8:15 am

Ms. Brandel was moved to take over the community services leadership position a few years ago essentially eliminating the engagement position. At the time it was a reduction in one position and a reduced salary for her new position. This is all public and it was one of several moves to reduce head count in the city.

Can she help guide engagement? Sure and we call can.

My point is directly reflected in former Mayor Duboc's informed comment above. The data we have is from the early- to mid-90s. Much of it might be accurate, or not. Yes, I know many residents in the community and I have heard many strong opinions.

But to your point, 6000+ people is a huge piece of the city.

Do I believe this community today is the same as the community in the mid-90s? Do you?

I have demographic data that says otherwise. It was all in the presentation at the council meeting at the senior center.

I can easily make the assumption that I know what people want in any part of the city. I just think as a voter I do not want my elected officials making those assumptions without the proper, updated data to back it up.

I do agree that we will hear a lot of the same desires for service improvements. But we may have a chance to bring in new voices that were not hear or have not yet joined the chorus.

Posted by oldtimer, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 4, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Anyone trying to convince Rich Cline to not spend money on consultants, plans etc. is wasting their time, as shown by his 6 years in office.

He pushed for the Downtown/ElCamino study / specific plan, which resulted in about 1.5 millions and 5 years resulting is a plan that only the developers / land owners can accept. It is a disaster for the residents in the City. (this cost Heyward Robinson his seat on council --- Cline survived somehow).

Who knows where this $90K seed funds will finally lead. So long as staff wants it to keep them busy they will keep pushing for more of these kinds of wasted adventures.

Posted by richard cline, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Oct 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I have voted with data behind me. I believe that elected officials must rely on staff reports, expert advice and community feedback to reach the best conclusion, not the opinion of the elected official. I can back up those votes. If you would rather have someone beholden to your viewpoint, you are right, I am not your guy.