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Council receptive to anonymous gym donation

Original post made on Apr 30, 2008

All Menlo Park City Council members said that an anonymous would-be donor's offer to build a new Burgess Gym is worth a serious look, and at this point, they don't have any problems with keeping the donor's identity a secret.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, April 30, 2008, 6:44 AM

Comments (23)

Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 30, 2008 at 8:11 am

While the notion of private-public partnerships sounds interesting, it's critical that we be assured prior to agreement that this is totally above board. The public deserves to know of any quid pro quo details. Otherwise this just stinks of backroom dealing. The pool arrangements were poorly handled. Let's do better this time.

Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Apr 30, 2008 at 1:05 pm

The Brown Act, officially known as the Ralph M. Brown Act (California Government Code Sections 54950-54963)

The introductory section 54950 states:

"In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

"The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
Editorial; October, 1952, Sacramento Bee :

"A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy."

Posted by Ralph Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 30, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Without disclosure, how does the public know whether anyone in the city or council has a conflict of interest?

Posted by J
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 30, 2008 at 4:57 pm

The aquatic complex in Burlingame was built with a generous $2 million dollar donation from an anonymous donor. It is doable and FANTASTIC that someone in the community came through! I hope it works out!

Posted by Skeptic
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 30, 2008 at 5:12 pm

There is a huge difference between a truly anonymous-no-strings-attached donation and a only-the-insiders-know-some-strings attached donation. Especially if the insiders are people who also have the power to make decisions that impact the city as a whole. What's the point of concealing information from the rest of us?

This "donation" has a suspicious taint to it.

Posted by Our Voice
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 30, 2008 at 7:44 pm

The 'donor' may be coming for approvals down the road for building medical offices on the Stanford land on El Camino.

It's a nice idea, a generous offer, but the council should unburden themselves really fast. Reelection time Kelly "Our Voice" Fergusson and Andy C?

Posted by Ken
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Apr 30, 2008 at 10:06 pm

There's been mention made in this thread of an aquatics center in Burlingame funded by an anonymous donor. But did that donor also require decision-making power to determine the size of the center and the contractor? Or an active role in the project's implementation?

Look, I doubt there are many if any residents in this town who don't want to accept this person's generous offer if it's possible to do so without compromising the public good. But do we really want to sign on to this without at least being a wee bit confident that this is a sound deal for the public? In my opinion, we can't have that kind of confidence if we don't even know who this donor is.

I hope the person making the offer allows his/her identity to become public, and that the city can then come to a reasonable agreement with that person and a deal can be signed.

Posted by WOW
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 30, 2008 at 11:13 pm

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Posted by taxpayer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 30, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Why can't the details of the arrangement be made public, even if the donor's name isn't? The community should have some input about whether the donor's desired size of the facility makes sense.
Why can't the city demand that there be no quid pro quo? Why can't the city seek competitive bids so that its "share" is certainly fair?
Are such actions reasonable due diligence?

Posted by neighhhhhhh
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Apr 30, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Exactly, taxpayer. As the Almanac article noted, what happens if the "gift horse" decides to back out after the project is underway? Let's say, for example, that the gift horse presents a development project for council approval and then withdraws the donation if the project is not approved. The city would be on the hook for $8mm, and exactly where would that money come from?

Whether the donor is anonymous or not, I hope that part of the agreement (in addition to some kind of guarantee for the funding) is that the donor (and any companies with which he/she/it is involved) will not be asking for any concessions from the city for an extended period of time, say five years. No modifications to the general plan, no rezoning, no sweetheart deals.

Our city councils have a history of giving too much away. I wonder what this donor is expecting as a payback for the $8 mm donation?

Posted by Just Wondering
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 1, 2008 at 7:33 am

You're all so opinionated. I'm wondering why none of you weighed in with your comments, concerns, criticisms and questions at the study session Tuesday night which was open to the public? If you had been there, or if you had watched the meeting which was televised, a lot of your questions would have been answered.

Posted by Ken
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on May 1, 2008 at 8:50 am

Just Wondering, I wish I had been back in town Tuesday night to attend the study session. I also wish you would enlighten us with answers to our questions, since you are implying that you attended or watched the meeting.

WOW, Looking a gift horse in the mouth? What information can you provide that might assure us that we're talking about a gift horse rather than a Trojan horse? Perhaps you should change your moniker to WMW -- What, Me Worry?

Posted by J
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on May 1, 2008 at 11:38 am

The anonymous donor (who did not stay anonymous for long) came in representing many other parents who wanted to change the original project from building a new 25 yard pool to increasing it to an Olympic Size 50 meter pool. Yes- the donor altered the project. The city and council bought in and the facility was revamped and redesigned. City policy will still stand firm. The design and construction will still be a bidding process based off of an RFP made up by the city and input from others. Once the bids are in- lowest bidder within reasonable specs will be chosen. That's how it would work regardless. There are still "rules" no matter how the money is accepted.

As long as everything is spelled out from the get-go, this can be a very positive thing. Burgess needs an overhaul. People also don't realize that with a new facility comes more costs. It will be bigger and will probably require more staff and money for maintenance, etc.

Posted by Just Wondering
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 1, 2008 at 12:16 pm


The meeting can be viewed by going to and clicking on the city council link, then click on watch public meetings.
The presentation about the donor was very clear, and I'm confident when the concept is more formalized, the process will begin, legal and transparent.

