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Can you be bought for a cup of coffee?

Original post made by diana diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Nov 17, 2006

I can’t – and I would guess that you couldn’t, either. I couldn’t even be bought for a lunch.

But if a proposed new policy passes, Palo Alto City Council members will not be able to accept the “gift” of someone buying a cup of coffee for them – or anything else, including lunch.

The “no gifts” proposal came from Councilmember La Doris Cordell, who said she wants to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, and therefore wants a policy that would prevent a council member from accepting any gift from someone doing business with the city, seeking to do business, or looking for permits or other entitlements from the city.

Surprisingly, two of the three other council members on the four-member Policy and Services Committee agreed with Cordell at their meeting this week.

I think the “absolutely no gifts” policy is way over the top. For example, I had a cup of coffee with a developer the other day. The coffee shop was crowded, and he said, I’ll stand in line, you get a table. When he brought back the small cup of black coffee, I offered to pay and he said, “Forget about it.”

I forgot about it. But if I were a council member, I would have to say, “I am sorry, but I certainly cannot accept your paying for a cup of coffee because I can’t be bribed by letting you buy me this coffee.”

By doing this, I have just insulted the developer big time, suggesting he was there to bribe me into doing something. I suppose over time I would find a more politically correct way of saying, “Can’t let you buy me anything!”

Nevertheless, this policy is still overkill.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission disallows for council members statewide from accepting any gift worth more than $360, and says that anything over $50 must be reported. That seems reasonable, and it has worked in Palo Alto for years.

As Councilmember Jack Morton pointed out, he doubts any of the council members could be bribed by coffee, and that Cordell “is implying we’ve been a hotbed of immorality.”

Most of us know what a proper and improper gift would be. A cup of coffee (black please) is fine; a free lunch when you are the unpaid speaker at that lunch is perfectly acceptable, a small poinsettia plant at Christmas is okay. A season ticket is a no-no, as is a box seat at a sporting event.

Hasn’t the council more important issues to talk about?

Comments (19)

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Posted by Recall Cordell
a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 17, 2006 at 6:33 pm

Leave to it our City Council member, Cordell, to focus on the important issues facing our city. Now our elected officals are being bribed left and right and only the courageous council member Cordell will stand up to them. Give me a break. first it is her emphasis on social issues outside of PA, now it is this. Forget about our crumbling infrastructure, lack of decision making on Alma Plaza, loss of tax revenue as retailers flee the city etc. She is wasting her time and ours on this nonsense.
I am sure sorry I wasted my vote on her last election.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2006 at 12:24 am

This is a campaign trick by LaDoris. There are already numerous conflict-of-interest laws that regulate council members, though they are seldom enforced. Cordell knows she'll be in trouble when she runs for reelection next year, so she wants to get this legislation passed so she can run on it. She wants to position herself as a "clean government" candidate. But when she campaigns, her opponents should bring up these points:

1. When she ran for council in 2003, she lied when she told the public she had an unblemished record as a judge. During that campaign, after making her claim of a clean record repeatedly, it came out that she had received a private admonition from the
state Commission on Judicial Performance.

2. She publicly complained that the Daily practiced yellow journalism, and then she took at job at a San Francisco TV station where she practiced yellow journalism by commenting nightly on the Scott Peterson trial. It makes me cringe to think that anybody in our City government had anything to do with that circus.

3. She refuses to vote for candidates for city boards and commissions unless they hold her views on issues that have nothing to do with city government -- such as gay marriage. Her exclusionary views have a chilling effect on free speech -- if you wish to improve your community by volunteering to serve on a board or commission, you have to bite your tongue so as not to offend Queen LaDoris. In the past, Palo Alto had always prided itself on its diversity -- including politcal diversity.

4. During the 2003 campaign, LaDoris said nothing about her litmus test for approving board and commission members. The Weekly quoted her as saying, "I don't have any agenda." (Web Link) That turned out to be a lie.

5. And, finally, remember the conflict-of-interest controversy LaDoris caused when she was elected in 2003? State Government Code Section 1090 prohibits a city council from signing contracts with a organization that employs a council member. The City of Palo Alto has literally hundreds of contracts with Stanford, such as one in which the city provides fire protection for the campus for a fee. Her election to council meant that none of those contracts could be renewed. Frank Benest said "millions and millions of dollars" were at risk because of her conflict of interest. (Web Link)

Oddly enough, this conflict wasn't disclosed to the public until a few days AFTER the election. State Senator Byron Sher had to rush a bill through the legislature to create a special exception just for LaDoris.

