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'State of the City': Menlo has overcome 2018 challenges and is moving ahead, mayor says

Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller continued the city's annual tradition of giving a "State of the City" speech on Tuesday, Nov. 19. His verdict: Things are looking up after the city worked to overcome some major challenges that emerged last year.
The event was held in the City Council chambers, where attendees were offered coffee and a large German chocolate cake. Mueller opted to dedicate the typical $15,000 budget for the event which has been held at venues like the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Facebook headquarters, the British Bankers Club and the Park James Hotel in recent years and offered attendees beer, wine and appetizers to starting a youth advisory commission in the city.
Summarizing the city's achievements over the past year, he started by talking about the challenges the city faced toward the end of 2018. The city had begun to "hemorrhage professional staff members," including the city manager; an offer by developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga to help build a new main library was withdrawn; and the city was experiencing the uncertainty of its first district elections.
Mueller said that he wanted to help restore trust, so the council asked former assistant city manager Starla Jerome-Robinson to come out of retirement and serve as interim city manager, and then extended the offer to her to continue in the permanent role.
Acknowledging the concerns that district elections would cause "balkanization" in the city, he complimented the three new council members elected by districts, saying they have been "a beacon about everything that is right in district elections."
"There were things in this city that I didn't understand because of where I lived," he confessed.
He complimented Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor on her passion for equity and being a voice for Belle Haven; Councilwoman Betsy Nash for her heart and hard work; Councilman Drew Combs for his logic and intellect; and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton for being a team player and ambassador for the city.
He highlighted a few city projects that have moved forward this year.
One council priority this year has been to move forward with a new Belle Haven library. The city had worked on plans toward progress, but there were concerns about how to find funding to build it.
Facebook came forward with an offer to build a new multi-generational community center, including a library, in a way Mueller said was transparent and with a "public promise it would not be a quid pro quo for Willow Village," the Facebook's pending application to build a new neighborhood in the business park opposite Willow Road from the northern part of Belle Haven.
Efforts also moved forward to improve services at the existing Belle Haven library housed at Belle Haven elementary school by expanding service hours and opening a new after-school homework center served by community volunteers.
On the environmental front, the city passed a set of "reach" codes, those that legislate beyond a statewide baseline what environmental standards must be met in new buildings.
"When we did it, we expected tremendous pushback," he said. Instead, stakeholders said they just wanted to know what the rules are and how to comply, he added.
And when there was a community outcry over seven redwood trees that were taken down on El Camino Real at Ravenswood Avenue, Mueller said, the council reached an agreement with the owner to plant 76 new trees throughout the city, including 50 new ones in Belle Haven.
On the police front, the city recruited 13 new officers and now has a fully staffed traffic team, and the department has been doing a number of community outreach events, Mueller said. People can also now text to 911 to alert the police department when they're in need.
The city's administrative services department has worked to bring the staff vacancy rate down to a more competitive 8.7%, from 16.6%, and increased automation and access to public data through its IT master plan. The city's land management software system will also allow permit applications to be submitted online.
The community development department has worked on housing and economic fronts. In September, the council approved a local minimum wage, set to start Jan. 1, and development projects are moving forward. There's also a growing interest in downtown investment, he said.
"I think the future of our downtown is very bright," he said, noting that the revamp of the Guild Theatre is expected to start soon, adding an entertainment option downtown to complement its restaurant offerings.
Through the community services department, the city completed a facilities master plan for its parks. In addition, a new playground at Nealon Park, which will be wheelchair-accessible, is scheduled to open Saturday.
Work also moved forward with a safe routes to school program to enable kids to more safely walk or bike to school, as did plans for a bike and pedestrian Caltrain undercrossing at Middle Avenue.
Mueller thanked nonprofits like Menlo Together, which recently hosted a discussion about Menlo Park's history relating to racial housing discrimination, and the Chamber of Commerce, for partnering on community events.
In addition, he talked about some of the joint meetings the council held this year with other jurisdictions the fire protection district, Atherton City Council, and the city councils of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto as a step beyond the way many local cities interact: mainly to blame each other for traffic.
And starting next year, he said, he's hoping to implement a sunshine calendar policy in which council members report whom they meet with each week and what they talk about.
"I believe that together we will prosper and we will keep building that city of the future," he concluded.