In an article dated October 17, reporter Becky Trout used the term "independence" to describe the arrangement currently being ratified between the City and the Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo ("Friends.") Web Link
That's an interesting choice of words because the Friends, a private organization, indeed will be given autonomous control of the venerable Middlefield Road facility, but Palo Alto will contribute an as yet unannounced sum rumored to be in the hundreds of thousands per year towards its operation. This is akin to the grownup son or daughter who wants to live in their parents' house, have mom and dad pay the bills, continue to have an allowance, but be allowed to do as they please. Ms. Trout implies there is a delay while the council generates some guidelines to govern the impending public/private partnership. But anyone who attended the council meeting that evening can tell this is pretty much a done deal. For example: the original agenda item mentioned a "memorandum" on this matter, the City Attorney suggested the word "contract" be substituted to make it a more binding agreement.
I'm sure the principals in this matter, both public and private, have good intentions, but I would like to see a little more due diligence used before huge sums of taxpayers' dollars is to released to a private organization. Some questions that come to mind include the following:
1) The PAJMZ has an outstanding zoo program, and an equally stellar educational outreach program. Has anyone conferred with the staff to get their input on how these programs will be continued? Will they have a say in who is designated the new director of the facility? Will they even stay after the change?
2) What is the track record of the private entity? They have raised money in the past in the name of the Museum and Zoo. What did they do with those funds? How much have they raised recently?
3) Can they actually operate a museum well? Published attendance figures indicate 150,000 visitors per year, an average of just over 12,000 per month. Before the Friends went from a volunteer support role to a fundraising role, published attendance figures averaged 18,000 per month. Why?
4) Mayor Kleinberg spoke of the need to maintain the "charm and scale" of projects within the City. The speakers representing the Friends used the Tech Museum of Innovation and the Randall Museum in San Francisco as examples of their qualifications. Is something like the Tech Museum their vision of what will happen on the already crowded Middlefield Road site? Many of the Friends who spoke are from outside Palo Alto. Does this mean the facility will become a regional one?
5) What is their longterm plan?
6) Shouldn't there be a competitive bid process for such a large contract?
My sense of the timing here is the opposite of Ms. Trout's report. This matter seems to be on a fast track for approval. It sounds to me like the transition team is already in place and approvals are a mere formality. Again, what's the rush? Why can't due diligence be used in this matter? As a taxpayer in this town for over 30 years and a founding member of the Friends, I feel like a "parent." to "Junior...Zoo" Do I want to contribute money for years to support this "child" without recourse? In reality, I have two wonderful daughters in their 20's who are fully independent. They work hard,live on their own, and pay their own bills. That's how I believe this situation should be viewed. The Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo claim to be a dynamic fund raising group that wants to run the museum. Let them go ahead, just make sure they are truly independent, ie. we don't need to give them any money. They would then gain my full support.