LaDoris Cordell didn't think she'd make it through her first two years on the Palo Alto City Council.
Recovering from unanticipated back surgery when she was elected in November 2003, Cordell had to campaign to change state law to allow her -- a Stanford University employee -- to serve on the council.
After her soul line-dancing inauguration, Cordell then found herself the only new member on a council that was deeply divided -- even "dysfunctional," she said.
"The tensions were palpable," said Cordell, 58, who recently reflected on her four years on the council -- and shared drawings she created while behind the dais.
The 2004 council was in the midst of the Downtown North traffic-barrier morass, which highlighted the personality clashes between council members. Members orated copiously but failed to work together toward solutions, Cordell said.
And, if that wasn't enough, the democratic process wasn't Cordell's gig. An adviser to Stanford President John Hennessy, Cordell had recently stepped down after 18 years as a Santa Clara County Municipal and Superior Court judge.
"I could tell you to be quiet when I wanted," Cordell said.
But on the council she had to sit quietly and listen -- listen to residents opposing new development projects, residents angry with the police and most anyone talk about most anything. Not to mention listening to her colleagues opine.
So, Cordell said, she exercised her mediating prowess, honed on the Family Court, to try to broker peace on the council.
She can't pinpoint how she did it, but coming in without the political baggage of her colleagues, and as a respected community leader, helped, she said.
She didn't lecture or adopt a holier-than-thou demeanor.
"I think it was just an attitude and approach I took," Cordell said. "We're going to take the high road."
Cordell said her first motion was to take down the Downtown North barricades, the source of sharp community conflict.
"I knew that was the right thing," Cordell said.
City government alone didn't cause the town's tensions, though. A provocative local newspaper, The Daily News under the ownership of Dave Price, was also to blame, she said.
The paper provided "a primer on how to sow seeds of discord," Cordell said.
She refused to speak to Daily News reporters, a practice she has recently amended following the sale of the Daily News to Knight Ridder and eventually to MediaNews Corp.
By 2006, the mood and efficacy of the council had improved significantly, Cordell said. The passage of time and a new mix of members changed the council's dynamics.
"The second two years felt very good," Cordell said. "City government (was) functioning the way it ought to function."
Cordell began pushing to enact measures to improve government transparency, a cause in which she firmly believes.
Cordell said she strongly supports Police Chief Lynne Johnson, whom she believes was attacked unfairly because she is a woman, and City Attorney Gary Baum, whom she said epitomizes integrity.
She also enjoyed working with City Manager Frank Benest, who has a national professional reputation, Cordell said.
During her tenure, the city enacted a no-gifts policy for council members and prevented lobbying on the upcoming refuse contract. But it didn't pass a campaign-finance measure spearheaded by Cordell and Councilman Peter Drekmeier.
She said she regrets that her donation-free campaigning didn't catch on in Palo Alto.
"I thought I could set an example that would trickle down," Cordell said.
In the last election, all of the successful candidates raised money. Cordell said she's often told a low-budget campaign only worked for her because she had widespread name and reputation recognition as a longtime judge and community attorney.
She also would have liked to open Foothills Park to non-residents, a task she hopes the next council will take up.
Cordell said she has no regrets about her service, but she wishes a woman would have followed in her place. The 2008 council will have eight men and one woman, current Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto.
She offered concise advice for the incoming council members: Don't abstain.
"It's tough being a decider," Cordell said, yet that is exactly what the council members are elected to do. Frequent abstentions haven't been a problem, she said; it's just something about which she feels strongly.
Cordell said she also hopes the city will continue to reach out to East Palo Alto and support the financing of a new public-safety building.
Cordell, a mother of two grown daughters, never anticipated serving more than one term and did not run for re-election.
"(I said) 'I'll do this for four years,'" Cordell said. "That's it. I've given it my all."
She now plans to focus on life with her partner, Florence Keller, and pay more attention to her job at Stanford.
Of course, that isn't all.
Cordell's writing a book about her career as a judge, serving as a legal expert for the media and attempting to free a woman sent to prison on a non-violent third-strike conviction. She's also an accomplished classical pianist and artist who loves soul line-dancing.
While she sat on the bench, Cordell made all sorts of drawings that were exhibited publicly. Cordell continued the practice on the council and has released some of her drawings to the Weekly.
She drew nearly everything in sight in the Council Chambers -- her hand, Bluetooth, microphone and even neighbor Drekmeier's leg.
The drawings convey a sense of the length of the meetings; her hand, for example, is shaded with hundreds of precisely placed dots.
And as her term wound down, Cordell's sense of humor took over. She drafted a set of rules for future council meetings: no more PowerPoint presentations, no repetition of comments and curtailing the remarks of constant council watchers Herb Borock and Bob Moss.
She also crafted report cards for each of the departing council members, based on her own criteria -- including posture.
Councilman Bern Beecham earned good grades, but in the comment section she urged him to shave off his beard. Councilwoman Dena Mossar was dinged for her occasional absences for attending regional and national meetings, earning a C for attendance and a D- for talking too much. And Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg scored a D in the "verbiage" category for her frequent comments.
And Cordell herself?
Straight A's, of course. And, in the comment section: "Don't do this again!"