Opinion: Midpen’s new offices are a $50 million boondoggle

An artist’s illustration of the offices the tax-supported Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District plans to open at 5050 El Camino Real. Rendering by Noll and Tam architects.

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District doesn’t get much scrutiny. It’s the ultimate of sacred cows around here. The district was formed in 1972, in the nascent years of the environmental movement, to save the foothills from development. Few question district’s actions because open space preservation is seen as God’s work.

That lack of scrutiny gives the Midpen board a lot of freedom to take whatever action it wants without fear of public rebuke.

But this time the Midpen board has crossed the line.

On Jan. 22, the Post reported that the district was in the process of spending about $50 million for a new office building just off of El Camino Real in Los Altos.

After voters passed a $300 million bond measure for the district in 2014, the agency has been adding employees. Today they have 120 full-time employees.

With that many people, they’ve outgrown their 12,120-square-foot offices at Distel Circle. So now they’ve paid $31 million to buy a building around the corner at 5050 El Camino and plan to renovate it at a cost of between $18.7 million and $27.4 million.

Office space vs. open space

Midpen board members are quick to point out that the money for the building is coming from the sale of their old building and reserves from their general fund. They emphasize they’re not paying for the building out of the funds from the bond measure voters passed to enable the district to buy more open space.

The distinction is lost on me. The $50 million they’re spending on this building could have been used for open space. They can use the money piling up in their general fund for anything they want, so why office space?

Somebody is trying to build an empire, or a bureaucracy, and straying away from the original reason why voters formed this district in 1972.

Does it take a large office staff to manage parks? Shouldn’t these employees work in the parks, not in an office, behind a computer?

This is a district that does minimal management. It doesn’t even put garbage bins in its parks, believing people should follow the philosophy of pack it in, pack it out. That’s idealistic but not practical.

Trust violated

The Midpen board is widely trusted, and I think the board took advantage of that trust when it decided on Oct. 24 to postpone any attempt to publicize the new headquarters until after the renovations were completed.

The public should have been brought into the process before any decisions were made.

Midpen didn’t break any laws by taking this keep-them-in-the-dark approach. Every decision the board made was at an open meeting with an agenda that was released to the public in advance. It’s just that few people pay close attention to the district’s board meetings. Why should they? They’re doing God’s work, right?

But if building a new headquarters was such a good idea, you’d think the Midpen board would be willing to make its case to the public before any final decisions were made. If it’s a good idea, certainly that would be clear after a robust debate.

Instead, the board decided to quietly buy the building and let the public find out later.

It’s as if Midpen’s motto is, “It’s easier to seek forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Recourse?

Does the public have any recourse here?

Not really. The Midpen board is independent. You can’t appeal this decision to the City Council or county Board of Supervisors.

The board is elected, but it’s rare when there is a contested race. There was one last fall for the seat of longtime Midpen director Nonette Hanko, 86, who decided not to run again.
Just think if we could have asked the two candidates vying to replace her, former Palo Alto council members Greg Scharff and Karen Holman, whether they supported a $50 million office building? Holman, who won the seat, defended the decision by her new colleagues when the Post interviewed her last Monday.

But had the public known of the district’s plans last fall, it would have been a big controversy in the race.

Will this office building emerge as an issue when members of the Midpen board run for re-election in two years? Probably not. They’ll weather the storm.

Few people remember that in 1998, the Midpen board voted to seize the 284-acre convent of nine Russian Orthodox nuns. The nuns had fled here from Soviet Russia and Communist China only to confront the eminent domain powers of the Midpen board.

The nuns initially fought Midpen but gave up after two years and sold the land 2.3 miles south of Highway 92, west of Skyline Boulevard, to the district in 2000 for $3.5 million. The nuns moved to Half Moon Bay. They left there in 2011, and it’s a mystery today where they went.

Midpen suffered a small comeuppance over the Russian convent controversy. In 2004, Midpen proposed expanding its boundaries to the coastside, but landowners were leery of the district’s powers of eminent domain. Before the expansion was put to a vote, Midpen agreed that it wouldn’t use eminent domain in the newly annexed area.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

7 Comments

  1. Government-funded entities–that is, taxpayer-funded entities–have ZERO incentive to be efficient or accountable. There is no worry of auditing. (Public employee unions will see to that!) Their solution to any problem is to demand more public funds.
    It not about protecting the environment. It’s about protecting their own employment. It boggles the mind that at election time, the public doesn’t understand the fraud, waste, and corruption of publicly funded entities.

  2. Good work Dave!!!!

    An absolute classic. Yet another unaccountable agency throwing away taxpayer dollars. Every time you pay your property taxes, a portion is going to pay the $300 Million in bonds they floated in 2014. I didn’t vote to build these bureaucrats an edifice to themselves.

  3. There is no excuse for the lack of public outreach performed prior to this purchase. This is by far the largest expenditure in history of the district. For its typical project Midpen conducts series of public input sessions that are extensively promoted over many months. Why was that not done here? Mt Umunhum, Bear Creek Redwoods Measure AA were all extensively publicly vetted. Here there was an obvious attempt to pass everything quietly under the radar, and not for the first time. Inexcusable Im sorry

  4. Midpen should be reported to the California Special District’s Association for this deliberate act of irresponsibly spending taxpayer funds on the quiet. Doesn’t matter whether the funds came from their general fund, Measure AA funds, or were gifted to them. You just DON’T spend $50M on anything (even a new parcel of open space) without involving the public and their soliciting their input. As Mr. Buncic stated, the total sum of all funds Midpen spent on opening both Mount Umunhum and Bear Creed Redwoods to the public were together less than this office building. And both those open space projects were heavily vetted in the public with many postcard invitations sent out to their mailing list inviting the public to attend their board meetings and comment on the projects. Why would “office” space be different than “open” space? It’s all taxpayer funded and should fall under the same public exposure. Where’s the transparency? There is none. This is the typical Midpen modus operandi which hasn’t changed ever since they were formed in 1972. Always a hidden agenda with Midpen. Always.

  5. Are land costs going to decrease in the next 20 years in our area? No.
    Is the amount of land that MidPen is maintaining going to decrease in the next 20 years? No, it’s going to increase if they’re good at what they do, and keep to their missions statement.

    If you compare the size of MidPen staff to other open space management organizations, you will see that they have been historically under staffed with rangers to maintain an appropriate presence on the preserves, and understaffed in resource management to support/repair the native ecosystems and habitat, and enforce easement agreements made as they acquired land.

    If you agree that land values are not going to decline in the next 20 years, and you believe that our resources require proper law enforcement and resource management, and that the number and size of preserves will grow, then why wouldn’t an organization that is responsible and strategic buy now rather than later? This way they are poised for the anticipated growth over the next few decades.

    As the author of this article admits, the meetings were publicly held and decisions made as per regular protocol.

    What would you have an organization do that knows it’s going to grow as it foresees having more responsibility in the future? Wait until land and construction costs increase? No. Better now while everything costs less.

    • This has nothing to do with parkland acquisition. The district acquires land all the time, and doesn’t need a big office building to do that. I think the $50 million would be better spent buying more open space. That’s why voters created this district.

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