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Public Service when you Work for a Large Organization

Uploaded: Dec 6, 2015
This topic has come up currently with regard to public service by employees of Palantir. But such public service has a long history in Palo Alto and is the topic is broader than the current discussion. While many have served as appointees, some council members have been employees of these organizations.

I welcome the past public service by employees of H-P, Stanford and other large local organizations. I believe Palo Alto has benefited from the willingness of these residents to give back to the community.

I think employees, particularly if they sit on the council and have decision making authority, should recuse themselves whenever their organization has a proposal before the city. And I think that is done regularly by appointed and elected employees. Moreover, when there is the potential for a conflict of interest, the city attorneys can and do contact the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to get an opinion.

Moreover, unless the employee is in higher management, it is unlikely that they have any influence over organizational decisions. After all, for example, Stanford has many employees, far more than anyone else in town I believe, and it is hard to believe that a professor or doctor at Stanford, doing public service in the city, would make decisions or allow their management to tell them how to vote. In any event all such employees have to recuse themselves from Stanford related decisions so the issue would not come up.

As for the people from Palantir named in the Weekly blogs, I know all of the city appointees. One (Mila) with her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design applied to the Art Commission, her personal passion. How this constitutes an attempt by Palantir to take over the city escapes me. Another (Mehdi) sits on the Human Relations Commission, his personal passion. A third (Bob) sits on the Traffic Management Association and is working hard to get Caltrain go passes for low wage employees who work downtown.

I did not make time when I was young and raising a family to do what they are doing. Their service brightens my hope for our future and none of these positions deal with land use, zoning or large expenditures of money. Why is this not a good thing and where is any evidence that such service poses a conflict.

Kate Downing (her husband works for Palantir) and Eric Rosenblum sit on the Planning and Transportation although I believe Eric was appointed before he joined Palantir. The PTC, while not having decision making authority, does deal with land use and zoning issues in an advisory capacity.

Kate and Eric do not participate in decisions related to Palantir just as Tom DuBois and Eric (both with wives working at Stanford) do not participate in decisions relating to Stanford.

My own take on this is that posters who do not like the advice that the PTC is giving are, without any evidence of wrongdoing, maligning Kate and Eric.

Disagreement over policy is one thing. Unsubstantiated personal attacks on council or appointed volunteers serving our community should stop.

If working for Palantir is a barrier to public service, then certainly working for Stanford or H-P or other larger organizations should be and that would deprive Palo Alto of a great and longstanding source of volunteer expertise.

Comments

 +   39 people like this
Posted by OPEN, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Dec 6, 2015 at 6:18 pm

THANK YOU Mr. Levy for your remarks which emphasize the importance of being polite and civil and not personally attacking people who take time out from their personal lives to try to help our community. I am tired of such personal attacks too. I had not even heard of Palantir until the past few months and, frankly, I don't care if people who volunteer on our commissions or serve (and volunteer) on our City Council work for that organization or any other larger organization in our area. I note that one person who recently commented attacked one Council Member for having a law practice. With this kind of thinking, one could not make a living in Palo Alto and be on the council. They seem like self-interested personal attacks--unnecessary in a civil conversation. By this reasoning, if one were to attack air suggest we should get rid of people who work for (or whose spouses work for) Stanford, H-P, Facebook, Apple... from our community government, we would probably have few if any volunteers. Half of the council and commission members from the past 20 years of Palo Alto history would have been barred from serving. Enough already!

Again, thank you for your civil, measured tone and the excellent perspective.


 +   34 people like this
Posted by What have we become, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 6, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Thanks for the comments, Steve.

The fact is, if we're going to have any "regular people" involved in city commissions, they will likely have jobs. Otherwise, we will only have retirees and rich people serving on our commissions.

Palantir is a large, downtown based company. I think that we should be happy that their employees are attempting to make lives in Palo Alto and volunteer for our boards. It used to be that downtown businesses would sponsor the local baseball teams, serve on the rotary club and local boards and commissions, and otherwise be part of the community. There's something really strange about looking at their civil engagement with not only suspicion but contempt.

Hurray for engagement! We want people who want to be Palo Altans!