After that controversy, a reasonable question to ask LaDoris would have been: "Gee, you used to be a judge for 19 years? You got a law degree from Stanford Law School, right? Are you saying you didn't know what the law was?"

Another question -- "OK, so you claim ignorance. Did anybody in the city attorney's office tell you about it when you pulled papers to run?" That's a reasonable question because one member of the city attorney's office did know about the conflict before the election and decided not to say anything publicly, according to press reports.

My guess is that LaDoris knew about the law but decided to put herself first and run anyway. She believed that the enormous amount of problems she would create were less important than her winning a seat on council. I say that because, when she was told after the election what a huge problem she had created, she didn't offer to resign and spare everyone the trouble of changing the law. How selfish!

It is ironic, though, that a council member who forced the legislature to carve out a personal exception in the state's oldest conflict-of-interest law now wants to enact another conflict-of-interest law to regulate her colleagues, who she fears might be unethical.

Certainly if the council election wasn't a year away, a recall would be in order. But next year, we can simply vote her out of office. And I suspect Palo Altans will do exactly that. People in this town aren't stupid.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2006 at 11:40 am

As I understand it, Cordell has already announced that she will not seek reelction, so her actions are not an election ploy. Although I believe her "no gift" policy apears to be overkill when the state laws of reporting gifts over $50 and not accepting any gift over $360 cover most reasonable occurances. However, is it possible she knows of something that we all should know? Why do some development projects get easy approval and we can't find a way to keep our car dealerships and attract new ones?

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2006 at 6:42 pm

It's my understanding that the no-gift policy applies only to people doing business -- or hoping to do business -- with the city. That means that if I'm a developer, I can't buy a council member a cup of coffee. However, if I'm just an ordinary resident, I can.

That seems odd to me. If I, as an individual, want to sway a few councilmembers toward my point of view on any city issue -- zoning, traffic, libraries, police building, etc. -- I could presumably treat them to a Mercedes, a Rolex, a trip to the Bahamas . . . Thank goodness for the state law!

Cordell's insistence on "not even a cup of coffee" is a foolish waste of time.

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Posted by Kevin
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 18, 2006 at 11:38 pm

curious says: "Why do some development projects get easy approval...?" LOL -- name one?

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Posted by Anonymous Coward
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 18, 2006 at 11:53 pm

Most of the comments here don't seem to understand the nature of "relationship" in politics.

Imagine a scenario where a person of influence wants to "get something done" in Palo Alto. That person can entertain a politician over and over again, for well under $50. The latter amount will buy a nice entre, with wine and dessert at most Palo Alto eateries.

It's not so much about the amount spent. I think that's incidental to what LaDoris Cordell is attempting to accomplish. What's really at stake is the slow, steady use fo small favors that help build relationships, and then forward value those realtionships have when "favors" need to be done.

LaDoris has done us all a favor, and those who would disagree with her suggestion for no tolerance on gifting don't really understand (with due respect to all posting here) how relationships are built, and the cumulative effect of performing small favors can have in building those relationships.

Instead of jumping to conclusions, and looking at the easy surface issue at hand, we might look deeper into the motivations behind what LaDoris Cordell has suggested - and consider it one more way to build a barrier between those who would use the power of small favors to peddle influence, and thus weight the scales of power in their favor.

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Posted by Want clean government
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2006 at 1:19 am

Focusing on cups of coffee is trivializing the ethical problem and making believe there isn't a problem. People give gifts to tell the other person they like them. In business, as in personal life, it can create an obligation. Business people are so used to greasing the wheels with gifts, they don't see anything wrong with it.

Diana says: if I were a council member, I would have to say, “I am sorry, but I certainly cannot accept your paying for a cup of coffee because I can’t be bribed by letting you buy me this coffee.”

Nonsense. It isn't bribery. Anonymous has got it right. It has to do with relationships that lead to preferential treatment. Just ask the drug companies. They spend millions just to entertain potential users of their products, because it works.
You just politely say something on the order of, Thanks, but there's a city rule and I have to pay for this myself. It's simple and understandable, what's the fuss?

Who cares about cups of coffee? Get real. The gifts escalate and if you want the government to function fairly, it is best to keep those relationships uncomplicated by gifts.

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Posted by Anonymous Coward
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2006 at 12:31 pm

Kevin makes a joke about development projects getting easy approval. It's true that developers here get put through the wringer, in ways that probably shouldn't happen. Perhaps Kevin should consider howo the *necessarily* close relationships that develop among local politicians, staff members, and developers create an environment that often leaves local citizens with the feeling that they're the last ones to know what's going on, with all the blowback that results.

