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Ethics by Tummy

How previous San Jose City Council members kept two goody shoes on the ground

By Vrinda Normand

TERRY GREGORY'S mooching spree, Ron Gonzales' golf getaways and just-released photographs of Rep. Mike Honda getting in on the action at Dynasty Restaurant may be leaving the good citizens of Silicon Valley slightly, uh, disenchanted with their local representatives. When your councilmembers can't resist the pricey perks that "come with" a public office, who can you trust?

If it's any consolation, know that back in the day the local government's ethical laces were tied a bit tighter. Biter prodded former politicians who served during the days of Tom McEnery and Susan Hammer, and found a shocking trail of bashful goodness. Some were so embarrassed by their straight-arrow practices that they didn't want to go on the record. One former chief of staff points out that he wouldn't want to make any current politicians look bad by baring his standard because things have changed over the years. Indeed they have.

While Biter won't give away the name of this man, we will share a few of his shocking admissions: A couple of times he was offered a ride on a private plane and he insisted on paying for the flight. One year, a prominent athletic organization sent all the councilmembers poinsettias for Christmas. And what did he do? He made everyone donate the plants to local charities. "That was an important statement to make," he says.

Trixie Johnson, San Jose City Council member from 1991 to 1998, bravely went on the record to talk about her "tummy test." Yes, she used this highly sophisticated internal gauge to stay on the safe side of the line. "If I didn't feel I was doing the right thing, my tummy would just bother me," she explains.

Johnson also made sure her brain knew the law. "It was drummed into us when we came in," she says. But even though tickets to nonprofit functions and meals in social settings were considered legally acceptable, she let her tummy guide her. She always paid her way at lunch, she says, and even bought tickets for the nonprofit events she was invited to. "Why should I cost them money?" she asked herself, "I wasn't under any pretense that my presence there somehow helped them raise more money."

The most awkward situation happened when her mother died, and many people sent her plants. It felt kind of weird, Johnson says, but she declared them all as gifts.

Judy Stabile, who served on the San Jose City Council from 1985 to 1992, had a similar strategy. "Even though there are prescribed rules, you make your own judgment calls," she explains. "Even if something is OK legally, it might look wrong or suggest something else."

Stabile admits that her colleagues considered her a "goody two-shoes." And those public events that all the councilmembers were invited to? She didn't want Biter to say, but she bought tickets for them anyway. "That was just my own hang-up," she adds.

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From the January 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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