 +   21 people like this
Posted by who wants housing?, a resident of another community,
on Dec 6, 2015 at 10:00 pm

At the last couple of City Council meetings that dealt with land use in the comp plan review, there were dozens of residents speaking up for more housing. The public comments were from residents across the age range and with a variety of professions and backgrounds. It wasn't just people from one company or industry - far from it.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 6, 2015 at 10:16 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@butontheotherhand

If you have any evidence for the malicious innuendo that you posted and I deleted, bring it forth. You have made a moral/criminal charge against Palantir and the employees who have volunteered their time to serve us with no evidence except "your impression" based on no facts.

Yours is the kind of hot air BS that is not productive for if we are to move ahead as a community and debate our policy differences.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 10:31 am

HP was a publicly-traded company during its heyday (and the Porter years), while Palantir is privately held.

So yes I suspect Rosenblum, Zelkha and Alhassani of dual loyalties and I think it should be looked into.

(sentence deleted)


 +   15 people like this
Posted by who wants housing?, a resident of another community,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 10:48 am

Whoa. So the criteria for civic participation in Palo Alto boards and commissions should exclude all of the people who work for private companies in town.

Civic participation should favor people who are retired, people who are home-makers, and people who commute to other cities. But working for a non-public company in Palo Alto should be a disqualifier. Not just senior executives. Not just for specific decisions regarding the property and type of business. But all rank-and-file employees and middle managers who happen to work in Palo Alto should avoid participating, because working in Palo Alto is considered harmful and a conflict of interest.

This is bizarre.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 11:14 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Hi Who wants housing

Your post is up. I am thinking you cannot see it because you have resent it but it does show on my screen.

Thanks for joining the discussion.

Steve


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 11:33 am

Actually I think council and commissioners should be paid a living wage for their work on behalf of We The People. Maybe if there was a payroll tax on Palantir and their ilk we could move towards that.
Meanwhile, you are a renter, just like me and 20,000 others. Suss me out and maybe I'll let you sleep on my couch for a few weeks until you get sorted.


 +   23 people like this
Posted by LeeB, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 11:59 am

I recently worked at Palantir for about 9 months before moving on to a startup. I also grew up and still live in Palo Alto.

As someone that was recently on the inside at Palantir, I can say that there is no sneaky ulterior motive to these people participating in their local community. They all have their own opinions, passions, and ideas and I would hope that community would welcome their participation just like any other citizens. If you want to have a discussion about the merits of someone's position, then do so. But don't try to discredit them just because you don't like or don't really know about their company.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 3:18 pm

really. outright censorship?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 3:31 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Hey Mark,

My editing is constant. No innuendo. No personal accusations without proof. Stick to the topic.

I delete what is inappropriate under these guidelines.

My blog and the Weekly are moderated blogs. The guidelines are pretty clear. Neither is a say anything you want free for all.

Steve


 +   12 people like this
Posted by Inclusive, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Hello Mark: I don't get it? Did you not want to be on the Human Relations Commission? On the City Council? And you rent (near Stanford if I recall)? And are a long time resident of Palo Alto? Why would you want to exclude young, passionate people who want to serve the city just because they work for a large organization? With no evidence that they are biased, other than that they have a job and the job happens to be for that big organizations, you say they should conflict out because they have an economic interest? Why? That's not fair. By this reasoning Sid Espinosa (H-P?), Sher, Cordell, Barton, Bacchetti, Gary Fazzino (H-P) and more, would have been excluded. People passionate about Palo Alto but who worked for Stanford or some other big Palo Alto connected organization. I am confused because I thought you were someone who wanted to support other renters and people who want to devote themselves to volunteering for the city. You appear to be someone who does not just shoot other people down easily. I voted for you by the way. Why take this tack so easily?


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Inclusive, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 8:42 pm

Hello "Butontheotherhand":

Your comments are very offensive. "Parrot"? I am not an employee of Palantir --never heard of them until recently--and neither were most of the people who appeared at City Council from what I can tell. That was not their point, which apparently you don't care to hear. Does making unnecessary personal attacks work for you? I hope it does not work for others who listen to this kind of baloney.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 7, 2015 at 9:09 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Hi all,

I have been clear that accusations against an organization or individuals need proof for posting on this blog.

Issues of conflict of interest are legitimate and we have a process with staff and the FPPC to adjudicate conflict questions. We have city attorneys if you want to raise ethical or criminal charges. So if any posters have actual evidence, you have ways to have your evidence heard and evaluated.