In no way am I suggesting that there is impropriety involved in any of this, but if one is a developer, one *has* to spend a lot of time with local officials as one does diligence toward obtaining the necessary, legally required clearances and documentation that must be completed before a project is finally given a go-ahead.

Consider how occasional small dinners and brief meetings (some over a small cup of coffee) - all taking place during the completion of what is sometimes a month's-long, or year's-long process - helps to cement relationship that has the potential to extract reciprocation based solely on *relationship*.

The latter scenario is just one angle of the problem thatLaDoris Cordell's proposal is getting at, and attempting to remedy. She should be praised for it, as it will increase pure transparency in government.

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Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Nov 19, 2006 at 3:49 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Pat from Midtown brought out an excellent point, I thought. If someone, like a developer, is "doing business" with the city, or may be planning to do business with the city, Councilmember LaDoris Cordell's proposed policy would apply. But if neighbors to a proposed project decide to take each council member out for lunch (individually) to object to the developer's project, that wouldn't count, because they are neighbors not doing business with the city -- even though the only reason for this hypothetical lunch would be to say why the proposed project is so awful.

So there's an unfair tilt here. Council members get to meet for coffee or lunch with residents paying for their food. Yet council members are not able to accept coffee from a developer.

I've heard some council member says they never meet with developers. I've heard other council members say they do meet with developers, in order to better understand the project, ask questions, and hear both sides of an issue.

I think we want our council members to act (and think) as objectively as possible, and that may take meetings (with or without paid coffee) with both residents and developers.

The same rules should apply to both sides.

As to "anonymous coward's" comments that Cordell is on track because it's not really about a cup of coffee, but buying influence, I agree -- in part. Influence-buying is wrong. But the issue here is about coffee becaue Cordell was the one who put in the coffee limitation. I happen to think that the current Fair Political Practices rule that all council members statewide report any gift or expenditure on them of more than $50 must is more in tune with reality.

In general, I don't think Palo Alto has a problem with such "gifts."

It's an issue because Cordell suggested this absolutely no gifts policy.

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Posted by Anonymous Coward
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2006 at 10:31 pm

Diana, I'm afraid you're missing LaDoris Cordell's primary intention about the "cup of coffee" rule. The "cup of coffee" is simply a metaphor for influence peddling. LaDoris should know, she's been there. It takes guts to look at the low lying, slithering underbelly of so-called 'innocuous' gifting to politicians for what it really is, and represents - i.e. "getting close to, and gaining favor from, power".

Again, a power shift is what happens as a result of gifting of ANY kind. There is an entire psychology around gifting, as it is a primary contributor to cementing and reinforcing a PERSONAL relationship. Gifting is a POWERFUL motivator, even when the gifts are token in nature.

There have even been cultures that used over-gifting to shame one's enemy, by publicly gifting so much to a detested recipient, that said recipient is unable to return the gift, and thus liable for public shame (in a culture where overt "balance" for gifts was a sine qua non for maintaining status). So there, gifting was considered a way of revenge.

Gifts, of ANY kind, grease wheels, and influence POWER.

Public service is PUBLIC SERVICE. Serving from a position of power - as politicians do - denotes a special privilege that is best fulfilled in ways that are as pure as possible. (btw, all this has NOTHING to do with the private actions of politicians as they live their private lives - that's another post).

Politicians NEED to be as squeaky clean as they can when it comes to ANYONE buying them ANYTHING, period.

Do you realize that if you were a Council member that any one person or group of persons could take you to dinner every evening, as long as the tab for yuor dinner wasn't over $50?
Of course, that's taking the current rule to its logical extreme, but you get my drift.

LaDoris should be praised for trying to keep government as honest as possible. It's rather surprising - as one of our more prominent political watchdogs - to see you complain about something that will decrease influence peddling, and increase transparency in government.

Maybe we can discuss your newfound, relaxed standards for government officials over a cup of coffee; let's invite your favorite City Council member. And after that, how about meeting the following week for coffee and dessert at a tony eatery to discuss these things further? Heck, yuor tab shouldn't amount to more than $15-20. I'll buy. :)

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 19, 2006 at 11:09 pm

There are many good comments and perspectives here.

