Several Pleasanton City Council members have proposed overhauling the long-running Leadership Pleasanton program by dissolving a partnership between the city and the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce, which has helped organize and promote the program for 32 years, and having the city directly manage it instead, among other potential changes.
Mayor Karla Brown told the Weekly on Monday that she is "not anti-chamber at all" but said, "I think the city government can do a city-focused (program), and we can do it better for free."
"I want it to be available for everyone to learn about their own government," Brown said. "I think it should be free, run by the city and available to any residents, whether they can afford it or not."
Each year, 30 to 32 participants from local businesses, government, professional and social service organizations, and the Pleasanton community at-large, are selected to participate in the leadership development program.
The program's goals "are very simple" and about "really getting people more engaged in our community," chamber President/CEO Steve Van Dorn said in a recent interview.
"It's really to educate community members who want to learn more about how the city operates ... so they'll want to get more involved with being a part of leading the city in the future, whether that's being on a commission or committee, or running for public office," Van Dorn said.
Brown said participation can be more difficult for some residents, though, because the annual program's all-day sessions are held on a weekday during daytime hours, once a month from September through May.
"They're during the day when most people are at work," Brown said, and called the program's $950 participant fee "prohibitive to most people."
Brown also said it doesn't make sense to pay the chamber $10,000 every year -- per the city's most recent contract with them -- when "a third of the group that helps run this program are city employees."
"This is a program that should be available at no charge, and if the chamber wants to do it at no charge and they're willing to do it in the evening, I'd sure like to talk to them," Brown said. "But I don't think the city should pay $10,000 to them to do it."
According to Van Dorn, the chamber's $10,000 annual payment from the city pays for four to five city employees to attend the program every year and "partial payment for chamber staff time, meals, rental fees and transportation."
Though the city manager is authorized to sign contracts up to $10,000 on their own, Brown said, "This kind of contract should be approved by the City Council."
Vice Mayor Julie Testa "often thought I would like to take Leadership Pleasanton, but I had the sense it was cost-prohibitive and elitist," particularly when compared to city-run programs that are free and held on weeknights, such as Citizen Police Academy, she said.
"From community discussions, I did not think I would be accepted and I could not justify the cost," Testa said. "I would like to make the program open, accessible and cost-free to any interested community member. Using the model of the Citizen Police Academy, a city-run program could do that."
Between nine to 15 scholarships which cover half of the $950 program fee are issued by the chamber each year, with funding coming from outside donations including individuals, past graduating classes and businesses. Van Dorn said each program class fundraises for a needy cause and some have chosen to support future scholarships, with money going to the Pleasanton Chamber Community Foundation.
Testa said, "I would never feel it was appropriate for me to apply (for a scholarship). While I think most community members would be able to afford it, perhaps, that does not justify the expense. It isn't a program that should be exclusive, elitist or cost-prohibitive."
The most recent contract between the city and chamber -- which expired in June 2020 and hasn't been renewed since -- called for the chamber to "solicit attendee participation in the program," but Testa said past contracts that allowed the chamber to select participants have also left her with the impression that the program was not accessible for many people.
"Perhaps it's been more open in recent years, but my 30-year history in community discussions about it, was that it was very elitist, hand-selected by people whom the Chamber courts," Testa said. "I wasn't one of the community members that the chamber courted and, therefore, I never applied."
Based on conversations with peers in other cities, Testa said, "This has not been the norm for the chamber to take the role they've taken in our community, and it's something that should be re-evaluated, perhaps."
Testa added, "When they're doing Leadership Pleasanton, they're grooming their future candidates at taxpayer expense. They have such a defined political position that I question whether it is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."
Van Dorn pushed back on the idea that the chamber is "indoctrinating graduates to the chamber policies -- that our people are the ones getting elected," he paraphrased.
"There's only been three council members that have been elected that went through the program before they were elected," Van Dorn said, including former council members Arne Olson and Cindy McGovern and current Councilmember Valerie Arkin.
Housing Commissioner Kate Duggan, Human Services Commissioner Susan Hayes and City Manager Nelson Fialho are also program alumni.
As a participant in the 2014-15 Leadership Pleasanton program during her school board tenure, Arkin told the Weekly "there were many valuable aspects of the program." Now Arkin said she's "interested in learning more about how the city spends dollars on this program and in what capacity."
"Do they simply spend funds to send employees as participants or do they help fund the program in other ways?" Arkin said. "It's concerning if there are additional funds, outside of paying for employees to attend, and that is what I'd like to have more information on."
Arkin also agreed with Brown that "the council should be giving policy direction on the use of such funds," adding, "perhaps there should be consideration given to having the city be more involved in such a program."
If Leadership Pleasanton is taken over by the city, Van Dorn said, "The concern that we would have would be that it would be city-focused, city-centric, and not more open with different viewpoints on different sessions that we have."
Van Dorn continued, "Our No. 1 concern would be perhaps that that would be lost, if the program were to become a city program. We think we have a great diversity of folks that are actually presenting at each different session that we have. We just think it would be missing something, if that were the case."
From a logistical perspective, Van Dorn said it would take "a lot of staff time" for the city to put together their own program, "and when you look at what they have on their plate, it doesn't make sense to recreate a program that's already working."
Councilmember Kathy Narum told the Weekly, "My understanding is staff just don't have the resources to put a program like this together, as it is today."
City staff do have involvement in coordinating the program but the planning, transportation logistics and other tasks normally handled by the chamber would add on too much extra work for them, Narum said. Van Dorn also said the chamber spends lots of time promoting Leadership Pleasanton, which is featured on their website.
"The application form is on our website, we manage the payments, we're promoting it all the time, most promotion by and large is our doing," Van Dorn said. "The city certainly helps but most of it is what we do."
Van Dorn added, "The (chamber) staff time that's used to make the program be successful is probably far more than we get compensated from."
Brown and Testa both said the city could operate a community program similar to those run by Dublin or Livermore city staffers, but Van Dorn countered that Leadership Pleasanton is unique and "very, very different."
"Dublin's program is all specifically focused on city government. It doesn't talk about education and the other areas we focus on in our program," Van Dorn said. "Theirs is roughly 24, 30 hours total ... and ours is around 72 hours long. It's a much more robust program, and I think it's not fair to compare the programs when it's really apples to oranges."
Before making any changes to Leadership Pleasanton, Narum said the four council members -- including herself -- that have not participated in the program, "need to observe some sessions."
"We're talking about a program that four of us (council members) have never done, and that's a reason why I have some discomfort," Narum said. "People that think this needs to be overhauled, I've tried to figure out why."
Narum added that having Leadership Pleasanton run solely by the city "isn't something that's going to make the community better versus an all-abilities playground, or having a community farm on the Bernal property for master gardeners, or making sure we're in compliance with these state (housing) mandates so we don't get sued or fined."
The city's support for the Leadership Pleasanton program will be evaluated within the second year of the council's current two-year work plan, where it is listed as a "B" priority. According to deputy city manager Pamela Ott, the council "will be reviewing the city’s participation in the program when this is scheduled for consideration."