The blog has an interesting topic on whether we want employees of large organizations to serve Palo Alto as volunteers or elected officials.

We have a long history, for example of Stanford staff on the council (Byron Sher, LaDorisCordell and John Barton to name three) and H-P employees (Sid Espinosa and Gary Fazzino to name two who I am familiar with) on the council as well as the amazing public service of Ray Bacchetti from Stanford who served our community in so many wonderful ways.

There may be times soon when employees of companies like Google and Apple may, if they are not doing so already, volunteer in our city. Google already has a large and expanding presence in our city.

What are the general policies you favor for the public service of the employees wanting to do public service whether they come from Stanford, H-P, Goggle or Palantir?



 +   16 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 1:23 am

You are asking people to discuss the appointment of individuals who have employment, and/or have a spouse/SI employed, by a PA company.

When it comes to the current planning commission, the issue is not that simple and I think you know that.

When a planning commissioner has a close association with a PA company that:

1. has publicly pushed for more downtown office space.

2. has employees who have organized and lobbied PACC for higher density housing.

3. and then add that the commissioner also has direct ties to PAF (an organization that promotes higher density housing and commercial space).


You've got yourself a triple whammy, not a single concern with just the association with the company. The perception is that the deck is stacked in favor of greater and higher density development as an overall goal...it goes far beyond the company itself.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to see why any slow/no growth resident is going to feel that there is a significant level of conflict of interest for such planning commissioners.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Citizen, a resident of College Terrace,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 6:48 am

Ken Dauber on the school board is a Google employee. Barbara Klausner, a former board member, is married to Stanford professor. Amado Padilla, another former member, is a Stanford professor.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 10:28 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Hi Crescent Park Dad,

I am busy and will respond in more detail later. But a couple of thoughts.

The pace of growth is a legitimate policy issue but having one position or another does not raise conflict of interest issues and is not a barrier to public service.

I do understand that people who favor slower growth might attempt to discredit people in public service who disagree. So they may "feel" to use your word that conflicts of interest abound. But, of course, most of the PTC positions have had the support of all or nearly all members, none of whom are being accused of anything in these blogs.

And, of course, there is no evidence that the opinions of people with association to a company or university are anything but their own so you are back into innuendo. For Palantir to put pressure on its employees to do anything political is, I believe, a criminal activity much the same as if a company pressures employees with regard to union activity or voting.

Finally, one could argue that homeowners who favor slower housing growth have a conflict of interest since their policy could inflate local housing prices.

I prefer to take people at their word and have the debate about growth without distracting allegations of evil or criminal activity or intent.

I will respond to your comments about PAF separately in a bit.

But thanks for clarifying that these issues primarily come from disagreement about policy. If Kate and Eric favored stopping growth, do you think any of this intense rhetoric would have occurred?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 12:13 pm

@Inclusive-
I've been consistently since about 1992 when I joined Bay Area Action, and 1994, when I founded Earthwise Productions of Palo Alto (aka Earwopa) questioning the role of corporations in society, corporations versus public sector, etc. I criticized, for example, that Council members, from the dias, seemed to be shilling for a particular company merely because it, in a pr move, was offering a demo of one of its products (an issue that is as recent as last night, same issue, same company). Later, I criticized council member Holman, an ally, for how she described a particular company that wanted to work with a developer to build housing here, and for her use of the term "company town".

There is a more general question of how commissions and board function, and their composition; City Clerks office surveyed about 100 of us recently, current and potential commissioners.

I would welcome a more thorough discussion of the issues of Palantir in particular and the general set of topics.

And yes I am open-minded to seeing what any of these commissioners say or do in office. I know most of them, and respect them -- putting aside the question of how much the feeling is reciprocated --and it is definitely a fair question, even posed indirectly as in here, about their dual loyalty. It is not slander to question public figures.

-Mark

Does anyone else out there think the dialogue would be improved if the other 9 of you identify yourself by name? Why the cloak of anonymity?

Also: there is a Human Relations Commission meeting this week, Thursday; it might be interesting to continue this there. Do corporate executives on civic boards have problematic dual loyalties?


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Steve - you have it. No need to provide further follow up.

