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Blueprint for change in Menlo Park?

Original post made by Renee Batti, associate editor of The Almanac, on Jan 30, 2007

The following was published as a guest opinion by Martin Engel in the Almanac's Jan. 31 print edition:

By Martin Engel

A central theme drove last fall's City Council elections in Menlo Park. That theme contributed to the dramatic turnover of the City Council.
We, the citizens of Menlo Park, demanded greater openness from our government. We voted for accountability and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of all the residents. (See Almanac editorial, Jan. 17.)
However, one of the themes not adequately promoted, or demanded from candidates in the campaign, was that of greater citizen participation and our assumption of greater responsibility for effective government. After all, in a democracy, whose government is it anyhow? And, we are ultimately responsible for making it work on our behalf. We elect representatives, and when those elected officials pursue agendas not to our liking, we don't do much more than complain and eventually vote them out.
But, there are other options for us. As President John F. Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you ... " You know the rest. That is to say, we all can and we must assume a greater participatory responsibility.
Indeed, the Derry referendum did bring large numbers of Menlo Park residents and business people actively into the political arena. As we all know, participatory democracy in government (like the historical New England town hall meetings) is often held up as a political ideal. One form of such active participation in Menlo Park is membership on one of the eight commissions that advise the City Council.
However, what we are advocating here goes well beyond these commissions to draw on greater citizen participation. We are proposing a number of standing permanent committees -- not ad hoc task forces -- that are duly structured but, unlike the commissions, quite independent of the council and administration.
Membership for each of these committees could be as many as a dozen or more. Each committee's rotating voluntary membership is to be drawn from various neighborhoods or precincts in Menlo Park, assuring broad representation. They would function as strategic "think tanks," to advise, investigate, perform research, advocate, and produce position papers. These groups would keep the council, administration and citizenry fully informed about the ongoing process of deliberation and reflect the broad interests of the city's residents.
The committees would be organized around major, permanent concerns and big issues, such as the budget, economic development and business, the general plan, government oversight and accountability, urban infrastructure and the El Camino Grand Boulevard committee, and possibly other broad topics that are a permanent part of the life of our city.
The central thrust of these committees would be to implement the advocacy statement: "Get involved! Participate! Give a damn!" Unlike the commissions, one purpose is to keep our council and administration honest and working on behalf of us, the voters.
Yes, I know, the devil is in the details. But that should not deter us from working on those details to make this happen. The recent election demonstrated just how many people are truly smart, thoughtful, caring members of our city community, and that they could and did play an active role in the process of government. This was also demonstrated by the recent ad hoc budget committee that labored mightily, even if to no avail.
Now things are different. An excellent "proof of concept" of this broad proposal might be to reconstitute that same budget task force into one of the first of these suggested permanent standing committees. A period of trial and error to shape that standing committee could serve as the template for the other committees.
If we wish government to hear us, we must speak in an organized, orderly, thoughtful, well reasoned way. The committee structure can give us that voice by raising it to the level of a chorus of Menlo Park citizens.
(Martin Engel lives on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park.)

Comments (8)

Posted by Elizabeth Lasensky
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 30, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Could you please tell us who the "we"are who are advocating the committees?

The budget advisory committee was exemplary and one that could/should have some permanent status.

Please elaborate on your statement about commissions- "Unlike the commissions, one purpose is to keep our council and administration honest and working on behalf of us, the voters." In what way are the current commissions, which are also made up of residents and voters, not working on behalf of the voters?

If commissioners or council members don't agree with you or don't appoint you to a commission, does that make them dishonest?

Posted by patricia boyle
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 31, 2007 at 9:18 am

In reference to Martin Engel's "Blueprint for Change" I have the
following observations:
Mr. Engel wants to create new committees because the
the current commissions do not"keep our council and administration
honest and working on behalf of us, the voters." That's a very broad
brush for all those people who serve on the nine commissions as
Before we run off in multiple directions Mr. Engel needs
to provide more evidence that the current citizens who are serving
on Commissions are not representing the community interests.
Innuendo is not evidence.

Posted by Death by Committee
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 31, 2007 at 12:55 pm

I don't think a bunch of committees with no real mission, charged with producing "position papers," is going to do anything other than cause frustration and take up time.

I do agree that a budget oversight committee or something like Atherton's audit committee would be a useful addition to Menlo Park's roster of advisory committees.

