Four council members knew about Friends board turnover Monday
Kleinberg, Cordell call for greater council communication
At least four members of the Palo Alto City Council knew about the turmoil on the board of the Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo Monday night, but did not mention it to their colleagues, who approved plans to advance negotiations on the potential transfer of the city institution's operations on a 5-3 vote -- with council members LaDoris Cordell, Judy Kleinberg and Jack Morton voting no.
Negotiations had been frozen in October so the council could create a general policy about private-public partnerships. That policy was sent back to a committee several weeks ago.
Councilman Bern Beecham, the current liaison to the Friends, said he learned of the turnover last week and immediately tried to figure out if it had any effect on the memo proposing continuing negotiations he had already written.
Beecham said he contacted staff and members of the board and decided the turmoil did not affect his proposal to reinitiate discussions.
He defended his decision to not mention the resignations Monday because the memo addressed "board development" as a potential issue.
The words "board development" do not appear the one-page document, but it does recognize that "maintaining momentum and commitment from a volunteer board is a challenge for a project of this magnitude."
"Certainly if a colleague had expressed an interest, I would have discussed it," Beecham said.
Councilwoman Dena Mossar said she didn't think the resignations, which she also knew about, were "particularly important."
"It's a nonprofit board. Nonprofit boards change. . . . One of the members who resigned chose to make a big deal over it," Mossar said, referring to Virginia Chang Kiraly's press release Tuesday.
Vice Mayor Larry Klein, who learned the news several hours before Monday's meeting, said he was just trying to keep the process moving.
"The merits, as far as I was concerned, were definitely not on the table," Klein said. "You can't keep people hanging in limbo."
Councilman Peter Drekmeier, who was a liaison to the Friends last year, said he learned about the resignations last week.
"I assumed that other people knew. For me, it didn't really weigh in to the decision (Monday)," he said, noting he didn't even think of mentioning it.
But councilwomen LaDoris Cordell and Judy Kleinberg said they should have been informed.
"I don't know what's going on, but we deserve to know what's going on, and we deserved to know Monday night," Kleinberg said.
"I'm left to wonder was that code for 'Let's take a vote before anybody finds out'?" she said. "What purpose did it serve to keep it hidden?"
Kleinberg said her colleagues made a judgment call that news of the resignations was not relevant to Monday's vote, but she should have been allowed to make the decision herself.
"The most important issue is transparency of government," Kleinberg said, noting the council has recently tackled that issue and decided that everyone should be provided with the same information to form decisions and to keep the public abreast.
"I would hate to think that this council was going to go backwards to a time where we didn't share information in a material way," Kleinberg said, noting that she is disappointed with staff and the Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo for not informing the full council.
Kleinberg said she learned in an e-mail Tuesday.
"I wish I had known that night," Cordell said. "That would absolutely have been appropriate to talk about."
Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said she had known about the resignations but did not mention it at Monday's meeting because the decision to begin negotiations stemmed from a councilmember, not the staff, and was not directly related to the vote.
Richard James, the city's director of community services, which includes the museum and zoo, said he learned of the resignations shortly after the council meeting Monday.
He said the turnover wouldn't affect the staff's preliminary negotiations with the Friends, but it could come into play when the city examines the strength of the Friends organization in the future.
Cordell and Kleinberg also challenged the position that turnover is normal on a nonprofit board.
"Every organization has turnover," Cordell said. "The question is whether you have turnover as rapidly and the dissatisfaction with people who are leaving. . . . Why keep it from everybody?"
Noting that she is considered an expert on nonprofit governance, Kleinberg said, "The composition of the board and the stability of the board" are key criteria to judge an organization that might take over a public facility and program.
Drekmeier said he supported plans to press ahead because he doesn't think it would be fair to keep the organization "on hold" any longer and that his primary concern is making sure the Junior Museum and Zoo continues to exist as the city faces tough budgetary choices.
Examining the stability of the board is part of the negotiation process, he said.
"Some people hear there's a vote and they assume it's a done deal. This is only the beginning of the discussion," Drekmeier said.
Beecham said he wrote the colleagues' memo because he believes the private-public policy and museum and zoo negotiations can continue "in parallel." He said "without (a) doubt" the policy will be completed before an agreement with the Friends is reached.
On Tuesday, the proposed private-public partnership policy was sent back to staff by a council committee for further revisions. Cordell said she hoped the policy would include a statement emphasizing the city's commitment to protect its employees.
Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at email@example.com.