On March 27, the same day that the Menlo Park City Council held a study session on the largest proposed development in the city's history – Facebook's "Willow Village" – Councilwoman Kirsten Keith was in China. There, she attended a "signing ceremony" that may have solidified a business deal for former Mountain View council member Mike Kasperzak, CEO of HIM Holdings, and the Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone.
According to certified translations of Chinese news reports obtained by The Almanac from Menlo Park resident George Fisher, the document signed was a memorandum of understanding between HIM Holdings, the Chengdu industrial development zone, and what is called the "Silicon Valley City Group" a name given to represent three Bay Area elected officials in attendance: Ms. Keith, Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel, and Dublin Mayor David Haubert. Chinese news reports say that Mr. Haubert signed the agreement on behalf of Ms. Keith and Mr. Siegel.
The agreement, according to Chinese reports, indicated that HIM Holdings would help establish a tech incubator or accelerator and "finance center" in Mountain View.
Mr. Fisher, the Menlo Park attorney who paid to have the press reports translated, said that he found the matter troubling, and subsequently initiated his own search for answers because he believed Ms. Keith's actions could have represented a city commitment to abide by whatever the terms of that agreement might be.
"I believe that even though (Ms. Keith) wasn't authorized to do what she did on behalf of Menlo Park, by going over there and participating in confirming the signing of the MOU, she ... is acting as an ostensible agent," he said. "Those people have no reason to think she's not authorized."
He said he thinks the city of Menlo Park should "renounce or disavow whatever may have been agreed to on their behalf, or at the minimum, investigate and vet what she did to see if it's appropriate."
Ms. Keith said in an email that she did not sign any documents, and does not know if Mr. Haubert signed a document. "This was purely a ceremonial event," she said in an email.
Why she was there, whether she represented the city in an unauthorized diplomatic role, and what the implications for the city could be are questions to which The Almanac has tried find answers. Many questions remain.
Why was she there?
Ms. Keith said she was invited to attend the trip by Mike Kasperzak, the former Mountain View councilman. Mr. Kasperzak is on the board of the U.S. Asia Innovation Gateway, which, according to its website, is a nonprofit corporation that promotes economic opportunity and investment in the U.S. and Asia, and funds trips for local elected officials to travel to China.
Ms. Keith said she plans to have her travel expenses reimbursed by the U.S. Asia Innovation Gateway and will publicly disclose the information on her required "statement of economic interests" form.
Mr. Kasperzak said it was his understanding that the trip would be funded by the Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, which he described as an office park that is run as a government agency in China.
The Palo Alto-based U.S. Asia Innovation Gateway declined to comment for this story.
Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre told The Almanac that all he knew about the trip before it happened was that Ms. Keith was going on vacation with her daughter somewhere in Asia.
"Only lately have people suggested the trip was more," he said. "I don't know anything about that."
"She was not there on city business," he added.
According to Mr. Siegel, who wrote about the trip in a blog post, the trip lasted three days and included a number of cultural events, including a visit to the zoo, meals, and meetings during which both he and Ms. Keith spoke publicly in support of international cooperation and collaboration with the Chengdu Hi-Tech Industrial Development Region.
Mr. Siegel said he offered to set up meetings with Mountain View's economic development office, as he would do, he said, "for everybody."
Ms. Keith was reported in the Chinese press as saying, "We will help Chengdu businesses find partners in Silicon Valley."
When asked whether she said that and what she might have meant, she responded in an email, "The quote that you ask about is not something that I recognize and translations can be inaccurate."
According to the certified translations of Chinese news stories, she also reportedly said: "Menlo Park has a wealth of technology and financial resources to tap into. I believe that we will play a key role through our cooperation in this project." Ms. Keith said she did not recognize that translation. "I talked about what makes Menlo Park a great place to live and work and invited their delegation to visit," she later added.
According to photos posted on at least two Chinese news sites (accessible here and here), Ms. Keith was shown wearing a Menlo Park city pin that appears to say "mayor" beneath her name, although her term as mayor ended in December.
Chinese media also described her as mayor of Menlo Park.
When asked via email whether she wore a mayor pin, Ms. Keith initially responded, "I've been Mayor of Menlo Park twice and have visited China while both Mayor and former Mayor."
In a subsequent email, she added, "I was always very clear about my status as Councilmember, as noted by Mayor Lennie (sic) Siegel. I always identified myself as Kirsten Keith, Councilmember from Menlo Park and rarely wore a name badge and don't recall a designation."