Sometimes we just need to accept that city leaders and staff want the best for our community as each and every one of us do.

Posted by Are you kidding?
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 1, 2008 at 1:36 pm

"Sometimes we just need to accept that city leaders and staff want the best for our community as each and every one of us do." (Just Wondering)

I guess we should have learned our lesson when our "city leaders and staff" -- Boesch/Winkler/Duboc/Jellins -- led us down the path of privatizing the pool with next to no public process, and almost turning our largest piece of public open space into a private golf course, also with hardly any public process.

Our city leaders and staff can have the best intentions in the world (although every once in awhile that's uncertain), but without active participation by the public in the process, those intentions can easily go off the rails. (Anyone remember the Park Theater fiasco?) If the name of the donor is not revealed, and that person is involved in the project, the process is not public enough.

Posted by staff rumor
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 1, 2008 at 10:47 pm

Name of the donor is very soon to be announced

staff rumor

Posted by cynical for a reason
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on May 1, 2008 at 11:17 pm

It would be nice to have council members whose decisions we can trust, but either those kind of people don't run for office or they somehow forget their principles once elected (power corrupts, you know). Recent history has shown that it's alarmingly easy for savvy developers to mesmerize our naive council. It's very easy for me to envision Kelly or Heyward insisting "this donor has been so generous--we really should approve his project."

Posted by Realist
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 2, 2008 at 8:23 am

In most cases, I don't think people "we can trust" forget their principles once elected. Once people are actually in a position where their decisions have major impacts on their neighbors' lives, those we can trust take their actions very seriously and they try to do their best for us.

What happens, I think, is not so much that they become "corrupted" by power, but they develop a "Mommy/Daddy knows best" mentality that gradually causes them to lose touch with the public. They're the ones who labor over long staff reports and listen to city staff explaining the fine points of issues they'll have to act on. And they gradually start thinking that those of us in the public wouldn't be protesting this or that direction or decision "if ONLY they knew what we know..."

A very easy trap for we mere mortals to fall into, but one I think we've seen elected officials fall into over and over again. And that's why insisting that the public's business be done in public is so important (except for those things legally allowed to be done behind closed doors).

There are too many potential pitfalls in allowing a person whose identity is known only to our decision makers to help manage a public project. I really hope this donation and project go through, but not on those terms.

Posted by an observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 2, 2008 at 8:23 am

"cynical for a reason" makes a good point. However it misses just a bit.

Kelly Fergusson ran as a "residentialist" but has turned out to be nothing more than a pawn of the developers and unions. She and Heyward seem to want to approve anything that comes along.

She will be up for re-election again this fall and many who supported here will not give their support again. She will have the support of the "greenies" and maybe that will be enough to get her elected. Her very short lived effort at running for supervisor met with almost no support. She won't get my vote this fall.

an observer

Posted by Joanna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 2, 2008 at 1:53 pm

dear "cynical for a reason,"

You know it can't be the pay. The city pays its employees as if it were a successful internet company. A quarter million for the city manager, 100k for a liason between residents and the council, and I am sure there are more but I don't bother spending the time. So if it isn't money, why do qualified people NOT run?

I think there is a back-slapping good-ole-boy attitude and culture in the city government (I'm sure it is also the case in the surrounding cities where we base our salaries... smart).

Either way, the wrong people get attracted to it.

I am cynical for a reason too! Nice name.

Posted by Tom
a resident of another community
on May 2, 2008 at 2:39 pm


Totally off the subject of this dialog-as usual. However, to indulge you for a moment---I have read your comments on a variety of issues for awhile--sometimes agreeing, sometimes wondering where you were coming from. But I have to say, in this instance, its clear--you just want to trash elected officials for whatever reason. Data point-people who run for elected office, or volunteer for appointed office (e.g. Planning Commission) don't get paid a salary. I'm sure their motivations for volunteering their time are varied, but at least they do volunteer.

Now, back on topic for those seriously interested in it. My very humble opinion--generous donor, wonderful: cautious acceptance, smart: chance that there will be some "strings", heck yes; trust but verify, priceless.


Posted by Joanna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 2, 2008 at 4:59 pm


Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I believe you have misinterpreted some of my comments. While I do have problems with some of our "volunteering" elected officials for a variety of issues, my comment on the city extends to those who are beyond election.

It has been clear that if we are to question any council decision, we are to "work with" paid city staff. The city manager is in there as well as the city attorney. These interactions are encouraged, and in some cases, forced to be done behind closed doors.

Moving on, I agree that there will be strings attached. Whether they are apparent now or in the future has yet to be seen. Public due diligence will bring out the gray areas more than secret back-room deals. Either way, private money being donated (if selfless) is a wonderful thing and I look forward to watching it be used to make something positive.

Also, nice play on the topic method (incorrect though). I use it often to reign in the discussion because some people get caught up on a phrase and insist on derailing a thread.

Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2008 at 3:04 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.


I think what you say is so on the money(sorry)and we all know that the strings are attached to the donation money. Philanthropy has many disguises and most involve more money and good reasons which only a tax expert could clarify.Personally if there is any reason to doubt good intentions, I would prefer those people aiding the project were not run by "volunteers" but by paid officials, although life does not offer any guarantees as anyone who is an invested capitalist knows.I did mean philanthropist, but in this case they could be the same.

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