Anonymous Coward talks about “slow, steady use of small favors that help build relationships.” Absolutely true, but the favors need not be monetary. I could introduce a council member to an important friend. I could invite a council member to a free event, to which it might be difficult to get an invitation. I could write a letter to a college admissions counselor I know about a council member’s child. I could stand up at a council meeting and praise a council member’s policies. I could rally 20 neighbors to do the same.

Relationships (and projects) are not necessarily won or lost over the price of coffee or lunch or dinner. Non-monetary favors can also have a cumulative effect.

Diana Diamond gives an example of individual residents buying lunch for council members to object to a project. Under the proposed no gift policy, these lunches would be acceptable, even if 50 residents each bought lunch for all nine council members. Yet one developer could not buy one council member one cup of coffee to urge that the project be accepted.

Diana says it succinctly: The same rules should apply to both sides.

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Posted by Anonymous Coward
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 20, 2006 at 12:42 am

I think LaDoris' idea would apply tp citizens, as well - and why not? It should; otherwise locals who could potentially be doing business with the city could find a back door to gain influence.

Bottom line: NO gifts of ANY kind should be given - in any form - to politicians or anyone in public office, period.

Sure, there are other, non-monetary ways to buy influence, but they are far too difficult to police. Introducing someone to a friend falls into the latter category.

Cordell's idea is just one more way to create a healthy barrier between public positions of power, and those who would cuury favor by using monetary or other gifting to influence the direction of that power.

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Posted by Simple Truth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 20, 2006 at 9:00 am

She is not running for office in the next election.
Cordell is a JOKE. She knows it.

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Posted by JM
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 20, 2006 at 9:28 am

Of course LaDoris says she's not running. She's saying that now. But when it comes time to run, she'll say that she was "asked" by various people to seek reelection. At the moment, she doesn't want to become a target like Nancy Lytle did.

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Posted by A.J.
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 20, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Whether I pay for it or not, I want to know how I can get my city counsel representative(s) to sit and listen to ME over coffee and lunch on repeated occasions...

It's not about who pays for the coffee, it's about access and influence.

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Posted by Dag
a resident of another community
on Nov 21, 2006 at 2:04 am

Simple Truth, You should be ashamed of yourself. I hope the moderator removes your insulting words. There's no place in this forum for people who make gross ad hominum attacks that aren't buffered by a little humor. Yours is just a nasty insult, and reflects far more poorly on you than the innocent target of that insult.

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Posted by Simple Truth
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 21, 2006 at 11:49 am

Dear Dag,

If style is what you have in mind - please be cognizant that styles of people from Europe can be very different from style of people from US.
Style should not be a factor used in censorship, and keep in mind Cordell is a public figure.
You are presuming she and folks reading this would prefer INDIRECT attacks. Well DIRECT ones have value as well.

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Posted by Board Observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 21, 2006 at 1:35 pm

This speaks very closely to the issue of buying influence in government, and it effects Palo Alto tax payers, so I hope you will bear with a slight diversion.

Does anyone on this thread (including Diana Diamond) know what the rules are for when names and/or dollar amounts of donations to public entities need to be disclosed?

I'm specifically interested in knowing if Palo Altan's have any right to expect to find out who the individuals or businesses are that donated $140,000 in start up funds to the PAUSD school district for study and start up of the Mandarin Immersion program. An organization named "PACE" came offering a check (literally waving a check at the school board meeting), but really who provided that money to "PACE"? Is that one person? (or a few) One business? Are they Palo Alto constituents? or outsiders with other interests?

I notice that PIE (Partner In Education Foundation) discloses donors by name and dollar amount in ranges (up to $500, $500-$1000, etc.) Do donating organizations have any requirement to say who they are or where their donated funds come from?

Obviously this is required in political campaigns at some level, and we see a lot of controversy about folks trying to hide sources of donations or get around disclosures, and attempts to limit contributions, etc..

I guess we feel public should have a right to know who is attempting to purchase influence?

Even if there are no laws about this, should Palo Altans' expect to receive this information? (Should the School Board require this disclosure? They've already spent about half of it!) Does that special interest group think they just bought 1/2 of one of our schools?

I think knowing the origin of those donated dollars speaks to the whether there is Palo Alto constituency support for using our Palo Alto tax payer, public resources to institute this (or any other) program.

Any ideas how we can compel this disclosure?

Like this comment
Posted by JJ
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Nov 24, 2006 at 9:36 pm

If you're a council member, just pay for your own damn food & drink and stop whining. Why would you even want even the slightest appearance of impropriety? Sheesh...

But A.J. is right: "It's not about who pays for the coffee, it's about access and influence."

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

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