When presented with the photo in the Chinese press, and asked again whether she wore the pin, she responded by email: "If the name badge I had was three months old, it was an inadvertent mistake on my part. I always introduced myself as Councilmember."
Mr. Kasperzak, Mr. Haubert and Mr. Siegel said that Ms. Keith did not represent herself as mayor.
"I don't recall even seeing Kirsten's name badge, but I do specifically recall her introducing herself as Councilmember," Mr. Haubert said.
"But the people who introduced her repeatedly made that mistake, perhaps deliberately," noted Mr. Siegel.
"Kirsten and I were window-dressing," Mr. Siegel said. "All we did was have our pictures taken." He added that they also gave brief speeches calling for cooperation between Chengdu and Silicon Valley.
Mr. Kasperzak said it was "not at all surprising to me that Chinese media would miss the fact that Kirsten Keith is the former mayor," he said, noting, "At no point did Kirsten hold herself out as mayor of Menlo Park."
At least once, he said, she corrected someone who introduced her as mayor to indicate she was a former mayor. The difference between mayor and council person is more relevant in China, he said, because mayors there have executive power over their jurisdictions.
In recorded video comments, Mr. Kasperzak describes HIM Holdings as a "bridge" to connect the Chinese industrial development zone and Silicon Valley.
"We all know that startups need financial resources to grow, to develop their products, and to develop their markets. It also turns out that many of your sister provinces have established accelerators in Silicon Valley, and we don't want Sichuan Province and CDHT to get left behind," he said. "So HIM Holdings can be that bridge to help with funding of startups, hosting delegations, furthering the exchange between Silicon Valley and Chengdu and making what we all want to happen happen."
Mr. Kasperzak said he was told he was being named CEO of HIM Holdings only upon his arrival in China.
"I do suspect that the job is fairly titular in nature," he said.
So far, he said, he has not signed any contracts or been compensated by HIM Holdings, but intends to negotiate in the future with the group's founder, Michael Reen, probably around the end of the month. He added that he has had previous conversations with people in China expressing interest in working with individuals and organizations to help launch a tech accelerator in Mountain View.
He emphasized that Menlo Park, Dublin and Mountain View are "not on the hook for anything."
Mr. Kasperzak, who said he has some familarity with such business practices in China, said that signing ceremonies and photo ceremonies are "really big deals, even though they may mean nothing."
"At the most," he said of the agreement, the document indicates personal support for the tech accelerator from the individuals who signed the document.
Ms. Keith says, and Menlo Park officials confirm, that she did not sign an agreement on behalf of the city. But translated Chinese news reports say that Ms. Keith, "Mayor of Menlo Park," was part of a "Silicon Valley City Group" or "cluster" (depending on the translation) that Mr. Haubert may have signed the memorandum on behalf of. Ms. Keith was shown posing with Mr. Siegel, Chinese officials, Mr. Kasperzak and Mr. Haubert during the signing ceremony.
Mr. Haubert told The Almanac that he "certainly did not and would not sign anything binding Dublin or any city to anything. ... The purpose of our visit was to introduce our cities and welcome them to visit us. The pictures were purely ceremonial and to memorialize our visit."
He said that the document he signed, "simply acknowledged the meeting, thanked them for showing us their city and welcomed them to visit me in Dublin."
Mr. Siegel said the first time he saw "Silicon Valley City Group" referenced was during the signing ceremony. "No one asked me to join it," he said, referring to the group. "No one asked me if I was a member."
The Almanac has not yet been able to track down the memorandum signed at the event.
What are the city's standard policies for such interactions with foreign countries? City Attorney Bill McClure said in an email that the city does not have any "specific council adopted guidelines, but council members generally do not have authority to enter into agreements without the approval of the City Council."
"Generally," he wrote, "the City does not endorse specific business deals we certainly encourage trade between our countries and support of businesses generally, but it has been the practice not to endorse or support specific businesses or transactions."
Jim Cogan, the city's economic development and housing manager, who also works as staff liaison to the city's Sister City Committee, told The Almanac that Ms. Keith told him she was going to China. Generally, any agreements made in foreign countries would be reviewed by the committee, Mr. Cogan said.
The city did not pay for her travel, he added.
"I can tell you Kirsten Keith has not asked me to do anything with regard to any of the places she visited on the trip," he said. "I'm not aware of any representations she made committing the city to anything."