Almanac

News - November 3, 2010

Did Menlo Park councilman Cohen cross ethical line?

by Sandy Brundage

"I'm going to do whatever I can to help you out, because you're such a good-looking woman."

That remark raises no eyebrows in some contexts; between good friends, for example.

In others, it crosses an ethical line; such as between a business executive and potential vendor.

How about between a Menlo Park councilman and a developer with business shortly coming before the council?

Kim LeMieux, who asked the City Council to overturn a commission decision and allow her to cut down a heritage redwood tree at 240 University Drive, spoke with several council members before the meeting, including Andy Cohen.

During their lengthy phone conversation preceding the Oct. 26 council meeting, Mr. Cohen made the above remark.

He told The Almanac he thought she was a woman he'd met at the Golden Acorn awards last month, and didn't realize until the meeting started that he'd actually never met Ms. LeMieux.

"Is that what I was quoted as saying? Jesus. That's really terrible. I was really impressed by her integrity, which I think influenced me to make that remark," said the councilman, who is a former judge with a Stanford law degree.

"I guess I should be red in the face. But you know, one thing I think is, if I don't have anything to be ashamed of, and I didn't even know Kim before this, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Her openness with me was extraordinary, and I think that's beautiful. So that's one thing in my defense."

The Almanac was unable to speak with Ms. LeMieux to ask for her assessment of the pre-meeting conversation with Councilman Cohen. She did respond earlier to questions about her reaction to the council's decision.

Mr. Cohen, along with colleagues Kelly Fergusson and Heyward Robinson, voted to have a third-party architect attempt to design a new home around the tree, preserving the redwood while still allowing Ms. LeMieux to develop the property, a decision she said left her "very disappointed."

"How many more expert opinions do they need to make a decision?" she asked. Her presentation to the council included alternate designs drawn at her own expense before she concluded it wasn't possible to save the towering redwood.

Mr. Cohen said he had coached her on how to make the presentation, but also did the same for a neighbor who opposed cutting down the tree. At 70 feet tall and 52 inches in diameter, the redwood looms large enough to provide shade for houses next door.

Explaining his vote to delay deciding the tree's fate, he said his perspective is that further research may allow both parties in the dispute to walk away happy.

"If Kim says it's impossible to do something with the alternatives being presented, I'm going to vote to remove the tree. I tried to make that very clear Tuesday night in the fluff Kelly and Heyward create when they do their dance," Mr. Cohen said.

Mayor Rich Cline voted to grant the developer's request to cut down the tree.

"Well, he didn't help her much," observed Mr. Cline after a long pause when asked about the comment.

He noted that his colleague, known for scathing criticism of other council members in Menlo Park and beyond, seems to get a pass on controversial remarks, unlike everyone else on the dais.

Still, Mr. Cline hesitated to reach a conclusion regarding Mr. Cohen's conduct. "If I took it at face value, a lot of times I'd be very disappointed in what I'm hearing. At best it's a sloppy comment; it's a lazy use of the English language. At worst, it's an offensive comment. It's up to the person who heard it to define that," he said.

If it's an ethical misstep for a business executive, how much more so for a council member? "It's probably pretty egregious from an elected official," Mr. Cline said.

Menlo Park, however, has no ethics policy for the council. There is, according to City Attorney Bill McClure, a policy adopted in 1995 for city employees, but nothing specific to council members. He said that nothing in Mr. Cohen's remarks appears to raise a legal issue.

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