Posted by roxie
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Feb 1, 2007 at 1:16 am

The commissions that have been chartered by the city already do provide forums for citizen input. The problem arises when City Council members simply ignore what the commissions say and are allowed to do so with impunity. However, elections are the solution to that problem.

The commissions we already have might want to look for ways to allow more citizen participation on special issues. However, we should remember that hundreds of people participated in the Your City/Your Decision Budget Survey process last year--the problem in Menlo Park is not that we need to"Get involved! Participate! Give a damn!” People care, speak out and participate already.

The Derry project referendum is not a great example of representative government. If the members of Menlo Park Tomorrow had not been able to bankroll paid signature gatherers for their referendum, I doubt it would have gone anywhere. The well-connected, wealthy and powerful have always found it easy to participate in government; they do not need city sanctioned "think tanks" and committees.

I disagree with your assessment of Budget Advisory Committee. The BAC was given a poor charter; the previous council limited their scope to working on the Budget Survey under city staff's direction. However, the committee did not question the budget assumptions provided by the city staff, the same assumptions that led to the current controversy about a 3.7 million surplus. In fact, there have been city surpluses for 4 out of the previous 5 years as well.

Creating the proper checks and balances for an ad hoc budget committee, or "think tank", to produce the fair, unbaised and reliable "position papers" needed to govern would be incredibly expensive. The former budget task force should not be reconstituted.

Instead, Menlo Park should consider creating an Office of the City Auditor, similar to the office Palo Alto has. This office would report directly to the City Council to provide analyses of financial and operating data, as well as conduct internal audits and report conflicts of interest.

Posted by ElectionWatcher
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 1, 2007 at 11:01 am

Roxie: "Instead, Menlo Park should consider creating an Office of the City Auditor, similar to the office Palo Alto has. This office would report directly to the City Council to provide analyses of financial and operating data, as well as conduct internal audits and report conflicts of interest."

I second that motion!

Posted by Death by Committee
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Feb 1, 2007 at 12:11 pm

How is the Palo Alto city auditor job structured? It seems there would be two big differences between an audit committee and a city auditor:

A city auditor is a city employee with a salary and benefits, hired by the city manager. This adds to the city's costs, and raises questions about the auditor's impartiality.

A audit committee with an appropriately broad charter draws upon the talents of independent residents who volunteer their time, and are not beholden to the city manager.

We've all seen that Menlo Park is full of smart people willing to invest time into their community. Why not take full advantage of that?

Posted by roxie
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Feb 1, 2007 at 6:06 pm

Death by Committee: the City Auditor position in Palo Alto is a paid employee. This of course does cost money, but so would the support for an ad hoc committee. Government needs systems of checks and balances, regardless of the talents of its citizens. Being "smart" does not always mean a person is unbiased, is fully apprised of all sides of an issue, or is even completely honest. Putting the proper checks in balances in place for a citizen committee and supporting them would cost much more than having a city auditor.

The Palo Alto city website has a great description of their city auditor position. The qualifications of the position are somewhat similar to those of a finance manager (the auditor must be a C.P.A.), but because the Auditor reports to the City Council instead of the City Manager, many conflicts of interest are avoided. The charter of the City Auditor also gives her certain authority so that if a City Council member has a conflict of interest the auditor can take action. Also, since the auditor position is not involved in making decisions about how financial resources should be used, their information about available resources is not tainted by politics.

Here's a link to more information about the Palo Alto city auditor:

Web Link

Posted by Skeptic
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Feb 2, 2007 at 9:44 am

I happen to prefer a citizen's committee of some sort that can serve as a check and balance to staff and politics. Menlo Park is blessed with many talented and caring residents. Their support from staff should not equate anywhere close to a full-time staff person with salary and full benefits.
My sense is that existing Commissions do good work and I'm very grateful to fellow residents who care enough to volunteer their time in that way. However, it may be time to revisit each Commission's mission and determine whether these need to be modified in any way and whether there should be different ones. With the city's financial problems, for example, I think a Budget Advisory Committee is needed. So is an Economic Advisory Committee. Maybe these could be one and the same.
I can't figure out how someone thinks an auditor who reports to the City Council will be free of politics, especially when there is a close-minded regime like the last Council. It would take a unique person to stand tall and be totally independent of political agendas. Yes, it's possible but how likely? I have more faith in the objectivity of a citizen committee (IF comprised of a variety of residents as was the BAC) than paid staff serving politicians. Now, if a paid analyst worked with such a committee, that might be the ideal.

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