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PA Junior Museum: Independence or Boondoggle?

Original post made by Ron Lee, Midtown, on Oct 19, 2006

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.

Comments (18)

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Posted by Concerned
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 20, 2006 at 5:50 pm

We've seen this kind of thing before. "Privatizing" is another term for union busting. Sure, private organizations may save money by underpaying their employees, but it's a sad state of affairs.

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Posted by A concerned citizen
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 25, 2006 at 4:41 pm

Ron - Thank you for naming the same concerns that I hold about the privatization of the JRM&Z. I spoke with a JRM&Z staff member today and learned, not to my surprise, that the staff have real concerns that the Friends of the JRM&Z are not equiped to effectively run and maintain the organization at the high standards we enjoy today. I, too, would like to see your points addressed before make any agreements and changes with regards to the management of the JRM&Z.

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Posted by Anna
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2006 at 10:44 pm

What considerations have been made in all this to make sure that staff continue to work with the same guidelines and benefits of regular city staff. Does anyone know?

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Posted by Bruce Parker
a resident of Portola Valley
on Oct 28, 2006 at 1:51 am

I want to thank Ron Lee for his concern. He is correct in much of what he says. I just want to add that The PAJM&Z has been a part of the Palo Alto community for over 50 years. Many of the community's grandparents remember taking their children there.

The Museum has benefitted from and added to other Palo Alto community programs such as parks and recreation, art, schools, etc. As a privatized facility much of that integration would be lost.

Privatization is not a new topic for the Junior Museum but in the past when the issue came up, neighbors and parents had the time and opportunity to speak up for the facility without having a side deal 'railroaded' through. What is the difference now?

Bruce Parker, Former Friend of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo

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Posted by also concerned
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 28, 2006 at 10:49 pm

Ron Lee has made some important points. I would want to know who they are so we can judge whether they are people who can be given such a valuable asset.

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Posted by also concerned
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 26, 2006 at 10:22 am

Uh-oh, The bulldozers are on the way.
The head of the museum is quoted as saying she would like a new building.
Never mind carpenters, plumbers, painters, electricians. Tear it down. I guess these folks have never heard about renovation or repair. The building is 'dogeared' so call in the developer$. oops, they are already there.

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Posted by not an insider
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2007 at 12:26 am

Astonishing news to those who aren't on the inside. Web Link

Even more astonishing is that Klein, Mossar, and Drekmeier withheld the information from their colleagues on Monday night so that they could push through the public/private deal.

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Posted by not an insider
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2007 at 11:33 am

When the Friends of the Museum and Zoo became news many months ago I looked on the web to learn more. Their web site never listed the names of the board members. And it still doesn't.
Some of them say they enjoyed it as children but that doesn't have anything to do with what's happening now. There is so much hidden about this organization on every level, I am very uncomfortable about giving them such valuable city property.

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Posted by Karen K. Christensen
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 16, 2007 at 11:32 pm

Although not a Palo Alto resident, I have followed the PAM&Z issue closely...
I believe that the issue of privatization of a previously city-run organization has been presented here by many in a very one-sided fashion.
The goal should be a well-run and well-funded and well-designed museum/zoo for Palo Alto -- I believe the privatization will achieve this goal.
Change is difficult for all, but I believe the Friends should be granted a fair chance...
The new proposed privatized plan seems a sounder choice for Palo Alto than the troubled city-run institution.
I support the Friends!!

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a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2007 at 11:56 pm

why are so many of the comments on this issue focused on 'control'??
The issue should be which entity can show support and interest and dedication. If the 'Friends' can raise funding AND show genuine concern for the future of the Museum/Zoo and all of its programs, why should they be so criticized?
Many other cities and towns in this area have had success with privatization -- especially when many of those involved are long-time supporters with inside knowledge and perspective!

I certainly doubt that we have a group of 'untried people' in the new organization -- Many are devoted Palo Alto residents who have a sincere interest in IMPROVING the Museum/Zoo ans well as experience with its history.

I see no reason why private funding should be rejected as some sort of 'curse' on Palo Alto! The 'Friends" should be able to supplement whatever funds they raise by positive support, financial and otherwise, from residents of Palo Alto and other surrounding areas that benefit from the Museum/Zoo and its great history.

If an institution needs new blood and energetic supporters, which I believe is true in this case, why should Palo Alto residents be so close-minded and judgmental about the new proposed plan?

Private enterprise and public support should go hand-in-hand!
The 'Friends' seem a viable and practical solution to SAVE and ENLIVEN the Museum/Zoo.

It appears a 'win/win' to me!

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Posted by Friends Supporter
a resident of another community
on Feb 17, 2007 at 12:34 am

I write here to suggest that all those concerned with the long-term future of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo consider a larger view. This is not the first time that private funding and public support from a city have demonstrated successful cooperation with great success. The model has worked well in many other instances, and may work well here...

It appears that many City officials have given serious consideration and support to the new collaborative effort proposed for the Junior Museum and Zoo. It may involve a change, but change can be productive...

I have, as a resident of a nearby community, welcomed the resource of the Museum/Zoo with all three of my children -- I enjoyed it myself as a child. Over the years, its buildings have obviously aged and the city has many calls on its funds.

If the Museum/Zoo is to flourish, I believe a partnership of private and public funding is a reasonable choice.

The "Friends" seem to be genuinely interested in the future of a long-standing Palo Alto institution. I believe they have shown experience, thought, financial acumen and dedication to the cause of a more vibrant Museum/Zoo for the entire community.

I do hope that all will put aside petty or short-sighted or misguided suspicions in judging this matter.