To summarize - the current perceptions of conflict go beyond employment. Employment in itself should not be a reason to preclude participation in city government. But the issues raised speak to a broader set of long-term city policy concerns when you tally up an individual's professional associations, as well as personal associations with organizations that push towards a major change in the city-scape.

Yes - residents (who are PA property owners) will certainly benefit from slow/no growth. But the difference is that they possess the privilege of voting for or against city policies and/or decisions (e.g., Maybell). Companies or organizations who try to influence city policy will eventually run up against a city-wide vote if the citizens disagree.

Thankfully, committees and/or the PACC are not immune from residents having the final word.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Chris, a resident of University South,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Crescent,

You are insinuating that people who support more housing are not residents, citizens, home owners, or voters.

I think your opinions are not well-supported. Not every housing initiative may be supported by a majority of voters, but you may be surprised at how many will be.


 +   8 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 2:30 pm

No - that's not what I'm trying to say here. My point is that many of the PAO debates over growth policy and the concerns over who has a voice via commission appointment, goes beyond the narrow focus on one's employer (or spouse/SO employer)...the premise of the original essay at the top of this blog.

In order to understand the concerns (and/or mis-trust) that some residents may have, you have to take into account they are looking at the full-canvas of an commissioner's POV and associations...and the result is that some residents are uncomfortable with all of those activities/associations when you add them up.

Besides - I'm pretty sure that commissioners have to be a PA resident. Of course, there are those who don't understand why non-residents are allowed to serve on the ARB...


 +  Like this comment
Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 4:38 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

deleted, full of false unsubstantiated allegations.

Given the number of recent bizarre posts about Palo Alto Forward, I will make it the subject of my next blog.

And anyone can check out the website on their own.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by GottabeKidding!, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Steve - surely you know better then to imply there is no legal or ethical moral conflict of interest because "For Palantir to put pressure on its employees to do anything political is, I believe, a criminal activity much the same as if a company pressures employees with regard to union activity or voting." Our entire conflict of interest protection laws focus on material interest to a company - it doesn't matter if the company "puts pressure" or not. If you or your family have income - active or passive - you should recuse from items that impact your company. Do you question that?

THe challenge here is Palantir has said it has interest in expanding agressively downtown - so Planning commission rulings for downtown issues has the appearance of a conflct of interest - which is enough for recusal.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 6:00 pm

There you go again Levy:deleting posts that highlight and inform the readers about the collusion and collaboration between Palantir and PAF, the legal and ethical conflict of interest of Palantir and its allies at PAF regarding downtown real estate, etc. This is all substantiated and proven. By deleting my post and labeling it false and unsubstantiated, and by suppressing information you don't want the public to be aware of, you have exposed yourself to a law suit, which I can assure you will be forthcoming.

It is scandalous that Steve Levy, a lobbyists for developers and PAF, a pro density product of Palantir, is allowed a blog on this publication.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Abitarian, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Steve --

Since the Citizens United decision, it is indeed legal for employers to advise their employees on political matters.

Some companies pressure employees by telling them, for example, that if an election goes a certain way, it could harm the company and lead to job losses.

See Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Gunn High School,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 7:14 pm

At 4 pm Wednesday Palantir is hosting an event featuring Max McGee of PAUSD and Rich Gordon of district 23 something about their mentoring program for students, might yield data points to this discussion


 +   12 people like this
Posted by Thanks for the laughs, maurucio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 7:26 pm

I have to say, I got quite a laugh from Mauricio's last post. Mauricio, but n thread after thread posts unproven and scurrilous comments about PAF and palantir.. He makes claims collusion and collaboration between Palantir and PAF. He makes claims that This is all substantiated and proven, yet he provides no proof for these outrageous claims. he protests that his client moments have been labeled as being false and unsubstantiated. And that is of course true. Mauricio has provided exactly zero in the way of proof for his claims. Finally. The biggest laugh comes from Mauricio threatening mr levy with a lawsui, which he assures us will be forthcoming.

