BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is standing by its decision not to widely publicize the $50 million purchase and planned renovation of a new office building until after the sale went through.
“Midpen is a transparent public agency that conducted this purchase like it does any other property purchase,” district spokeswoman Leigh Ann Gessner told the Post on Monday (Feb. 4). “The board’s public meetings are the appropriate place for the public to weigh in on this process.”
No announcement before buy
The purchase and renovation have been mentioned in public meetings and in meeting agendas posted to the district’s website. But at one such meeting in October, the board decided not to announce its plans to the public through press releases, social media or until this month, after the sale went through. And unlike most government bodies on the mid-Peninsula, the district doesn’t broadcast or live-stream its public meetings, limiting public access to board discussions.
The meetings are audio-recorded, but only action minutes are posted to the district website, not verbatim minutes or the recordings themselves. The district doesn’t have immediate plans to start live-streaming its meetings to improve public participation, Gessner said.
Want to know? Go to meetings
Gessner said that if taxpayers want to know how the district is spending public money, they should read its meeting agendas and show up to the meetings. Members of the public can sign up to receive the district’s agendas via email at eepurl.com/cGaOmP.
“We feel confident in our process,” Gessner said. “I don’t think there was any intention of being secretive. I think it was just our normal process.”
The district sent out its first public announcement of the new building yesterday, stating in a press release that it closed Friday on the new, 39,000-square-foot building at 5050 El Camino Real, steps from its current building at 330 Distel Circle in Los Altos.
Up to $27.4M in renovations
District officials waited to announce the building’s purchase because they signed a nondisclosure agreement with the seller, Gessner said. The building cost $31.5 million, and the district is planning to spend between $18.7 million and $27.4 million on renovations.
The district bought its current 12,120-square-foot office in 1990 and, since hiring more employees, some of whom came on after voters passed a $300 million bond measure for the district in 2014, has had to rent out 8,000 square feet of additional space in neighboring office buildings.
Gessner said those employees are in the visitor services, natural resources and real property departments. The district pays $380,000 a year for the extra space, which is set to increase to $437,000 in the next fiscal year.
Old offices to be sold
The current office on Distel Circle was appraised at $10.4 million in October and will be sold when the district moves over to the new space. The new building will be large enough to lease out some space to other organizations.
An “informational open house” on the new office is planned for March 13 at 330 Distel Circle and is open to the public.
• Jan. 28 — Opinion: Midpen’s new offices are a $50 million boondoggle
• Jan. 24 — Midpen’s PR problem: Board grapples with explaining $50 million office building to public
• Jan. 22 — Midpen open space district to spend $50 million on new offices
Midpen has lost its way. New board needed. Focus on open space, not office space.
Outreach should have been done very early in the planning process for searching for a new headquarters. This is by far the largest project ever in the district. While public posting of meeting agenda may fulfill legal requirements, this constitutes and attempt to circumvent a truly public process with the taxpayers. If this particular land holder was not comfortable with that, Midpen’s response should have been “sorry but we do not feel comfortable moving forward without a full vetting with our public first” and looked elsewhere. The justifications fall flat on their face. Attempting to fly under the public radar is a violation of the public’s trust
It frustrates me so much that as a resident of the city of San Mateo, I can’t vote for these board members.