Concerted cooperation between private funding and City and community support should result in the best of all possible solutions.

I personally vote in favor of the "Friends" -- I hope that Palo Alto will support them as the best hope for the Museum's future!

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Posted by not an insider
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 17, 2007 at 10:46 am

The way to avoid suspicion is to be open and transparent.
Create a corporate structure that makes it public where the money comes from and where it goes. And who gets the construction contracts etc etc.
We Palo Altans own it. We have to trust you before we entrust you with millions of dollars of our property. That your children enjoyed the facility is irrelevant.
Be open and transparent.

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Posted by Denis Coleman
a resident of another community
on Feb 17, 2007 at 11:26 am

A dedicated private group of individuals who volunteer
their time and raise substantial amounts of money -- over
a million dollars -- is a good idea for Palo Alto.

Seems like it SAVES Palo Alto hundreds of thousands of dollar
that the City could well spend on other projects.

The ANONYMOUS innuendos appearing in these comments that cast
aspersions on the Friends are quite surprising. The Friends are well-know individuals who have donated their time and substantial amounts money to PAM&Z and to many causes in Palo Alto over the
years. They are known to all the members of the City Council or
anyone else who cares to call the Friends and will meet with them.

The anonymous slaps at the Friends appear more to be a vendetta
than an attempt to further the interests of the PAM&Z or Palo Alto.

The Friends did lose a board member who had previously been
chair last week. Records show the individual had been present
at only 2 of the previous 7 board meetings. The timing of her
resignation on the eve of the council vote last week and press
release on her resignation suggests an agenda quite different
from that of the Friends.

The City cannot afford to turn down this generous offer of the
time and effort of some of the most dedicated volunteers
in the community as well as the private financing they provide.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 18, 2007 at 2:44 pm

I'm in favor of turning over the Jr. Museum and Zoo to the nonprofit without any city obligations of financial support. It would be good to have some oversight for animal welfare, but there are already organizations that do that.

The Daily reported that some council members said, "Retaining city staff must be a top priority when forging public-private partnerships." Councilwoman Cordell wants "to insert language into the new public-private partnership guidelines under development that would highlight the importance of keeping city employees rather than outsourcing or hiring new, cheaper staff."

- It is not Council's job to ensure lifetime employment and benefits for city staff members. It is Council's responsibility to run the city in a fiscally responsible way and to ensure that residents' tax dollars are spent wisely.

- Comments from council members defending full employment detract from the city's ability to negotiate union contracts.

- Hiring and compensation packages should be in the hands of the nonprofit, since it will be responsible for ensuring the financial viability of the Museum. Few nonprofits could afford the packages that the city provides.

Council should ensure that the city lets go of all operational issues when turning over the Museum/Zoo.

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Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2007 at 8:11 am

Pat is quite right. The city currently has great difficulty operating its core functions (infrastructure, police, utilities, etc.) efficiently. And the current council seems unable to resist demands of city employees for ever more lavish compensation and benefit packages = depriving us of the resources to fix our problems.

We are lucky that we have someone like Friends who can support frills like the Jr. Museum and Zoo, that the city could afford when its government was well run, but can't now. Those on this board who seem bent on looking this gift horse in the mouth, and people like Cordell, who attempt to sabotage this deal through subterfuge do the rest of us no favors.

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Posted by not an insider
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2007 at 10:23 am

I agree with Friends Supporter that we should not be petty or short-sighted. So let us talk only about our property which is worth millions of dollars. Nothing petty about it.
George Bush does this on a major scale, giving away national assets to his supporters, and not all of us are happy about that. So,
-- will the Friends continue to work under their non-profit status? Developers and business people are used to private dealing, would they be comfortable with the public watching? That may be why the Friends are so shocked that some people are asking questions. Don't get defensive, just answer the people who don't know you.
-- there is usually something substantial they get themselves when they offer so called public-benefits. Unfortunately the public has been burned so we are suspicious.
-- for how long would they control the facility? would the city ever get it back? How much is the city to contribute?
Absolutely we have to look this gift horse in the mouth!

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Posted by Another View
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 20, 2007 at 10:40 am

Having gone through the whole privitization fiasco here in Menlo Park with the city's brand new multi-million dollar pool complex, my general advice would be to get everything nailed down on paper and force transparency upon anyone taking over. The since-disgraced former city council majority in MP gave away the farm so to speak using the slimmest of contracts imaginable - the fellow now running the joint can do just about anything he wishes and no one knows where he stands financially except himself!

Oh and by the way, when you lose 3 of 11 board members in a short time, like "Friends" apparently did, that's not a good sign, no matter how they may try to "spin" it.

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Posted by Aleks
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 24, 2007 at 7:26 pm

I've been a parent for 15 months, and for the last few I've enjoyed many visits to the Jr. Museum & Zoo, it has been a lifesaver on rainy days. I've been trying to follow the Friend's takeover story because I'd love to enjoy the museum with future Jrs. This seems to be one of those iceberg stories, where the 10% that gets written about does not describe what's really going on.

The Friends are portrayed in the paper are vaguely unsymapathetic group: they are non-transparent, are planning to bust the unionized staff, and with board that is in turmoil. The gifts they come with might end up costing us in the end.

The museum is an old, much loved institution that has fallen on hard times. Personally, I have no idea what museum was like in the past, but I am quite happy with the way it is today. I'd be happy to donate a nice chunk for improvements.

I am sure that Friends are not as bad as they seem on the printed page, and that the museum staff has an interesting story to tell. How does one find out what the real story is?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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