"It is scandalous that Steve Levy, a lobbyists for developers and PAF, a pro density product of Palantir, is allowed a blog on this publication."
Perhaps Mauricio should contact the publisher with his complaints. Though it is obvious that Mauricio has no respect for freedom of the the press, freedom of speech or democracy in general, as long it is not in lockstep with his dogma.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 8, 2015 at 8:05 pm

I actually did call Bill Johnson today to protest or at least call him on the fact that he deletes my comments or makes them only visible to registered users. Mauricio is not alone in his concerns far from it. parenthesesI guess steve is out to dinner


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Henry, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 9, 2015 at 1:17 pm

Palantir is NOT a large organization as measured by revenue or number of employees. It is dwarfed in comparison to Stanford and HP for example. Palantir is a small private organization that has too much influence considered it's small size. There is no other small organization that has this many employees represented on city boards. This begs the question of why so many employees there are so civic minded when there is no other comparable organization doing the same?


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Steve Levy, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Dec 9, 2015 at 6:12 pm

Steve Levy is a registered user.

Yes Henry I know all the Palantir employees/spouses serving on Palo Alto boards and yes they are civic minded. I am pretty sure Google and Facebook and Stanford folks do plenty of public service. There is no plot.
We should be pleased that these young family folks make time to give back to their community.

And if there are issues of conflict of interest, we can ask the city attorneys to sort it out.

We are blessed to live in a country where the accuser needs to bring proof, not the accused and where people accusing other people have the guts to state their full name and take responsibility.

Re mark Weisd, he does use his real name. He writes a lot of things I think are wrong but I think he comes from a good place, except of course when he is out to lunch-in response to his query as to whether I was out to dinner last night.
So if no one has anything on topic to say, I can close the thread and move on.


 +   18 people like this
Posted by "public service", a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Dec 9, 2015 at 10:40 pm

Steve, what you call "public service" others may refer to as "lobbying." It would be one thing if Palantir encouraged its employees to engage in a certain number of paid hours doing whatever community service they chose (i.e. volunteering in classrooms, working in soup kitchens, etc). Instead, Palantir employees have been pushing a particular agenda (high density housing) on the CC through PAF, coordinated appearances at CC meetings, petitions, and their roles as members of various city committees. I am reminded of when politicians call their accessibility to large donors and receptiveness to their requests as "constituent service."


 +   17 people like this
Posted by Open, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 10, 2015 at 10:12 am

Dear "public service": the very fact that you put "public service" in quotation marks show you are ready to besmirch people with no proof. How do you know what Palantir or any other big corporations employees do or are asked to do? Your connection between one company and housing density at all, at this time, given no evidence except your innuendo shows your agenda is biased. Attacking with no evidence is easy. Engaging positively and creatively is far more difficult.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by jlanders, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 10, 2015 at 11:41 am

jlanders is a registered user.

> And if there are issues of conflict of interest, we can ask the city attorneys to sort it out.

Steve, your statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the City Attorney. It's convenient fiction that the City Attorney is an advocate for the citizens of Palo Alto. As a California charter city, the City Attorney isn't "a third branch of government" similar to the judiciary at the state or federal level responsible for resolving disputes. The City Attorney's function is to serve the legal interests of the City.

The most obvious recent example is the City Attorney's contact with the FPPC about Councilman DuBois and the Palo Alto Office Cap. The City Attorney solicited advice from the FPPC (see: Web Link) and then clarified her questions (see: Web Link). The City Attorney asked for advice because the Office Cap might impact Stanford, Palo Alto's largest employer and land holder. That action could have led to a Stanford lawsuit. The City Attorney was simply hoping to prevent legal exposure to the City with the new ordinance, not advocating for truth or justice.

Reading the beginning of each FPPC letter, you'll see that the FPPC's advice is limited and does not cover general conflict of interest statutes in other parts of the Government Code. Only a judiciary can enforce common law and conflicts with the Government Code. This is not a role for the City Attorney.

Your statement about "anonymous Town Square posters" making "unsubstantiated personal attacks" makes no sense. Councilman Burt raised the same conflict of interest issues during the City Council's joint kumbaya with the PTC on the dais. These are allegations that need to be discussed and addressed. Attempting to stifle debate is a disservice to the citizens of Palo Alto.


 +   15 people like this
Posted by Palo alto does not have a seedy downtown, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 10, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Maurucio--you are correct there is no proof that palantir is engaged in coordinated lobbying. just because you repeat it over and over again does not make it true.
If you have evidence of criminal activity, you should present it to the police for investigation.
Though I doubt that will happen. BTW, how is the lawsuit against Steve Levy moving along??


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

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