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May 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 21, 2004

Is the honeymoon over? Is the honeymoon over? (May 21, 2004)

Recent council meeting shows members aren't getting along as well as they say

by Bill D'Agostino

It started with Councilwoman Hillary Freeman calling a city policy a "travesty." It ended with Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell rubbing Freeman's shoulders.

But in the middle a fracas erupted that has some city-watchers wondering if the City Council's honeymoon is over.

Behind-the-scenes a lot of time has been devoted to council relations, following a year when the council had a well-publicized decorum meltdown. Meetings have been held -- councilmember-to-councilmember -- to smooth ruffled feathers. Even Freeman and Councilman Jack Morton, who had some of the most taught exchanges last year, had a private discussion, a breakthrough for the peevish duo.

On Monday night of this week, all the touchy-feely work seemed to fly out the window for one council meeting. But signs earlier this year indicated that not everything is copasetic. During a subcommittee meeting in March, Morton stormed out. He later said the discussion about how to appoint the mayor every year was a waste of time.

Monday night it started innocently enough with a discussion about how the city picks its vendors. After the council approved new policies for such selections, designed to speed up the process, Freeman criticized the city's current goal for how many minority- and women-owned businesses it picks for projects that are federally funded. She called it a "travesty."

The outspoken councilwoman asked for a subcommittee to study ways to increase the diversity of its vendors.

Interim City Attorney Wynne Furth warned that Proposition 209, passed by state voters in 1996, would hamper the conversation, since the city cannot collect demographic data on its vendors, aside from federally-funded projects.

"I think there are issues to explore," Furth said. But, she added, "much of what you'll learn about is the constraints under which we operate. That isn't to say it isn't worth doing."

Shortly after, Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg spoke, arguing that Freeman, by using the word "travesty," was accusing the city of being "discriminatory."

"Point of order," Freeman interrupted, hoping to be able to clarify her remarks immediately.

"Let me finish," Kleinberg said.

"Point of order," Freeman repeated.

"No, let me finish," Kleinberg echoed.

"No I think ... "

"No, let me finish."

"Council member Freeman, I will allow Council member Kleinberg to continue," said Mayor Bern Beecham, who conducts the meetings.

Kleinberg continued: "The choice of words is disturbing because I've seen no evidence there is a travesty." She then noticed that Freeman had left her chair to speak to Beecham.

"I think I have the floor," Kleinberg said. She then went silent, waiting for Freeman to sit back down. After a moment, Freeman returned to her seat.

"Council member Kleinberg?" Beecham asked.

"Thank you for letting me continue," Kleinberg said. "I think that if in fact there was some data or evidence that we had discriminatory contracting principals at play, then maybe we could use such dramatic language. But I'm not convinced anything that's come before the council supports that."

Cordell then jumped into the debate, trying to calm things down. She pointed out that there would be no harm in taking a cursory look at the issue.

"The matter is an important one, and if there's nothing to it, so be it," Cordell said.

A few minutes later, after more tense discussion, Beecham asked for a vote on the issue. "I'm not sure anything is going to change on where we're going to go. We have different opinions."

But other council members still wanted to speak.

Vice Mayor Jim Burch said he understood Freeman's desire to study the issue. "But then withhold your word travesty until you see what the response comes back."

"Colleagues?" Beecham interrupted. "Colleagues, let's cool this down, OK?"

"Well, I just ... " Burch gasped.

"Vice Mayor Burch, let's move on ... " Beecham said.

After five more minutes of discussion, the council rejected Freeman's idea, voting 2-7 with only Freeman and Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto voting for it.

Later in the meeting, during a break, Cordell came up to Freeman, rubbed her shoulders, and told her to cool off.

Cordell also advised her to never, ever use the word "travesty" again.

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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